In Focus: Yngve Holen

Reformulating the human body in the age of mass digitization

The human body is conspicuously absent in Yngve Holen’s work. Absent, since the artist’s cool, near-abstract, often-disassembled industrial objects rarely depict a human form, but conspicuous, nonetheless, because the state-of-the-art surfaces of his pieces somehow point to a fraught, hollowed-out reformulation of the human body and its shifting relationship to the various prostheses of our age of mass digitization, 3D-printing and proto-bionic tools. A generation of young sculptors has begun responding to a recent crisis of the (post-)human body by attempting, in reactionary fashion, to refigure it in very literal, physical terms. By contrast, Holen starts at the iconoclastic end of the spectrum, seemingly beyond humanity, where the human is akin to a piece of gristle, an afterthought or an accident. Such is the case with Sensitive to Detergent, Moving Forward (2012), which includes a VW-branded, ghost-white, 3D-printed chicken breast resting on the drum of a washing machine.

Holen’s most recent exhibition, ‘World of Hope’ (2015) at Galerie Neu in Berlin, was a spare presentation of six oversize, doughnut-shaped metal sculptures clothed in different-coloured fishnet fabric, hung on white walls and looming coldly and menacingly above the viewer. These featured brand-new parts from Siemens ct scanners, medical machines ordinarily used to render cross-sections of the person lying inside. A key to these hole-shaped works, which – set flat against the wall – literally refused entry, was the magazine ETOPS II (2015), presented by Holen in the same space. This publication contains a series of interviews the artist conducted, anonymously, with major players in the pornography and plastic surgery industries in Los Angeles, which make the Marquis de Sade read like children’s stories. Covering the daily lives of porn stars, their agents and peripheral professionals, the texts are shocking because of the nonchalance with which the interviewees describe the limitations, modification and dehumanization of their bodies.

inline_Ars_Viva_031_cmyk.jpg

I don’t trust anyone for the most part. But then again, I am my own creature, 2015, plastic, fabric, metal, 177 × 185 × 36 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Stuart Shave/ Modern Art, London; photograph: Simon Vogel

I don’t trust anyone for the most part. But then again, I am my own creature, 2015, plastic, fabric, metal, 177 × 185 × 36 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Stuart Shave/ Modern Art, London; photograph: Simon Vogel

‘ETOPS’, which stands for Extended-range Twin-engine Operational Performance Standards, is a tongue-in-cheek term that originated in the aviation industry for the (standard) practice of flying aircraft beyond their approved specifications (initially, twin-engine planes were not thought capable of safely crossing the Atlantic). ETOPS and its backronym, ‘Engines Turn or Passengers Swim’, are the kind of dark insider jokes that often circulate in specialized fields, such as the art, aeronautics, porn or home-appliances industries that inform Holen’s sculptures (often based on knowledge gained during research trips to obscure trade fairs, including the Aircraft Interiors Expo). On one wall of Holen’s studio is a sticker, ‘If it’s Boring, I’m not Going’, itself a wry reworking of the Boeing slogan: ‘If it’s not Boeing, I’m not Going.’ It’s significant that such semiotic slippages arise within intensely specialized industries that take for granted shared expertise. Such knowledge is often obscure and leaves the consumer to place his or her trust in the illusionism of automatic processes (like autopilot). Such insiderism also accounts for the mocking or self-mocking humour of the fan, the nerd and the troll – key if ‘unseen’ figures in our communications and media networks – the terminological redundancy of which Holen likewise refers to and incorporates in his sculptures.

The hyper-referentiality of Holen’s works, and the antagonistic way in which he effaces those reference points, links two touchstones for the artist: one is the ‘failbetter’ tradition in recent contemporary art, exemplified by the likes of Michael Krebber (known to Holen from his years at Städelschule in Frankfurt); the second is the redundant or coded lingo that arises across other rarefied trades akin to art. Holen’s reluctance to translate the material from these sources for the ‘general’ viewer recalls the segmentation of global trade: namely, that the lingo and technology of any particular industry often make no sense to the outsider, just as the values the art world places on certain works of contemporary art may be obscure to those outside of it.

