Clegg & Guttmann: Unraveling Codes of Status

At Bawag Contemporary, an exhibition linking portraits, libraries, and thinking games, concrete and imagined: a mixed report

The Mobius Library is on permanent display at the library in the Abbey of Melk, Lower Austria | Photo: O.O.

Before the glass façade of the Bawag Contemporary on Franz-Josefs-Kai, the high intensity reflections from the UNIQA Tower LichtSpiel across the Wienfluss bounce before our eyes. We push past the crowd of art lovers, Viennese bohos, and hangers-on to wrench open the tall glass door. Inside, the raw concrete floors and stripped industrial ceiling blend with the onlookers in shades of prison grey. As curator Brigitte Huck introduces the new exhibition Clegg and Guttmann (The Dynamic Duo) Portraits and Other Cognitive Exercises, she cites “a secret system of references linking the various genres of portraits, libraries, and cognitive exercises” on display. We pause before the two most stunning pieces.

The Moebius Library and The Bookworm epitomize the duo of Michael Clegg and Martin Guttmann’s notions of “Social Sculptures” and “Community Portraits”, sculpture and portrait connected by a cartilage of bookish conceit. The Library subverts the normal, and seems to have two sides, turning Euclidian geometry on its head. Clearly distinguished, the two sides deceive and yet emerge continuous.

As constructed by Clegg and Guttmann, the piece was originally conceived for a presentation at the Waldzell Conference held in the Melk Abbey in 2004. In a generous elegant loop 2.8 metres tall and made of plywood, The Library has shelves that house writings by the Nobel Prize winners, academics, scientists and journalists who participated in the conference.

“Classical representation in the sense of ‘sculpture’ is not really their thing,” Huck explains, yet this piece “looks credibly as if the duo were for once interested in form.” With its fine inlaid shelves, gold-plated figures and the ceiling fresco by Paul Troger, the Benedictine Abbey that inspired Umberto Eco to write The Name of the Rose has become the permanent home for Clegg and Guttmann’s continuous social-geometrical sculpture. It is an enthralling, even towering piece, “whose properties shift fluidly back and forth between, the functional, the informative and the symbolic.”

Clegg & Gutmann’s The Bookworm using the dark lighting of the old masters | Photo: O.O.

The Bookworm is certainly the one sterling, near-perfect two-dimensional piece in the exhibition. By virtue of its drama, old masters dark lighting in rich blacks and Titian hues, the portrait of the solitary reader lost in reverie and lost in the claustrophobia of narrow bookshelves, this is a photograph distinguished from all others in the exhibit. The Bookworm stands alone on a library ladder looming above the thoughts, ideas, and theories contained in the tomes that surround him, impervious to the shadowed silence, and to the suffocating space of hollow library walls. Only the scowl of disdain and his hand placed eloquently upon an open book betray the forlorn Hamlet doomed to tread endless corridors in search of elusive particles of truth and testament.

The other portraits hardly add up. By comparison the portrayal of their hard-living artist colleague, dandy and anarchoaesthete Martin Kippenberger – wearing an avant-garde suit with detached sleeve – remains flaccid by comparison.

“Clegg & Guttmann understand the codes of status, influence and capital,” Huck explains. “What began as a Reagan-era critique on the adoration of power gathers added meaning in the times of the Occupy Wall Street movement.” Reworking their colour portrait series, Executives of the Steel Industry versus Executives of the Textile Industry, as well as examples from the later Austrian Portraits, the artists place their subjects before washed out, lo-fi, black-and-white backgrounds, that seem to undermine the images, and leaving us with cold formalism.

La Libreria Piramidale places literature and ideas in relation to space | Photo: O.O.

Similarly, another portrait called The Cripple can hardly be celebrated as a stand-alone work, requiring a back story to make sense. The high-resolution colour image of this well-groomed young man leaning slightly on an ordinary stick of milled wood, becomes obfuscated by the intrusion of the clicheed background of a palatial interior in Tuscany or Jerusalem. Authentic gestures, expressions, and postures do abound in these pictures, yet aside from The Bookworm, mood is nascent, and objects appear devoid of narrative content.

The third arm of the tri-fold thrust of Clegg and Guttmann presented at Bawag Contemporary is Cognitive Exercises represented by re-worked, re-invented, or in the parlance of “art-speak”, a recontextualisation of earlier works. Thus we see Sha’at’Nez or the Displacement Annex, an Expressionistic sculpture of bookcases once actually seen in the storefront windows of Berggasse 18, conjuring the Freudian psychoanalytic notion of Verschiebung, or personality displacement.

In Cognitive Exercises II a skeletal pyramid of bibliotheca shelves confronts the viewer with a notebook attached on a string wherein an onlooker is invited to write in a preferred genre of reading. “It is a participatory sculpture that has to be completed by the audience. It is not done until the audience works with it,” states Michael Clegg. Called Nuova Studiolo, this stark wooden structure is meant as an update of the early Renaissance chamber among the private rooms of a palace. Dedicated to intellectual development, the studiolo was a total laboratory, a room for thought, for memory, and for imagination.

A facet of Cognitive Exercises II will be the performance on 16 May at 21:00, of the duo’s commissioned performance of Johannes Brahms’ String Quartet in C Minor by The Constrained Brahms Quartet, wherein the curator details that “the musicians will be bound together with rods in such a way as to render playing individually impossible.”

Clegg & Guttmann (The Dynamic Duo)
Portraits and Other Cognitive Exercises
Through 10 June
Bawag Contemporary
1., Franz-Josefs-Kai 3

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