One of the most seminal artists of his generation, known mainly for his sculptures, Thomas Schütte’s recently opened exhibition at Moderna Museet in Stockholm features installations, architectural models, drawings, prints and gigantic sculptures in a major exhibition titled United Enemies. Taking the artist’s sculptural works from the past two decades as a starting point, the exhibition looks at Schütte’s exploration around shits of scale, juxtaposing the intimate and personal with the monumental. A colossal steel figure outside the museum entrance, Vater Staat (2010), observes visitors as they arrive, while the key work in the exhibition – the monumental bronze sculptures United Enemies (2011) – originate in his small, sketchy figures with heads of modelling clay made nearly twenty years earlier. The exhibition, which is the first major museum presentation of Thomas Schütte’s body of work in Sweden, is curated by Matilda Olof-Ors and is organised by Moderna Museet in close cooperation with the artist.
Thomas Schütte’s artistic practice is characterised by a rare combination of gloom and humour. His works may appear unnerving and playful at the same time. Existence seems to be off balance, the familiar becomes absurd and alien. Action figures can take centre stage, and puppet-like dolls be blown up into monumental giants. Thomas Schütte addresses life’s eternal questions, without offering any unequivocal answers. Born in 1954 in Oldenburg, North-West Germany, Thomas Schütte was enrolled at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in 1973. Among his fellow students were many of today’s internationally acclaimed artists, including Thomas Ruff (b. 1958) and Katarina Fritsch (b. 1956). The works from his student years are distinctly influenced by 1970s minimalism and conceptualism.
In his essay accompanying the exhibition, titled “Before the Law,” museum director Daniel Birnbaum explains that, early in his career, “Schütte was creating figures of a kind that call to mind puppets or marionettes on a stage. This began on the small scale with works whose starting point was the nature of the human being and the infinite variation of our facial expressions. At the beginning of the 1990s, he was showing paired figures beneath small domes of glass, the figures tied together in couples – united in struggle and bound together in intimate enmity. Work on this series would then continue with a radical shift in scale and using different materials and entirely different physical dimensions: a visitor to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in recent years can hardly have missed the great battle that United Enemies continue to wage in the sculptural garden.”
With Tears in My Ears (1989), a small scale work that is part of the Moderna Museet collection, “anticipates much of what we are being shown nowadays in the most magnificent of Schütte’s large scale sculptures,” says Birnbaum. “And yet these figures also appear to be involved in some kind of speculative activity, some form of reflection. Side by side, like at a wedding, they are standing before a mirror that, seen from their perspective, is towering over them like a wall.”
In his analysis, Birnbaum discusses Thomas Schütte’s art in its relation to puppets, as a matter of conflictual tension between innocence and oppression / power: “There is no shortage of fantasies and speculative thinking in philosophy and mythology concerning an era in which Man overcomes his own nature and is reunited with his animal side. In Christian manuscripts describing the state of affairs after the Last Judgement, when the righteous will live together in a new form of harmony, these only partly human creatures are occasionally shown as having the heads of animals. This could perhaps be interpreted as a return to the innocence that Kleist discovered in the dancing of children and puppets. We are presented with puppets in Schütte’s art. Sometimes they are inconspicuous in size, sometimes they are frighteningly large. More recently we have also been presented with impressive animals. And yet we never entirely leave behind the oppressive and familiar everyday life we all share. His figures have not been liberated in the slightest from the meanness and shoddiness we are continually confronted with in the media and in politics. Vater Staat may radiate a kind of sublime sympathy, maybe even benevolence, but there are other figures behind him who lust for power and are completely without scruples: villains and swindlers, criminals whose intentions are ill-concealed. One would rather not know where the three efficient-looking and menacing metal men in Efficiency Men (2005) are headed or what their intentions are. Schütte’s faces may from time to time express a childish innocence, but just as often he shows us features that have grown hard and are hungry for power.”
Schütte often works serially. Over the years, he has built a repertoire of motifs, shapes and themes that he revisits, develops and adapts to different dimensions or unexpected materials. The large sculptures United Enemies (2011) are based on a series of eponymous works on a considerably smaller scale that he began making in 1992. These small three-legged figures were dressed in fabric and tied together two and two before being placed under bell jars on plinths. The figures are each other’s prisoners – united enemies. In 2011, nearly twenty years later, when Thomas Schütte returned to this motif, he enlarged the “enemies” to larger than life size. The figures in the new series have got down from their pedestals and turned into grotesque giants cast in one of the most tradition-laden materials in art history – bronze.
Various kinds of architectural models have a key role in Thomas Schütte’s artistic practice. He refers to these explorations as a way of opening up works to the viewer: “I use models because they are something anyone can understand. You can see them as a prototype for something bigger, something seen from a child’s perspective; you could see them as a public stage.” In his series One Man Houses (2003-2005), Schütte has combined units from an industrial ventilation system into shiny, minimalist sculptures. Later, Schütte made the houses in wood, slightly larger than life, and fitted them with carefully-made furniture. In 2007-2009, one of the houses was built in a life-size version in the Roanne region in France, and more recently, several of his architectural models have also been produced in the same dimensions. The most recent example is his own foundation and sculpture hall Skulpturenhalle, outside Düsseldorf, which opened in the spring of 2016. The architectural model Pringles (2011) is an early version of the building, where the curved roof is modelled on a potato crisp placed on a matchbox.
Everything in order?
The photographic series Skizzen zum Projekt Grosses Theater (1980) consisting of stiff action figures against painted backdrops is the earliest work in the exhibition. In one of the scenes, three Star Wars princesses appear under a banner with the Latin words “Pro Status Quo,” a famous phrase that has been interpreted in a variety of ways in history; the literal translation is “For that which is.” Opposite them, Mr. Spock from Star Trek raises his right arm. In another picture, the Leia princesses are waving at an aeroplane with a banner reading “Alles in Ordnung.” When we look at these miniature sci-fi characters against their backdrops, however, life seems to be anything but orderly.