03_15_NEU_Holen-124-Bearbeitet_A4_CMYK.jpg

I don’t trust anyone for the most part. But then again, I am my own creature, 2015, plastic, fabric, metal, 177 × 185 × 36 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Neu, Berlin; photograph: Stefan Korte

I don’t trust anyone for the most part. But then again, I am my own creature, 2015, plastic, fabric, metal, 177 × 185 × 36 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Neu, Berlin; photograph: Stefan Korte

When contextualized within a magazine called ETOPS II, Holen’s interviews with porn and body modification professionals are not only concerned with base humour but also with reconciling the flippancy of industry-specific terms and the fantasy of surface appearances with the dark realities of production and labour. Industrial conditions of advanced globalized capitalism – from specific physical components, trade secrets or labour conditions – are often predicated on the secrecy and non-accountability of their human agents (from CEOS to factory workers). For his exhibition ‘Launch of Hater Head’, at Société in Berlin in 2013, Holen fabricated a small, countersunk security screw (like those used by companies such as Apple to render products non-serviceable by the consumer), titled Hater Head: the cut-out shapes in the ‘head’ of the screw, which no one without a special tool can loosen, form a menacing, technoid smile. The work comments at once on the smirking sociopathy lurking behind today’s insistence on ‘connectivity’ and, in its prevention of user serviceability, on the insularity that preconditions such technology-driven ‘access’.

The futuristic designs of Holen’s works are less about demonstrating technological prowess than about posing questions relating to human boundaries – of perception, physical capability and ethics – in an age of technological acceleration, and the way the interactions between humans and objects (or among humans themselves) are actually made more complex by technologies that rely on a veneer of efficiency. Of course, the assertions of transparency that often accompany the ‘visualization’ of complex processes are a good way to disguise stealth or secrecy. Although well-masked, Holen’s works are underscored, I think, by a subtle humanism, a concern for the endangered species known as people amid conditions that radically alienate parts, trades and industries from one another.

Pablo Larios is senior editor of frieze. He lives in Berlin.

Issue 172

First published in Issue 172

Jun - Aug 2015

Most Read

Ahead of ARCOMadrid this week, a guide to the best institutional shows in the city
At La Panacée, Montpellier, Nicolas Bourriaud’s manifesto for a new movement and attempt to demarcate an artistic peer...
A report commissioned by the museum claims Raicovich ‘misled’ the board; she disputes the investigation’s claims
In further news: Jef Geys (1934–2018); and Hirshhorn postpones Krzysztof Wodiczko projection after Florida shooting
If the city’s pivot to contemporary art was first realized by landmark construction, then what comes after might not...
Ignoring its faux-dissident title, this year's edition at the New Museum displays a repertoire that is folky, angry,...
An insight into royal aesthetics's double nature: Charles I’s tastes and habits emerge as never before at London’s...
In other news: Artforum responds to #NotSurprised call for boycott of the magazine; Maria Balshaw apologizes for...
At transmediale in Berlin, contesting exclusionary language from the alt-right to offshore finance
From Shanghai to Dubai, a new history charts the frontiers where underground scenes battle big business for electronic...
Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton, UK
Zihan Karim, Various Way of Departure, 2017, video still. Courtesy: Samdani Art Foundation
Can an alternative arts network, unmediated by the West's commercial capitals and burgeoning arts economies of China...
‘That moment, that smile’: collaborators of the filmmaker pay tribute to a force in California's film and music scenes...
In further news: We Are Not Surprised collective calls for boycott of Artforum, accuses it of 'empty politics'; Frida...
We Are Not Surprised group calls for the magazine to remove Knight Landesman as co-owner and withdraw move to dismiss...
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film is both gorgeous and troubling in equal measure
With Zona Maco opening in the city today, a guide to the best exhibitions across the Mexican capital
The question at the heart of Manchester Art Gallery’s artwork removal: what are the risks when cultural programming...
In further news: Sonia Boyce explains removal of Manchester Art Gallery’s nude nymphs; Creative Scotland responds to...
Ahead of the India Art Fair running this weekend in the capital, a guide to the best shows to see around town
The gallery argues that the funding body is no longer supportive of institutions that maintain a principled refusal of...
The Dutch museum’s decision to remove a bust of its namesake is part of a wider reconsideration of colonial histories,...
At New York’s Metrograph, a diverse film programme addresses a ‘central problem’ of feminist filmmaking
Ronald Jones pays tribute to a rare critic, art historian, teacher and friend who coined the term Post-Minimalism
In further news: curators rally behind Laura Raicovich; Glasgow's Transmission Gallery responds to loss of Creative...
Nottingham Contemporary, UK
‘An artist in a proud and profound sense, whether he liked it or not’ – a tribute by Michael Bracewell
Ahead of a show at Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum, how the documentarian’s wandering gaze takes in China’s landscapes of...
In further news: Stedelijk explains why it cancelled Ettore Sottsass retrospective; US National Gallery of Art cancels...
With 11 of her works on show at the Musée d'Orsay, one of the most underrated artists in modern European history is...
Reopening after a two-year hiatus, London’s brutalist landmark is more than a match for the photographer’s blockbuster...
What the Google Arts & Culture app tells us about our selfie obsession
At a time of #metoo fearlessness, a collection of female critics interrogate their own fandom for music’s most...
A rare, in-depth interview with fashion designer Jil Sander

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

November - December 2017

frieze magazine

January - February 2018

frieze magazine

March 2018