Home at last?

Robert F. Hammerstiel’ gaze unmasks what lies behind the cosy interiors of our living rooms

It’s the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors. Oscar Wilde

We are all driven by a longing for happiness, a comforting sense of warmth and security. It’s a basic human need, and it’s now all the more significant, particularly at a time when our lives seem to have become so insecure. We are living in an age of ever greater individualism, an age characterised by the urge for self-fulfilment. And yet, at the same time, our everyday lives are overshadowed by fundamental existential angst and the fear of terrorism. Is it so surprising, then, that we should yearn for a tranquil idyll and a safe, familiar home environment, for places and objects that satisfy those very needs? Or should I say, places and objects we think will be able to satisfy those very needs? Indeed, what is reality, and what is (deliberate) semblance? How do we construct our everyday world, our private living space? As an artist, Robert F. Hammerstiel is interested in the many different desires we have as human beings, and how ingeniously and variously we try and implement and live out those desires. He dissects and scrutinises our perception and notion of the world and reality, the way we like to visualise things. He dares to peek behind the shiny, smoothly polished surfaces of the world we live in – and does so by reproducing that world in sober yet hyper-realistic photographs and films. Hammerstiel is interested in finished products that are mass-produced on an industrial scale, yet intended to be used at a highly personal and individualised level. Indeed, even though the purpose of those products is predetermined, we firmly believe we can add our own individual touch once we have purchased them. A deceptive illusion? Can we really alter them, or are they actually altering us? Hammerstiel’s focus is on the ‘mechanisms used to portray the advertising and consumer society in which these yearnings are staged and continually re-created and stereotyped’. He explores staged domestic scenarios and constructed interior backdrops, fully fitted home comforts and uninhabited snugness, all of which pursue the strategic intent to signal a sense of comforting security. So whether it’s a person’s home, their pets, or even a potted plant, the artist provocatively speaks of ‘artificial surrogates’ designed to make us believe in a sense of security and familiarity. And it’s precisely these ersatz products he wants to highlight and ‘expose’ as such, wrenching them from their familiar consumer environment in order to question them and draw attention to them. (Arguably the best illustration of that intent is his method of showcasing motifs against a stark white backdrop.) And while these settings are nearly always deserted, there is no denying that human beings are the focal point of all the artifice and that their presence is palpable at all times. Like portraits the works tell the story of human existence, the way we live and the way we would like to live, and the illusions and dreams to which we abandon ourselves.

And what beautiful images they are! We see tall thuja hedges precisely aligned in rank and file against clear blue skies and meticulously manicured rectangles of lawn. There are no weeds to disturb this lush greenery; and in the centre of the garden stands a bijou summerhouse with swimming pool, a children’s play area alongside it. How dreadfully beautiful. The photographs in the work entitled Make Yourself at Home IV (2014) are perfectly lit and razor-sharp in their clarity – and coldness. In the hyper-realistic rendering of this private garden the artist succeeds in painting a harrowing picture of man’s hubris as he attempts to subjugate nature. Landscape touches people in their innermost core; it is a signifier for wilderness and remoteness from civilisation, for romantic grandeur and a vision of paradise. Shaped by these notions, the perception of landscape becomes a projection surface for our yearnings and our wishes. As human beings we step out into nature and let it become a landscape; we use it and make it usable. With Hammerstiel it is degraded to a backdrop perfectly defined in its geometry, an eye-catching yet lifeless wallpaper. But that’s not all. These idyllic settings with rampart-like hedges drawn by draughtsmen look more like a means of sealing ourselves off from the outside world, more like a constricting suffocating boundary than a freethinking, self-confident way of life or an aspirational space. As human beings we like to create our own ‘artificial nature’ – which is actually a contradiction in itself, and yet it is one found everywhere in our world. It is apparent, for instance, in a series of different-sized life-like plant replicas made out of various artificial materials that Hammerstiel photographed against a neutral background and then printed out in original size (Trust me, 2010–2014): a deception, because this nature is not real; it’s a mass-produced item that’s been bought, a decoration (and presumably not a particularly cheap one at that). You have to look very closely indeed to unmask the fake in these perfect photographs.

