On the German Affinity for Conceptual Sculpture
As trends fluctuate, one vein of art remains ever popular with German artists, curators, critics, and collectors: conceptual sculpture. The work that can be placed under this label is obviously varied, from Tobias Rehberger to Kitty Kraus to Reinhard Mucha. Nonetheless, there are elements that regularly emerge: an interest in the everyday, a penchant for monochrome, and a dose of dry humor balanced with the poetically obtuse.
A new show at Sprovieri in London is a perfect example of this kind of work: a three-person exhibition of Berlin-based artists Alicja Kwade, Michael Sailstorfer, and Thomas Rentmeister, who all work in the same studio building and approach the conceptual object in different ways.
D 13088 exhibition view, 2015 Sprovieri, London
Kwade uses everyday objects and materials such as clocks, desk lamps, and mirrors in ways that are subtle and minimal. Often, she creates simulacra of objects such as a silver tray that perfectly resembles shards of a shattered mirror or a wood palette meticulously made from mahogany, shellac, and stain.
Rentmeister’s works veer between visceral and mundane. His creations at Sprovieri include a wall piece of nine evenly framed, slightly battered colored office folders and a sculpture made of two white fridges shoved together with materials like foam, baby cream, Nutella, and chocolate biscuits. They are dirty and linear, conceptually rigorous and messy.
Sailstorfer’s sculptures are often kinetic—pushing ideas of how time and movement wear things out and leave physical traces in space. Works that currently hang in Berlin’s Sammlung Boros include a tire wearing itself out from constant rotation against a gallery wall. (The Boros collection also includes a large number of pieces by Kwade, and both artists also featured in Art Basel last week in the KÖNIG GALERIE booth.) In the Sprovieri show, one of Sailstorfer’s works is a cardboard foundation cast in bronze, dribbling water from a bullet hole-like aperture.
Michael Sailstrofer, Reibungsverlust am Arbeitsplatz-London, 2015 coring machine, casted iron
The conceptual underpinning of these works has partly grown out of a specifically German architectural context. The exhibition is titled “D 13088,” after the artists’ shared studio building in Liebermannstrasse’s postal code—rooting this work in a physical location and space.
“Everything here is too large or too flat, too distant or too close,” wrote George Diez in a Der Spiegel article that summarized Berlin’s failure to creatively approach urban planning, in which he offered an emotive if grim description of the German capital. “Here, they can only manage vacant lots and demolitions. This was a garrison town; here was the Kaiser, and here was the war. Nothing is light and lively; everything is somehow off the mark.” Yet this analysis of the city is also interesting in how it reflects on artistic inspiration. The sometimes brutal landscape of prefab postwar East German buildings and lingering wasteland lots provide a different backdrop for considering ideas around spaces and objects.
The legacy of 20th-century German art history has also helped establish this healthy ground for conceptualism. Take, for example, Martin Kippenberger’s installations of unturned tables, unusable desk and room dividers, and playfully twisted streetlamps. Joseph Beuys’s muted monochrome objects, imbued with the ideas of philosophical writers, socialist politics, and spiritual invention, provide the context that all contemporary artists seem to respond to in some way.
Conceptual sculpture isn’t just a German thing, of course (see Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Philippe Parreno, Martin Creed, etc). Yet in an era when anything can be art, creating work that is clearly about ideas is a way of making a thing’s position as art obvious. This sort of work reflects Allen Ruppersberg’s 1984 essay “Fifty Helpful Hints on the Art of the Everyday”: “The individual search for the secret of life and death. That is the inspiration and the key. The reality of impressions and the impression of reality.”