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The Annotated Althamer

In this essay from Afterall’s back issues, curator Adam Szymczyk analyses Pawel Althamer’s play with institutional conventions.

Artists who reject the art world put their careers at risk.01

 If they conduct an intelligent game with the art world, delicately tweak its social rules, cautiously undermine its economy, and practice prudent subversion within its politics and infrastructure, then, naturally, everything remains more or less OK. 02But you have to stay consistent and in touch.Once you veer from the path there might be no going back, unless you return posthumously as one of the ‘great outsiders’, a zombie of the avant-garde internationale restored from obscurity and forced to speak through your works – the market value of which is consequently reappraised – when you no longer have any say yourself.


Playing with institutional conventions has become an accepted mode of artistic expression, if not the mandatory program of many ‘radical’ art institutions and a frequent subject of exhibitions. It seems that radical action need not assume the form of dialogue (i.e. staying within the bounds of understandable discourse even if it is only to overturn that discourse). 03 Action need not even be universally understood for misunderstanding forces the thinking community to redefine stereotypes of reception, to rephrase the subject, and perhaps expand the idiom.

Such are the assignments that selected actions by Pawel Althamer set the viewer. His works may be called assignments for two reasons. First because they are assignments the artist completes in response to the context of exhibitions or to live events.04 Secondly, they are assignments for viewers required to find a place within a situation ‘assigned’ by the author in the form of the work placed before them.

The simplest type of assignment is a rite of passage. Similar to the rituals of many cultures and enshrined in the works of many contemporary artists is a rite of passage which sometimes may be nothing more than a stroll. The initiate, led by a guide or left to his own devices, is expected to walk down a certain path and experience the extraordinary. 05

Althamer often places his protagonists in borderline situations. For instance, a middle-aged man dressed in grey sat in front of a black-and-white TV broadcasting live images from the street outside the gallery during the ‘After-life’ exhibition at Galeria Kronika in the southern Polish city of Bytom. Two symmetrical rooms were arranged in front of him: one ready to receive a new-born baby, the second to bid farewell to a deceased man. Althamer often works with the homeless, the unemployed, pensioners and disabled persons. He is interested in the excluded, the non-productive, whose presence is rarely noticed, and who themselves seem to forget they exist. He has them play parts requiring virtuosity and the ability to learn new skills fast, thereby setting them in borderline roles. For documenta X Althamer constructed a white vehicle based on a military radio reconnaissance unit. The vehicle, part of which had been adapted to serve as living quarters for a homeless person from Poland, was transported to Kassel on a wheeled platform (all sorts of odd, wrecked cars from the West are often brought into Poland this way). It was parked on the lawn in front of the Orangerie and served as the homeless person’s residence for the 100 days documenta lasted. His job was to look after the vehicle and let the public into one of its sections containing white seats (recycled from Althamer’s first show at Galeria Foksal), where viewers could sit and watch a film on an LCD display above the door while looking at the park outside through the back door. The film showed Althamer dressed in a home-made space suit walking through Kassel and its outskirts with a camcorder. He could be seen being accosted by drunks and children, stepping into a swimming pool, climbing Smithsonesque slag heaps, or contemplating a twig found in a forest.

The Kassel work provides a suitable introduction to Althamer’s work because included here are a number of motifs that, sometimes transformed beyond recognition, can be found in many of his other works: disappearance in the formlessness of nature; a fixation on detail leading to the discovery of its cosmic dimension; and the introduction of an observer. 06 Above all, Althamer’s search for an alter ego is consistent, using a ‘stand-in’ or ‘surrogate’ through which to baffle viewers as to his ‘proper’ identity. When the Berlin art world gave an official reception in his honour, the artist, in a spurious search for relatives, invited all the people named Althamer in the phonebook. Invited guests, most of whom did not know him personally, were at a loss as to which was the real Althamer. 07 Film, produced by Althamer in a square outside of a supermarket in Ljubljana. Every day for several weeks a group of semiprofessional actors and amateurs dressed up as ‘normal’ people (a tourist, a skateboarder, girls smoking pot, a couple kissing) and acted out the same simple script at the same time and place. Accidental passers-by and viewers, craving excitement without knowing exactly what they were looking for, mingled with the actors in the time and space of Film where precise direction and utter randomness blended into a single image.

Imbued with a totemic energy, Althamer’s figurative portraits perform a similar function in a different way; more life-like than the real thing, they are magical figures, suggesting a fetish-like affinity with the original, heightened by the use of natural materials (such as wax, grass, hemp, animal intestines and even, in one instance, a child’s skull, built into the head of a full-figure portrait of the artist’s five-year-old daughter installed in a barn in the Alpine village of Amden), as well as ‘material’ taken from his own person including his own hair and glasses. Althamer proposes a version of realism based on the fullest possible identification of signified and signifier. The most complete identification of such to date is

