GROTESQUE BY THE FALL: THE ART OF HELMUT LANG
Todd von Ammon
The “Grotesque” is a category defined by its slippage: named after the locus of the genre’s discovery—in the grotto-esque ruins of Emperor Titus’ public bathhouses—it is generally seen as a genre founded on gruesome hybridity—human and animal forms mingling idiosyncratically with fruit, flower, leaf and vine. The “grotto” is the subterranean space wherein all the tenets of classicism slough off and the weird and vulgar elements of the creative psyche awaken. The “Grotto-esque” is a conceptual arena for waste, opulence and perversion. The grotesque is born below the surface. From this oblique perspective, the grotesque is an aesthetics of excavation.
For his twin exhibitions at the Sammlung Friedrichshof and the Stadtraum in Vienna, the only acute dichotomy between the two shows is chromatic: at Zurndorf, the sculptures and panels carry the ash and bone whites of a charnel house; at the Stadtraum, the tones are blackened like rotten or burned animal or plant life.
Both exhibitions allude to accretion: the pale pillars refer to bat guano towers found in caves; the dark, loamy pillars to dung or compost heaps. Standing taller than the average person, they refer to the monument more than the figure.
The paragraphs of a catalogue essay often function in a similar manner: they are accretions of language rarely read and normally valuable merely as a supplemental sort of anti-image amidst full-color artwork reproductions. Catalogue essays usually justify their existence via their texture and density more than their inherent content. They tend to be inert and somewhat self-reflexive.
Like fossil records, each of Lang’s pillars is presented in cross-section. Embedded within is a multitude of half-digested matter, from chewed up paper to the occasional garment remnant—the crenellations of a zipper or a shock of dyed fabric. One begins to fantasize that these are the fecal stools or stomach contents of an indifferently ravenous giant.
Like Les Bourgeois de Calais by Rodin, Lang’s blackened figures huddle together in weary poses. Rodin’s masterpiece is a monument to self-sacrifice—instead of mimicking classical tropes of muscular heroism, the Burghers embody pain, anguish and fatalism. Completed in 1889, the monument is a harbinger for the 20th century—an historical epoch characterized by depletion, exhaustion and fatigue. A daydream of contemporary Calais—home of the infamous Calais Jungle—betrays the landscape of the Anthropocene: scorched earth and groves of manmade detritus. Lang’s teetering cairns resemble “Les Bourgeois de Calais du 21ème Siècle”.
Since the start of the new millennium, geological history has entered a new epoch: the Anthropocene, or the Earth’s sixth major extinction. I think that, epochs later, whoever is excavating this sedimentary layer will find something akin to the stuff of Lang’s art. In the niches and spandrels of the modern city, one finds the excrement of late capitalism: discarded garments and vermin entrails; plastic and aluminum packaging; paper waste and bits of molded plastic. I dream of seeing this lurid layer in the fossil record millennia from now, but can catch a glimpse of it in Helmut Lang’s art. These objects look like time capsules transmitted from a distant, wasted future.
On a visit to Paris I walked the length of the Catacombs. On the tunnel walls are countless skulls and femurs stacked in an elegant pattern. Here were the remains of six million Parisians rendered into luxurious, almost velvety walls. Around halfway through the vast ossuary, I noticed that the cave ceiling was dripping. I pressed on with a newfound desire to escape. When I finally emerged into daylight, a white mineral slurry coated the shoulders of my black tee shirt and ran down my torso in rivulets. Whether this cement-like material was some runoff from modern construction or from the lime- stone deposits from which the tunnels were carved—or from the soft piles of ancient bones (or a combination thereof)—had little bearing on the formation of this rich, deeply felt memory. The memory of how that bone-paste sunk into the cotton of my tee shirt has returned by way of Lang’s slouching pillars in Vienna.
Surrounding the pillars are grim wards: spikes mounted on steel dowels resemble half-digested human spinal columns—what remains of the heroic figure. Lang references a pale room of Rodin sculptures as an inspiration for Various Conditions. These spear-like assemblages are a dream of Rodin’s skeleton—as if the master’s manipulation of the human body in clay extended under the skin, omitting neither the bones nor the viscera.
On the walls of each of the show’s chambers is a lineup of panels, each its own scene of some variety of ferocious undoing of the flesh. These panels carry the hybridity of the grotesque seen throughout the practice—at once ornate friezes, the fourteen panels divided between the shows could just as likely be preserved sections of studio workspace. As relationships develop between the objects, the hierarchical boundaries between painting and sculpture begin to dissolve—or slough off and decay, only to be preserved as friezes.
