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Johannes Hoerning on Hans Bellmer and Haneyl Choi

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This text is an excerpt from Hoerning’s essay “Reconstruction of What? Reconstruction by Whom? Reconstruction to What End?”, part of the publication accompanying the exhibition Reconstruction 重建, on view from September 17 through October 30, 2021 at Weststrasse 70, with works by Hans Bellmer, Marcel Broodthaers, Heidi Bucher, Haneyl Choi, Ida Ekblad, Lewis Hammond, Hu Xiaoyuan, Li Liao, Shinoh Nam, Meret Oppenheim, Yun Suknam, and Zhang Xiaogang. 

The apparent tension between deconstruction and reconstruction – the former eroding standards, the latter rebuilding them – is familiar also from the discourse around justice, which questions what ought to be deconstructed, as opposed to what ought to be reconstructed to build a more just society (laws, regulations, customs, et cetera). Deconstruction and reconstruction are both answers to the ethical question what ought to be done? This question renews itself pretty much daily, to such a degree that all links to transcendental points of orientation or definitive criteria, outside of our private lives, have been cut off once and for all. While we cannot afford to leave such ethical questions unanswered philosophically, and we can afford even less to leave them unanswered politically, artistic production can pride itself on being less programmatic by simply refusing to deliver a clear message in its acts of reconstruction. It can do so, even at times of greatest danger, or so it seems.

We need only look at Hans Bellmer (1902–1975) and his notorious construction of three poupées: the first, named Die Puppe (1933), now lost, the second named Jointure de boules (1935), and the third, La Poupée, conceived in 1936 but left in fragments and recovered by the artist only later in 1961. In Bellmer, we find an artist, who not only refused to make himself rationally understood and rejected vehemently the bourgeois order of his time, which had enabled fascist disciplining of minds and bodies. Through the photographic documentation of the dolls’ construction and reconstruction process, Bellmer enables us to take full stock of his toolbox, so as to not mistake his reconstruction for attempts at spiritual or bodily unity. Such unity had all long been broken by the order of things. Aware of the crimes against public morality that his work had committed under the Nazi cleansing of culture, Bellmer constructed his dolls in isolation, partly in collaboration with his brother. To the degree that our links to fascist tendencies and coercive disciplining of minds and bodies are never fully severed – indeed, more often than not, they are renewed ever so routinely under new descriptions – Bellmer’s reconstructions of crime scenes, as these photos have been described, cannot but produce a sense of uncanny estrangement in their violations of the way bodies ought to look and are expected to please.

Utilizing dolls, mannequins, and mechanical automata, to create the kind of ludic-macabre social space otherwise denied by what Hugo Ball called “this humiliating age,” had begun in the 1910–20s with Dadaists like Sophie Taeuber Arp and her wooden marionettes, Hannah Höch’s fabric dolls, and Emmy Hennings gaunt puppets, short-lived creations for her performances at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich. These artists challenged not the organization of bodies as such, but the bodily organizing principles of their time. Bellmer was familiar with all these artists; when his plans to (re-)construct his own doll concretized in the early 1930s, he contacted the famous German doll maker Lotte Pritzel for professional advice. Seeing a performance of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, in which the hero falls in love with a female automaton, did its part to turn Bellmer into a single-minded reconstructeur of dolls.

Bellmer’s second doll, appearing in the six photographs in this exhibition, reveals a reconstructive mastery of familiar humanoid forms, ball joints and prosthetic limbs, staged in suggestive positions inside bourgeois domestic settings. More than any other maker of dolls, Bellmer’s objects bespeak fetishistic violence, voyeurism, and perversion. His method of coloration, too, could be considered under the rubric of reconstruction, for it appears to conceal artistic choice and instead suggests a natural reaction in the chemical compounds of the photographic medium. This is especially the case in the work Untitled (1938/1949), a photo of elongated doll legs arranged hanging inside a door frame, which suggests the photographic documentation of a sick body plagued by smallpox. To achieve these chromatic effects, Bellmer used aniline purple (also known as mauve), the first mass-produced chemical dye synthesized from coal tar and an invention of the mid-19th century, when organic chemistry began to penetrate industry. These and other inventions from the Age of Capital produced their own social, political, and aesthetic side effects, contributing to the transformation of industry and modern subjectivity well into our time.

Bellmer’s production of degenerate objects echoed his staging of himself as a degenerate, cross-dressing subject in early adolescence, much to the disgust of his Nazi father. That Bellmer’s work is marked by violence through and through is not surprising for an artist who experienced oppression under Nazi rule and, in 1939/40, as an émigré prisoner of the internment camp Les Milles near Aix-en-Provence, where he met Max Ernst. About their time at Les Milles, Ernst reported that Bellmer “mixed a lot with the transvestites in the camp. They were the only tolerable people there.” (Quoted in Peter Webb and Robert Short, Hans Bellmer (New York: Quartet Books, 1985), p. 114) Bellmer shared their criminalized identities and willful transgressions of public morality, such that the most oppressive of conditions was made tolerable by the solidarity between those whose positive identification was expressed in reconstructed identities, subverting sexual distinctions and hierarchies.

