KOW is moving. On April 26, we will inaugurate our new gallery at Lindenstraße 35, between the Jewish Museum and the high-rise of the Axel Springer publishing house. The space at Brunnenstraße 9 will be open one last time for Gallery Weekend showing Henrike Naumann’s exhibition Ostalgie. Our very first show in February 2009 featured work by Franz Erhard Walther—and now he’s back to help us launch a new chapter in the history of our gallery, this time with the Israeli-American artists Michael Clegg & Martin Guttmann. People need rules. Following rules is a social, political, and economic imperative. We like some and resent others; we make them, bend them, break them. The three artists we present have long investigated how rules operate, how they exert power over us, as well as how to understand them better, game them, or come up with new ones. They have different perspectives on rules and ideas on how to mold, twist, or dismantle them. But they share a critical and playful approach to what we might call the snares of participatory cultures, lured by the democratic promise of autonomy within the norms established by a society that has institutionalized mutual support. If you’re a fan of the concept of social participation, the exhibition is an entertaining study in how this political idea is celebrated and distorted, undermined and lampooned.
In the gallery’s ground-floor space, visitors are invited to a shared hands-on exploration of objects from Franz Erhard Walther’s First Work Set(1963–69). For the first time, viewers may even borrow selected pieces and use them outside the exhibition situation. Looking back on the 1960s, when they were created, it’s striking how progressive the First Work Set’ fifty-eight pieces were at the time. After the devastating cataclysm of the Second World War, Walther’s action objects beckoned with a new kind of accountability. Instead of dictating rules, they demonstrate through their intrinsic rationality how our perceptions of ourselves and our environment are shaped by our actions and interactions. Each of these works presents a given while simultaneously eliciting decision-making, acceptance or deviation. In this sense, they lend concrete form to a freedom that, they suggest, consists never in the absence of rules (freedom from) but rather in the ability to decide (freedom to). As Walther sees it, no work exists without its social context, without the life-world of which it is a part, without the goals and purposes, the openness and limitations, that inevitably shape our actions. Therein lies the profound humanity of his oeuvre. Further work from later years illustrate how the Fulda-born artist fleshed out and refined his vision of art: Determinations of Proportion (1962/1972), Sprich Nicht III (Don’t Speak, 1980) and new works from the cycle Body Shapes (2019).
Clegg & Guttmann, in contrast, have pursued an analytical approach since the early 1980s in which poststructuralist sociology and specific historical themes are key sources of inspiration. They present works of sculpture and installation art that propose rules on how to proceed, how to interact with and think about them—only to confront us with unexpected constraints and disruptions in the experience of the art. Cognitive Exercise III: Continuous drawing / Exquisite Corpse (2006) is a tower of five black cubes that can be rotated separately and drawn upon with provided chalk. The shared creative process of the ad-hoc community that forms around them yields results that defy planning and control. Humiliation II (2019) is a creative take on an instrument of torture and regimentation that was popular in the Middle Ages. The victims were often women: when men thought that they were cantankerous or garrulous, they shut them up inside a kind of wooden barrel to quarrel in close quarters. The object is meant to be used to negotiate the terms of coexistence inside its sculptural regime. An arrangement involving percussion instruments and a metronome, Cognitive Exercise No. B2: Syncopating with the machine beat (2006) demand the subject to adjust her desire for personal expression to a mechanical logic of conformity.
Clegg & Guttmann’s photographic portraits, too, are implements with which the artists bind themselves and the protagonists to guidelines that elicit acceptance or dissension, collaboration or defiance. Each is based on rules of the game that govern the actions of all parties involved in the photograph's production and are operative within the resulting work. The Rejected Commissions (1980s), for example, are commissioned portraits whose sitters—including Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit, in Allegory of Government (2011)—pose for the camera but wait until they see the finished picture before deciding whether they like the way they look and buy the work. Wowereit wasn’t buying. Another modality of portraiture, which induces a different set of rules, is the Collaborative Portraits. One of these collaborations, Cardinal Red (1993), was with Franz Erhard Walther. His portrait shows him activating his own work Roter Wechselgesang from 1983. Walther gave his piece to Clegg & Guttmann, and received the photograph in exchange. In their most recent pictures, the Projection Portraits (2019), images are projected onto the bodies and faces of the sitters. Contaminating their depiction, they make representation an anomaly of the self in which psychological understanding and the attribution of social roles careen into uncharted territory.
Striking a balance between self-determination and the pitfalls of interaction is a tricky business. The regimes of identity and representation, of self-expression and heteronomy can entangle the subject and her thoughts, but they can also be the sharp edge that lets her cut through such tangles. Franz Erhard Walther spotlights how certain forms of agreement are key to the cohesion of a democratic community in which everyone can recognize and accept their positions. Clegg & Guttmann, meanwhile, regard the social as shaped by an ongoing tug of war between countervailing forces: “Whenever something seems democratic, one must try to identify the violence that makes people move in the same direction.”