Berlin

Paweł Althamer, MAMA I, 2016, clay, wristwatch, bracelet, knife, horn, textile, sand, earth, grass, wood, water, coal, plants, stone, glass, elephant skull, netting, seventeen zebra finches, grasshoppers, iPhone, camera. Installation view.

Paweł Althamer, MAMA I, 2016, clay, wristwatch, bracelet, knife, horn, textile, sand, earth, grass, wood, water, coal, plants, stone, glass, elephant skull, netting, seventeen zebra finches, grasshoppers, iPhone, camera. Installation view.

Paweł Althamer

neugerriemschneider

Paweł Althamer, MAMA I, 2016, clay, wristwatch, bracelet, knife, horn, textile, sand, earth, grass, wood, water, coal, plants, stone, glass, elephant skull, netting, seventeen zebra finches, grasshoppers, iPhone, camera. Installation view.

In 1993, to complete his master’s degree at Warsaw’s Academy of Fine Arts, Paweł Althamer dodged his oral examination, instead presenting his professors with a realist sculptural self-portrait fashioned from grass, straw, and animal skin and intestines, and a video of himself stripping nude and running into the woods. Twenty-three years later, in MAMA I, 2016, we saw the Polish artist sitting naked, grizzled, and mud-caked, in nature—or, rather, we gazed upon a plaster simulacrum of Althamer, positioned cross-legged within an indoor wilderness. Clusters of real trees, albeit dead and smeared with clay, rose from a bumpy, floor-covering topography of mud, speckled with succulents and punctuated by an elephant skull. Live finches, easily startled by visitors, flocked anxiously across the room or descended to feeding bowls. Yet for all the evident effort that went into this construction—the gallery had signed on for a nightmarish de-install—the illusion of primeval idyll collapsed constantly. On the white walls, mud-brown drawings of more trees and mountains, along with an architectural diagram of sorts, cursorily extended the space of the work. Following a rough pathway from the door to Althamer’s double, meanwhile, you saw him bent over, in a world of his own, carving a hieratic little sculpture of his mother. Another rendition, curled and pregnant, lay nearby. A few yards away, half-buried in the mud, was an iPhone cover.

Between his student days and now, Althamer has produced multiple self-portraits; has sociably shared authorship with a heterodox swath of groups and communities (including adults with disabilities, employees of his father’s plastics factory, and—for this show—assistants at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin); has emphasized the imaginative potential of carefully constructed altered realities; and, on several occasions (e.g., Tree House, 2001, installed in the center of Warsaw), has vouchsafed the possibility of solitary withdrawal. His values, which in the 1990s caught the rising tide of relational art, are unimpeachable, if perhaps disarmingly simple: communitarianism offset by self-care and a fundamental belief in the importance of a connection with the natural world. So it’s clearly no accident that MAMA I stresses the limits of illusionism—and of traditional art. We’re not really being transported anywhere here. What might at first resemble habitable terrain for Neolithic humans is evidently a museum diorama, and not even a consistent one; it is a twenty-first-century model made by twenty-first-century people. It suggests that the urge to depict is age-old, a reflection of caring, and that we’ll probably never drop it—a notion of persistence alluded to by the two carvings of the mother.

At the same time, much of what falls within MAMA I’s ideational compass is physically absent. Technical pizzazz notwithstanding, the work’s appeal to the imagination resides substantially in its contextual reframing of what is essentially fabrication. All those expert technicians take their place in Althamer’s long-term project to delegate and displace artistic creation and make sculpture the mere pretext for communal activity—with, arguably, greater real-world effects than much of the relational aesthetics–type art on whose tide his boat first rose. In a contemporary context, the work probes with particular urgency man’s technology-driven estrangement from the natural world, which also happens to include other people. In its hard-to-overlook laborious facture, the show performs that condition’s inverse. The first time I went to see it, artisans were tranquilly creating its parts in situ while children strolled around. Assuming—not implausibly, given Althamer’s history—that this dreamlike performance was the piece, I found the spectacle fascinating, a weird ritual. Later, I realized I’d turned up a week early, that Neugerriemschneider’s doors were merely open because it was blazing hot, and that this wasn’t the art. And yet, in a way, it was.

Martin Herbert