Housed in a villa built by an industrialist in the early twentieth century, Museum Langmatt still reflects the needs, values and tastes of a certain social class – of people for whom surrounding themselves with exquisite, precious artefacts and works of art was very much part of their identity. The exhibition Salon distingué is an inquiry into Household Effects in Good Company and as such addresses the functional complexity of the Villa Langmatt as stage, exhibition space and time machine rolled into one.
Faced with the challenge of curating a contemporary art project in a fully furnished interior with an impressive inventory of its own, it made sense to use the domestic character of this manorial villa as cover for smuggling new and unexpected works into an established ensemble. On entering the bedrooms appropriated as exhibition space and the much grander ground-floor reception rooms, visitors therefore find themselves face to face with contemporary sculptures and objects positioned – at times discreetly, at times ostentatiously – alongside the existing household effects. What all these works of art have in common is the way they start with objects of everyday use – tables, lamps, tableware, plastic bottle caps and such like – and then, by rendering them unusable, combining them with other objects, or translating them into some other material, transplant them from the utilitarian milieu into the realm of the exhibit.
Haegue Yang is interested in everyday life, which in her eyes is certainly not without its mystical aspects. Venetian blinds, light bulbs, and DIY supplies play a crucial role in her installations, and even her smaller works, including those presented here, can be read as a kind of homage to the banal. Her Roll Cosies of 2012, for example, consists of a group of cash register rolls tucked inside knitted cosies, as if the paper on which all future purchases will be recorded were somehow in need of warmth and protection. In Diango Hernández’s installation Dining at Eight of 2009, comprising four tables at which “figures” made of stacked lampshades sit opposite each other, household effects are used as culturally coded materials that the artist reconfigures to make them tell new stories. Bearing in mind the individual objects’ place of origin, their points of reference include the conditions of their own production and the underlying socioeconomic power gap. Dirty Fountain, a concrete sculpture of 2006 by Monika Sosnowska, looks like something out of a facelessly functionalist Soviet milieu. Installed in front of the villa, however, this drinking fountain is anything but functional: the addition of black pigment has rendered its water undrinkable thus undermining its raison d’être.
“Salon distingué – Household Effects in Good Company”
4 May – 30 November 2014
Stiftung Langmatt Sidney und Jenny Brown
CH – 5401 Baden / AG
Salon distingué – display and dramatization
The focus of Salon distingué is not on household effects alone, however. By playing on the “salon” concept, it also seeks to shed light on social display and dramatization as essential aspects of the upper-class lifestyle, which accordingly are reflected in the interiors they inhabited. While the French word salon can also mean la bonne compagnie, a definition it derives from the “people of quality” who liked to congregate in such illustrious reception rooms, the title Salon distingué is an allusion to more than just the “salons de conversation” of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Paris. The word salon also calls to mind the annual exhibition of paintings and sculptures that for a long time was the most important art show of them all.
The former residence of the wealthy Brown family was the fulfilment of a personal dream, the material embodiment of the perfectly composed front and hence a visualization of how such a family wanted to be seen, namely as distinguished – that is to say genteel, cultivated – members of the upper echelons of society. At the heart of this mise en scène was the private picture gallery that was added shortly after the villa itself was finished, in part to house the family’s growing collection of paintings and in part as a venue for elegant receptions. Even in the days when the Villa Langmatt was inhabited and in its prime, it served as a stage for exemplary dramatizations of the upper-class lifestyle – an exhibition space before the fact, as it were. Now institutionalized as a museum, the Villa Langmatt houses a permanent collection that reconstructs the family’s erstwhile showcasing of itself and its values and in doing so becomes a materialization of family history. In this respect, Salon distingué is an exhibition about exhibiting, whose theme is the staging of objects and the possible scenarios that such objects and their stagings imply.
Natalie Czech’s object photographs of LPs and clocks are inscribed with literary texts that turn the act of viewing into an act of reading. Kathrin Sonntag’s slide installation Blame it on Morandi of 2011, meanwhile, engages tautologically with a plethora of references to classical still life painting, which as object dramatization par excellence has provided an allegorical vehicle for such philosophical matters as mortality and death ever since the seventeenth century.
Household Effects in Good Company – objects on stage
Like stand-ins for the human protagonists who have long since exited the stage they built themselves for acting out their social roles, the household effects now become players in their own right. This alerts us to their function as screens for the projection of individual fantasies, ranging from the quotidian rituals and foibles of the villa’s former owners to their unfulfilled desires and the tacit division of power within the Brown family system. Items of furniture thus take on anthropomorphic traits; works of art suddenly start to speak.
The 2007 video Drama Queens by Elmgreen & Dragset shows an empty stage on which iconic twentieth-century sculptures discuss what it is like to be gazed at so relentlessly, the conditions of their existence, their everyday woes. In a series of sculptures called Untitled (Legs), meanwhile, Markus Schinwald combines table legs in such a way that they all but lose their identity as furniture parts and are perceived rather as body parts. Their shape becomes legible as physical, gestural expression, elevating it to the status of a placeholder for affective states of mind and even despair. The works of Gerard Byrne, Nele Stecher and Lena Maria Thüring turn on the contrivance of the narrative and the scenario as balancing acts between documentation and fiction and on the possibilities they open up. While in terms of content they pursue various lines of inquiry, including the relationship between personal identity, family relations and social norms, what all three artists share is their interest in how language and visual media interact – in the spoken and/or written word versus moving pictures or photography.
