Stephan Berg   /   Übersetzung George Frederick Takis
Shit Happens Concerning Stephan Huber´s Exhibition in the Kunstverein Hannover
The motif which occupies Stephan Huber most intensely, alongside that of mountains, is the motif of doors. That is scarcely surprising within an œuvre whose central focus works with the intertwinement of inner and outer space and investigates the psychosocial ambivalence of doors between the poles of security and threat. Ultimately doors can first of all be understood, in a real just as in a symbolic sense, as mediators between inside and outside. The simple, white-painted, wooden doors which Huber most often utilizes mark the bourgeois milieu to which the artist refers in his reflections. It is a world with which we associate, for example, well-kept front lawns and single-family houses, a world which – in its historical development – in the Biedermeier era focused on finding happiness in a cozy corner, which during the 1848 Revolution made a public (and ultimately futile) appeal to be allowed to participate in political power and which in the meantime, as evidenced so amply by such buzzwords as ›cocooning‹ or ›Better Homes and Gardens‹, is trying out a new variation on the retreat into a private sphere.

The simple, almost insignificant normality of Huber’s doors stands in striking contrast to the spectacular and surprising things which are often hidden behind them. In the exhibition at the Kunst-verein Hannover, for which Huber has created a large bundle of new works, one is led through a door that is larger than life, then forced to squeeze through a small door, behind which one finds oneself in a narrow corridor which is lined with stainless steel, resembles an elevator and contains at eye level a glass display case in which we see and hear the beating of a large synthetic heart, ›Saussures Herz (Versorgungsraum)‹ (Saussure’s Heart (Supply Room)), 2001. Further doors are placed like windows in the walls. When they are opened, flames burst forth and consume a building. An avalanche crushes an Alpine shelter as if it were made of matches, and a tidal wave sweeps away a house (compare ›Shit Happens‹ 1-3, video projections, 2001). Furthermore, it is sometimes the case that a door in Huber’s world cannot be opened at all. This is a peculiar moment, a pause, an anticlimax in this scenario of rooms large and small along with their doors which lead – as passages – from interior spaces out into a menacing exterior world that is inimical to people and spaces and which at the same time open into interior spaces that have been rotated around their own axis (›Ich liebe Dich‹ (I Love You), 1983) or that consist of nothing other than various large doors (›Lobby‹, 2001). Like everything in the work of Stephan Huber, the closed and deceptive door is subject to careful calculation. Just as the small and large doors, in front of which we sometimes appear as giants, sometimes as dwarves, inevitably summon up associations with the protagonist in Lewis Carroll’s ›Alice in Wonderland‹, who more than once has problems with the size of doors, so the closed door is also a motif which is familiar to us from fairy tales. The appeal of the sealed door is in this context significantly enhanced by the notorious prohibition against opening it which – for obvious reasons and as a rule with disastrous consequences – is never adhered to.

The horror genre, which in this regard may be understood as one type of pessimistic continuation of the fairy tale, has taken up this motif of closed, forbidden doors in countless variations, most often connected with the idea of a creepily alive, evil house. Stanley Kubrick, who already succeeded with ›2001 – A Space Odyssey‹ (1965-68) in making what remains up to now the most complex and valid science fiction film, set with ›Shining‹ (1980) the standard for future horror films as well, and in so doing gave brilliant treatment to the motif of the psychotic house that gradually takes over its residents more and more until it has either killed them or transformed them into a part of its structure. In ›Shining‹ too a major role is played by a sealed-off space (a room of the gigantic and deserted Overlook Hotel in the snowy reaches of Colorado), and here as well, in conformance with the logic of the horror genre, the space is entered although the warnings against doing so were sufficiently urgent.
The video projections ›Shit Happens‹ 1-3, taken from news broadcasts and transformed into loops, divided among three rooms of the exhibition and each separated from the exhibition rooms by window-sized doors inserted into the walls, play implicitly with this ritual prohibition and its concomitant violation. The absurd position of the doors on the wall is a standing invitation to investigate what lies behind them. Upon opening the respective doors, however, not only is the viewer overwhelmed by a catastrophe at the center of which there is always a house, but furthermore the volume is turned up so dramatically that, no sooner has the door been opened, one wishes to slam it shut again. Just as the tone is activated by the opening of the door, so it is terminated upon the door’s closing. Once again the viewer stands in front of a mute and closed door, behind which everything, or nothing at all, could take place.
