Hamburg, a sunny cold afternoon in March. The severe opulence of this Hanseatic city pierces magnanimously through its cultural institutions. We are in the neo-liberal global world where frontiers and circulation policies are paradoxically strengthened, although the right of asylum is still granted by museums. At present we have a pair of mid-career retrospectives of works by two artists, both of whom exemplify contemporary notions of the exotic -- though with opposite trajectories.
The Beirut-born, London-based sculptor Mona Hatoum presents a slick survey of her work, called "Over My Dead Body," Mar. 26-May 31, 2004, in the historic architectural amalgam that is the Hamburger Kunsthalle. Celebrated for her magisterial esthetic assault on the male Minimalist fortress, Hatoum is an artist-as-activist who fiercely carries martial and sensual methods into what are ordinarily domestic territories, from the kitchen to the nursery.
This comprehensive exhibition demonstrates topical consistency and formal inventiveness. With poignant reminiscences of a violent Middle East, the fugitive of Palestinian origins became a gracious diva of the art establishment, but like too many artists favored by a consensual system, she has increasingly come to rely on her production facility, a development that can be traced from her work Live Street Action with Doc Martens Boots (1985-95) and Light Sentence (1992), a dramatic installation ingeniously fabricated with mail-order office lockers, to the inoffensive custom-made Cage-a-deux (2002). Displayed on the way to the Hatoum exhibition, Annette Messager's proverbial embroidery ironically comments on Hatoum's apostasy with the maxim "la femme est un mal necessaire" ("woman is a necessary evil").
In contrast, the Munich-born, Istanbul-based painter Lukas Duwenhögger, who has become publicly known for his architectonic painting installations that offer images of the Near Eastern male accompanied by lyrical details and set within elaborate furniture arrangements, is the subject of a refined exhibition, titled "Prinzenbad," at the Hamburger Kunstverein, Mar. 6-June 13, 2004. Through a delicate integration of the works in the industrial architecture of this former market place, the visitor is lured into the artist's realm without any distinction between public and intimate spheres.
You could experience it like a bizarre musical comedy, as in One Rehearsal for Four Plays (1996). The actors are sophisticated Mediterranean men (Caspar and Balthasar, both 2002) who anxiously indulge in a wide range of lascivious gazes. The startling array of colors implies a precise erudition and a rampant melancholy.
Subverting the figurative painting technique -- often assimilated to nationalist propaganda -- Duwenhögger dwells in a literate and complex nostalgia, the utopian desire of an emancipated Orient. Once the Spartan child of the "Wiederaufbau" developed into a problematical nomad with unrestrained access to Dolmabace Palace, as in the painting Sunday Afternoon (1999).
Sub-culture or subversive ideologies are swiftly defused by decorative practice, as in some recent works by Hatoum. Resistance, a legitimate demand of the human spirit against suppressed society, utters within the most fantastic scenario, as in Duwenhgger's constructions. Both groups of works reveal that everything one does has political meaning, and that truth is an ideological fiction.