Pawel Althamer’s first solo show in America has turned the New Museum into a collaborative art studio and an interactive space. It’s so common to see art made from everyday objects, materials, and detritus that I could have missed seeing what Althamer is doing. His work stands out for a palpable inner joy that somehow infuses the sculptural environments he creates, for his uncanny ability to personally connect with and inspire diverse communities, and, most of all, for installations (on three floors) that literally turn all viewers into participants.
The fourth floor of the New Museum began as an all-white round studio open to the world. Peeking inside a white teepee on a platform in the center, a charcoal bearded man stares back at me; on his t-shirt, a charcoal child plays in the sun. This image of empowering children and touching the inner child in each of us is this artist’s gift. His hands blackened by charcoal, he replied cordially to reporters at the press preview, then returned to making a girl on the back wall. People wearing white lab coats were scurrying around, making designs and drawings on the floor and walls. Olympia, a New Museum worker from Poland, country of Althamer’s birth and education, conducted me into a back room where lab coats and art supplies were available in abundance for anyone who cares to participate. I also heard that homeless men living in the Bowery Mission, a Salvation Army residence next door to the Museum, will soon participate in art-making in this or another space. In addition, Althamer’s initiatives to invite 50 street musicians to take turns performing daily in the lobby and to invite visitors to exchange used men’s coats for museum admission, democratizes this institution.[i]
Althamer’s collaborative projects differ from 1) artists like Dale Chihuly who direct a large staff to create work in their names; 2) social practice artists like Theaster Gates who hires artists to work for a collective goal, and 3) artists like Takashi Murakami who sponsors and awards emerging artists through programs like Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd.
Instead, Althamer activates local citizens, most with non-art backgrounds. His hands-on projects face serious social issues in non-confrontational ways. Since this exhibition coincided with violence in Ukraine – its citizens vigorously protesting their President’s alliance with Russia — one day Althamer asked everyone to paint only with yellow and blue for Ukraine. He himself painted KIEV HOLD in huge blue letters on yellow.[ii] Two days later, topless visitors were painting each other as photographers snapped away.[iii] In some ways, the fourth floor daily becomes an increasingly messy mess and is attracting new kinds of audiences.
The other two floors of the exhibition, titled The Neighbors, has sculpture and installations with a diversity of faces, expressions, and postures. Althamer’s past projects for social change include working to improve his neighborhood in Brodno, Poland and ongoing art-making with people suffering from multiple sclerosis– they collectively created Sylwia, 2010, an empowered female. His Black Market series, 2007, was created from ebony, swamp oak, and other materials by a community of African men. His lifelike self-portraits, which he calls “Totems” and which are stuffed, fired, sewn, or otherwise constructed like dolls or artifacts, employ unlikely materials including clay, straw, and animal intestines. Mezalia, 2010, a small scale rural landscape, becomes a playground for children in an animated film. In an interview with New Museum Director of Exhibitions Massimiliano Gioni, Althamer stated that his works are not sculptures but “signs for people to gather around.”
Venetians, 2013, his sculptures for the 55th Biennale, 2013, seems like an egalitarian version of Rodin’s Burghers of Calais. The all-gray works are unified by color alone; the expressive heads are life masks of people of varied ages, looks, and cultures whom the artist met in Venice. Their bodies are abstract and skeletal — made of metal armatures, other industrial objects, and ribbons of plastic that suggest mummies, the wounded, or gestural decorations. Each figure’s posture – seated, standing, leaning, on crutches, etc. – is animated, inventive. So many (50 figures) are spaced so freely around the second floor that viewers must walk between and among them. In some corners, films of Althamer high on hallucinogens, on truth serum, or feeding birds with his daughter reinforce notions that he’s a spiritual man who speaks to God and fervently loves life. The link to his New Museum exhibition is http://www.newmuseum.org/exhibitions/view/pawel-althamer.
Laure Prouvost, the 2013 Turner Prize winner has a contrasting lobby installation, For Forgetting,that critiques materialist values. Prouvost’s “studio” juxtaposes rooms with fake luxury goods and memory slippage. One little sign says something like: This water turns black at night. Films with gesturing characters wearing masks, one titled How to Make Money Religiously (2014), playfully suggest that viewers are easily seduced to believe in false images and texts. On the Museum’s fifth floor is a simulated interior of a retro-Eastern bloc space ship, plus an array of Eastern bloc art– turning every floor into an interactive space.
[i] On 2.11.14, New Yorker cartoonist Maira Kalman told a large (American Academy in Rome) New York audience she is going to Tel Aviv soon to help fifty mentally ill Holocaust survivors make art. Surely, this is another sign that some artists are dreaming up new ways to help others through art.
Coincidentally, The Bowery shelter is slated for a $5 million makeover to become an Ace Hotel – another example of art re-building (or co-opting) this Lower East Side neighborhood.
[ii] Reported (by an assistant) to occur on 2.20.14.
[iii] Reported by Penny Goodfriend on 2.22.14, who also noted that on the show’s last week, the entire round art studio wall will be cut into pieces and given to visitors, a nice Christo-like gesture.