Far removed temporally from the Surrealist’s preoccupation with dolls and mannequins, Korean artist Haneyl Choi’s (b. 1991) reconstruction of a mannequin entitled Mini Han (2021) appears no less estranging than those eighteen dolls on ‘Mannequin Street’ during the notorious 1938 Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme in Paris, organized by Breton and Duchamp, which had featured also photographs and drawings of Bellmer’s second doll.

Choi’s material base is not the readymade mannequin, stolen from the shop window, but a minimalist, non-humanoid stainless-steel column. Choi thereby incorporates into his reconstruction the aesthetic and political move from Modernism to Minimalism, from avantgarde legacies and their utopian remnants to an impersonal, industrial paradigm around ‘specific objects’, neither painting nor sculpture, triumphed by Donald Judd and Carl Andre, among others. The content and specific identity of Choi’s steel column – the readymade elements, which animate the sculpture as uncanny mannequin – were provided by a friend of the artist, who gave the sculpture its name: Mini Han, a Korean trans performer and co-owner of Seoul’s queer nightclub Trunk. The club’s name is printed in bold red on the merchandise performance fan attached to the upper part of the column. Choi’s reconstructive theatricalization of his performer friend outside the nightclub, a space of sexually de-regulated or anti-regulated identities, which are no less self-commodified than their opposites, serves as a commentary on heterosexual fantasies and the violence they are known to inflicted on trans identities. Neither the Surrealists nor the Minimalists could (or were motivated to) ever rid themselves of the heterosexual norms that dominated their world view and limited their practice, despite the former’s enthusiasm for self-pathologizing or the latter’s claim to anonymity and de-subjectivation. Artistic and intellectual strategies to eradicate subjectivity, to kill the author as it were, are the upshot of a condition, which never suffered all too much from lack of respect and recognition.

Under the rubric of reconstruction, then, we can read both Bellmer and Choi as engaged in intensification, reflecting a critique of rationality. Thus understood, the modern will to rationalize and impose order is part of the human capacity for violence and domination, no less manifest in psychopathological attempts to ‘diagnose’. It is precisely through reconstruction as intensification that we are reminded of the shameful origins of discourse and structures, of whose existence Nietzsche spoke above. Genealogical considerations might therefore produce an understanding that does not rely on the emergence of historically specific bourgeois morality, viscously haunted by sex. And does not Bellmer himself come close to the strategy of a genealogy in the following utterance. A strategy we can recognize also in Haneyl Choi’s young sculptural practice:

 

“Der Körper, er gleicht einem Satz –, der uns einzualden scheint, ihn bis in seine Buchstaben zu zergliedern, damit sich in einer endlosen Reihe von Anagrammen aufs neue fügt was er in Wahrheit enthält.” (Hans Bellmer, “Die Anatomie der Liebe,” (1957) reprinted in Hans Bellmer special issue of Obliques (Paris: Editions Borderie, 1975), p. 134)

 

“The body equals a sentence –, which appears to invite us to dismember it, so that in an endless array of anagrams it will reveal the truth of what it contains.”

About the author

In addition to his role as co-curator of Reconstruction 重建 together with Aita Sulser, Johannes Hoerning is leading researcher at the Marcel Duchamp Collection & Archive of Hong Kong’s new M+ museum. He received his BA and MPhil in Art History and Philosophy from Hong Kong University and currently writes his PhD dissertation in political theory at Cambridge University. Part of his doctoral research focuses on the history of political ideas in modern China. He is currently working on an essay on Japanese Neo Dada and recently published essays on Tetsumi Kudo, Paul Thek, Sylvie Fleury, and Franz West as well as a critical analysis of the political thought of French intellectual Pierre Rosanvallon. Johannes lives and works in Cambridge and Hong Kong.

Image captions:

1 Installation view of Reconstruction 重建, Image: Annik Wetter.

2 Hans Bellmer, L’avant dernière jeunesse de Kali-Dûrga, 1937/1949, hand coloured silver gelatinous print, 13.7 x 14 cm. Courtesy Galerie 1900 – 2000 Paris.

3 Hans Bellmer, Untitled, 1938/1949, hand coloured silver gelatinous print, 13.7 x 13.7 cm. Courtesy Galerie 1900 – 2000 Paris.

4 Installation view of Haneyl Choi, Mini Han, 2021, Stainless Steel, folding fan, skirt (lees), Unique, 195 x 70 x 25 cm, Courtesy Private Collection Hong Kong, Image: Annik Wetter. 

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