A Visit to Hamburg: Antony Gormley's Horizon Field Installation

Hamburg - Hamburg is known for the second biggest European harbour after Rotterdam and the second largest European red light district after Amsterdam. On the old continent, it is the second rainiest town and the one housing the second most billionaires after London. Hambourgeois would say it is a sign of noblesse to let others go first.

The town's most influential cultural achievement has been its decisive role in launching The Beatles' career back in 1960. Contemporary artists are not very enthusiastic about Hamburg, although its art academy formed stars like Hanne Darboven, Rebecca Horn, Martin Kippenberger, Albert Oehlen, Stefan Balkenhol and Jonathan Meese; two years ago painter Daniel Richter left the city in protest against its cultural policy. Protestant wealth, here called "hanseatic", means it is not okay to spend money for a crazy artist or anything else slightly deviant to common taste. It is not okay to drive a sports car, but it is "hanseatic" to get horny over your bank statements. The good thing to this "no experiments" attitude is that people are much more quiet and better dressed than elsewhere in Germany.

Against this background it is kind of hard to criticise a contemporary art exhibition here, and first of all I want to praise the Kunsthalle Hamburg that from time to time shows courage in its exhibition choices. Several years ago I saw Gregor Schneider's Kaaba-like "Cube" there, it created a nice little scandal.
Today the most discussed project is Antony Gormley's "Horizon Field" at Deichtorhallen and we need to keep in mind some premises: the artist's gallery is based in Salzburg/Austria and Paris.

One of Paris' most important art events is the annual Monumenta, when an artist gets the chance to use the Grand Palais for one gigantic installation. These artists change annually between a French and a foreigner, this year the honour was to Frenchman Daniel Buren. Now it is quite easy to perceive "Horizon Field" as an unofficial candidature for a future issue of Monumenta - but of course business strategy does not necessarily exclude artistic quality.

The Deichtorhallen are not as big as the Grand Palais (or Tate's Turbine Hall) but still impressive with some 1000 square metres.
There is no entrance fee for this show, but a small container outside where you have to "register". It is obligatory to sign a statement (use any alias you like) that you take full responsibility and are aware of unspecified risks. This wakes the visitor's curiosity and lets us anticipate an extraordinary experience.

Then we enter the hall and it is empty except some people wandering around under a black something suspended in the air. A helpful guide explains you need to leave your shoes at the wardrobe to your right, or go to the toilets to your left (with shoes). The shoes are safely stored in a white plastic bag, after my visit I left mine on the counter instead of throwing it in the trashcan everybody else used - when the warden just folded it to put it on top of the staple I understood this recycling also happens to those thrown away. Barefoot in the hall I spent some minutes observing a four-headed tourist family imitating the Abbey Road walk and finally discovered a side room in the back, the "Art Laboratory #7". It contains sculptures and paintings created in Hamburg schools with the help of Gormley prior to the exhibition. There is also the emergency exit, but those children's works are not that bad you would need it right away.
Back in the hall left-hand traffic rules: two metal stairways to heaven, but only one reserved to go up. Upstairs a guard tells us to use a narrow bridge (one person a time), over which we finally step onto the black intermediate floor. Made from wood and coated with black plastic, it slightly swings with the visitors' movements; its nice mirror effect is spoiled here and there by the trails of sweaty feet.
You may do what you like up here, looking out of the windows for instance; the "No Jumping" signs don't disturb anyone, but this seems no problem at all.

Returning downstairs we find two more side rooms, both showing videos: no artworks, but documentaries about the technical challenges to install this floor and about the British artist himself. Watching Antony Gormley in his studio working on his sculptures, I made a list of musicians who wanted to become actors; from Elvis to Ice-T this seldom was a good idea, and maybe the same is true in art: a sculptor should not do installations. (And hopefully Antony from Antony and the Johnsons never appears in a movie.)

The underlying idea is clear, instead of sculpting people Gormley seeks to present the original, similar to his work on Trafalgar Square's Fourth Plinth in 2009, but there should be more to an artwork than the idea. On that plinth people were at least isolated individuals who behaved different from every day situations. This is not the case here.

Antony Gormley, "Horizon Field", Deichtorhallen: April 27 to September 16, 2012

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