In 1980, the post-punk band The Fall released Grotesque: After the Gramme. Lang’s recent shows inspired me to revisit this album in depth. Grotesque is ostensibly the typical post-punk British album: sharp, dissonant and repetitive instrumentation—almost monochrome in its uniformity. Mark E. Smith’s vocals have the snotty monotony that typifies most of the punk music of the era. I only fully understood what exactly was “grotesque” about Grotesque when I paid closer attention to the lyrics: just beneath the stylish surface of The Fall’s sound, Smith’s lyrics allude to a florid, fragmented fever dream. In The N.W.R.A., Smith paints one of these vivid pictures:
“But out the window burned the roads
There were men with bees on sticks
The fall had made them sick
A man with butterflies on his face
His brother threw acid in his face
His tattoos were screwed
The streets of Soho did reverberate”
The grotesque of Lang’s artwork functions similarly: the gluts of material come from a dizzying variety of sources and contain a wealth of color, texture and implicit narrative. I’ve always viewed his tactic of coating his sculptures in enamel paint as similar to Mark E. Smith plunging his lewd picaresque verse into a sea of antiseptic instrumentation.
Joy Division can be seen as the inventors of depression in rock music. Forebears in rock music always referenced an object-cause for their melancholia—bereavement, infidelity, loneliness. Ian Curtis’ music lacks such a referent for its blackness, wherein the void seems to be his only muse. A feedback loop ensues, much like the symptoms of depression: black begets black.1 From Day of the Lords (1979):
“These are your friends from childhood, through youth,
Who goaded you on, demanded more proof,
Withdrawal pain is hard, it can do you right in,
So distorted and thin, distorted and thin.
Where will it end? Where will it end?
Where will it end? Where will it end?”
This dream of World War I trench warfare by a 22-year-old Briton—a soldier withdrawing from morphine; watching old friends wither and die—speaks to the aesthetics of Lang’s art. A successful contemporary artwork is marked by a certain inexhaustibility of content, wherein the object has been reduced so completely that there is nothing left to exhaust. Viewed from an oblique perspective wherein the stuff of Lang’s artwork appears pulverized, charred, and compacted, one could argue that the artist’s entire practice—characterized by a certain grotesque “hybridity”, falling into no exact category—is defined by a very literal inexhaustibility. An inexhaustible object—like depression—invites a circular interpretation; every logical pathway returns to the place from whence it came. Where will it end?
One could argue that The Fall were performing the collapse of history with their music. The lyrical content has a fecal quality—morsels of modern life share space with fever dreams of a darker age. Lang’s sculptures seem similarly digested: the gluts of material speak to an utter collapse of an historical or personal record. It is only when we study these ruins carefully that we understand the sheer diversity of their contents. As with the grotesque, where humans, animals and plants are broken down to form an interlocking design system, so does Lang’s sculpture, wherein the universe of consumable matter dissolves into a kind of all-purpose cultural composite.
This grotesque collapse of history, wherein all matter is pulverized and leveled, is nowhere more evident than in journalistic photography of modern battle fields. Along with the advent of modern industry came the modern battlefield, which, since the Battle of Verdun in 1916, has resembled a thick carpet of metal shrapnel, destroyed wildlife and shredded fatigues, skulls and bone fragments. Gone is the classic image of the well-proportioned heroic warrior. In his place is the leveled figure. Lang’s art is a gathering of leveled figures.
1 Cf. k-punk, Nihil Rebound: Joy Division, January 09, 2005, http://k-punk. abstractdynamics.org/archives/004725.html
DANCE OF DEATH
It would be a misunderstanding to interpret Helmut Lang’s “Pillars”, “Spikes”, and “Planes” as abstractions. On the contrary, this group of works, which has taken shape in his studio over recent years, is about a process of reduction, condensation, and concentration of concrete corporeal values. For is there anything more inescapable and concrete than death?
Owing particularly to their ragged, torn or fragmentary appearance, Lang’s objects stand for structures of organic material, rotted organisms, and bodies laid open down to their bones, and are visualizations of an apocalyptic process that eludes abstract language. They perhaps even convey the dark aura of the cult of the dead that, turned into gilded stone, is represented by the plague columns erected on the main squares of some Central European towns. In their magnificent but ambivalent this-worldly sensuality, they are memorials to the horrific epidemics of the 17th century—stone monuments to mental repression. One of the most splendid of these idols commemorates, with a histrionic gesture, the 12,000 lives taken, by the lowest estimate, within a period of a few months in the last big plague epidemic to strike the city of Vienna in 1679. An inscription on the column built some twenty years later in praise of the Curia and the Habsburg system of rule is a testament not only to the all-too-ready ostrichism of the population, but rather to the manipulative sophistication of the secular and ecclesiastical aristocracy. It suggests that by the highest goodness of the Holy Trinity, the death of the plague was warded off.
