On 13 October, anyone walking through downtown Bruges could hardly ignore one of the attractions in the ongoing exhibition of Central European art in the city: an immense 20-metre long helium filled effigy of a buck-naked man hovering over t’ Zand square. Polish artist Pawel Althamer’s inflatable self-portrait serves as an introduction to some of the themes that figure large in the exhibition.
Althamer is not a stunt coordinator but a fanatical sculptor who, like many of his contemporaries, has a penchant for self-portraits. Alienation and the isolation of the individual in the modern world are major preoccupations in his works. With his Balloon, he is also cocking a snook at grandiloquent artistic ambitions and to some extent defying the public, who predictably respond with mockery and amusement — “Is that supposed to be art?”
A society overwhelmed by visual stimuli
However, Althamer is not the only artist to make use of sheer scale to create pieces that cannot be ignored. Huge formats, spectacular effects and shocking themes are increasingly prevalent in today’s art world. “Gigantism is a distinguishing characteristic of contemporary art,” remarks Philip Van Cauteren, the director of the S.M.A.K. museum in the city of Ghent. “Contemporary artists have to fight for space in an increasingly noisy environment, where they compete with omnipresent media and advertising images, and the impact of vast cities and skyscrapers.”
To get a hearing in a society overwhelmed by information and visual stimuli, they seek to produce images that create a strong impression. For Van Cauteren, provocation is not their main objective. The ultimate goal of even the most spectacular pieces is to give the public pause for thought.
Spectacle once again to the fore
If you would like to experience an installation that creates a strong and immediate effect, take a trip to the sleepy village of Deurle, on the banks of the river Lys in Flanders, where Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn has filled the exhibition space of the local Dhondt-Dhaenens museum with two million 330-ml empty soda cans.
At the entrance to the exhibit, you are given a strong pair of boots to negotiate your way through this mountain of waste, which was delivered to the museum by 14 recycling company trucks. The extraordinary experience of Too too – Much much, which is the name that Hirschhorn has given the installation, is full of surprises. The artist explains that initially the work was inspired by a report in a Swiss newspaper about the horrific mess discovered in an apartment which had been occupied for eight years by a man who drank 24 cans of beer a day and never threw anything away.
In the first half of the last century, exhibitions like those of the surrealists were always controversial. In the 1990s, spectacle once again came to the fore, especially in the work of the “Young British Artists,” among them Damien Hirst, who exhibited a dove in formaldehyde and cut a cow and her calf in two.
They attract the attention of the public
“The use of plastic language is a distinguishing characteristic of the art of spectacle,” remarks the curator of the Ghent exhibition, Hans Martens. “Both Hirschhorn and Althamer are thoroughbred artists. When you look at their works, there is a multiplicity of meaning in small subtle details, which is not something that you find, for example, in advertising posters.”
From 20 October, Wim Delvoye, another artist with his own plastic language, will be exhibiting a gothic steel tower outside the Brussels Bozar. The 17-metre high piece which has already been presented in Venice and Paris is set to bring large numbers of visitors to the rue Royale.
Museums and art centres are delighted with these works on a monumental scale. “They attract the attention of the public and that is exactly what these institutions need,” points out Bart de Baere, the director of the MuHKA contemporary art museum in Antwerp. “The drive to maximise the number of visitors to museums has contributed to the vogue for spectacular exhibitions. But genuine artists like Hirschhorn, Althamer and Delvoye are not really guided by this aspect; they are more involved with their own creative journey.”
It is worth wondering if works on such an ambitious scale, like Hirschhorn’s mountain of cans, have any lasting impact. In 1982, Joseph Beuys succeeded in planting 7,000 trees in the German city of Kassel, when he refused to remove his installation of 7,000 basalt stones from a public square. But concrete results of this kind are few and far between.