MuseumsWeekend

Single Point Perspective: Paweł Althamer’s Grass-Fed Surrealism

by Thomas Micchelli on December 14, 2013

Althamer

Pawel Althamer, “Bruno” (1998–2012), grass, cow intestines, plaster, color threads, wood, metal, and hammer, 63 3/4 x 25 9/16 x 27 3/16 in (Museum of Modern Art, gift of the Speyer Family Foundation)(photo by author for Hyperallergic)

Inside the second floor galleries housing the contemporary collection of the Museum of Modern Art, a sculpture called “Bruno” (1998–2012) stands in quiet command of the room. Made primarily of grass and cow intestines, its materials transform the human body into a meditation on mortality via the digestive tract.

The sculpture is the work of Paweł Althamer, a Polish artist born in 1967 who will be opening his first U.S. museum exhibition at the New Museum in February. According to the New Museum’s announcement of the show:

Althamer is predominantly known for the figurative sculptures he creates of himself, his family, and various other individuals within his community. Beyond simple portraiture, these sculptures, in addition to the other activities he is involved in, highlight the complex social, political, and psychological networks in which he lives and operates.

An idea of his range can be gathered from the two major works he will be presenting at the New Museum: Draftsmen’s Congress (2012), a relational piece in which the public will be invited to draw and paint on the gallery walls, and “Venetians” (2013), made for the most recent Venice Biennale (which was headed up by the exhibition’s curator, Massimiliano Gioni), a figurative group sculpture consisting of skeleton-like, ribbon-wrapped bodies topped by the faces of anonymous Venetians cast in plastic.

“Bruno,” according to the wall text, is a full-scale nude “portrait of the artist’s eldest son at the age of ten,” which Althamer began in the 1990s and finished in 2012 “with the assistance of his son — now an adult — who is also an artist.”

The boy’s face is modeled in plaster over the cast of a skull (the work’s one too-obvious note), with downcast eyes and gently parted lips. His creased forehead and taut facial muscles give him a much older look, lending the 5’ 3” figure the semblance of a small adult rather than a young boy.

From the nape of the neck downward, the sculpture is made almost entirely of grass, held together with endless lengths of colored thread. Giacometti-thin, Bruno’s body, with its exposed skull, outsized feet and spindly fingers, would resemble a burn victim (the left foot in fact appears to be charred) if not for the apparent serenity of its classic contrapposto.

The figure holds its arms away from its body, palms facing outward, with the right hand loosely gripping what appears at first to be a curling swath of fabric but is actually a section of dried cow intestine.

The wall text suggests that the position of the figure’s arms “calls to mind a saint — possibly Bartholomew, a martyr who was flayed and is typically portrayed holding his skin.”

While the object in Bruno’s hand might be interpreted metaphorically as skin, it is literally a hunk of gut, and its use in conjunction with the piece’s other self-evident materials (plaster head and grass body) would seem to invite other inferences.

The manner in which Bruno is holding the intestines, dangling from his right hand while his left, as if bearing the stigmata, opens in a gesture of revelation, implies a moment of abandon and exposure. Rather than Bartholomew displaying his flayed skin as evidence of his martyrdom, the sculpture brings to mind images of the resurrected Christ discarding his funeral shroud.

Not to push speculation too far, but might the curious inclusion of a hammer lying beside the sculpture’s left foot — the only object in the piece unrelated to the body (other than the external armature securing the work to the platform) — refer to Jesus’ boyhood as a carpenter’s apprentice?

Or is it a sly play on the compound English cognate of the artist’s name, the Latinate “alto” and Germanic “hammer,” in which “alto” is defined as the second-highest pitched class of musical instruments (alto sax, alto flute), identifying Bruno, the artist’s eldest son, as the family’s second-oldest male Althamer?

Either way, these conjectures emphasize the figure’s status as a son, and with it the theme of continuity and regeneration, which is where the unlikely combination of materials makes discomfiting sense.

Bruno’s body is made of grass, and if it were wrapped in a cow’s intestine before he peeled it off, as suggested above, the combination of the two would appear to signify the eternal cycle of nutrition and fertilization — the latter underscored by the boy’s genitals, which are the only parts of his body made from intestines (and which look eerily weathered and shriveled, like an old man’s).

Returning to the Bible, the grass also calls to mind the lines of Psalm 103 (KJV):

As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth.
For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more.

In further convolutions, “Bruno” inevitably brings up the position of humankind on the food chain, consuming inordinate quantities of beef, cheese and milk. This association turns the figure’s straw musculature inside out, casting the body as a slab of meat sustained by the grass-fed bodies of cows.

“By using organic materials that are subject to degradation,” the wall label states, “Althamer has evaded the timeless quality associated with traditional fine art and religious sculpture.” True, but this explanation consigns the artist’s fusion of grass and gut to the straitened realm of art about art, a gloss that tamps down its more corrosive implications.

Descending from the Polish surrealist lineage of Tadeusz Kantor and the 1960s poster artists who proved so pivotal to the Quay Brothers, “Bruno” (with its patently impermanent, insignificant materials) takes the long view of history — our days are as grass; we’re here and then we’re gone — with a frankness that’s as pitiless as it is liberating.

Single Point Perspective is an occasional series from Hyperallergic Weekend that features texts about single works of art and the currents they ride on.

“Bruno” (1998–2012) by Paweł Althamer is currently on display in the contemporary galleries on the second floor of the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan).

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