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Art review: Kai Althoff 's installation at MoMA gives remembrance a haunted cast

Written by
Howard Halle

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” William Faulkner wrote, and Kai Althoff’s exhibition at MoMA seems to echo that sentiment as it stretches before the viewer like a ghostly attic of memories. Though the show is billed as a midcareer survey, the Cologne, Germany–born artist mashes the works together into a single installation inside a vast white tent. While the arrangement may appear to be random, it is anything but, as objects ebb and flow like a river that pools into eddies before dissipating as runoff.

© Yair Oelbaum

A ramp leads to a room-size platform, also painted white. Light filtering through the fabric enclosure gives the space a twilighty, pinkish hue, while the discordant sound of a vocalist accompanied by guitar plays over speakers, amplifying the sensation that you’ve stumbled into a dream.

Collection the artist © Kai Althoff

The pieces include paintings, sculptures, works on paper, personal ephemera and found items like an antique gynecological examination chair with glass plates replacing the original seat cushions. It looks uncomfortable, which is probably the point. 

Photograph © Kai Althoff

Everything seems provisional: Paintings are stacked onto the type of rolling A-frame carts used to move artworks; elsewhere, they’re propped up on stepped partitions, while low plinths hold dolls and votive figures. Taken together, the whole recalls a giant Dadaist assemblage from the Weimar era.

Photograph © Kai Althoff

Which raises the question: Just what are we dealing with? Memory? History? Both? More pertinently, whose? It’s worth noting that the show includes recurring depictions of Hasidic Jews. Althoff’s treatment of them are, shall we say, ambiguous.

Collection the artist © Kai Althoff

One wall, for example, holds a polygon-shaped canvas of a Jewish family in a car, the roof piled with quilts and mattresses, while actual examples of the same are stacked in front of the painting. Nearby, a framed colored-pencil rendering features a Hasidic man at a supermarket, his eyes blackened like coals. He presides over a stall apocalyptically strewn with trash.

Private collection © Kai Althoff

Althoff’s style (which evokes early-20th-century Mitteleuropan modernists from Egon Schiele to Bauhaus textile queen Anni Albers) runs from refined to crude, and these images fall into a folk-arty in-between. They’re not anti-Semitic, but there’s no denying the otherness of the subjects, who appear to represent the return of what is ultimately repressed: genocide. But who can really say?

Cranford Collection, London © Kai Althoff

The work here isn’t so much an art of memory as it is about the way memory functions, both personally and collectively: Why we remember, what we remember and what we keep stuffed in a trunk of avoidance. Love, loss, death—these are the themes that drift through the proceedings like motes of dust in a room nobody ever goes into. For Althoff, as for all of us, the past is never dead until we are.

Museum of Modern Art, through Jan 2. 

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