A pile of salt.1 Or perhaps two piles of salt. Neither is quite correct. Perhaps it’s easier, for the moment, to leave the material details to one side; to focus on the concept. After all, we’re always being told that that’s what contemporary art is really all about. In any case, everyone knows that today we live in a dematerialised world. How else could we have survived the great pandemic?
In geometric terms, then, a pyramid2 and a cone. But they are fused together, so as to be not quite either. Like conjoined twins, their apexes suggesting separate origins, while their bases describe a shared end. Although there is visibly enough of each shape to allow us to imagine two distinct wholes. But then we’ve already slipped from a world of truths to guesswork once again. Wasn’t mathematics invented to put a stop this kind of thing?
It’s a simple object but hard to pin down in words. Perhaps we need to describe it in time as well as space. The apex of each is the single point, a grain of salt, to which all other points in the structure can be connected via a straight line. Two apexes, describing single events, travelling in multiple directions, with an episode of disruption and interference, where you can’t be certain which grains are connected to which apex grain, at the fringe.
Axiomatic. There’s a region in Austria called the Salzkammergut, literally (albeit somewhat archaically) the salt demesne. The Saltzkammergut is home to what we might today, having been bombarded with Disney animations, Japanese anime and related cultural theme parks, inevitably think of as a ‘cartoonishly’ picturesque village3. It’s as much an ideal of an alpine village as a reality, nestled between the shores of the Hallstätter See and the steep slopes of the Dachstein massif. It’s called Hallstatt and has been described as ‘the most Instagrammable town in the world’. The locals complain that it’s become a tourist trap and visits are now time-restricted. Tourists come, presumably, to have their ideals confirmed by reality4. It is so popular, in fact, that in 2012 a replica village was constructed in Guangdong province in China. So that Chinese tourists would have to suffer neither the inconvenience nor the expense of travel. Tourism in the age of industrial reproduction. Tourism in the age of the virus. Or the embodiment of conceptual art.
Travel to Hallstatts one and two was further increased when rumours circulating on Chinese social-media suggested that it was the model for the movie Frozen5. It wasn’t, but that doesn’t matter. At some point everything cuts its umbilical cord.
Down the road from Hallstatt is the city of Salzburg (the salt fortress)6, home of the Von Trapp family in the 1965 film The Sound of Music. But before they were alive with the sound of music, the hills were alive with the sound of salt mining7. An industry that, in the area around Hallstatt, dates back to prehistoric times8. Salt is the reason people settled there. It was in the structure of the landscape and now the landscape has been labelled with it too. It made Hallstatt the centre of an international trade route. It was the point from which lines of exchange spread out. Not just for salt, but for salt-related products, such as speck, too. This is how culture develops9. Today the hills are alive to the sound of archaeologists’ trowels.
What begins with a single event, the discovery of a mineral, expands in every direction10, until the originary event is lost in a blizzard of references and interpretations, interference and distortion. And in that, as is the case with most things involving humans, references separate from their referents, the real and the imaginary collide, merge and become indistinguishable. A bizarre whole. One. A white pile in a white cube. A white out. And in many ways that’s precisely the process we attribute to the creation of art. Or the process by which we read art. Whether we’re author or reader, we’re generally swimming between sense and non sense.
Perhaps, more prosaically, it’s a carefully crafted, highly stylised puddle of salt. The result of a curious effect of gravity as it rained down onto the gallery floor. Although there’s some suggestion in the carefully carved edges that someone has, at least, done a bit of mopping up.11
A mirror image. Although at first glance it might not look it. One element sophisticated the other crude. One smooth and thin, the other angular and lumpen. One the produced by the mechanisms of a factory, the other by the mechanics of the Earth (and the mechanics of one stone hammering into another, with the aid of some sweaty human individual). One brand new, the other ancient. Opposites you might think. But, then again, most of the time appearances give little clue as to how one thing relates to the other. You need to look at the underlying structures. Both are made of materials derived from the silicate family. Two tools, separated by thousands of years in terms of their manufacture. One for computing one for stabbing, cutting and bashing. Both at the technological cutting edge of their times. Juxtaposed rather than conjoined. A rock trapped in a disco ball.12 A sample being transported from Mars. It looks at once museological and futuristic.
