Thomas Schütte, Faces and Figures
Serpentine Gallery, 25 September - 18 November 2012
Review by Henry Little
Concerned emphatically with the representation of power in the institutional portrait and the monumental statue, and more particularly that unashamedly ubiquitous form of power - the old white man - Thomas Schütte reveals not only the inherent absurdity of this system of presenting authority, but also its inevitable impotence in the hands of time.
Schütte’s exhibition mines the wholly contingent efficacy of portraits to stage a series of elaborate art historical jokes which expose the laughable attempts of power to canonise itself. Pivotal to this device is the predictable truth that without prior knowledge of a sitter’s identity the person depicted falls back into an anonymous mulch - just another tired, old white man, grinning more or less benignly at those below.
Two series of works, ‘Innocenti’ (1994) and ‘‘Jerks’’ (2006), have been installed so as to ensure easy correlation with the rows and rows of institutional portraits which adorn the dining halls, common rooms, libraries and board rooms of universities, civil bodies, law firms and any number of organisations motivated by the impulse to faithfully record in paint, stone or metal the likenesses of those men who have attained prominent positions within. In the main rotunda space a series of close-up black and white bust-length photographs of Schütte’s smaller statuettes, modelled with his characteristic flair for the darkly comical and the enchantingly absurd, are arranged in a solemn ring, several metres above head height. The effect is intentionally and unmistakably institutional. Where Schütte’s faces are anonymous in the extreme, the institutional portraits which serve as the subject of this work are often only made anonymous by the passing of time. Either way the result is more or less the same: male grimaces of power and authority, rendered limp, impotent and superfluous to current requirements. The work directly addresses this commonplace codification of history in the painted likenesses of the old, greying men at the top.
Dominating the same room is ‘Vater Staat’ (Father State) (2010), another anonymous, but now monumental, manifestation of male hegemony similarly reduced to impotence. With no arms the statue becomes decidedly phallic but silly for being so. Rusted to look worn and corroded the work resembles so many public sculptures, both at home and abroad, which record the achievements of this man or that man, since lost to the mists of history and ignored on a daily basis by almost everyone. Outside, in the park, the comparably monumental ‘United enemies’ (2011) stride purposefully away from one another. The decidedly simple conceit of enemies forced into a kind of three-legged race is inherently comical. Blown up to such a large scale, in bronze and patinated, the sculptures are hilariously effective if only because any other sculpture in this genre - solemn generals, erstwhile politicians, earnest men of letters and science, lofty monarchs - are so full of gravitas where this pair of pairs is so clearly farcical. It is along these lines of enquiry - ridicule entwined with the tropes of veneration - that Schütte so productively examines and scrutinises our impulse to record and immortalise.