Parked through mid-February at the southeast corner of Central Park in New York and standing more than 30 feet tall, German-born artist Michael Sailstorfer’s Tornado consisted of a giant amassment of inflated inner tubes and steel atop an angled concrete plinth. Surrounded by such polite company as the Plaza Hotel, the Pierre and the Sherman Memorial, the sculpture—commissioned by the Public Art Fund—was like a rowdy teenager crashing afternoon tea. A similar collision between youthful whimsy and grown-up restraint defined Sailstorfer’s newest exhibition in Berlin, which paired a selection of the artist’s kinetic works alongside stone sculptures by his 62-year-old father, Josef Sailstorfer.
This was an exhibition self-consciously conceived around contrasts. Whereas the elder Sailstorfer works in a Minimalist idiom, his variation in medium mostly limited to the choice between limestone, marble and granite, his son has built his career around flouting sculptural tradition. Helicopters, catapults and popcorn machines have all been used as materials for the latter’s artworks.
With his “Lenker” (Steering Wheels), a new series comprised of decommissioned steering wheels mounted to the gallery wall and turning from side to side in constant synchronized motion, Sailstorfer the younger continues a long- standing engagement with the automobile as metaphor. Evoking a never-ending joyride, the works are an optimistic rejoinder to his Time Is Not a Highway (2008), in which the slow attrition of a tire (attached to an engine) against the gallery wall serves as a meditation on mortality. One steering wheel, from a 1980s SEAT Ibiza, is emblazoned with an image of tropical paradise, affirming the impression of a holiday from the more somber realities of existence.
No such escapism is to be found in his father’s works, which were arranged as an indoor sculpture garden beneath the gallery’s ceiling-length skylights. Static, rectilinear and floor-standing, the works demand a quiet contemplation that was nearly thwarted by the mischievous whir of electronic motors emanating from the gallery walls. In Treppe (Steps), 1979, a staircase of green serpentine ascends, like the one-way journey of life, toward an empty void. Before Stimmgabel (Tuning Fork), 1983, one is aware of both the strength and the precariousness of the work’s parallel uprights, which, touched with a hammer, would doubtless crumble.
Pivoting between Josef’s meticulously carved monoliths and Michael’s rotating readymades, one senses that dinner table conversations in the Sailstorfer household must have been a contentious affair. And yet a family resemblance obtains in the interest each artist takes in the problem of limitation. We read in the press release that the father’s stonemasonry involves “halting at potential breaking points which are then circumnavigated”—a practice perhaps best evinced in an untitled work from 1983 in which a gorgeous shaft of white marble has been carved to the point of translucence. If the father’s flirtation with catastrophe is born of a deep reverence for material boundaries, then—as a number of previous works involving explosives, guns and blowtorches can further attest—the son appears driven by a desire to altogether wreak havoc on the traditional limitations of his craft.
Photo: View of Josef Sailstorfer’s stone sculptures (foreground) and two kinetic works from Michael Sailstorfer’s “Steering Wheels” series (on walls); at Johann KoÌ?nig.