Robert F. Hammerstiel’s somewhat sinister playrooms, or the art of quoting

Robert F. Hammerstiel only has to exhibit a few of the many works he has created and, instantly, we feel we are among things familiar to us a hundred times over; in fact, we realise we are at the very heart of the quotation. How simple and smooth our consumerist world strives to be. It is only when we persist with our observations that we notice that there is in fact a certain ambiguity about the nature of Hammerstiel’s quoting. First, he quotes the idyll of our consumerist world, most readily through its iconic symbol, the detached house with garden, complete with matching accessorised life and surrounded by sterile toys. Then he quotes the way in which the quoted is customarily quoted in our everyday lives, the representation of the consumerist idyll, cleansed and polished smooth, in display windows, shop windows and interior arrangements of model presentations, with the gravity of everyday life in turn acquiring the traits characteristic of the playroom or playground.

And yet quoting always entails a certain dissociation and detachment from that which is quoted, a natural consequence of actually selecting from broader contexts and the subjects on offer. The very act of selecting places the quoter above the quoted; it is his disposition and his determination. In Hammerstiel’s case, then, it would be the act of placing himself over and above the idylls of consumerism he has selected by quoting, and the act of placing himself, by selected disposition, over and above the ways in which these fantasy worlds encounter those who may aspire to them in the market. Here it is important to note that the act of placing oneself over and above the quoted in the quoting itself does not by any means have to be the act of placing oneself over and above it in a condescending sense. Indeed, one certainly feels that Hammerstiel works hard to avoid anything that might smack of condescension in the affectionate – not to say almost tender – way in which he succeeds in bringing it all together, and also in his efforts to counter tedious slickness and clarity with garish colours, which in turn references a process from our ingratiating and purring world of simulation.

Generally speaking and quite unlike any sense of condescension, quoting and indeed referencing implies a certain taking-to-task, a barked summons, a command to come to heel, as it were: “Take note, pay careful attention – or else”. Such intellectualised situationing has to do first of all with the value-free notion of paying attention. After all, we do not want our experiential opportunities continually constrained by value judgements: “Shut your eyes Beautiful Sara!” (Heinrich Heine). Rather, it is about a freedom from value judgements such that the act of quoting has in itself and in the first instance an affirmative element. It is what the humanities demonstrate in virtually subordinating their work to that which is to be interpreted, focusing on ascertaining the meaning which authors have sought to give their texts. Advertising does something similar in the way it references and quotes, a process designed to enhance the value of the offer. Things are a little different with the preaching in Christian religions, which is top-heavy with quotations from Biblical references. Such preaching serves to adapt ancient Scripture to the altered circumstances of life as it is today, except when fundamentalists are involved.

But even in its affirmative approach, the act of quoting nonetheless seeks to put a certain distance between itself and the quoted. That distance is most notably present in the antipodes to affirmative quoting. Karl Kraus and, after him, Walter Benjamin came up with the concept of the damning quote. One merely has to quote an author without further commentary in order to expose and compromise said author. And so the act of ironic quoting ebbs and flows between these antipodean extremes. Irony is, after all, pretend seriousness – that is how it tags and flags; it is the distance in itself and for its own sake. Or, for all that a quote may be affirmative, i.e. for all that it identifies with the quoted, its inherent distancing effect also implies a cautious tentative note of irony that hovers alongside, from which only the damning intent escapes. Slating or savaging transforms the distance where relations are then broken off; there is no more distance then, not even the furthest distance – just an away in the sense of throwing “a-way”. These two discrete acts of quoting provoke a taking-to-task, a questioning of the quoted – so even with a distance a reference is maintained.

So when Hammerstiel double-quotes, as it were – he is, after all, already quoting the quoted within the scope of his representational motifs and the way in which they are quoted – the theme-related contents of his representations are meant as a “quote quote”, very much in the quoted way in which we come across them in our market world of representations of products essential to our lives. So the ironic function of the nature of quoting increases exponentially. A scathing critique is therefore not intended; on the contrary, the enhanced irony preserves the questioning relationship.

And so what we have emerging before us is a world which certainly discerns the reality of our consumerist society in its desires and expectations. Indeed, ultimately the substance of what we desire and expect belongs most decidedly to our individual realities as human beings. However, the inherently tricky complication about that substance is that it is part of reality, but in a way that it seeks to escape that reality, or least purports to do so. To that extent it is merely a strand, woven into that other strand, complexity, as which reality as a whole presents itself.

Hammerstiel’s double quoting further amplifies the ironic effect as constant mirroring, but it does not dismiss the quoted ideals and expectations in a simple, let alone crude way. Rather, in a first step, it approaches the matter lovingly, rather than quoting in order simply to scorn. Even the spic-and-span cleanliness is treated affectionately. So the impression we gain at first sight is one of “Oh, just look at how neat and tidy our world is, and yet so colourful and varied, and always so excitingly different – if only we could buy it!”. And everything allows the functions to run so very smoothly, with more than enough in the way of transactions across the counter.

