At Kunsthalle Basel, the artist’s peculiar designs and polished surfaces speak to the violence against bodies
In the short period between 1967 and 1974, German artist Joachim Bandau produced more than 100 sculptures and accompanying drawings. Kunsthalle Basel currently presents key works from this phase, which the artist abruptly cut off in 1974. ‘Die Nichtschönen: Works 1967–1974’ (The Non-Beauties), the title of Bandau’s show, seems to suggest that the proclaimed ugliness of his sculptures may be a fundamental element of their appeal. The smooth, polished surfaces and abundant use of black leather and rubber refer to the latent force of the fetish pulsating at the core of modern design and consumer culture. However, this is only one aspect of the complex interplay of form, material, surface, indeterminacy and referentiality stated here.
The first gallery opens with a seductive parade of enigmatic sculptural forms. Großes weißes Tor (Great White Gate, 1969/70), for instance, is an M-shaped structure over 2 metres tall, assembled out of a dozen modules. The peculiarly shaped gate with its immaculate, milky white fibreglass and polyester surface, sits somewhere between fragments of ancient ruins and the biomorphic aesthetic of the German industrial designer Luigi Colani, best known for his creations for car companies such as BMW, Fiat and Volkswagen. Opposite to it stands Silbernes Monstrum (Silver Monster, 1970/71), a shimmering, human-sized object on rollers whose head-height protrusion is fitted with two nozzles connected by a length of elastic hose. In his sculptures, Bandau gives contemporary form to the centuries-old art-historical theme of the beautiful monster that is both fascinating and terrifying.
The uncanny quality shared by most of the works in the show derives from the sections of mannequins that Bandau worked into his plastic sculptures that were polished and varnished multiple times. While the idea of a shoulder or hip remains chiefly as an abstract, subliminal presence, references to human anatomy are a recurring theme in the artist’s work. Rarely are the mannequin parts as evident as in the fire-engine-red Transplantationsobjekt VI (Kölner Spritze) (Transplantation Object VI, Cologne Syringe), 1968). Here, the lower body of a mannequin is mounted at the top of a section of drainpipe, its right leg ending in a fire hose nozzle. In the exhibition text, we learn that Bandau’s ‘transplantation objects’ were inspired by current events: in 1967, South African surgeon Christiaan Barnard performed the world’s first successful human heart transplant, receiving worldwide media attention.
Since being presented at Documenta 6 in 1977, 5 Kabinenmobile (Mobile Cabin, 1973) – five kinetic sculptures reflecting human postures such as standing, sitting or kneeling, made of sheet steel with apprentices at Daimler-Benz’s Sindelfingen plant – has been lost. Related sketches and photographs presented here show that the cabins were fitted with electric motors and could not be controlled by those riding inside; on encountering an obstacle, they would change direction. With the small viewing slits, 5 Kabinenmobile is reminiscent of the claustrophobic one-person shelters erected in Germany during World War II. For Bandau’s generation, born in the late 1930s and early ’40s (known in Germany as the ‘war-child generation’), the war and its atrocities were formative experiences.
The motif of violence appears at various points towards the end of ‘Die Nichtschönen: Works 1967–1974’, as in Bandau’s sketch for Kanonen-Sessel (Canon Chair, 1971), and the sculptures Beinprothesen-Sarg (Prosthetic Leg Coffin, 1972), Wasserwerfer (Water Canon, 1974) and Weißes Duschtor (White Shower Gate, 1969). Addressing brutality against the human body, these works serve as a counterpoint within the show, reflecting the history of violence in such an understated, shocking way that the chilling impact lasts long after leaving the exhibition.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
Joachim Bandau, ‘Die Nichtschönen: Works 1967–1974’ is on view at Kunsthalle Basel until 6 June 2021
Main image: Joachim Bandau, Georgische Tänzer (Georgian Dancers), 1971, installation view, Kunsthalle Basel. Courtesy: the artist and Kunsthalle Basel; photograph: Philipp Hänger