A short essay on Lothar Hempel … from a few years back

An essay from 2006 on the work of Lothar Hempel, written for the catalogue accompanying his Douglas Hyde Gallery exhibition ‘Casanova’.



Lothar Hempel: The Crystal World

“Rosemary had the detached false-and-exalted feeling of being on a set
and guessed that everyone else present had that feeling too…”(i)


There are moments — aren’t there? — amid the doubt and delirium induced by Lothar Hempel’s ornately oblique arrangements of objects and appropriated images, when we might be seduced by something more akin to … clarity. Certainly, as Liam Gillick has identified, there is a ‘strange stillness’(ii) to each meticulously staged mise en scene: however disconcerting and dream-like these flamboyantly allusive artworks may be, they often remain ‘reserved’ in a curious way, held in a state of patient, presented readiness. But there is more, or indeed less, that our attention could be drawn to, since at times an impulse towards strict shaping and ordering seems strongly evident — here and there, now and then, we might sense a drive towards something fundamental, direct, strenuously formal. Look for instance, at how desire, fantasy, a yearning for endlessness and excess are all easily signaled in the title of the recent work Casanova (Always in Circles) — one of a number drawing loosely on Federico Fellini’s baroque life of the legendary Venetian libertine — while at the same time these careful, guiding words offer a frustrated vision of regularity, repetition, unsurpassable limits. And look too at how, from certain angles, there seems to be a shrewd simplicity to the core components of this highly controlled but cryptic assemblage: a modest, magenta-coloured cube supports a horizontal bar tailed with a triangular metal fin; on this long line a solitary drum rests on its side, its circular surface facing outwards; in turn, this balancing form is crowned with a grandly top-heavy hexagonal photograph that glows hotly from a lurid, centrally fixed bulb. So many shapes, solids, points in space: this is a reflection on romantic abandon that is also pure geometry, a piling up of basic forms from practical science.

Yet how quickly we could move away from such mathematical exactness: how quickly precariousness, openness, movement, all become urgently apparent and important. For if (given the recurring attention to ostensibly ‘simple’ forms) there is a kind of clarity to Hempel’s work, it is surely, in a manner appropriate to one of his favoured motifs, a crystal clarity: his art involving complex internal symmetries and repeating patterns, offering up polished but barely penetrable surfaces, while at the same time allowing for infinite refraction and reflection — what is physically fixed gaining an illusion of dazzling flux as the eye begins to dance over the intersecting planes and the mind is sent one way, then another and another, vainly seeking stable, manageable points of connection. Elaborate structures such as Casanova (Always in Circles), and its more straightforwardly titled neighbour in the Douglas Hyde Gallery, Casanova, might be imagined in this (crystalline) light as far from sculpturally ‘complete’: rather they seem to be set on ‘pause’, temporarily stalled and tense with potential energy. In the former work, the odd inclusion of a set of bicycle handlebars adds a literal evocation of motion to the measured combination of geometrical units; so, in concert with the aforementioned metallic ‘fin’, the shape of the entire composition is bizarrely transformed into something like a primitive and wholly impractical flying machine. (Related alteration and embarrassment of the rigidly mechanical can be seen elsewhere in Hempel’s selection for this exhibition: Give and Take, for example, conceptually connects an inoperative combustion engine to diverse images and allusions pertaining to the performing body — somehow unsettling any standard idea of functionality, confusing the necessary mechanical relationship between input and output, while also, perhaps, associatively gesturing towards a Deleuzian notion of art as desiring machine). In Casanova, unlikely connections continue: the largest of three glistening golden cubes is capped with a white fur rug that offers soft support for a simple wooden sled upon which, once again, a dramatic hexagonal photograph is vertically presented — here the image is of dancers poised for precision movement, and like Hempel’s work more generally, it is a scene tautly primed for theatrical incident. That we can only speculate on the specific ‘meaning’ of this image and its accompanying concatenation of objects is, in a sense, ‘clear’: consider, crucially, how the face of the central, male dancer is radically obliterated, replaced by an inexplicable, startlingly surreal explosion of crystal forms. We are left to conjure a narrative for this ravishingly disturbing dream vision, forced to make our own fresh connections (as the psychoanalyst Adam Philips has somewhere noted, dreams themselves may not be meaningful, but they are good at making meanings from(iii)). Encouraged to perform in these unscripted scenes ourselves, to conceive of our own means of imaginatively elaborating on what we have encountered, we must leave behind the hope of rational resolution: instead, the play’s the thing.