And yet, on closer inspection, this dream reality of market-compliant wishful desires, all designed and depicted, appears set in an imagery which promisingly showcases its intrinsic nature, as if life’s intense longing for life were spreading. Yet that imagery is devoid of any signs of living life, or of a life lived. That is, if we discount the symbolic circumstance that, as symbols, all the objects portrayed refer to functionalities of life activities that are absent for the perception in the “not-yet” and the “no-longer” (viz. Ernst Bloch’s “not-yet” and “no-longer”). Hammerstiel’s second level of quoting is the act of referencing the representation of life’s possible commodities in which desires are made to dance through arrangements and simulations on markets and in advertising – and it is aimed, in keeping with the advertising, at the general and average sense of desiring and longing. From this the cold wind of the impersonal blows in the name of the supra- or non-individual as an appeal to us all, despite the pretence of a quest for unique wishes and desires on an individualised basis.

Hammerstiel’s installations (including those featuring models of people as mannequins made mobile in a post-modern highly naturalistic style) are somehow reminiscent of the rigorous desires of architects who wish to experience their architecture, and that of others, in situations devoid of any people. Those desires have compelled many an architect to embark on long walks through city centres in the early hours of a Sunday morning, i.e. the best time for an opportunistic photo shoot that captures architecture while people are still absent. Today, such trials and tribulations are a thing of the past thanks to the take-off camera, which (air-)brushes away all the people while leaving the hardware in place, in fact not unlike a neutron bomb. And with that, something altogether sinister now begins to stir in Hammerstiel’s squeaky clean imagery.

Now when we think of these characteristics of our reality as presented to us by the artist, in an instant it causes us to confront the imageries of the horrors of nature, the famines, the wars and terrorist attacks, the scenes of torture from TV news and documentaries, from magazines and newspapers, and not least from the internet. In fact, doesn’t the quoting of the cleansed worlds of advertising and market economies (as the representation of our supposed fantasy worlds) without any concession to an instant of objection provoke a far stronger outcry in the name of “That cannot be for real!” than the actual images of misery and hardship themselves? In any case, throughout Hammerstiel’s cleansed imagery the sinister stirs in these playrooms for infantilised adults, a sinister mood already inherent in the aforementioned infantilised state of today’s adults. I refer also to the quotidian experience of a deliberate clash where TV news is bookended by the cleansed and accelerated world of advertising.

If we seek to conflate Hammerstiel’s imageries of the character displayed with traditions of art, or correlate them with such traditions, then first of all we should look at the issue of the ready-made (Marcel Duchamp) since everything looks so prefabricated, prefabricated before the author even gets to work. Except that we are not dealing with ready-mades in Duchamp’s sense, but with a fake of ready-mades. Photo and video motifs as well as models and simulations from our magazine regions (including advertising brochures) have been used; it is almost as if they are intended as an interwoven third level of quoting. What’s more, the reluctance to condemn adopted by a questioning approach does of course predicate Pop Art with its attention to the appearance of consumer goods and its significance – also in Pop Art’s deeper characteristic in which the view of the relevance was directed at the appearance of those consumer goods whose appearance itself had already achieved a high degree of symbolisation in the life of consumer societies (i.e. Marilyn Monroe’s breasts as an “American way of love”, or Coca Cola as an “American way of drinking”). For Hammerstiel they include for instance the ideals that surround the single-family detached house, the ideals about it and in it – that, too, intends a general ideal without personal traits in its features.

And yet: In the general or, rather, generalised nature of ideals, individual desires of the personal are seen to be stirring, albeit from a deep induced sleep. The emotions involved are enormously powerful. Emotions which advertising seeks to capitalise on indirectly, albeit in a somnolent and benumbed state; otherwise it would have no “quickened” interlocutor. But the components on display could well trigger a revolt against the great purges of longing and yearning unleashed by the market and its all-controlling advertising. Just as reality breaks – or at least interrupts – reality in a contradiction-laden reality, the emotionless impersonality of the cleansed flushed worlds of desires generated by advertising and markets, taken to their clear extreme, could break – or at least interrupt – the emotionless impersonality. That is what Hammerstiel is talking about. In an extremely challenging view my concluding categorisation of his works of recent years is aimed at an expressionism – founded on the genre of new objectivity – of the sinister in undercover “thrillerism”: the idyll as a sign of a world of horror and dismay. We need only think of the islands of isolation that characterise family life in the home – the silent terror of flourishingly pacified suburban settings where frogs, cows and chickens must fall silent while former village communities were cloaked in the terror of the incessant gossip of defamatory slander wittering out loud behind people’s backs. In Hammerstiel’s case this transcends the genre of new objectivity to reach a state of hyperrealism that fixates, to sterilising effect, the crime scenes for the targeted objectivity of the conclusions on a past deed. Which in turn touches on the nature of quoting that characterises the humanities. And therein lies something sinister, per se.

Burghart Schmidt