It’s hard to argue with the startling statement of two–hopefully–plastic turds plopped on delicately ornate dollhouse beds. Hung purposefully a little too high on the wall, viewers have to crane their necks to peek at the poop. However, nothing quite prepares you for the confrontation of the appalling yet appealing combination of the uncanny and the abject.
Certainly packing a nauseating punch, Zurich-based artist Mathis Altmann’s hilariously titled sculpture Upper Class Fuckery not only brings a new meaning to shitting the bed, but it also exemplifies Altmann’s link between bodily functions, bugs and decay with architectural spaces. As you know, dearest Filthy Dreams readers, I am quite a fan of both the uncanny and the abject so Altmann’s exploration of the two plays to my best–ok, maybe worst–aesthetic adorations.
His first institutional solo show in the United States, Altmann’s Foul Matters, which sadly closed today, is appropriately located in the basement exhibition space of the Swiss Institute. With his longtime interest in industrial materials and constructed interiors, Altmann’s newly created architectural sculptures pair perfectly with the roughshod look of the Institute’s basement with its exposed brick, stone and other materials at the base of their white walls. I mean, you can’t spell debasement without basement, right?
Ranging from a plastic trashcan fitted with an elaborate faux stained-glass door to an intricate yellow house with lush red carpeting and a mousetrap and a two story interior filled with dead flies, Altmann’s queasy sculptures take inspiration from both dollhouses and miniature architectural models. While either can invoke a creeping sense of the uncanny, there is also an unquestionable gendered aspect to these admittedly dorky hobbies. Architectural miniatures are seen as a more respectable masculine dabbling while dollhouses are feminized and childlike. By recalling both these hobbyist art forms, Altmann blurs the lines between masculine and feminine, allowing his work to take on a more universal resonance with the body at large.
In addition to the precious imagery of dollhouses and miniatures, Altmann also showcases his longtime fascination with industrial infrastructure. Pipes, wires, insulation and trash make up the bottom of many of his sculptures. In particular, the pipes seem to represent the typically invisible methods constructed to deal with hygiene and human waste. For example in T.P. Fair, Altmann’s toilet paper-strewn scene depicts our reliance on and obsession with cleanliness and commercial sanitary products as unsightly pipes lie below.
Altmann’s investigation of pipes reminds me of the Nine Inch Nails video “Pinion,” which still leaves me shaken and traumatized. In the video, the camera follows black water flushing down a toilet through the pipe system and eventually ends with the pipe attached to a person in a gimp suit who is presumably drowning. Deeply upsetting, the video’s combination of the body and industrial materials resonates with Altmann’s sculptural work, as well as his harnessing of the abject.
In “Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection,” Julia Kristeva notes, “It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite” (4).
Similar to Kristeva’s notion of the abject, it is not Altmann’s evocation of the unclean itself that renders his sculptures abject. Instead, it is his composite of the pristine outer dollhouse or miniature with decrepit dirty pipes, which strangely and disturbingly recalls the human body itself.
There’s, of course, a saying that the body is a temple. Conversely, LSD guru Timothy Leary described the body as a cheap suitcase. However, in Altmann’s hands, the body becomes a barren dollhouse, full of hidden but filthy pipes. This, as Kristeva would say, “does not respect borders, positions or rules.”
Altmann’s use of abjection and its destabilization of order can also be seen in his sofa sculpture Untitled. Propped on its end with purposefully dim lighting, the sofa is easily missed, appearing like any ragged brown leather sofa. On closer inspection, the sofa is covered from top to bottom with mealworm exoskeletons. A shocking surprise, the mealworms inspire an almost immediate involuntary recoiling from fear of contagion or infestation. The sofa also convincingly recalls a moment almost every New Yorker knows: giving wide berth to a mattress on the street that might have bed bugs.
However disgusting, the tons of tiny ribbed forms are not actually the creatures themselves. Like Kristeva’s definition of the abject, these exoskeletons portray an in-betweenness. They are, at once, the ghost of a body and an empty shell. An important symbolic distinction, the exoskeletons are, in a sense, homes without a body. Not only are these exoskeletons essentially useless, but so is the sofa since it is exhibited upright.
This obsession with vacuity and, to some extent, failure runs throughout the exhibition. Subversive and absurd, Altmann refuses to give the viewers a resolution–all the sculptures only lead to more questions. In fact, the entire exhibition is set up for viewer disappointment. Leading the viewer through the periphery of the gallery space through deft lighting and installation, the apotheosis of Foul Matters is Hygiene and Commerce. An opulent-looking building painted with a vibrant red, the sculpture invites viewers to glance inside–only to discover that the building is vacant.
By ending the exhibition with an elaborately decorated interior with nothing inside, Altmann successfully constructs an absolutely nihilistic gesture–one that resembles Beckett’s adoration of failure or Macbeth’s famed positive life affirmation: “It is a tale. Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing.” Not that Altmann’s work signifies nothing, for nothingness–as Foul Matters shows–can be quite a powerful aesthetic and critical tool.