carlier | gebauer

Thomas Schütte

Exhibitions at carlier | gebauer

News

Biography

Texts

THOMAS SCHÜTTE: UNITED ENEMIES 
Matilda Olof-Ors 

A triple figure of Star Wars Princess Leia is displayed beneath an enormous placard with the legend "Pro Status Quo"; opposite the trio Mr. Spock from Star Trek is raising his right arm in greeting. The scene forms part of a series of photographs, Skizzen zum Projekt Gropes Theater (1980), the earliest work in the exhibition Thomas Schütte: United Enemies. In the fourteen scenes that make up the complete series, rigid action figures interact in front of sketch-like painted backgrounds. Each of the photographs presents different concepts, such as Normality, Harmony, Future and Safety. A sausage with the legend "In the Name of the People" floats above the heads of the prot- agonists in one of the images. In another, the Leia princesses, who are being watched over from afar, wave at a plane fitted with a banner: "Alles in Ord- nung" (Everything OK). Yet in their encounter with the action figures, the words appear absurd and the setting is anything but OK, normal or harmonious.
Ambiguity and paradox also characterize Vater Staat (2010): the state, embodied here as an enormous father figure, is observing our arrival at the entrance to Moderna Museet. He is at once authoritarian and vul- nerable, monumental and powerless to act. The artist Thomas Schütte alludes in this work to a heavily traditional and long-since rejected format — the monumental sculpture — that badge of honour awarded throughout the ages to celebrate male accomplishments, kings, heroes and dictators, while serving as a reminder of a proud history, capable of uniting nations. However, when Schütte adopts this format, he portrays the power of the state as an old man whose hands are tied. 
Thomas Schütte (born in 1954 in Oldenburg) be- longs to a generation of German artists who were born shortly after the Second World War. He has described himself as a seismograph that records events in the world around him. Like many of his contemporary colleagues, he works with very diverse techniques and formats. His oeuvre ranges from gigantic sculptures, installations and architectural models, to drawings, prints and watercolours. The works explore shifts in scale; figuration collides with abstraction. Schütte touches on eternal questions concerning the human condition: freedom and responsibility, power and vulnerability. There is an indirectly political, frequently ambiguous and sometimes even contradictory undertone to his work. The intimate and the personal are played off against the large-scale and the authoritarian. Schütte examines not only objects, but also issues and concepts. Various artistic techniques are explored and unexpected outcomes are met with an openness he incorporates into his works. Everyday objects become his materials, as in One Man Houses (2003—05), in which Schütte has combined parts of an industrially produced ventilation system to form shiny minimalist sculptures. But in contrast to minim- alism, Schütte provides the objects with new functions and meanings liberated from the materials, in the geometric forms of buildings in this instance. In a later version of the work, Schütte constructed the buildings out of wood on a slightly larger scale and fit- ted them with painstakingly crafted furniture. One of these houses was constructed between 2007 and 2009 on a scale in the French town of Roanne, and more recently several of the artist's architectural models have been erected on the same scale. The most topical example is the Skulpturenhalle, his own foundation and sculpture hall outside Düsseldorf, which was opened in the spring of 2016. The architectural model Pringles (2011) in this exhibition presents an early version of the same building, in which the curved roof consists of a potato crisp placed on top of a matchbox: a striking example of the way Schütte allows materials and techniques to shape the design of the work and, in so doing, manages to combine the absurd with a sense of humour as well as with great seriousness. 
Thomas Schütte was eighteen years old when he visited Documenta V in Kassel in 1972. The show opened his eyes to contemporary art and was a major factor in his applying the following year to the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie. Schütte studied at the school, where his professors were Fritz Schwegler (1935—2014) and Gerhard Richter (b. 1932), until 1981. His fellow students included several of today's best-known inter- national artists, such as Thomas Ruff (b. 1958) and Katarina Fritsch (b. 1956). Schütte's works from his time as a student clearly demonstrate the influence of both minimalism and the conceptual art of the 1970s. His interest in contemporary architecture was also apparent, particularly in the colossal buildings by the Italian architect Aldo Rossi (1931—1997), which are stripped of all ornamentation, and it was while studying at art school that Schütte created his first architectural models. When his aim of constructing three of them on a 1:1 scale for the celebrated group show Westkunst in Cologne in 1981 could not be realized, he showed the models instead. 