The forbidden door plays so large a role in the horror genre also because only by means of prohibition can the height be reached from which one can fall and ritually set in motion the inexorable and ultra-Catholic mechanism of transgression (stepping over the threshold) and punishment (often in the form of death). In ›Shining‹ the passage across the threshold between the permitted and the forbidden, in which there always sounds the distant echo of original sin and the subsequent expulsion from Paradise, is made easier for Danny, the little boy who possesses clairvoyant abilities, in that the door which otherwise is always shut is for once ajar.
The door that is ajar is in a manner of speaking the most unsettling variation among the several possibilities as to how we can encounter doors. Lacking a boundary between within and without or in any case between two distinct spaces, and thereby already existing as an ambivalent figure, it represents in its neither closed nor open position as it were a double ambivalence. Its interior is accessible but withdrawn, and its being slightly open allows no conclusion to be drawn as to which signal it is actually emanating: invitation or warning? Just such a slightly open door is found in Huber’s ›Lobby‹ (2001). At a height of two meters, it is fixed in a position which permits a view of a room which is evidently empty and may not be entered in actuality, whose parquet floor is located on the ceiling and which confronts us, not only with a literally de(ar)ranged room, but also with an anticipation of the dislocated room in ›Ich liebe Dich‹.
In detective novels and films, this ambiguity of a door’s position is leveled out into dramatic unequivocality. Here the slightly open apartment door is most often a clear indication of violent intrusion, hence of disruption and even destruction of a private and intimate order. This summons up a further level of metaphorical signification inherent to the door, namely that of a guarantor of order. The door is the instrument by means of which we attempt literally to shut out the chaos which lurks outside.
In the meantime, actually at the latest with Rimbaud’s famous saying that ›I‹ is an ›Other‹, we live with the experience that also the most intimate order of one’s own self and of the private sphere that represents it are in no way safe from the onslaught of chaos, of the uncontrollable Other. On the contrary, none other than one’s own ego, one’s own abode reveals itself in that essence mirrored by Freud and psychoanalysis as the actual source and refuge of instinctual energies that are first repressed (shut up behind doors) and subsequently set upon us as repressed material in an all the more powerful and pernicious manner. Thus the door becomes a symbol for the sealing off of the ego from the external world. This no longer functions correctly, however, for the reason that the real problem does not lie outside but rather inside the door of a supposedly protected sector. This infiltration by factors of insecurity into the assumed security of the intimate sphere is paradigmatically demonstrated in the work ›Ich liebe Dich‹ from 1983. Offered to view is an (upper) bourgeois domicile in which the nineteenth and twentieth centuries join in a panorama of irrevocable uncertainty. The original parquetry of the Lenbachhaus is to be found along with an Empire armchair upon the wall, the stucco ceiling is stuck along with a chair by Charles Eames to the floor, and a crystal chandelier swings and twists ceaselessly through the uninhabitable room that has been totally transformed into a picture.
The photo sequence "Shining" likewise makes direct reference to this theme. What may be seen is an apparently comfortable, single family dwelling (a modified model of the house of the artist’s parents) colored in pale yellow and located upon a giant chunk of ice among bizarre icebergs that extend and disappear into a flickering fog of ice. The house in a frozen wilderness is a clear reference to the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s film ›Shining‹, completely snowed in and thereby totally cut off from the external world. Solely by the fact that Huber assigns the film title to the photo sequence, the seemingly snug domicile appears to be, not an alternative to the icy atmosphere of an environment so inimical to humanity, but rather a trap. It will most likely not be able or disposed, so we surmise, to deliver in reality the protection that it seems to offer. It is to a lesser extent an image of longing for chilled, no longer revivable remembrance, a modified paraphrase of Caspar David Friedrich’s ›Eismeer‹ (Sea of Ice) elegy concerning hope that has failed once and for all. It is to a greater degree the image of an uncertainty that begins without and that is far from being over within. And yet it is even more as well, namely Homeric laughter at the interpretive offering that sets itself in motion in a visual and multi-referential context. As the sequence of images progresses, the viewer easily recognizes the stage illusion of the event. Image for image, the staging crumbles more and more: the fog coming from dry ice, the Styrofoam icebergs covered with plaster and also the house are revealed as modeled stage constructions which attach absolutely no value to perfect illusion but rather attain their multivalence exactly from the moment of (dis)illusion, the active display of the constructed nature of the construct. Huber loves this sort of false-bottomed strategy. His entire work lives from play with illusion, from the staging of situations with so persuasive an effect that we are instantly compelled to recognize them as reality and yet at the same time are shown that they are undeniably no more than Potemkin villages.
