Beauty for our sober world!1)

The omnipresent mass media, "almost entirely devoted to commerce",2) have sharpened our sensibility for the figurative, the merchandise-shaped, the narrative; they have drawn our fantasy towards that better world in which merchandise cloaks itself.

As a matter of fact, the products themselves seem to be less problematic than the artificial aura of a flawless world which is created around them through suggestive images that outdo the real world in their opulent stagings. The advertising industry fills our heads with images that will ostensibly become reality once we own the advertised product; they promise a life truly worth living, assuring us a place in the globalised world and giving us hope for social recognition. Consumption has turned into a consumer culture selling attitudes towards life.

In a parallel move, consumption has entered the art world as well. Boris Groys describes this phenomenon: "The action of producing art has itself become an action of shopping. Ever since Duchamp, and most recently with the appearance of Pop Art, the artist does not understand him/herself as a producer any more, but rather as an exclusive consumer of things that were produced anonymously and have always been circulating in our culture. Why come up with a new aesthetic if we have got one already?" 3)

Robert F. Hammerstiel consumes, produces, and adapts. He decided in favour of the most monstrous cases of our "brave new world of merchandise" with its seducing products, but also and in the first place the dubious world they promise to make accessible. He only uses mass-produced goods which are already copies themselves: plastic tablecloths, artificial plants, rubber doggy bones, food made of plastic, yucca trees or, most recently, prefabs. He is captivated by replicas that have by far surpassed "their" matching originals in almost any respect. In keeping with the aesthetics of advertising, Hammerstiel transforms his motifs into desirable objects which appear in framed, shiny, large-format photographs, sometimes as if embedded in a flat showcase.

And he consistently gains new territory in an increasingly synthetic world. Indeed, everyday culture in the Western world imitates, idealises, and substitutes nature wherever possible. Everything can be made of plastic, ranging from chimney fire to Christmas trees to aquarium oases. Hammerstiel’s catalogue had previously been merely "neutral", but in his latest series he drags man himself – to whom his collection is dedicated, after all – onto the stage. The "shooting location" is the “Blaue Lagune” (Blue Lagoon), a prefab showground near Vienna, which also likes to call itself "Europe's prefab capital". There, Hammerstiel imagines a set of Private Stories (2005) – the desires and visions which this type of prefab model houses is expected to fulfil or, on the other hand, the failure which has already taken shape as a valid result in the 21st century. 102 items reflect ideal visions of "House & Garden": From the cosy cottage to the designer villa, numerous elements from a long history of architecture and DIY appear, featuring a large variety of styles in order to appeal to as many tastes as possible.

But this better world is contradicted by the pictures' protagonists. Listless, depressed, and disillusioned, they stand or sit amidst the scenery of their home sweet homes. They have nothing more to say and may have been abandoned by their partners. Every detail could be easily replaced, even the personal belongings that were chosen by Lagune’s decorators. They are synthetic, brand-new, unused, flawless, neat, and smooth – individuality has been snuffed out by all of them. A mood of utter coolness emanates from the attitudes and representational patterns prefabricated by the media. After the shopping spree comes despair.

In the video Die blaue Lagune IV (2004), nothing remains of these desires and visions either. Devoid of any emotion, almost with lethargy, the camera passes over the prototypes of a stereotypical, ideal lifestyle, thereby adjusting to their uniformity: one well-kept detached house after the other, each one equally well-kept and fenced in, with no car to be seen, no person, no dog, no bird. This makes the seemingly innocuous drive through this uninhabited settlement both uncanny and endless. Caught in this loop with her song Blue Lagoon, Laurie Anderson dreams of a perfect place and a real home. In another video, Die blaue Lagune III (1999/2004), the camera circles through the interiors of the Lagune prefabs, showing one tidy space after the other, each one more tasteless than the preceding one. As each turn of the camera reveals more postmodernist monstrosities, hope fades away.

In all of his works Hammerstiel points out the discrepancies between what is real and what appears to be so, albeit not by dramatising them but by adding a punchline. He omits manipulative elements and embellishing subtexts, leaving what the intended use may be to the imagination and omitting the manufacturer's instructions. Or he reveals an aspect of the objects that is usually kept secret from buyers: in Yucca II (2004), he shows an entire army of standardised yuccas and attaches labels showing the conditions under which they are produced.

At first, these transformations are sometimes open to misunderstanding or at least to interpretation without entirely denying the ideal nature of the objects. Hammerstiel's works are equivocal in the same sense as irony is: like irony, they make equivocal statements, showing something only to contradict it later. They challenge viewers to grasp and penetrate their ambiguity and leave it to them to understand or misunderstand. Since they are so close to being serious, they are unsettling and yet their critical potential is reinforced. For irony unmasks any attempt of suggestion without ridiculing it. It comments on a given situation and renders it more precise, for what is said or shown also means the contrary.

  1. Upon defending their Barbie doll, officials at Mattel argue that those who criticise have not understood how it is only about beauty "in our elsewhere rather sober world". See Wunschlos unglücklich – Alles über Konsum, edited by Alexander Meschnig and Mathias Stuhr, Hamburg 2005, p. 109.
  2. Günther Selichar, Photography remixed. Über den Restwert (in) der Fotografie, in Rethinking Photography, edited by Ruth Horak, Salzburg 2003, p. 251.
  3. Boris Groys, Banalität ohne Ausweg ist extrem romantisch, in Kunstforum 174/2005, pp. 380–384.

Ruth Horak