Architectural models of various kinds have formed a crucial element in his oeuvre ever since. Schütte's models include a petrol station and a museum with enormous chimneys resembling a crematorium. A feature common to many of the buildings is their protective function, both physically and as a more psychological defence, in the form of bunkers, towers, fortresses and residential buildings. Some of these have been put together in the portfolio of prints entitled Architektur Modelle (2006) on show in this exhibition. The threedimensional models are made of materials such as wood, plaster, paper and plexiglas, as well as from objects such as stepladders and reconstructed pieces of IKEA furniture. Schütte accentuates their scale by placing the figures inside the architectural models. Sometimes the models are populated by simpie wooden silhouettes, elsewhere by action figures or more doll-like characters. The figures also serve as subjects of their own in freestanding sculptures. The first is Mann im Matsch (1982) - a male figure standing in mud up to his knees, a technical solution Schütte chose initially to get the sculpture to stand upright. The same motif has been explored in numerous versions and at various scales. In 2009 Mann im Matsch — der suchende, a permanent bronze sculpture more fices of a bank in the city of the artist's birth. 
Since the mid-1980s, Thomas Schütte's art has been shown at countless exhibitions and now forms part of art collections across the world. His international and public breakthrough occurred in 1992 when his ceramic grouping Die Fremden (1992) was presented at the Documenta IX. The work garnered a great deal of attention, and the sculptural figures of strangers were interpreted as a commentary on the growth of racism in Germany. In 2005 Schütte was awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale, and two years later his Model for a Hotel was shown on top of the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, in the heart of London. Despite this early international recognition, the current exhibition marks the first time his art is being presented in a solo show at a major art museum at this scale in Sweden. 
The starting point for the exhibition Thomas Schütte: United Enemies are the sculptural works of the last two decades. The public stage collides with the private sphere in Schütte's figurative sculptures. The figures do not form part of some explicit narrative, but appear rather to be solitary beings even when forming part of a group. Scales and materials frequently shift; small beings made of plastic clay merge with giants cast in bronze. Fragmented figures made of steel and alu- minium are presented in parallel with glass sculptures, prints, watercolours and architectural models. The exhibition also includes sculptures from two entirely new groups of ceramic works: Gartenzwerge (2015—16) and Große Doppelköpfe (2015). 
Schütte often creates works in series. Over the years he has developed a repertoire of motifs, forms and subjects to which he regularly returns, changing them and developing them further. The key works in the exhibition — the large sculptures United Enemies (2011) originate from a suite of the same title created almost twenty years earlier, albeit on a considerably Rome, at a time when corruption on a vast scale among those in power in Italy was being exposed and when everyday life was typified by trials, satires and caricatures. The small heads of the figures were sculpted rapidly in plastic-based modelling clay and attached to wooden sticks. The three-legged individ- uals have been dressed in fabric and tied together in pairs before being placed under glass domes on high pedestals. The marionette-like dolls are each other's prisoners — or united enemies. The sense of remoteness from the classical bronze sculptures of Rome could hardly be greater. And yet these distorted faces evoke the features of the grotesque characters in the work of the Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598—1680), which may have influenced Schütte. The title United Enemies may also be associated with the then recently unified German nation or with the ex- pansion of the European Union. The multivalency of the sculptures is, however, further underlined when Schütte emphasizes that the title has its origins in the international advertising campaign of a clothing chain and that the figures are people he has seen or encountered in the street. 
Several of the works in the show appear to be relat- ed to the small United Enemies. The dolls in the early installation With Tears in My Ears (1989), which forms part of Moderna Museet's collection, as well as the bronze heads in Wichte (2006) and the amorphous facial features of the four Fratelli busts (2012), all seem related. The same could be said of the three wandering skeletons in Efficiency Men (2005), whose interlocked feet and heavy disproportionate heads make them seem like zombies balancing on the boundary between life and death. The figures have been com- pared to those in the gruesome scenes depicted by Francisco de Goya (1746—1828) and the characters in the paintings of James Ensor (1860—1949), whose faces look like masks. Efficiency Men has also been interpreted as a commentary on the debate that dominated the German media during 2005: international investment companies were described as locust swarms profiteering on domestic industry, demanding increased efficiency without acknowledging any social responsibility. 
