Magazine article Art Monthly

Franz West: Where Is My Eight? MMK Frankfurt 29 June to 13 October

Magazine article Art Monthly

Franz West: Where Is My Eight? MMK Frankfurt 29 June to 13 October

Article excerpt

The Duchampian readymade, and the various forms of functional/design art that have followed it, suggest that the context of an artwork defines it; and that there might be a forcefield between art and non-art space in relation to which art is realised, in turn effacing itself to decor and re-establishing itself as art, like an unchanging note that only seems to be melodified by a rising and falling ground bass. The Austrian artist Franz West, who died last year, did everything he could to place the emphasis in this equation back on to the art object, and embody the axis between art and function, and between pure aesthetics and messy human interaction, as manifestly as possible. He creates metaphors for the 'occasion' of art: how we engage with it, and the social dimensions of that engagement. This occasion is portrayed with a comprehensive range of tonalities from absurdity to comedy, to irony, to ingratiating opportunism, to awe--restoring the full gamut of subjectivity to sculpture by making its putative functionality a means of humanising it. West's approach contrasts with the standard design-art strategy of appearing to renounce artistic pretentions--and therefore a claim to more than utilitarian value--by masquerading as decor. Implicitly, West qualifies this resignation as disingenuous.

In the mid 1970s, West began to produce his 'Adaptives'--awkward, vulnerable-looking whitewashed sculptures made of wood and metal coated in plaster and papier-mache. They range from a gnarly biomorphic abstraction to an explicit suggestion of function--such as that of a shovel, a shower arm or a rocking chair--although even the most representationally ambiguous were intended to double as interactive bodily extensions, made to be wielded as much as looked at. The recognitions they prompt are vertiginous--a mental sorting through of representational, found-object and fabricated sculptural modes, and between an array of resemblances blurred by their process-declaring surfaces.

The leaning, vertical pole of Refresher, 1981-82, is propped on a circular stand absurdly reinforced by a squat wooden pedestal finished in the same uneven whitewash as the rest of the form and as the deep vitrine--in the style of a shop window--in which it is presented, along with four other 'Adaptives' under the overall title Geneology of the Untouchable, 1997. There is a bottle encased within the top of its standing form from which a prong projects horizontally like an arm or a variation on the shower-head shape at the end of the object next to it, as if the prong must be a means of releasing the 'refreshment' the bottle contains. West is reinventing not only what an art object can be, but what an object can be. The obvious ironies--that these 'untouchables', in their extreme tactility, are eminently touchable; indeed, resemble dysfunctional prostheses, and therefore are potentially meant to be used to touch as much as to be touched; or, of applying the museum etiquette of a vitrine, however hand-made and debased, to objects designed to disrupt the finished art value such a container is meant to enshrine--prove to be only skin-deep, because these are, in fact, earnest reappraisals of the possibility of traditional 'made' sculptural form.

West's anatomising of the perception and reception of art extends to his explorations of artistic networking, a central motif of 'social sculpture' of the 1990s. …

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