The words of Austrian artist Michael Baumgartner’s exhibition title, ‘We Look’, are printed on tarpaulin in large black capital letters and hung on separate walls at The Black Mariah. ‘LOOK’ confronts us, an injunction demanding that we pay attention; ‘WE’ seems perhaps less assured, suggesting an attempt to conjure a collective through a speech act. In any case, this title addresses the viewer directly, hailing him or her as part of a group rather than simply as an individual. Alongside this piece the show presented nine maquettes on plinths of varying heights and widths, an audio work, and a photograph.
Maquettes have traditionally allowed sculptors to test out ideas and forms, and Baumgartner’s works are one-to-ten scale models for larger pieces. The models are primarily constructions of wood and mirrors; they present smooth, finished surfaces and were fabricated by a carpenter with whom the artist has had a long-term working relationship. They reference different kinds of architectural features and spaces. Some pieces are opaque and closed when seen from certain angles and, though small, have a monumental aspect. Others are seemingly more playful and open: we can look through windows into some of the pieces, while others employ periscopes, making clear the preoccupation with point-of-view and the framing of vision.
As we look our gaze is refracted and reflected through a hall of mirrors. In the accompanying text Baumgartner makes reference to Jacques Lacan and his celebrated theorization of ‘The Mirror Stage’ – the idea that the young infant, before having acquired a stable sense of self or the capacity to speak, jubilantly recognizes his or her own mirror image. This image is more unified, upright and coherent than the infant in fact experiences itself to be. For Lacan, this is an important step in the formation of the ego. But the mirrors in Baumgartner’s works do not reflect back a coherent whole; they more often than not break up the image of the viewer.
The pieces also seem to have an optimum viewing position and, if such a position is adopted, the mirror effects break up the viewer’s reflection into parts. At the exhibition’s opening the artist showed my friend and I the preferred position from which to look at 5 Figures, a wood and mirror construction, suggestive of a guillotine. If scaled-up and built, the structure would become the platform for a dancer, and through the placement of mirrors each viewer would see another viewer’s head in place of the performer’s. The pieces, then, are maquettes for environments for performances; this raises the question of how exactly we are meant to confront the work. Are we meant to view them as objects in themselves, or to imagine their manifestations with performers; are they models for stage-sets, or are they sculptures?
The contextualizing material for the show speaks to the viewer in a casual, conversational tone, opening with the words, ‘You asked me about Martin Buber’. This textual supplement signals a relationship between the artworks and philosophical influences. Indeed, there is a demand in the field of contemporary art to legitimate artwork with reference to theory and philosophy, and Baumgartner’s statement acknowledges this but at the same time does not entirely play the game, His tone is too relaxed, it does not strive for seriousness, he name-checks Lacan but confesses to often not understanding the writing, enjoying it instead as poetry. The same strategy of equivocating between sincerity and irony is at play in his use of kitsch. For example, Stable, a tasteful wood and mirror construction in a minimalist style, is inhabited by two small plastic horses; plastic wrap is employed to signify liquid in Fountain, (the title signalling to Duchamp’s infamous 1917 urinal); Twins, a minimal construction of mirrors slotted into a wooden base, is occupied by two tacky miniature baby dolls; Hell’s mirrors are backed in hot pink.
Komm, an audio work made in collaboration with Black Mariah director Ian McInerney, plays from behind a partition made by the artist Mollie Anna King. This structure, corporate minimalist in style, marks out an administrative space within the gallery. It is made up of different lengths of horizontal and vertical grey painted metal slats and one horizontal, coloured plexiglass panel. It is technically a separate space, although its openness allows viewers to look at other viewers or at the gallery administrators. Komm is a low-fi, looped vocal piece of approximately three and a half minutes in length. The phrases ‘I and Thou’ and ‘Ich und Du’ are repeated at various volumes and pitches, and this has both a disturbed and ridiculous aspect, the vocal sometimes breaking into coughing and laughter. It illustrates the way minimal repetition produces rhythm and exemplifies the tendency of Baumgartner’s work to oscillate between different tones.
Inside Manhole was hung above the ubiquitous Apple lap-top which sat on the office desk. It consists of a photograph of the artist in a mirrored environment, a full-size realization of one of his maquettes. It has a theatrical quality, the artist seeming to stare directly out at the viewer, his skin reflecting the blue fluorescent lighting and his limbs holding stylized postures. The space is confusing and ambiguous, the photographer’s reflection appearing small and upside down in the top right hand corner of the image.
There is a tension in Baumgartner’s exhibition between features that seem very finished, and looser, more casual and throwaway elements that worry the pristine surfaces. The show’s meaning alters on different visits. It had a performative aspect at the opening, encouraged by the interactions between multiple viewers. On another visit, King’s partition/ artwork, in conjunction with two young art administrators, served to accentuate the bureaucratic function of the space, and the hallowed art atmosphere receded. There is a tentative aspect to Baumgartner’s artworks, which trouble gallery protocols; they don’t seem entirely confident in relation to their position as exceptional objects, and highlight just how contingent the status of the artwork is. We look, this show suggests, but a network of discursive frameworks and structures always underpins what we see.