As his quest for a state-of-the-art collective mythology points to the failure of objecthood, Pablo Larios reads the works of YNGVE HOLEN as sentient beings concerned with frustrated circulation, technological growth and associative networking.
The frantic, future-minded temporality that binds our life/work/play matrix makes it so that statements, like art, about “the state” of anything likely seem just-out-of-date the moment they enter circulation. Contemporaneity stales very quickly. As a corrective measure, critical assessments—including this sentence—begin to sound like forecasts, while earnest articulations of our networked, Web N.0 state attain the slightly embarrassing, tell-all candor of, say, a TED Talk. This is not a caveat. The sculptures of Norwegian-born, Berlin-based Yngve Holen take a contradictory point of departure from the fact that the collective mythologies of our time are no longer articulated within the novel, the film, or even the single work of art. Holen’s works—with their recurring motifs of frustrated circulation, technological growth (then interruption), and associative networking— suggest that these mythologies are to be found; but, quizzically, in fragmented, complex, interactive, self-updating, and programmatically addictive things such as apps, smartphones, video games, drones, slot machines and home appliances. Their processes mirror our own, and technology—as in the heart-like 3-D printed raw chicken scan and washing machine turbine in Holen’s sculpture Stomp (2011)—has, of late, become an exercise in animism. Hollywood’s obsession with the appliance—cell-phones serve as a plot cruces in a critical mass of blockbusters over the past decade—is evidence that it is perhaps in Silicon Valley and the trade fair, not in Hollywood itself or even the art world, that imaginative progress is at its most streamlined. It is quaint now to look back at Barthes, in his Mythologies (1957), deriving from a magazine image one coherent, structural, collective truth. The nature of collectivity has changed; we are more likely to catch glimpses of it on a frenzied image board like 4Chan than in a Lana del Rey music video dutifully “decoded” by some cultural critic. This shift in collectivity also affects what it means to view works such as Holen’s: state-of-the-art consumer appliances, 3D printed objects, often heaped up or aligned, then undermined or split open: the appliance, as if Photoshopped “IRL,” often arrives fragmented or in shards. Works refuse to simply puppet a larger societal narrative (technology, the Internet, the “social”) but begin to effectuate, trample upon and respond to it on its own. The difficulty, and looming strangeness, of these works arises from the fact that they’re both object and subject of critique. Such a work is not a “mirror” to reflect, a “lamp” to illumine nor a “code” to be deciphered: it’s as if the mirror, the lamp, and the cipher have begun to walk around, hands in pockets, talking and shrugging at the exasperating strangeness of their relation, before finally self-destructing. Hence the animistic effect I’ve alluded to in Holen’s works, the sense that they’re supernaturally sentient: instant remnants of an age they know to be our own.
Parasagittal Brain, exhibited at Johan Berggren, Malmö in 2011, is a series of waterrelated appliances—corporate water coolers, electric kettles, Brita water filters—that Holen cut in half using a water jet. The resulting displays, lined up in rows, look as though they have self-generated or multiplied before being disemboweled: anything but the transparency water might otherwise suggest. The title “parasagittal”—a medical term for a plane that bisects a body’s ventral and dorsal sides—is playfully esoteric and somewhat redundant (parasagittal is a version of a normal “sagittal” plane). The illusory, friendly cohesiveness of a product is broken open and exposed by an analogy between commodity and human body, or—by extension—art-making as a kind of surgery. Contradiction ensues: if the artist’s hand is a kind of surgical cut, then why is the apparatus prostrate and useless, and not repaired in any medical sense? As the works look helpless and beheaded, they become brain-like, evocative of pockets, circuitry and chambers, even if they seem to be “alive;” even this reading, though, as Holen’s title implies, is goofy and ironic, one of imprecise projection and not surgical deduction. It’s merely a broken product, after all.
In “Sensitive To Detergent,” his 2011 exhibition at Autocenter, Berlin, Holen amassed broken car parts, 3-D scans of meat, and detergent-related products into heaps: towels, bleach bottles, a warped car bumper. The delicately balanced piles seemed anti-narrative, darkly funny, even slapstick. The effect was metaphor-driven, linking the circulation of commodities (a rotating washing machine drum, a state-of-the-art appliance going round and round in some appliance ecology), the rotation of a wheel, and an analogical remnant of a human: the 3D prints of a chicken breast who was just along for the ride and who, for some reason, turned ghostly and white, the way a character in a video game flickers pale before disappearing. One could call this amalgamation a “network.” But doesn’t the network, as a metaphor of connectivity, presuppose a state of cultural fragmentation? It’s not clear that any network has actually made something of the fragments, either; the illusory communion promised by the network is indistinguishable from a solipsistic feedback loop, fragments looking at fragments.
Circles, cleanliness, spin cycles, chickens, tires—these playfully allude to conceptual structures like cybernetics or techno-utopianism, all while exposing their creases and contradictions. One reads into the “network” of objects our obsessions with the rotation of imagery (the “spin cycle” of commodities), the weight of advertising (the chicken is stamped by a Mercedes sign), and our beloved, befuddling hermeneutics of the product. Viewing, in such sculptures as in the market, becomes equal parts deduction and contradiction. Holen’s circle motif conjures closed circuits and self-circulating signs (a chicken, it is remembered, can still walk after its head is cut off ); yet the Autocenter show was also a comment on abrasion (“sensitive to detergent”). The ideal user-viewer buys the product and remains numbly happy with it, despite its lifeless functionality, the fact that it chafes him or her. “The artist,” wrote Walter Gropius in 1923, “has the ability to breathe life into the lifeless product of the machine.” This relation—the artist fusing with industry, animating the “lifeless product”—is actually not as Promethean as it sounds. Gropius was writing to the right-wing Thuringian state government, who was pressuring the Bauhaus to bring a technological-industrial slant to its thinking. Holen—who studied architecture at the Angewandte Kunst in Vienna and sculpture at Frankfurt’s Städelschule—is familiar with the tensions between art and its applications.
The simplest designs often hide disconcerting political realities. The completion of a clean idea—a clean cut—does not come without some gristle to pull out from your teeth, some loophole or fine print. Holen’s are defeatist, contradictory, self-sabotaging gestures, pointing to the failure of a coherent objecthood, the fragmentation of a collective imaginary, and the baffling modes by which we relate to objects (as viewer, as artist). In the recent work Launch of Hater Head (2013), Holen designed a 3-D printed titanium security screw whose head was a chunky, techy-looking smiley—vaguely smirking or angry. The manufacturing of unique, user-unserviceable screws is a practice espoused by Apple (among others) to prevent user tampering (ensuring the machine remains self-enclosed, full of “life”). Holen’s piece, drilled through an Ikea table, suggests that that the screwy networks that bind us contain their own spinning smirks: mocking even as they link us, repelling as they unite.