Hammerstiel often uses the aesthetic of advertising images as the initial material and source of inspiration for his work. In its appearance and suggestiveness it produces beautiful images that are designed to seduce us. But what does the photographic image actually tell us? Is it an image of reality, or the highest form of manipulation? What’s real and what isn’t? Every photograph is of course a subjective snapshot detail of the world, detached from any documentary or artistic pretension. Particularly in an age when digital (post-)processing has never been simpler, the question we need to ask ourselves is this: has the image been helped along digitally? Has it been reworked? But in Hammerstiel’s photographs it’s not about the digital manipulation of reality as we see it; rather, it’s about reproducing a reality that’s already been constructed, about copies, but also about the illusions of world(s). The documentary hyper-realism in its grand perfection contrasts vividly with the chosen motif: the artificially created garden idyll; the constructed privacy of home interiors on a publicly accessible estate of prefab houses; the deserted settings and landscapes from the online computer game Second Life; the plastic food items made in China and arranged into baroque still lifes; the adhesive film with various of imitation wood or stone finishes; the standardised yucca palm cuttings; the Christmas trees wrapped in their packaging nets; the staged life-size child mannequins; the Barbie doll; the plastic Wendy house and the Lego; the worlds created specifically for pets …

Hammerstiel is particularly taken by pets and indoor plants. Just as we like to have plants around us to recreate a slice of nature inside our own four walls, the domestication of animals is also an integral part of the enterprise aimed at creating a cosy and comfortable home – even for the domestic animal itself: brightly coloured see-through hamster cages; fluffy climbing frames for cats; and fanciful inner worlds for tropical fish. As man’s best friend, dogs get to chew on rubber toys and plastic bones, not to mention microchips inserted under their skin. Here Hammerstiel abandons the two-dimensional medium of photography: there are rubber balls stacked up inside a glass case with grippers of the kind familiar to us from funfair arcades; dog leads dangling from the walls (beneath them, the photos of the dog’s owners); and injection needles showcased inside small boxes complete with bar code. The seemingly individual is standardised, identified, and labelled.

Time and again moving images enhance Hammerstiel’s oeuvre. From a bird’s eye view, we observe families as they go about their leisure activities on their standardised housing estate; we see one family (who look like they’ve just stepped out of a TV ad) in an artificial summerhouse idyll repeatedly uttering stereotypical phrases like ‘Today’s such a lovely day’; we find ourselves empathising with little boys and girls who are crying – except it’s not genuine pain that’s causing them to cry: instead, they’ve been cast to cry on cue by an acting agency; or we’re faced with home owners who talk about their alarm system, stressing the fact that it makes them feel safer in their homes. Hammerstiel thinks in terms of spaces, which is why he likes to fill the exhibition space with installation works, incorporating photographs and films in a variety of ways. Robot lawnmowers circle around a patch of artificial turf as they discuss the meaning of life and meaningless repetitions. A small, kitschy Wendy house stands empty, waiting for children; alongside it a doll’s house, a dog kennel, and a birdhouse. Yucca palms stand erect in rank and file; a white fence encircles a patch of grass, with an alarm that goes off any time someone tries to step over it. This overblown artificial world spreads out within the museum space, and like the white background in the photographs, the White Cube lends the installations the appropriate backdrop to give the spectator the necessary distancing effect and room to reflect when contemplating the works

What’s genuine and what’s a copy? What’s real and what’s a fake? Hammerstiel addresses these issues that have now become so pressing, but without wanting to suggest an unequivocal answer. He hints at how much the boundaries tend to blur, how easily we let ourselves be deceived. Perhaps, sometimes, we have to let ourselves be deceived if we’re to keep control of our lives. It’s by no means the artist’s intent to question, let alone satirise, our basic human needs, the longing for a home and a sense of comfort and security. Rather, from his detached perspective, he highlights the staged illusions and identities, the recreated realities and their consequences. He depicts the misguided paths we embark upon as we seek that idyllic setting, but also the dangers that our model worlds bring to the fore, the exaggerations and the delusions to which we expose ourselves, consciously or unconsciously. ‘We are cast into a world we do not understand, and it scares us,’ cautions the artist. ‘The staged settings and strategies we deploy to create a home have a lot to do with overcoming that fear. The home is meant to give us a sense of security. Hedges give us that sense of security, but they also obscure our view.’ /p>

The quotations are from the author’s own conversations with the artist at his Vienna studio in summer 2017.

Günther Oberhollenzer, 2017