Reading Rämistrasse #62: AJ on Urs Lüthi at Windhager von Kaenel

OK, so the Urs Lüthi show, SUPERHUMAN has already been reviewed by Leonora Kugler, and everything you need to know is in that review, but for those of you who are too indolent to read in German, and dig digressions, here is a second response. For the next month, this show is only open by appointment with the gallerist, Fabian Windhager (you can call him on this number +41 79 789 22 22).

A good habit in commercial galleries is to go to the back of the gallery first, and look at what is sitting closest to the gallery director when they are sending emails. Exhibitions are like magazines, they often make the most sense when read back-to-front. There’s a logic to this. Magazines are machines for selling advertising to businesses, but their covers are what sell them to the public. A magazine in that sense is a hall of mirrors, a series of encapsulated fantasies (even if everything in the magazine is factually true). Reading a magazine from the back allows you to get an oblique position vis-a-vis those fantasies. All this is a digression, but it comes to mind when explaining to people that they should go to the back of the gallery: you go to the back to get oblique to the scenography, to the carefully thought through logic of experience that constitutes many (well made) exhibitions.

In the back of the gallery what appears to be an animated digital portrait of Urs Lüthi blushes. He is now an old man, bald, and has full lips. He does not look like he has missed many of the pleasures of life, and they have left their traces on his face. Indeed, he looks a little like a melancholic cabaret performer between acts. After a lifetime lived, there should not be so much that one is surprised by. What could make an old man blush so fully? When one blushes with shame, one sometimes writes that one is mortified, but when Lüthi blushes, he looks more alive, his face, flushed with blood, becomes almost youthful. He is mortified, but at the same time enlivened. When the blush recedes, his skin becomes sallow, and he appears very grave indeed.

At the University of Sydney, back in the day, the medical school had a «secret» museum of medical specimens. Access was restricted to medical and dentistry students. It was usually «guarded» by a med student who was, as in the way of such things, badly underpaid and very bored and usually happy to accept the implausible reasons that we made up, as art history students, for needing to see the collection. There was one wall that was just... heads. Heads in various states of dissection, floating in jars of formaldehyde, whose specific gravity had been carefully adjusted, so that they could bob there for years, like Jeff Koons’ basketballs. These were serious heads, mind, the heads of people who had donated their body to science. We thought of it, admiringly, as a kind of atheist pantheon. The heads had belonged in life, as it happened, almost exclusively to old white men. They all wore expressions of extraordinary grimness. Pain, perhaps. Dying is perhaps not very nice, but these men had set about it with rational determination.

The wall impressed us greatly, because at the base of each jar with its head was a plaque. It did not give the name of the cadaver (that would be unethical), but it gave the name of the student who had completed the dissection, and the name of the prize that they had won («best revealed optical nerve» or whatever). The heads were therefore auto-icons (the actual head was on display), but they were also «authored» by whoever did the dissection, and finally, they were also, in themselves, trophies, memorials to competitive victories in the field of cutting up people. This semiotic three-way – auto-icon, artwork and trophy – was kind of unlike anything we saw in our studies (although the heads resembled our learned professors muchly), and so the cabinet was a place of pilgrimage for us.

Now I mention all of this on the one hand because Urs Lüthi, when he is not blushing, somewhat resembles one of these heads. But more importantly he completely inverts the semiotic relationships we saw in the medical cabinet above, because, well, this image is not an auto-icon. It is not even a portrait of Urs Lüthi. It is, rather, an image of a statue of Urs Lüthi, itself photo-realistic, that is animatronic in one special respect. It weeps. From this statute, Lüthi constructed a series of images with various angles of lighting. The images are not even direct photographs of the statue, but rather scanned prints, in which the rastering line is still visible. The shifting light evokes Noh theatre masks that can change their mood depending on the angle of the lighting, or phases of the moon. The series has an intentional coldness; the mixture of extreme weirdness, and extreme distance, that one associates with astronomical photography (and the raster lines make them look even more like NASA images than they otherwise would). This fits Lüthi, whose attitude to aesthetics is almost mathematical: he doesn’t care how anything looks so long as it is perfect.

Not portraits, not photographs, we are at many steps removed from Lüthi himself. He does not give himself away easily, as his robot avatar lachrymotes (is that a real word?). As Fabian Windhager explained to me, even the tears in the statue are distilled water; calcification from tap water, or, presumably, the salt in actual tears, would slowly ruin the machine. But then, Lüthi himself now experiences some distance from the most familiar Lüthi. The classic print Lüthi weint auch für Sie from 1970 was appended to the programme as a kind of appendix. Half a century ago, Urs Lüthi was a glamorous young man, weeping for the world. Now, perhaps in recognition of the fact that in life one has only a finite number of tears to shed, he delegates the weeping to his artworks.

Urs Lüthi, SUPERHUMAN, Windhager von Kaenel, Aemtlerstrasse 73, 8003 Zürich

11 June–24 July 2021 - by appointment in August 2021

Images: Installationviews, Urs Lüthi, SUPERHUMAN, Windhager von Kaenel, Zürich, 2021, courtesy: the artist and Windhager von Kaenel

Reading Rämistrasse

If art criticism is losing ground, we must act. That’s why we created space for criticism – Reading Rämistrasse – on the Kunsthalle Zürich website and publish reviews of current exhibitions. What is published here does not represent the opinion of the Kunsthalle Zürich. Because criticism has to be independent.

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