What, then, might all this ‘action’ amount to? Thinking about the back-and-forth movement — the restless, unpredictable ‘give and take’ — between ordering principles and intellectual or affective freedom, I am reminded in passing of how Hempel’s recent mid-career retrospective at Le Magasin in Grenoble was entitled Alphabet City — again a name that draws significantly on a powerful conflict between systems and potentially chaotic or liberating situations. And, by further free association, I recall more incidentally (in this context, ‘incidentals’ are not merely beside the point) a moment in Susan Sontag’s landmark essay ‘Against Interpretation’ where she eloquently rages against the art critical instinct towards ‘plucking a set of elements (the X, the Y, the Z, and so forth) from the whole work’ so that the satisfied interpreter may confidently say ‘Look, don’t you see that X is really — or really means — A? That Y is really B? That Z is really C?’(iv)) . Such practices of reading involve, Sontag says ‘an overt contempt for appearances’. Hempel’s Alphabet City, may expect from us greater commitment to illusion, allowing for a more open-ended performance, more dynamic movement. Reflecting on Hempel’s numerous articulations and implications of movement — musing on that redundant bicycle part in Casanova (Always in Circles) or on the black and white bicycle image we see in Encounter in the Night (featuring a female cyclist with a cat’s head) it may be worth noting how Marcel Duchamp thought of his own absurd use of a bicycle wheel as, principally, a “distraction”(v). “I enjoyed looking at it,” he confessed, “just as I enjoy looking at the flames dancing in a fireplace.” Yet for all the mischievous insouciance of these words, the unorthodox imaginative pleasure taken by Duchamp in an “opening of avenues on other things than material life” is, of course, somewhat more than trivial. ‘Distraction’ may be a kind of refusal, a means of resisting the fixed, the resolved, the definitive. This is both a liberating and an inevitably troubling proposition in Hempel’s oeuvre. The vividly puzzling stage-sets into which we enter are both enjoyably exuberant and, in equal measure, melancholic: allusions to Casanova, for instance, offer not only a sense of adventurous and amorous possibility, but also imply a lasting and tormenting hunger; while the mysterious, charged objects such as the wooden sled wedged into place within one work, could send us sliding in the direction of references that speak of crisis (Joseph Beuys’s surivival kits might come to mind) or painful, inevitable loss (can we avoid recalling Charles Foster Kane’s private regrets about ‘Rosebud’?(vi)).

In the crystal world of Lothar Hempel’s art, we cannot be sure what will prevail. There are intimations of purity, simplicity, and also of infinitely complex creative ‘becoming’. There is the immediacy and intimacy of the thrilling present moment. And there is sadness: the sorrow of time passing. We are holding each other tight. We breathe each other’s breath. We wait for the end of the night(vii).

(i) F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night. (London: Penguin Twentieth Century Classics, 1998), p. 83. The line is used by Michael Bracewell as an epigraph to his book Remake Remodel: Becoming Roxy Music (London: De Capo Press, 2008), a band whom he argues conjured a world that resembled ‘a hitherto hidden and instantly desirable demi-monde, a place of declamatory style and sophistication, part cabaret, part carnival, simultaneously futuristic and archaic, but swaggeringly self-assured in its balancing of contradictions.’ In looking up the Fitzgerald quote in my own copy of Tender is the Night — unopened in ten years — I find the text bookmarked on the exact page I am looking for.
2. Liam Gillick, ‘Drunken Masters: Lothar Hempel and the Resistant Street’ in Lothar Hempel: Alphabet City (Zurich: JRP/Ringier, 2007), p. 53
3. Having recalled this line, I am now becoming convinced that I must have dreamed the essay in which I imagined it appeared. Should you wish to find the source, try Phillips’s recent collection of essays Side Effects (London: Penguin, 2006).
4. Susan Sontag, ‘Against Interpretation’ in Against Interpretation (London: Vintage, 1994), p. 5. The subsequent quote can be found on page 6.
5. These comments can be found in Anne D’Harnoncourt and Kynaston McShine, eds., Marcel Duchamp (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1973), p. 270
6. I myself was slow to make these connections and must humbly acknowledge the assistance here of Emma Lucy O’Brien.
7. These are the concluding lines of an elegant, elliptical text by the artist that accompanied the exhibition at the Douglas Hyde Gallery.

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