Film itself is another key concept in Althamer’s work: ‘the film is out there, it’s enough to turn on the camera’, the artist has often said, indicating his desire to elevate everyday reality to the status of a pageant through directorial intervention, or a yearning to refine perception so that the usually passive vision becomes an ideal projection device.08 Whereas posters announced the film in Ljubljana, the action at the opening of the ‘Neue Welt‘ exhibition at the Frankfurter Kunstverein was a film of a less obvious nature. Althamer dressed local homeless people in classy clothes lent by Kunstverein employees, and provided them with accessories such as sunglasses and cameras. Thus costumed, the homeless mingled with the gallery-goers – people indistinguishable among other people. Like many other works, this one also involved the transport of people by disturbing the distribution of social roles – always a way of challenging the rules of political correctness. A system based on domination cannot be altered without undermining the security and permanence of the hierarchy on both sides of the barricade: the side of the disenfranchised and of those who decide about disenfranchisement. 09

Althamer often sets up situations meant to catalyse impressions and reflections without ever trying to define the subject of reflection. He wants to free cognition without being bothered about the results. One of his early works took place in a park at Sonsbeek 93 and consisted of about twenty wooden benches placed in more or less picturesque, or just merely interesting, spots around the park where no benches had been before. The commonplace benches automatically ‘blended in’ with the park. Themselves imperceptible, they beckoned the viewer to discover the invisible in something that is seen though usually disregarded. A pendant to the work was a sculpture/installation done for an exhibition in the Eastern Polish city of Biala Podlaska, where Althamer stuck all the litter he found in the vicinity (empty cigarette packets, corks, bottle tops, candy wrappers, etc.) to a park bench using adhesive tape, covering it with a colourful mantle of small objects put on display and rendering proper use of the bench, as both a seat and a vantage point, entirely impossible. Another bench also appeared in the white sisal cloth tent Althamer stretched over several hundred square metres of overgrown park adjacent to Galeria Foksal in Warsaw. The tent formed a white frame around the chaos, while the bench beckoned viewers to indulge in a private contemplation of nature.

Althamer’s surprising penchant for white (the white space suit in Kassel, the white dovecote on the roof of the Gothenburg Art Museum, the shoddy white hi-tech costumes of ‘the future homeless’ in a project for the Secession in Vienna, a white bus with white-clad attendants in Milan, etc.) may be seen as the transcendental flip-side of his fascination with absolute temporality explored in a rather morbid vein (life-like full-figure sculptures recalling cadavers from Baroque tombstones, sought-after employment on a garbage truck, the design of a tanning parlour for prisoners that would bring out their vulgar and abstruse tattoos, litter glued to a bench, ‘Darkrooms’ and fantasies of a deprivation chamber in the middle of a landfill, etc.)

Althamer operates in the rift between blinding clarity and the mystery of the nocturnal underworld. This clash was best seen in ‘Bródno 2000’. The front of an enormous block of flats in Warsaw’s Bródno district where Althamer lives, was adorned with the number ‘2000’, its giant digits formed out of windows illuminated or left dark by residents according to the artist’s instructions. Refusal to take part was equally visible – dark patches in the numbers – as was willingness to co-operate. Three months’ preparation involving the whole community of the block culminated in a half-hour event that unravelled dramatically. The inscription emerged slowly out of a chaos of lights to take shape at dusk, and revert to chaos as the building assumed its natural arrangement of light and dark determined by the needs of individual families. The sign projected did not mean anything in particular: ‘2000’ was chosen as the least controversial statement possible. By the time of its making (27 February 2000) it carried no emotional message to speak of, yet was potent enough to unite anonymous tenants in a joint effort.

Althamer’s all-embracing and theatrical projects, his stage management of reality on both a macro and micro scale, turn out to be proposals aimed at the de-alienation of individuals. He seeks to restore the equilibrium between a rediscovered world of inner mental and sensual experience and its limitations in the system of social games and distortions of interpersonal relations that the culture, indifferent to seeing and being seen, imposes upon us.

