View of “FORT,” 2015. From left: About Blank (Billboard), 2015; One in a Million, 2015. Photo: Achim Kukulies.

View of “FORT,” 2015. From left: About Blank (Billboard), 2015; One in a Million, 2015. Photo: Achim Kukulies.


View of “FORT,” 2015. From left: About Blank (Billboard), 2015; One in a Million, 2015. Photo: Achim Kukulies.

Although it is often rendered in English as “uncanny,” the nuances of the German word unheimlich are famously difficult to translate. The negative prefix un- modifies heimlich, which derives from Heim, home, and originally means “familiar.” Unheimlich, then, is what is unfamiliar, strange, and, by extension, vaguely menacing. And the objects, installations, and performances of FORT, an artists’ group founded in 2008 by Alberta Niemann, Jenny Kropp, and Anna Jandt, who left in 2013, are certainly strange. Unheimlich also aptly describes the objects in their recent exhibition “About Blank.”

Even an object as perfectly ordinary as the broom leaning against the wall near the entrance to the gallery seemed faintly disquieting. Is it at home here, one wondered? No label on the wall identified it as a piece of art, and it did not appear on the list of works on display. A small pile of swept-up dirt lay at its base—had the broom just been used, and if so, by whom? A few steps down the hall, a roll-down gate was mounted on the wall, beneath a dusty white awning weighed down by a rolled-up carpet—how on earth did it get up there? Unlike the broom, this piece bears a title, One in a Million (all works cited, 2015). Five shopwindows were lined up along the walls of the gallery’s back room. Built to imitate actual windows, they, too, are called One in a Million. They are almost empty and look pretty shabby. Someone forgot to remove the price sticker from the corner of one of them. The letters A-L-L on the glass are all that survives of one window dressing; another pane is covered by a smudgy film of white paint; the words FOR SALE appear on a third.

Of course, the artists had carefully arranged all these random details. The shopwindows are replicas, not readymades. They are about vacancy, but it is a theatrical vacancy, one that has plenty to say: The show’s title, “About Blank,” is meant to be read as a poetic allusion to emptiness. Consider Trio, a breaker box on which a cigarette butt, the chewed-down end of an ice-cream cone, and a small silver ball of crumpled chewing-gum wrappers are neatly lined up like pieces of evidence that may shed light on an obscure crime. Unlike the shopwindows, these are found objects, but this arrangement is quite calculated. Such deliberate staging of objects is the defining feature of FORT’s work, allowing the group to explore the narrative potential of the everyday. Generations of artists have focused on the purely visual qualities of objects. “You see what you see” was the way to go, and not just in painting. FORT’s objects, by contrast, engender situations that function like movie sets: You know these things have histories, and that what you apprehend is only a fragment of a larger spellbinding story whose conclusion remains to be seen. The broom-and-sweepings is a revenant, appearing in every show by the group, whose name itself hints at this structural inconclusiveness: Fort, meaning “away,” figures in compounds such as Fortsetzung, “sequel,” and Fortbewegung, “motion” or “displacement,” as well as the Freudian fort-da, “away/there,” the childish game that reveals the compulsion to repeat. Film is the medium most thoroughly haunted by the perpetual anticipation of new twists amid recurrence, and so the show’s allusions to movie history—stickers of Alfred Hitchcock and Sherlock Holmes (from one of the many movie adaptations) affixed to a windowpane, for instance—were not coincidental. Like film itself, these two figures embody mutability, and they are surely unheimlich.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.