carlier | gebauer gallery is currently showing the work of German artist Thomas Schütte, providing insight into his continued exploration of human experience amid migration. His work deals with the notion of territory, as both a current and historic phenomenon. Politics is always an underlying theme, but we are never directly confronted by it. His artwork operates on ambiguity and paradox when addressing his viewers. They often both incorporate and ridicule forms of monumental sculpture and its nationalistic connotations. As such, Schütte is most well-known for his gigantic figurative heads, which invite viewers into mocking authoritative figures. This exhibition goes further by representing a breadth of his work in other mediums and subject-matter.
Upon first entering the exhibition, the individual works may seem isolated from each other within the spacious enclosure of carlier | gebauer gallery. The variety of mediums on show recast the exhibition as a sweeping overview of his various ventures over the past six years, rather than a coherent exploration of his recent oeuvre. But it is this jarring effect which sustains the strength of the exhibition as a whole. Through showing the individual artworks together, Schütte presents us with a series of juxtapositions; the injection of humour within sociopolitical issues; pairing the grotesque with kitsch; failed artistic processes alongside mastery of craft.
One is initially confronted by the garish colours and overbearing scale of Schütte’s ‘Woodcuts’ series (2011) lining the gallery walls. Together they form an enclosure for his ceramic installation, ‘Gartenzwerge’ (2015/2016). Those familiar with Schütte’s previous work will understand this to be a continuation of his earlier work ‘Die Fremden’ (1992) as part of Documenta 9. This involved a series of ceramic figures placed atop the Portico Fashion House SinnLeffers, Friedrichsplatz, secluded from participation within the urban life below them. In carlier | gebauer, the ‘Gartenzwerge’ seem to represent their defaced descendants. Enveloped by the woodcuts’ surreal, dream-like depictions of architectural space, they become emblematic of contemporary discourse surrounding integrating immigrants in Germany. The title translates as ‘garden-knomes:’ cheap mass-produced objects with a distinctly German history. Owing to the human scale of the ceramic objects, they become relatable and thus pitiful. In the next room, the smooth, exquisitely sculpted glass forms of the same title ‘Gartenzwerge (Glas)’ (2017) resemble urns, especially under the dimmed lighting. It implies a further disfigurement of these migrant figures to the point of their eventual demise.
Most sculptural work would become engulfed and lost within a space as large as carlier | gebauer. Yet Schütte knowingly rises to this challenge, through enabling substantial space for the viewer to move amongst the works. They await the viewer’s arrival to activate them, their curation demanding your interaction with the artworks. For example, the intimidating yet absurd bronze busts in ‘Fratelli’ (2012) dare the viewer to stand amongst them. As their gaze bares down on you, the dual feeling of humour and intimidation is unnerving, but equally exhilarating. Schütte has demonstrated that art cannot simply arise from art forms, but our corporeal reaction to them as humans.