Translated by Artur Zapalowski

– Adam Szymczyk


  • One of the first things Althamer did during his DAAD scholarship in Berlin was to sign up for Kendo lessons. He also asked DAAD to get him a job on a garbage truck, which he then rode for a week with his friend Artur Anczarski, a Pole living in Chicago. The story of their friendship had been the subject of an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Althamer and Anczarski went to high school together. After Anczarski left to live in the USA he often proposed that Althamer come to work with him on painting and renovating flats and offices. The two had not seen each other for twelve years when Althamer was offered an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and asked Anczarski to join him in the project. During museum opening hours Althamer and Anczarski painted the walls of one of its rooms a different colour every day. Next door they set up a storage room, a locker, and an exhibit of memorabilia from their time in Poland – holiday snapshots and drawings they made for their Fine Arts Academy entrance exams. Althamer inverted the situation of an average unskilled worker from Poland living in the USA by hiring him to take part in a performance at a prestigious art institution. One of the first things the Museum management wanted to know before the project began was whether Anczarski would be working as a labourer or as an artist. It was a question of insurance.
  • Althamer’s exhibition at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw, entitled ‘Exhibition’, traced a trajectory through various interiors and moods. Several rooms were altered to include: a chill-out room with potted plants and a girl playing the accordion; a darkroom in which viewers lost their bearings; a smoking lounge with a TV set, red armchairs and a coffee table; a room with plastic chairs and tables where one could drink water from a cooler; and the gallery stock-keeper’s room through which one could go directly from the chill-out room to the smoking lounge without having to pass through the darkroom.
  • Several early actions by Althamer concern alienation, or self-alienation, up to the point where when the performer loses touch with his public. At an open- air sculpture symposium in Dluzew, Althamer dressed in a white costume padded with newspapers and sat in the middle of a snow-covered field by the woods motionless like a snowman. He did not acknowledge taunts from passing youths who finally decided he was indeed a snowman that ‘the students made’. Althamer impersonated a figurative sculpture with all the consequences that changing into an inanimate statue involved (motionless and unfeeling yet alive like the sculpture in Prosper Mérimée’s short story). For The Cardinal’s Robes Althamer immersed himself in a bathtub filled with purple papier-mâché, listening to music typical of different religions and smoking marijuana in front of the viewers, slowly tripping away and lapsing into an obscure conversation with himself. In another action Althamer sealed himself in a plastic bag that gradually filled with cold water causing his sensory perception to be cut off, or at least seriously altered. Boat, a work from the same period was a rounded crate made of metal slats and mesh capable of containing a single occupant for whom the artist sewed a white costume that would cover the face of the wearer. These private devices, including Darkroom, a pitch-black room with padded walls and floor that was first shown in Bochum, Germany, help achieve actual or symbolic transformation of body and mind.
  • When invited to participate in a painting exhibition (Bielsko-Biala, Poland, 2001), Althamer, who had never practiced easel painting, made a series of tiny white pictures on canvas. They each consisted of texts stating the title (i.e. Sunset), the technique (i.e. acrylic on canvas), the date and sometimes a red dot indicating it to be sold. The paintings were hung on empty walls in the locations corresponding to captions under non-existing paintings.
  • One such passage is found in ‘Exhibition’ at Warsaw’s CCA (see note 2 above). On another occasion, Althamer was invited to give a lecture for the CCA’s ‘Personal History of Art’ series. Instead of holding it in the lecture hall, he took listeners on a ‘walk’ through the park surrounding Ujazdowski Castle, following a meticulously planned itinerary. Several years earlier he led an excursion of German art collectors on A Walk though Bródno showing them the aesthetic improvements made by inhabitants of the large housing estate. These improvements consisted mostly of little works of art, stones on which someone had painted dots, empty concrete flower-pots, graffiti and winding paths. Sometimes the passage requires diligent preparation. In Frankfurt an der Oder, Althamer, together with a group of students, built a raft out of industrial waste on which they wanted to cross the river from Germany to Poland. Border guards stopped them, but the assignment was ultimately a success. Participants were involved in a joint project, they were mentally geared for the passage, and constructed a seaworthy vessel. The passage was effected in the mind.
  • One of the earliest actions of this type was an advertising campaign that Althamer designed for a new daily newspaper called Obserwator (Observer). He asked homeless alcoholics to wear stickers saying ‘Obserwator’, sit on chairs along the main shopping street in Warsaw and do nothing at all. The term ‘observer’, which the newspaper wanted to suggest someone actively and, critically eyeing life so as to change it for the better, was ironically inverted. From the standpoint of the down-and-out, being an observer is a way of life, passive and focused on getting food, drink and staying out of trouble. Another such observer is the Cameraman, a steel mesh sculpture dressed in a second-hand overcoat and pilot’s cap, propped up on the landing of the Ludwig Museum in Cologne and ‘filming’ life outside through the window. From within the lit museum, which is lit up by night, the cameraman peers through a Russian Super 8 at the people standing in the dark outside, among them Polish street musicians playing the accordion. The Cameraman leaning against a banister seems to be their accomplice, yet he is separated from them by a camera and locked behind the glass of the museum.
  • At an exhibition in Prague, Althamer asked the organisers to find a double of himself – only thirty years older. The person chosen, who didn’t really resemble the artist, appeared at the opening wearing a badge saying ‘Althamer’ and a photo of the real Althamer. Another version of Althamer – a quasi-father figure – was the old-age pensioner hired for the exhibition in Cieszyn who moved into a room just past the entrance to the gallery. He had a bed, a terrarium with turtles inside and other amenities. Viewers passed through his half-private, half-public space to a small room containing all of Althamer’s figurative sculptures, mostly self-portraits. Notably, Althamer maintains that all his works (including performances, actions and ‘films’) are self-portraits.
  • In a piece done in Warsaw for a contemporary music festival, members of a choir in street clothes waited with commuters at a tram stop. A tram pulled up and a conductor got off and gestured to the choir to start singing a song by Schubert.
  • At an exhibition of figurative sculpture at the Zacheta Gallery in Warsaw Althamer supplied one of the women guarding the exhibition with whatever she said she lacked while she was employed to walk to-and-fro among the exhibits. She was given a chair to sit on, a radio, the right to open the window, fruit juice, a newspaper with crossword puzzles, an electric kettle and a potted plant.