I spent most of yesterday afternoon in the company of twelve misshapen old men. Most were blind and at least one was deaf. Their deformities were unsettling: some had had their eyes gouged out of their sockets, the pupils of others had contracted into beads. In one the eyes were covered by what seemed to be a film of scales. The eyes of another were visible only through a slit in his merged upper and lower lids. The deaf man bore a slight protrusion of undifferentiated flesh where one would expect to see ears. The faces were marked by lumps, hollows and gashes, like a delta ravaged by a violent flood.
Gradually the initial shock of their disfigurement wore off and I could look at them more closely (although I had the unnerving feeling that I was the one being scrutinized). They were less ugly than I had first thought, or perhaps I had just become numbed to their repulsiveness. What struck me more was the loneliness they projected, their physical and spiritual exhaustion.
I couldn’t imagine that any of these men had wives waiting for him at home, if he had ever been married at all. I thought of him sitting at a table in a darkened basement kitchen, listening to the sounds of life in the other apartments wafting down the lightwell, a mother summoning her children to supper, a hungry cat, the guests arriving at a dinner party, the voices mostly muffled but audible enough for the man to make out a word here and there, and there were enough words for him to stitch together a story that would kept them company until he hobbled to bed. This sense of utter abandonment in these figures was far more disturbing than their misshapenness.
The twelve heads, cast in bronze and set at eye-level on plinths along three walls of the Portalakis gallery space in downtown Athens, make up Thomas Schütte’s Wichte. The arrangement of the busts, but also the Classicist memorial aesthetic of the sculptures themselves, suggested a Ruhmeshalle, though if so then a Valhalla of wretchedness.
Wicht is usually translated as imp; in Germanic legend the gnome-sized creature is considered to possess magical powers that can be used to help or to harm human beings, though in most cases the Wicht would just as much avoid the company of men entirely (it helps that he can make himself invisible). But if these were imps, they didn’t seem the kind that enjoyed playing practical jokes. They didn’t seem capable of enjoying anything actually. And though we may know that the prankster at heart is a lonely soul desperate for the approval if not the love of others but afraid to seek it directly, the isolation and resignation inscribed in the faces of these old men is of a different order entirely. If they are jokers, the twists of fate they wreak are of the cruelest sorts.
As a child I believed in angels. I remember even squishing up to the side of my school desk chair to leave room for my guardian angel. I was told he was my intercessor, though I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant, but I knew he was there “to light, to guard, to rule and guide”. Unfortunately I didn’t have much evidence of this. I still seemed to recite the same list of sins every time I went to confession.
I grew up and stopped believed in angels. But at times I have wondered if we all don’t have our own personal imp seeking out opportunities for mischief. I don’t mean the devil or his minions that lead us to rage or hate or envy. I’m thinking instead of the incidences of venality committed without deliberation or consent, the imps of insecurity, inexperience, and ineptitude that goad us into tripping ourselves up. We let an argument escalate, or even stoke it, though we secretly know we will regret doing so later. We take more risk than is warranted. We ignore the signs of a faltering relationship or a gathering confrontation. We fail to see. We fail to listen carefully. With their hollow sockets and half-formed ears, Schütte’s Wichte are apt personifications of our self-righteousness and competitiveness, our fear of rejection and fear of failing, of all the carelessness and insecurity that blinds and deafens us to others.
Schütte has deftly undermined the concept of memorial art wit in other works— the heroes commemorated in his Kleiner Respekt, for example, are a trio of ill-clad vagrants. But though there this is an element of subversion to the pieces—the Hall of Fame presentation, the plinths, the fact that the busts are a set of twelve, a portentous a number as they come (think: the Twelve Minor Prophets), viewing these disfigured old men was a troubling experience. It was more than wit.
Schütte is one of the leading artists of his generation in Germany. An important retrospective of his work is now being held at the Reina Sofia, but for those of us in Athens who are not likely to make to Madrid, the exhibition at the Portalakis Gallery is a remarkable opportunity to see some of the artist’s work. Along with the Wichte are other sculptures (a set of his Klotzköpke and a pair of Zombies) and the artist’s drawings of architectural models, including one of a Model for a Hotel, which the artist realized in an actual 5m x 4.5m x 5m model of brilliant colored glass for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalfar Square in 2007 and more sculptures.
Image: Thomas Schütte, Wicht (2006)