Despite the tonal range of Kai Althoff’s work, the artist’s diverse output is unified by at least one common denominator: his exploration of obscure and discarded traditions in the applied arts, such as poster design, book illustration and ornamentation. Althoff’s expressions of taste, for the most part historically rooted, appear in his work with an almost uncanny sense of confidence. Ranging from piles of rubbish to sci-fi film sets, the spaces of Althoff’s works – whether they are desolate, opulent, or super-slick – are so immersive that they absorb the viewer in their mood. And this mood can also manifest as uneasiness.
If we narrow our focus onto Althoff’s individual pieces it becomes clear that what appears in one work in the form of ideas, preferences, and peculiarities can often be connected to others. This applies to an untitled skeletal, insect-like sculpture from 2008 that was acquired two years ago by the Museum Ludwig in Cologne. This tangle of wrought iron measures over two metres high and three metres long, and is reminiscent of the delicate drawing style characterizing 1950s commercial graphic arts. Phantasmagorical, monstrous, and a little bit repulsive, the piece is also literally exalted: two of its limbs lift up toward the sky. At the same time, its downturned head is tucked under its torso, the creature’s face gazing at the floor. What may sound like a yoga position is explained as follows in the museum’s accompanying text: ‘The artist calls this work the ur-mother of humanity that unites several human identities in one.’
Though this description is opaque and somewhat far-fetched, its gender is further confirmed through features such as pumps and balloon-like protuberances on its arms and legs that gives clues to its identity. If one were to assume that Althoff’s works are an expression of the personal, the idiosyncratic, of notions of the self – whether they be exotic, historicized, or metaphoric – then it would also include this ur-mother as a genderqueer self-portrait of the artist with his ‘multiple human identities’.
In addition to this reading, we can focus on Althoff’s gestural vocabulary that presents itself as an arrested act. On the one hand, the work suggests a higher, spiritual order only attainable through prayer or kowtow. On the other hand, the head is turned to the ground, which could be read as a gesture of subordination attributable to a less holy or even obscene intent.
Untitled was first shown in 2008 at the Vancouver Art Gallery together with two gnomic and hat-like forms squashed by rods and a toy lion looking on in befuddlement from its magnificent cage. In this staging, the wrought iron bars no longer oscillate between the metaphysical and subservient physical humiliation, but rather more generally as a hierarchical relationship among Althoff’s crafted objects. Here, the joy of submission was more prominent, directed as it was toward the lion, symbolizing power and absolute sovereignty, which the ornate iron supplicant approaches from behind. The cage’s pastel-coloured grill ornament added a touch of malice to the disgrace: it consisted of a woman’s shoe and a key dangling from a finger.
One can thus infer that Althoff often works with power relations and negative affects and uses them to generate preconditions or points of repulsion for his metaphysical aims. The artist always inserts himself into this dynamic, both as authority and presence. The installation’s mute character becomes more striking in a performance that took place in the Vancouver exhibition space by way of it having no audience. In a video, Althoff can be seen applying Kabuki make-up, a quirky and menacingly imperious presence in black rushing around between several of his works and five lightly dressed cohorts.
This ghostly, threatening element is omnipresent in Althoff’s practice and is as crucial as its visual attractiveness, which is frequently over-the-top. This also applies to his tendency to strictly separate, aggressively if necessary, the aesthetic from the profane. Althoff’s need for control is legendary and is not pacified by religiosity. This need is itself ghostly – in other words, he is a being struggling with the same contradictory affects that he depicts. This separation of spheres, however, has a catch: Althoff projects primarily taste-based aesthetic preferences in order to assert his own uniqueness. On the other hand, he hasn’t yet come up with an idea for how to overcome this self-referentiality, even if the metaphysical tendency of his works can seem like a stab toward the spiritual.
Translated by Andrea Scrima
First published in Issue 25