In the late 1990s, Kai Althoff pissed on a series of canvases before taking them to market. In 1995, along with Cosima von Bonin, he tended an inaccessible bar at Künstlerhaus Stuttgart; in 2001, erected a homoerotic Christian youth club at Galerie Buchholz, Cologne; and in 2012, displayed a letter at Documenta 13, in which he explained why he could not participate in the exhibition. He has painted monks, deities and Hasidim. He has littered opulent commercial galleries with cyphers for decrepitude, bodily debt and death. A provocateur, then, or a self-hating artist, one who sought a mark and market and, in finding them to be one and the same thing, came to acknowledge that the most contradictory position available was his own.
In October of 2018, Althoff hung painterly clichés of ‘Asianness’ throughout a gutted floor of a Chinatown shopping mall, home to the exhibition space Tramps. Or so assert Jamie Chan and Leah Pires, who the following month published a response to the intervention in 4 Columns in which they hammered both Althoff and the gallery’s founder, Parinaz Mogadassi, for what they argued was an exoticizing of non-European cultures and a violent appropriation of a community under assault from gentrification and displacement. ‘Althoff reopens the wound of colonial erasure’, they wrote; Mogadassi enters ‘a preexisting ecosystem in order to offer an urban safari for art world voyeurs’.
While I may be a self-confessed art world voyeur, it is hard to counter their claim that Althoff ‘makes a complex community […] a backdrop’. The untitled paintings included in ‘Chief Rattling Dishes’ trade in sumptuous yet uncomfortable clichés of the ‘Orient’. Anonymous workers don dǒulì hats; young men lounge, sexualized, in classrooms; demonic eyes pierce voluminous Kabuki makeup. Opium. Animism. Cherry blossom. Incessantly and irreverently, Asian and black bodies are consumed, curdled and commoditized, stripped of identity and agency and forced to perform.
What Chan and Pires fail to note is the selectivity of their own vision. For caught in Althoff’s wispy reveries of ‘Asianness’ are less decipherable dreamscapes of Native American mothers, tender intimacies between young men and unhinged moments of surrealist bliss fading beneath dense brushwork. There may be invocations of Edo period court scenes and Shan shui landscapes, but they sit alongside other European mimicries of Eastern forms and techniques: the exoticization of Gauguin, the focused scenography of Bonnard, the fragile waifs of Schiele. There is brash provocation (ill judged, perhaps, in light of recent critiques of art-world interventions in Chinatown and the wider discussion around the need to decolonize the arts and its institutions), but it oozes with the pluralist opacity that has typified Althoff’s work for decades. It can be one thing if you need it to be, but it isn’t.
While Chan and Pires acknowledge that ‘Althoff knows he’s being bad’, they deign to push it further. His self-awareness, they maintain, is scant more than justification of a self-elected ‘right to do as he pleases’. And while ‘Althoff’s moves are straight out of the modernist playbook’ is a stellar affront, it disregards an almost overbearing sense of irony. After all: a move imitated is often a move mocked. Could it not be said that, in luring sceptics to chastise these fridge magnet representations of cultural history, Althoff distracts from what has been erased in order to clear wall space and, in doing so, deviously checks priorities? And could it not be said that, if Althoff is guilty of fetishizing this ‘othered’ culture (via a duplication of scenes long-since championed by a prejudicial art historical canon), then so too are those who ardently call for its ‘respectful’ preservation (and, therefore, the perpetuation and reaffirmation of that same canon).
In December, Mogadassi published a furious response to the furious response, one that, while addressing alleged deceptions on the part of Chan and Pires, failed to satisfy. On the topic of gentrification, Mogadassi referenced the neighbourhood’s recent history: ‘Must we bear the burden of the “gentrification of Chinatown” that predates us by some 15 years?’ The chronology, here, is tight, but the rhetoric is naïve (to follow is not to absolve), as is the inability to conceive how the ‘renting of spaces on a sparsely occupied floor amounts to the infliction of harm on the local community’. But to Chan and Pires’s claim that ‘[Althoff] self-consciously revives and refurbishes modernism’s fascination with the Other,’ it seems to me that we must sometimes reanimate art history, if only to put it to death. Althoff makes for uncomfortable reading, in this way. He lays out scenes of objectification, sexualisation, pain, in full knowledge that they still elicit pleasure. This particular dissonance, this sadism, warrants examination. We can shy from it, if we must, but as Althoff demonstrates, oh so roguishly: a problem shelved is not a problem solved.
Main image: Kai Althoff, Untitled (detail), 2018, oil on linen, 54 × 64 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Tramps, New York