This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 13, 2011 - The Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University is currently the place to explore artistic takes on the world -- the contemporary state of the world around us as well as a world that could be.
"Precarious Worlds: Contemporary Art from Germany," curated by Kemper Director and Chief Curator Sabine Eckmann, features major new acquisitions by artists such as Franz Ackermann, Thomas Demand, Charline von Heyl, Sergej Jensen and Corinne Wasmuht, alongside works from the museum's collection and an installation on loan by Hans-Peter Feldmann. All the works assert observations on the instability of our contemporary world, reflecting everything from the shifting geopolitical landscape to the pervasiveness of the digital and its tendency to evaporate our sense of the real.
Ackermann's enormous canvas, "Untitled (yet)" (2008-9), enmeshes the viewer in a confounding urban circuitry, while the natural world in Wasmuht's equally sized "Llanganuco Falls" (2008) is every bit as disorienting, dispensing with the grounding we might expect from a landscape. Demand's "Shed" (2006) is a classic example of the artist's ingenuity, processing historical narrative through the screens of sculpture and photography and ending up with an image that is at once utterly clear, yet completely indeterminate.
Even when the artists employ more solid, "real" materials -- Pernice's chunk of concrete, Jensen's distressed textiles -- the status of the objects they make is just as much in doubt. The exhibit concludes appropriately with Feldmann's installation, which transforms everyday objects like toys and utensils into flickering plays of shadow and light, reminiscent of Plato's cave.
Tomas Saraceno's "Cloud Specific" furnishes its own gallery with structures that look as though they came from another world, but are rooted in principles of our own. The Argentine-born, Frankfurt-based artist draws on physics, botany, spider anatomy, clouds and Buckminster Fuller to imagine alternative structures for living.
Indeed, his propositions radically redefine "living," as well as traditional notions of environment, sustainability and distinctions made between the earth and the atmosphere. But don't expect Saraceno to deliver dull didacticism or slaps on the wrist about global warming and urban sprawl. "Cloud Specific," curated by the Kemper's Meredith Malone, reveals Saraceno's art to be completely exuberant and forward-looking, recalling the heady utopianism of earlier groups like Archigram and Metabolism, but informed by the science and responding to the needs of the 21st century.
Ivy Cooper, a professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, is the Beacon art critic.