Pawel Althamer was asked by filmmaker Jacek Taszakowski to create a scenic backdrop for his animated Mezalia, based on the novel of the same name by Marek Sieprawski. The installation Mezalia (2010) is the result of Althamer’s extension of this project beyond the commission, merging elements from the book with autobiographical material.
Althamer has undertaken a daunting act of description. He asks sculpture to do what Minimalism effectively outlawed: to constitute a spatial and temporal narrative. Mezalia is a prelapsarian sculpture in the sense of both its idiom and content, a recollection of the lost Eden of childhood. It dares to elaborate various tenses, a now, a then and even a tomorrow. The location is Brodno, a district of Warsaw where Althamer grew up, and where he still lives. Each of the installation’s three parts is a freestanding model, mounted on waist-high rods. At the center of a 26-foot-wide tabletop landscape, two boys play with a toy boat on a ramshackle jetty. This scene derives from the original novel, but Althamer has based one of the boys on himself. He stares into the lake beneath him as though he were gazing into the future. But the lake is, literally, a large oval mirror; it has no depth and can only reflect him back. Althamer’s allegory repeatedly breaches its own fictions. The rear of the landscape’s rise reveals untidy construction layers of bare Styrofoam, oozing glue.
Across the room, the adult Althamer, rendered the size of a butched-up Barbie doll, stands at the window of a plywood replica of a room, looking out at the two boys as though into his own past. Past and future connect, symbolically, in the gazes of Althamer’s present and younger selves, looking in opposite directions. The cartoonish blatancy of the mimetic language is a means of grounding the installation, rescuing it from sentimentality and mawkishness. Shifts in scale and distance are dictated by emotional significance. Stalks of real grass, their green intensified with paint, are trees; the boys are giants in relation to a cluster of distant figures the size of miniature lead soldiers. In the third section of the installation, three public housing buildings—one representing the building in which Althamer still lives—are inlaid with jewel-like rows of tiny photographs of individual windows. The broken window at which the doll of the adult artist stands in the scaled-down version of his room is intended as a magnification of one of them.
Mezalia recalls Mike Kelley’s Educational Complex (1995), an arrangement of white architectural models on a trestle tabletop, representing significant locations from the artist’s youth. Some of the facades are left bare, as though erased back to the flat surfaces of Minimalist cubes, corresponding to lacunae in Kelley’s memory. Althamer questions sculpture’s ability to convey fully fledged autobiographical narrative by reaching as far as he can—much farther than Kelley—into what James Joyce called “descriptive lust,” and watching irony emerge from the inability of models, however detailed, to rescue the past.
Photos: Overview (left) and detail (above) of Pawel Althamer and Jacek Taszakowski’s Mezalia, 2010, mixed-medium installation; at Neugerriemschneider.