One of Many
Palazzina Appiani, Arena Civica, Milan
May 7 – June 5, 2007
Human beings, gripped by ancestral fears and hallucinatory visions, are always at the center of Pawel Althamer’s universe. “One of Many”, the Polish artist’s first major exhibition in Italy, presents a unique selection of his figurative sculptures, all focused on the theme of the portrait.
Parco Sempione also becomes a stage where Pawel Althamer proclaims his challenge to classical sculpture: every day, for the entire duration of the show, a giant self-portrait of the artist—a balloon over twenty meters long—rises into the sky like some temporary public monument, outlandish and hypertrophic. Offering himself up naked to the judgment of passers-by, the artist peers down at us like some new pagan divinity, expressing every person’s secret dream of taking flight. Conceived by Althamer many years ago, the sculpture Balloon (2007) was finally realized through a collaboration between the artist, Fondazione Nicola Trussardi, aeronautic engineers, and manufacturers of helium balloons and parade floats.
Inside Palazzina Appiani, “One of Many” continues with a selection of works in which Althamer, portraying his children and loved ones, multiplies himself into an infinite army of alter-egos and miniature idols. Like a shaman, the Polish artist has undertaken a long introspective journey, subjecting his body to extreme conditions such as the influence of mind-altering substances or hypnosis: the eight videos in So gennante Wellen und andere Phänomene des Geistes (So Called Waves and Other Phenomena of the Mind, 2003–2004) are poetic, fragmentary self-portraits, films that document various hallucinatory states and probe the infinite power of the imagination.
The sculptures on display—often made from organic materials such as grass, leaves, wax, animal intestines and hides—seem to come from an archaic, primordial world; the figures stare back at us, posing questions about the deeper meaning of human identity and personal relationships. In the Sala Appiani on the first floor of the building, Althamer scatters around shreds of his own life story: portraying himself as a child holding a toy; becoming a fairy-tale character in Self-portrait in a Suitcase (1996); representing himself as a classical sculpture made of wood and ceramic, or as a strange hyperrealistic creature in a group portrait that includes his daughter, his new pregnant partner, and a mysterious embryo who is both a self-portrait and a depiction of the unborn child. The exhibition also takes a look at the artist’s future: “One of Many” is haunted by a unexpected ghostly presence. Althamer found a man who resembles what he will look like in old age, and lets him wander around the exhibition spaces; this Self-portrait as an Old Man (2001) predicts the artist’s life to come, while unearthing his deepest roots. The exhibition concludes with the notes of a street musician who composes a strange soundtrack for a film in real time. These melodies are played by a musician from Darfur who sits on a bench in Parco Sempione, entertaining passers-by with traditional songs from his homeland; a special sound system channels the music into Palazzina Appiani, where it wafts through the spectacular balcony looking out onto the Arena, bringing reality into the very heart of the show.
“One of Many” is the first contemporary art exhibition to be held in Milan’s Arena Civica. Commissioned by Napoleon, designed in Neoclassical style as a Roman amphitheater by architect Luigi Canonica in 1805, and decorated with a fresco cycle by Andrea Appiani, the Arena was inaugurated on December 17, 1807 with a grand naval battle staged before the Emperor, who was seated in the royal box. Over the years, it housed circuses and plays, horse and chariot races, firework displays, ice skating and even 19th-century balloon rides. Memorable events were also held there, such as Buffalo Bill’s legendary Wild West Show in 1894 and 1906, the arrival of the first Giro d’Italia bicycle race (on May 30, 1909), and even the first football derby between the two Milanese teams of the time (Mediolanum-Milan on May 20, 1900). Purchased by the City in 1870, it became known as the Arena Civica Milano. Bombings during World War II seriously damaged the structure, and it only began to house sporting events and international concerts again in the 1970s.
Pawel Althamer was born in 1967 in Warsaw, where he lives and works. From 1988 to 1993, he studied art with Grzegorz Kowalski. Althamer has had solo exhibitions at Centre Pompidou in Paris (2006), the Zacheta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw (2005), Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen in Düsseldorf (2003), the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago (2001), and Kunsthalle Basel (1997). The Polish artist has taken part in many group shows in prestigious institutions such as the New Museum in New York (2008), Tate Modern in London (2007), Creative Time in New York (2006), Haus der Kunst in Munich (2004), the Institute of Contemporary Art in London (2004), Museum Ludwig in Cologne (2002 and 2001) and international festivals such as Skulptur Projekte in Münster (2007), the 4th berlin biennale (2006), the 9th International Istanbul Biennial (2005), the 1st Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art (2005), the 54th Carnegie International at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh (2004), the Venice Biennale’s 50th International Art Exhibition (2003), Manifesta 3 in Ljubljana (2000) and Documenta 10 in Kassel (1997). In 2004 he won the Vincent Award, organized from 2002 to 2004 by the Bonnefantenmuseum in Maastricht.