When in 2011, almost twenty years later, Thomas Schütte returned to United Enemies, he enlarged the enemy to a scale beyond that of the human form. The beings in the new suite of works with the same title have come down from their pedestals and taken on the guise of grotesque giants, cast in one of the most traditional materials in all of art history: bronze. The shift in scale amplifies the deformation of the heads and the tormented expressions on their faces. It is no longer we who are looking down on small confined figures but the giants who are subjecting us to scrutiny from above. Schütte borrows the form of the monument, making a link with that tradition while rejecting it at the same time. Once again these are not traditional heroes Schütte chooses to portray on this vast scale but rather anonymous anti-heroes — marionettes that have been tied together. The same applies to the shapeless warriors in Krieger (2012), on show here in the museum, who seem very remote from the notion of well-trained soldiers. The model, which Schütte made in bronze with screw-cap helmets, was enlarged twenty-fold using a 3D scanner, before the wooden sculptures were given their definitive form by the artist. 
Schütte makes use of art historical genres, classical subjects and techniques while challenging them in an innovative way. He also keeps coming back to his own work. Motifs are reworked on a different scale or in unexpected materials. An example is provided by the three sculptures from Frauen (1998—2006), also on exhibition here. Schütte worked on this series for almost ten years. Here, too, he tackles a subject that has been explored for centuries by artists: the reclining female model. This group of works comprises eighteen sculptures placed on large steel tables. Each sculpture has been cast in three versions, one in bronze, one in shiny aluminium and one in steel. The sketches in glazed ceramic are made on a smaller scale and show obvious traces of how the material has been quickly shaped, reshaped, pressed and cut. The large-scale casts in Frauen seem to be rooted in the explorations of form of classical sculpture. In her catalogue essay the art historian Bente Larsen emphasizes in relation to the Frauen sculptures the sense in which Schütte is engaged in a dialogue with modernism and with sculptors such as Aristide Maillol (1861—1944) and Henry Moore (1898-1986). The motifs for the more than two-metre-tall woodcuts in Woodcuts (2011) included in the show also have their origins in an earlier series. This suite of prints portrays forlorn-looking sections of architecture and the furnishings of an imaginary castle, a motif Schütte first depicted in 1984 in small-scale watercolours under the title Die Burg
Drawing has played a key role in the artist's oeuvre, in the form of sketches and other works, and also, at times, almost as a form of journal. But the drawings, often executed in ink or/and crayon in combination with watercolours, are also works in their own right in which Schütte brings together the personal and the universal. Language is frequently to be found among the motifs in the form of short phrases and concepts, as, for example, in Walser Drawings (2011—12), a series created as a tribute to the Swiss author Robert Walser (1878—1956). Some of these are presented in this exhibition along with a number of Schütte's Watercolors of 2013. Puns, linguistic collisions and deliberate spelling mistakes lead to the creation of meanings that are at once banal and poetic, curious and razor-sharp. 
Thomas Schütte's art is characterized by a singular combination of melancholy and humour. Its consistent self-contradiction is simultaneously ironic, laconic and drastic. Life seems to be off balance, the familiar becomes absurd and alien, as though there were something unstated lurking beneath the surface. Architectural shelters are created as a form of protection against veiled external threats. The leading roles are played by action figures while nameless anti-heroes are depicted in monumental sculptures. Today, when both power and the structures of power seem increasingly camouflaged behind political, commercial and global disguises, the role of the hero is no longer an obvious one. Like Princess Leia in Thomas Schütte's photo series Skizzen zum Projekt Großes Theater, the democratic hero struggles to maintain the current state of affairs — pro status quo — rather than change it. And yet the modern hero, like his or her predecessors, has to believe in the power of action and, above all, inspire hope in a better world. 
In another scene in the suite of photographs, three seated Leia figures are observing a downed plane, the same plane that has just declared that everything is OK. The only part of the sinking machine that projects above the surface of the sea is the tail-fin emblazoned with the word "Hope".