Alongside doors it is mountains that play a major role in this "theatrum mundi" that includes with deliberate calculation in its working arrangements the Baroque proclivity for exaggerated staging. With mountains Huber takes up a motif to which, especially since the eighteenth century, the visual arts and literature have assigned an important meaning. In his contribution to our exhibition catalogue entitled "Vom Gottesberg durchs Höllental ins Skiparadies" (From the Divine Mountain through the Valley of Hell into the Skiers´ Paradise) Peter B. Steiner has delineated the development of this motif in detail. Here it is sufficient to point out that for many centuries mountains were not perceived as aesthetic phenomena but exclusively as a terrible and inimical contrast to the inhabitable and civilized world. In Edmund Burke’s ›Theory of the Sublime‹, the mountain becomes the culmination point of a concept of beauty which establishes itself precisely upon this enmity towards humanity. The snowy white, unattainable peaks radiate an icy beauty whose power lies exactly in the fact that they do not need humanity, that they elucidate the fully independent dominion of a Nature that has been created by God. From this point onward, the representation of mountains pursues a double strategy. On the one hand, it celebrates a notion of Nature whose sublimity lies in its independence from humanity, and on the other hand, it pacifies the immanent terror into an aesthetic image which thereby becomes capable of being consumed, controlled. Even today in every newly opened, spectacular ski resort with its euphemistically named ›ascending aids‹, incisions into the mountainside for the purpose of transportation, there persist the final remains of this paradox consisting of the longing for a sublimity shorn of all reference to humanity and the thwarting of this urge by making the mountain accessible to the greatest possible number of people. Huber´s treatment of mountains makes exact use of this paradox. The mountains to which he makes reference can be either fictional (for example, the mountain in Steven Spielberg´s "Close Encounter of the Third Kind") or topographically precise representations of actual mountain peaks. As plaster models they become exactly those aesthetic constructs, capable of being mastered and arranged on a shelf, to which they have been reduced by the cultural and touristic practice that has been developed over centuries. Their relative size cites a lost sublimity, just as the shining, icy white of uncrossable glacier fields returns ironically in the white plaster of the models as a parallel metaphor to the stucco ornamentation that Huber uses in "Ich liebe Dich" for the ceiling rotated down onto the floor. The Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, enthroned upon a triple-doored supporting structure a good two meters over the viewer in the large skylit room of the Kunstverein, are thus the model of an image of that Nature which itself can only be experienced as a construct. Sublimity, so the artist signals, embodies the idea of an absolute state which can only become real in the picture on the level of ›as if‹, in the form of an ironic quotation.
This form of breaking down the Absolute, of relativizing the Pure, may be found again and again in Huber’s œuvre. On a structural level there is always in addition a mirroring of the artist’s response to the radically absolute demands of Modernism, from Russian Suprematism all the way to Minimalism. Huber makes repeated use of the principles of these movements, for example reduction, serialism, addition, ready-made, etc., but at the same time he brings them into contact with aesthetic principles such as illusionism, narration and psychology, which seem to stand in sharp contrast to the first-named group but offer as well a strong reflection of Surrealism in its Belgian variety. The more complex the handling of individual work elements, the greater is the yield for the artist in terms of aesthetic impact. The individual works first become valid as paradoxical hybrids of signification. The plaster model of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau thus at the same time makes reference to the regional, biographical background of the artist and thereby exists as reflections on the artist’s location, on seemingly unbroken mimetic representation, on autonomous sculpture as well as critical evaluation of sculpture, and last but not least, on illusionism and its simultaneous deconstruction.

The measurement of Huber’s world follows exactly this logic of the discontinuous, the different. Fourteen tripartite maps have been placed in glass cases that each rest upon a cylindrical steel base. The crowded physical arrangement of the display cases creates a labyrinthine situation that denies the viewer any overview. Their presentation makes reference on the one hand to the upright television sets of the Fifties, on the other hand to the form of three-paneled altars. The maps themselves are Lamda prints of extremely accurate United States military maps that have been extensively altered by digital means. This work blends the highest possible graphical objectivity promised by maps with the cryptic subjectivity of an artistic cartography that is primarily interested in represented individually meandering chains of association and allusive backgrounds. It is only at a first glance that the viewer has the conviction of standing in front of the world as he knows it in cartographical terms; a second look reveals nothing but contradictions. The Bodensee along with the Westallgäu, where strangely enough there are only places which can be associated with Maria, is suddenly located in the middle of China. Islands bear the names of the titles of novels, entire countries and hybrid continents are dedicated to Thomas Pynchon, Arno Schmidt and Ludwig II. Concentration camps merge with German cities, topographical structures turn out to be the head of E.T.A. Hoffmann, groups of islands become districts of recent rock music, from the Dead Kennedys to Portishead. We make our way past a map of "Massacres", a map of "Literary Worlds" or a map of "Firmaments", and in the end discover traces of the mastermind Huber, who with this work, just as in his entire ´uvre, again engages at the same time in world- and self-interpretation. It is always a look of hybridization which Huber directs towards the world. In the psychogenetic space of his mental mappings. There is a blending of literary, social, political and geographical spaces into a hyperspace of permanent differentiation. Huber himself entitles this work "Das Labyrinth in meinem Kopf, dargestellt als Glanz und Elend des XX. Jahrhunderts anhand von Kartografie als Projekt im Fortgang" (The Labyrinth in my Head, Represented as the Glory and Misery of the Twentieth Century on the Basis of Cartography as Work in Progression), (2001). The title clearly indicates the great extent to which the artist conceives of his works as a concretization, as a materialization of his influences and thought patterns. The head of the artist is the spatial labyrinth which we walk through in a form condensed down into a ›7,5 Zi.-Whg.‹ (Seven-and-a-Half-Room Apartment) and which confronts us with spaces and situations which carry within themselves the developmental potential of already in the next instant being entirely different or existing in an entirely different place.
