Pawel Althamer, 'Common Task, Brasilia', 2009 [enlarge]

Pawel Althamer, 'Common Task, Brasilia', 2009

Pawel Althamer, 'Common Task, Mali', 2009 [enlarge]

Pawel Althamer, 'Common Task, Mali', 2009

Pawel Althamer, 'Common Task, Br?', 2009 [enlarge]

Pawel Althamer, 'Common Task, Br?', 2009

Pawel Althamer, 'Common Task, Oxford', 2009. Photo: Oliver Beer.  Courtesy: all images: the artist and Open Art Projects [enlarge]

Pawel Althamer, 'Common Task, Oxford', 2009. Photo: Oliver Beer. Courtesy: all images: the artist and Open Art Projects


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Pawel Althamer: Common Task

Modern Art Oxford, Oxford, 12 December - 7 March

Reviewed by: Tracey Warr »

A group of men from the Brodno housing estate in Warsaw don gold lamé jumpsuits and accompany artist Pawel Althamer on a journey to Mali in West Africa. Visiting the Dogon people, they join in traditional dances and try to persuade local artists to take up graffiti or use gold spray on their wooden mask sculptures. "Yes we are from the cosmos," they say. Next the 'space crew' arrive at Heathrow in a golden plane and proceed to Oxford where they walk around the city with local participants, trying on a gold space helmet made from an old TV set.

Traces of the project remain in the downstairs exhibition space at Modern Art Oxford (MAO), where six gold suits hang waiting for visitors to put them on and go on their own imaginative play trip as aliens. A projected film tells the story of the Polish men's journey. Other documentary films are in the process of being edited on a console that mimics the bridge of a space ship (more Red Dwarf than Star Trek). The only other objects in the large space are a gold-sprayed mask sculpture, the TV space helmet, some gold bus seats and the evidence of workshops on the walls.

Althamer and his crew reference Robert Temple's book The Sirius Mystery (1976) which argued that the Dogon had contact with intelligent extraterrestrials. They nod to ethnography, to colonial primitivism in modern art, and to concepts of others and aliens. Yet the film footage remains disappointingly patronising to their Malian hosts. Umberto Eco remarked back in 1962 that in "the open work" of art there are "no privileged points of view and all available perspectives are equally valid and rich in potential". Perhaps the intention is there to review the Western privileged point of view, and to offer points of view beyond that of the signature artist, but the work still feels exploitative and voyeuristic to both its Malian hosts and its Polish participants. Althamer traces his influences to Polish architect Oskar Hansen and his concept of the 'open form', privileging process over singular object, allowing viewers to become co-authors through active participation. The most delightful potential of this project is its invitation to grown-up play, but sadly the form that this takes in the gallery is barely adequate to engage us. Instead of becoming playful, everyone looks rather disgruntled with the spacemen: gallery visitors, invigilators and Malians.

Journey-form art, as Nicolas Bourriaud recently remarked, is a prevalent mode in art now, but it immediately begs the questions: how does an artist take viewers on the journey? What are the terms of engagement between visitors and visited? How can the artwork extend beyond its immediate participants? "The astronauts were given a mission. It's up to them how intensely they engage in it," states Althamer's film. Eco writes that there is "the opportunity for an oriented insertion into something which always remains the world intended by the author" in the open work, but the world intended by Althamer is not adequately conceived. His series of guidebooks get the project across much more effectively than the exhibition itself.

Writer detail:
Lecturer in Art Theory at Oxford Brookes University.

Venue detail:
Modern Art Oxford »
30 Pembroke Street, Oxford OX1 1BP

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