What struck me immediately when I walked up to the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin was the bright green neon sign, Almech, above the door and a matching green bicycle chained to the railings outside. When I entered the gallery space I encountered a working, moving factory environment complete with machinery and bustling dungaree clad employees. It reminded me a little bit of a surreal type Willie Wonka film set! Normally, when visiting an exhibition’s opening, the scene is set and the art work is ready to be viewed, Paweł Althamer’s work however, was quite the opposite and was indeed a confusion of principles, a work in progress. So much so that initially, I felt as if I was intruding. On the left hand side of the long walled main gallery were Althamer’s life size finished sculptures and on the right, were the maquettes, standing there like forlorn, undressed stage models waiting for their costumes. At the bottom of the gallery Paweł and his co- workers were in an open glassed room, covering these wire sculptures in a white, molten plastic liquid coming from big, drum like machines. A painter can sometimes lead a very insular and singular existence and always tends to work within the privacy of his/ her own studio so it was therefore amazing to see the artist at work and indeed, be allowed that pleasure of seeing an immediate piece of art being produced.
For many years Polish artist Paweł Althamer had used Almech, his father’s plastics factory in a Warsawsuburb, as a workshop for his sculptures. It was there that he came up with the idea of combining these two avenues of production. ‘What happens when the day –to-day reality of a museum and a factory unite? What happens when art is made, like tires, bottles, or wire, by workers on machines? What happens when art becomes completely routine, when an artist’s working day is exactly like that of an employee?’ For his most recent project, commissioned by Deutsche Guggenheim, Althamer has turned his father’s company into an art museum and the Guggenheim has been transformed into a temporary branch of the family firm, Almech. Althamer, together with the Almech factory workers use machines to produce sculptures of Deutsche Bank., Deutsche Guggenheim and Guggenheim Foundation staff, as well as lottery drawn visitors. At the same time Paweł’s father’s factory inPoland has been renamed Deutsche Guggenheim and delivers parts toBerlin for the duration of the exhibition.
As I familiarized myself with the space and the ‘works in progress’, I found myself becoming completely immersed in the concept of what was happening. As a painter I find myself ‘conditioned’ to the white cube scenario of exhibiting while Althamer changes these principles. He is not working within four walls but trying to take part in a process. This process then becomes the concept, which in turn becomes the artwork. The white cube makes no impact whatsoever and it merely accommodates the installation of his sculptures. I come away questioning the vehicle we have for ‘showing’ our work and it makes me think that surely we should challenge this space to be as much a part of the concept, as the work. As an artist who works in 2D, the concept of space is initially how it accommodates the canvas and ultimately how the viewer interacts with it. I always think that my work needs to be isolated and only be ‘allowed’ to interact with another of its kind. Is this some kind of snobbery, I ask myself? Paweł Althamer has opened up a whole new conceptual, spatial issue, ‘common space, private space, which casts art as a form of nonverbal conversation.’ It is therefore difficult, if not impossible to separate the artist (Althamer) who uses this space, from the space itself; it is the Deutsche Guggenheim after all but as such, the story is one not only of the Guggenheim but also of the people and the subjects who congregate there. Althamer uses the Guggenheim as a factory substitute, uses a lottery system for visitors to be cast as sculptures and provides this all as a backdrop for his latest project. Four white walls pale into insignificance. Ingenious.
Anna Marie Savage is a visual artist based in Northern Ireland. Her practice is concerned with the exploration of romanticism and the narrative of cultural and national identity.