Status of the object
We as visitors are only too happy to believe that today’s interior has been left just as it was in the days when the Browns lived here, in part because it epitomizes so perfectly the ideal of “bourgeois domesticity” – an interior and lifestyle that countless people from the most diverse social backgrounds to this day seek to emulate. Disregarding the kind of installations that are to be found in all museums (air-conditioning, alarm systems etc.), the differences between now and then are perhaps most apparent in what is missing, namely all the personal stuff – writing materials, unfinished and unanswered letters newspapers, a wireless – as well as purely functional objects such as a simple ashtray. Before the villa became a museum it was “tidied up” so that only what was beautiful and valuable would remain on display. One result of this is that things that in the past were defined by their function, – furniture, lamps, porcelain and silverware, for example – are presented to us now as exhibits. But then the dividing line between household effects and art always was blurred, even in the days when the Villa Langmatt was inhabited. Valuable antiques were prized not just for their utility value but also as status symbols and as part of a larger, painstakingly arranged whole. By the same token, the collection of paintings was always an integral part of the interior. The Browns were not the kind of obsessive collectors who amass art for the sake of collecting, even if that means keeping their treasures locked up in vaults; they were art lovers who knew very well which works they wanted to hang where in their home. So art can indeed be counted among the household effects – in an upper- class interior dating from a century ago no less than in a modern-day loft.
Works like those by Erika Verzutti, Markus Müller and Erik Steinbrecher are in fact latent explorations of what object status actually means. Working with natural forms such as vegetables and fruit, Erika Verzutti creates new constellations that frequently reference art itself – how it is made, its models, its history. The process of moulding and casting enables her to lend her compositions of perishable materials “immortality.” She also uses archaic-looking forms, as in Venus Yogi of 2013, to allude to the sculpture as an object of cult worship. In Rahmen (Frames) of 2006 and Konversationsstücke (Conversation Pieces) of 2014, Markus Müller homes in on the by-products of the practice of “showing art” and museum displays. Yet his picture frames and partitions, with their proportions here reversed, also take on a life of their own, becoming autonomous objects that reflect the relationship between sculpture and painting. Erik Steinbrecher is interested in the potential of the socially and aesthetically worthless. What happens to the wicker donkey – a typical Mediterranean souvenir and common feature of lower-middle-class homes back in the 1970s – when with its head torn off it is cast in bronze? Unlike the two Chinese terracotta horses, which the Browns purchased as “grave goods from the Tang Dynasty” but which later turned out to be fakes, the ironic potential for devaluation – and with it disappointment – is inherent in The Symmetrical Donkey of 2009 right from the start.
Telescoping time and anachronisms
On entering the Villa Langmatt, visitors embark on a journey through time, albeit one that does not lead chronologically back to the past. What makes this house unusual is the brevity of the period in which – aesthetically speaking – it was in line with the times, specifically the years immediately after it was built. Designed around the turn of the century by the architect Karl Moser, it exemplifies the Karlsruhe brand of Jugendstil as the style then prevailing, while at the same time clearly bearing the stamp of the Arts and Crafts movement. Significantly, the villa also has about it the air of an English country seat. The art initially acquired for it was by painters of the Munich School, who were at least contemporary, even if not exactly avant-garde. The formal and aesthetic paradigm shift that took place in the Langmatt interior was sparked by the Browns’ sudden passion for the French Impressionists. This set in motion a gradual metamorphosis of the interior appointments with a view to creating an ideal setting for the new collection. In the course of the 1920s, the Villa Langmatt changed radically in appearance, mutating into a nineteenth-century French maison bourgeoise complete with floral wallpapers, stucco panels, boiseries and furnishings in Empire, Louis XV and Louis XVI style. By the time it entered its golden age between the two world wars, the Browns’ home had become the historical ensemble that it is still perceived as today.
Perhaps what best characterizes the Villa Langmatt as a museum is the way it oscillates between different periods while remaining firmly anchored in a very specific social context. The exhibition Salon distingué adds another chronological layer and in doing so deliberately provokes friction between objects from completely different eras, such as would never normally be encountered in a classical museum, still less a white cube.
The photographic series Images or Shadows of Divine Things by Gerard Byrne addresses correlations between time, appearance and photographic record in all their complexity. His black-and-white images referencing the tradition of American photography around the middle of the last century feature motifs that either remind us of our immediate past or that are so bereft of pointers to the time in which they were taken as to seem almost timeless. In fact all the photographs taken between 2005 and the present are of places that are anachronistic in much the same way as the Villa Langmatt – a space in which different ages meld together in a continuum of past, present and future.
Gerard Byrne, Natalie Czech, Elmgreen & Dragset, Diango Hernández, Markus Müller, Markus Schinwald, Kathrin Sonntag, Monika Sosnowska, Nele Stecher, Erik Steinbrecher, Lena Maria, Thüring, Erika Verzutti, Haegue Yang.