Kai Althoff Dossier: Yair Oelbaum

A Man Walks his Dog in the Park

In April 2011 Kai Althoff was asked to address MFA students on the topic of his work. Kai hardly gives interviews and had never given a lecture on his work. While he briefly considered it, he decided that this was something he neither wanted to do nor felt capable of doing. He handed the task over to me, a close friend and collaborator, on the grounds that he considered me to be an adequate spokesman for him.

We devised a plan wherein I would deliver remarks that he would not see prior to the event. Interspersed within this ‘lecture’ were a scene from a film Kai had made – in German without subtitles or description – as well as a scene from a play, There we will be buried, we were rehearsing at the time. Both were to be presented unannounced at specified points in the lecture and were to be followed by a quick return to the main ‘lecture’ content. I would also make breaks in my lecture to allow Kai to deliver jokes he had developed through text messages with a friend of his. We also agreed that at points in the lecture I was also to hit Kai squarely on the top of his head with a closed fist.

‘Can I tell a joke? A man walks his dog in a park that is in bad shape due to trash and the like. The man says, “this park sure is a fixer upper.” Says the dog, “woof woof woof woof,” and later proceeds to urinate. A policeman comes along. “Hey Mr. keep that little bastard from adding to the pitiful state of this - of this - of this - of this -’. Says the man, ‘are you seri- are you seri- are you seri- are you seri- ah, I wish they would finally find a modern media to broadcast these jokes on the radio but it- it- it- it- it- it-.”’

The content of my lecture exacerbated the tension caused by the physical presence of the artist, the real authority on his own work, and a surrogate who spoke half-accurately about his life and work. I mixed my own thoughts on his practice with some of the most pedestrian, trite conceptions of what his work sought to accomplish, as well as with content about the work of others. Prior to the lecture, I wondered how Kai would react sitting before me, being told wholly inaccurate information about his work.

In a few moments where my misinformation became too difficult for him to idly listen to, Kai interrupted my lecture to clarify my comments. After he did so, I walked over to him, hit him squarely on the head, and walked back to my podium. The entire event was an eviscerating, humiliating performance for both of us – but I sacrificed little through my presentation. Kai’s dignity was openly thrashed in front of him and there was little he could do about it; through the telling of brief jokes he could counteract my misguided remarks and reveal aspects of his actual personality and work to the audience, but even in this space which was supposedly a lecture about his work, this was all that he was really allotted. 

With this lecture (combined with the other elements of the performance) I wished to challenge the flimsy scholarship that eager journalists and academics had exploited as a means of providing an intellectual justification for Kai’s work. I will not describe the ‘ideas’ which comprise these attempts at scholarly discourse since they will surely be rehashed and perpetuated by other contributors to this magazine writing about Kai. While such interpretations of Kai’s output are both palatable and provide the fodder of light reading found in museum catalogues, they remain reductive, superfluous attempts to understand his work.

Kai’s reluctance to broadcast insight into his intent through interviews and lectures began to make more sense to me after this experience. While his physical shows existed for months at a time in designated places, bad writing on his work would exist online (and in printed catalogues) and remain accessible for all time. Such writing asserts a dominance over the actual work in that it is eternally accessible and the primary reference for parties interested in learning about his work.

Kai’s response to the proliferation of such writing has manifested itself in idiosyncratic press materials which have accompanied his shows. As is the case, the artist’s statement for his upcoming exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York asserts that ‘the people who will come to see it can tell. I trust them totally, whether they care about art or not.’ This statement might help to explain why Kai saw it fit to appoint me as his de facto spokesperson in the event described above or why I am writing this piece in the first place.

Slightly over a year later, I found myself sitting on a short stack of rugs on the floor of Kai’s cramped but orderly studio. We were surrounded by blocks of cardboard printed with a scarlet brick and mortar pattern, which provided a structure for a variety of pedals, strips, and boxes which he used in the production of his music. I huddled towards the microphone with intent concentration, set on delivering each syllable optimally. 

Towards the end of a recording my voice faltered – I hit a note which felt painful to listen to as we played it back. I wished to re-record the part I’d ruined, but Kai would not have it. He didn’t see it as an error, but a natural moment in the vocal delivery; he felt revision would detract from the captured mood of the original recording. I heard it as the tipping point that plunged the singing into full-on desperation. After much deliberation, we left the recording as it stood. 

The deliberation around the preservation of my error later came to mind as Kai was installing his 2014 show at Michael Werner Gallery in London. One element Kai was initially reluctant to include, but eventually did, was a grouping of gestural elements as suggested by mannequins positioned in the room.

One of these gestures was a mannequin placed in front of a painting holding a stylized paintbrush made of resin and hair, which suggested somehow that it had produced the work. It was theatrical and evocative, but also indulgent and somewhat tacky. The placement of the mannequins seized the tone of the room even though they were surrounded by highly detailed, brilliant paintings and textiles.

Despite (or even in light of) the questionable effect that such a gesture produces, it also highlights aspects of Kai’s work that seem important to what he does. The gesture and Kai’s ambivalence towards it are symptomatic of his work and the way he grapples with it. The willingness and desire to enact such a scene, in full awareness of its possible effects, suggest a scepticism of what he himself does. This is in line with Kai’s statement in which he questions why his work should even be shown in a museum. The paintings in the Werner environment reflect perhaps a more refined type of work, but he willfully questions such a refinement by the introduction of the warm gesture produced by the mannequins.

In all of his shows, Kai’s work is presented in environments produced by manipulating the space of the gallery. In these environments the placement of individual works carries as much weight as the works themselves. In the show in question, visitors walked into an exuberant space, draped in beige linen lit dimly by a single rectangular lamp hung in the center of the room. The tender grace and beauty of such a space is immediately apparent, which is both enhanced and called into question by the mannequins and their positioning. The pairing brings to mind a character who is so taken with their own fantasy of what they are working on that they get totally carried away in imagining something as silly as the lives their mannequins live when dressed in the clothing he has produced for them.

Ultimately, though it is inconsequential – few will even consider these components in relation to the rest. Those looking for it will be carried away by a beauty which one can easily get lost in. Sceptics will be deterred by the hammy acting suggested the mannequins and see such weakness as errors or mistakes. Kai doesn’t seem too concerned. He’s too wrapped up in the arrangement of components within his environment to notice. Or he is simply wrapped up in enacting the will of such a character.,

Yair Oelbaum is an artist, writer and social worker in Brooklyn, New York. He is currently collaborating with Kai Althoff on a film which will be released later this year.

Issue 25

First published in Issue 25

Autumn 2016