“To you, most holy and indivisible Trinity: I, Leopold, your humble servant, thank you, as much as I am able, for warding off, by your highest goodness, the fateful plague epidemic from this city and the country of Austria in the year 1679: and as a permanent sign of due gratitude, I most humbly dedicate to you this monument.”1
Today we know that the plague was able to spread as it did because the powers that be were less concerned with improving the realities of their subjects’ lives and hygienic conditions in cities, and instead more acutely focused on the display of imperial power, doing so also through means of art.
As much as Helmut Lang’s individual objects can also stand as sculptures in their own right, his presentation at Sammlung Friedrichshof has placed them in a spatial setting in the sense of Friedrich (aka Frederick John) Kiesler’s “Raumbühne” [Space Stage]. Indeed, the idea is that entering both the spaces at Friedrichshof and Stadtraum is like stepping onto a large stage while becoming aware of one’s own spatial dimensions in relation to the sculptures—frozen, as it were, in a dance of death by the realization of one’s horror of mortality. For “the movement in space, around the work of art, and the integration of art into living environments were central to Kiesler’s ideas.”2
What matters is that the artist has defined the space as a stage, its backdrop formed by the devastated surfaces of wall panels (“Planes”). Hung as a series, they form a monochrome mural. Referring to this setting, Lang talks about accretion, a process of accumulation of matter, thus pointing to the post-apocalyptic dimension of his work.
For him, this is not only about the depiction of destruction, but also about a process emerging in the wake of demolition where matter, life, and meaning newly reconstitute themselves. On this stage, the grotesque, white conglomerations of the pillars materials and the spikes reminiscent of fragmented bodies are now placed as idols into an arrangement filled with tension.
The darker second act of the drama is staged at the Sammlung Friedrichshof Stadtraum in Vienna, this time exclusively comprising black objects and wall panels as well as the projection of a white patch of light. In a suggestively slow, bottom-to-top movement, it covers itself in black, then starting anew in an endless loop. Are we looking here at a metaphor of passing away or into the eternal darkness of death?
Of course, if we picture these sculptural works reminiscent of the plague columns in public urban spaces in Vienna, the city where Helmut Lang grew up and began his development as an influential international artist, we can see the stage area hinted at in the exhibitions and its possible interpretations begin to expand in a fascinating manner. Against this backdrop, the two exhibitions appear as lab experiments—it seems as if Lang had had the public spaces and the air of death surrounding this Catholic aesthetic so dominant in Vienna at the back of his mind all along. In the context of a city whose atmosphere can still be counted among the centers of Baroque-era thought, which hinges on the synthesis of the arts and all-encompassing ideas, his objects mutate into materialized theses on destruction and turmoil. They link up with a modernist strain of thinking, in which the ornament was justly branded as the symbol of a standstill of evolutionary cultural development. In what is likely the most explicit statement on the matter, trailblazing Vienna architect Adolf Loos stated that the “evolution of culture is identical to removing the ornament from the object of use.”3
With his architecture, Loos had undoubtedly turned against the aesthetic propaganda machine of the Habsburg philosophy in the tradition of the Baroque period, which is alive and well to this day, and the anti-Enlightenment alliance of church and ruling dynasty. By designing an office building devoid of any ornamentation directly facing the Hofburg palace, the center of imperial power, he set off one of the greatest scandals of modernism.
That is why his dictum sparked a process that has not only shaped 20th-century Austrian art in its ever-ongoing struggle against an overwhelming illusion of a hidebound Baroque, not to say Byzantine, self-deceiving thinking. Incidentally, this hermetic aesthetic also dominated Italy’s former city- states.4 Like a wide range of 20th- century Austrian artists, from Loos, Gerstl, and Kiesler to Muehl and West, Lang confronts this with a brute gesture against ornamentation, against the emphasis on surfaces through stucco, and against other elements of the homogenous demonstration of power of the lifeless and formal.
His sculptures and wall panels stand for a battle of materials in which the familiar, manipulative, and comforting is destroyed and newly reassembled for the purposes of revaluation.
This is where Lang’s art coincides with the thrust of Vienna Actionism which, beginning in the 1960s, reacted with unparalleled radicalism to an event in Austrian history that was even more disastrous than the plague epidemics. Starting out from Vienna in 1914 and spanning the two World Wars until 1945, the collapse of the old European order and enlightened humanism unleashed a dance of death with millions of victims that was unprecedented in the history of mankind.
1 Pestsäule [Plague Column], Vienna, inscription on the north side
2 Cf. Almut Gruenewald, Friedrich Kiesler. Seine Skulpturen und sein offenes künstlerisches Konzept, doctoral thesis at the Department of Architecture at the Technical University of Munich, 2014, p. 22
3 Cf. Ulrich Conrads, Programme und Manifeste zur Architektur des 20. Jahrhunderts, Vieweg: Braunschweig/Wiesbaden 1981, pp. 15
4 It should be noted that at about the same time as Vienna Actionism, Italy’s Arte Povera movement, too stood up against a similarly dominant history in a manner congenial to the Vienna artists.