The "progression" of which Huber speaks is an essential element of his œuvre. As a categorical imperative he protects each work from becoming statutory, and at the same time he offers the possibility of utilizing already extant works or portions of works through combination or extension. Thus in the room "Garderobe" (Cloakroom), for example, we happen upon the installation ›Arbeiten im Reichtum, Nr. 7‹ (Works in Riches, Nr. 7), already created in 1983 and displaying an oversized felt hat that lies upon several suitcases and toolboxes placed closely side by side. The work transforms itself not only according to the varying spatial contexts in which it is exhibited. In Hanover, for example, it is located in the first room and thus becomes the allegorical prelude to a journey undertaken by the visitor, and it serves simultaneously as an advance announcement of the map room. The hat functions here as a metaphor for the ego, as the representative of an individual in whom are mirrored not only the artist but also the viewer. Furthermore, the selection of suitcases and containers changes and each time is partially adapted to the current situation. Huber treats the motifs of mountains and doors in a similar fashion. Both function as modules which are capable of being inserted into ever fresh and varied contexts and which thereby may be read anew in their respective metaphorical potential.
Whatever else occurs here, however, it is never the case that the allegorical roundelay of spectacular and quiet, of exceedingly dramatic and reduced, introverted spatial sequences and interventions fits together into a story capable of being consistently narrated. Just as with a puzzle that resists being completely solved, so there are always a few parts of the total picture that arises which resist being inserted. Disturbance turns out to be more important than congruity. The two fundamental sources from which Huber creates his traversable pictures, the ›reservoir of daily life‹ (Huber) and the material drawn from the Baroque for an allegorical language of imagery, are synthesized in his works in a manner which thwarts every attempt to expel ambiguity. Whereas the possible interpretations of Baroque allegory, for example, can be precisely determined from the contemporary vantage point of art history, so that an overabundance of metaphorical signification can be constantly kept in check, Huber makes use of these topoi exactly for the purpose of rendering them once again unclear. Huber’s narratives put their faith in an imagistic language whose metaphorical progression is deliberately loaded so fully with paradox that it reaches exactly that frontier of semantic, psychological, art-historical and sociological complexity where, without ex- or imploding, it maintains a presence as a metamorphosing question. The collision of individual parts separated from each other at the maximum possible distance lights up a shower of sparks in which the concept of an easily named, causally developable world is burned away in favor of the radiance of the sparks themselves.
In the final room we stand in front of three small, sepia-colored photos, "Kirschblüte 1952" (Cherry Blossoms 1952), (2001). They show the home of Huber’s parents in close-up, at mid-distance and finally from the vast remove of a bird´s-eye perspective. Smoke climbs from the chimney, and in front of the house a small cherry tree blooms in delicate pink. This could be an idyllic image, but the mood is contradicted, as in "Shining", by the context, for around the sharp-gabled house a wilderness of craters extends outward. In front of the background of the ruined expanses of a bombed-out German city, into which Huber has digitally inserted his parental home, there appears the - superficially - serene and homely cherry blossom idyll (whose title, moreover, makes reference to Huber’s date of birth) as a kitschy, overblown wish projection, without thereby speaking the language of unmitigated pessimism. Ultimately the house would not only admit interpretation as a false stage-set in front of an actually ruinous background, but would allow just as well the contrary perspective of the bombed-out wasteland as a stage-set nightmare in front of an intact idyll. And finally, shortly before the exit, we are confronted with a further small door upon the wall at a medium height. Towards the viewer who opens it there crashes the thunderous projection of a tidal wave that sweeps away an entire house ("Shit Happens 3", 2001). A catastrophe, but also an extremely impressive image. Terribly beautiful.
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