Perhaps the whole is a sign of progress. Or that lack of it.Depending on which you decide is first among these equals. Or which object is most useful for you at the time. At heart it’s a matter of perspective. Time and space. An event spreading out in multiple directions that might appear differently depending on your point of view. Like the shifting landscapes in a block of jesmonite, carved so as to represent and conceal a multitude of forms simultaneously, each one visible when you assume a different angle or occupy a different slice of time.13
Über-stylish underground space A neo-industrial Kreuzberg basement bar/club space for gay men (and lesbians) with various nooks and crannies in which to get lost in the best possible way. And as with every other half-inch of this subterranean space, the nooks and crannies are all immaculately conceived, with execution approaching (achieving?) design overload. Located seconds from both the celebrated sauna Der Boiler [see entry] and the equally famous vegetarian/chicken kebab hot spot Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebap [see entry]. U-Bahn: Merhingdamm. Opened 15 July 2016. Sadly, UnterTage is due to close in January 2020.14
Apex predators. Perhaps the interesting question is whether or not these objects are designed or programmed to reveal or conceal. Inform or deceive. To do both of course would be the essence of seduction or, in art-historical terms, the kind of disturbing effect that eighteenth-century aestheticians once described as sublime. Ultimately, they were talking about the kind of pleasure that some people enjoy while having their genitals wired up to a car battery. (While avoiding, like all aestheticians of their time, the fact that there might be anything other than a scientific thrill in any of this.) But in all this there’s a juxtaposition of truths: a story materials tell and the various stories we tell ourselves about them. Truth vs culture. Suggestions offered by what we see and the associations we make with what we see. All of which we rely on to describe or negotiate our relationship with these objects. And perhaps this is the real story of art: it’s got nothing to do with artworks and everything to do with ourselves. Our desire to make them a part of our world before we realise, with horror, that we are merely a part of theirs. What makes these objects intriguing is their apparent ambivalence about the power dynamics about this relationship and the general the direction in which it flows. Like all good art they hover somewhere between a suggestion and a fact. And there does that leave us, the viewers who engage with these things? Sometimes you’re the hammer, they suggest; and sometimes you’re the nail.
Mark Rappolt, ‘Caught Knapping’, in ‘Untertage’
1 In common usage, salt is an uncountable noun. We only have a word for the mass, rather than the individual parts. Moreover, it is an uncountable noun that has no definitive or generally used partitive noun: a pinch, a lot, a spoon, a cup – take your pick, there is no definitive means of separating the part from the whole.
8 The time before writing, when words were connected to the time it occupied to say them, rather than the space they occupied when inscribed in material form.
2 With, naturally (or is it?), the attendant associations to the most grandiose expressions of Ancient Egyptian funerary architecture. (Being strict about geometry, we can rule out their Mesoamerican equivalents on account of their flattened tops. On account of their having no point.)
9 The culture of late-Bronze Age and early Iron Age Europe, from the 12th to the 6th centuries BCE is now labelled Hallstatt culture.
3 Hayao Miyazaki’s (he of Studio Ghibli fame) first mainstream success in animation came producing the setting and layout for the animated series Heidi, Girl of the Alps in 1974.
10 Following the model of a light cone in special and general relativity. Although relativity in art is something else entirely.
4 Also, as it happens, a subfunction of contemporary art. Which in turn might explain art’s close relationship to propaganda and, in the case of our museums, to tourism itself.
11 Were it not for the gallery floor, one could imagine the form extending indefinitely, the individual particles getting further and further apart, but the whole carrying on and on. But sometimes you have to be practical about these things.
5 While the residents of Hallstadt itself were begging ‘Frozen tourists’ to stay away.
12 There’s probably a series of quite plausible musical analogies you can potentially extrapolate from that event, orbiting around the relationship between disco, rock and New Wave. Just one more among the seemingly infinite number of analogies that these objects seem created to trigger.
6 Adolf Hitler’s favourite restaurant, when he was staying at his retreat in Obersalzberg, was known for its panoramic views of the salt fortress below. He liked to keep on top of things.
13 Which finds a corollary in the world as viewed through according to different viewpoints within social-media or via alternative web browsers, via alternative truths or facts.
7 Hallstatt two, in Guangdong, was constructed by the China Minmetals Corporation, making it a mirror image of Hallstatt one in more ways than one.