Borrowing its title from Joseph Conrad’s 1899 narrative about the paternalistic arrogance of imperialism, Heart of Darkness consists of three large-scale environments by artists Kai Althoff, Ellen Gallagher and Edgar Cleijne, and Thomas Hirschhorn that address the complex and ever-present conflicts between desire and possession, expansion and domination, power and equality. The exhibition articulates the notion of darkness as a fantastical territory of wonderment and possibly enlightenment. Working with fairy tales, science fiction, printed matter, and archival imagery, the artists invite us to enter their uncanny fictitious worlds. In darkness, their monumental pieces cover a broad range of references, from Freud’s studies of marine anatomy to Plato’s allegory of the cave.
Heart of Darkness begins with Althoff’s Solo für eine befallene Trompete (Solo for an Afflicted Trumpet) (2005), a walk-in maze of drawings and paintings, obscure photographs, and occasionally eerie artifacts. The artist envisioned an uninhibited room, a sort of sovereign land where bourgeois codes of order, tidiness, and beauty are suspended. As if arranged by the compulsive mind of an introverted being, these objects construct a surreal web of associations blending memory and fantasy, seduction and violence. Deep emotions are at the heart of Althoff’s art, as he explains: “I think my work is much more about ‘love,’ if I dare say that: things that I don’t get from love, things that I love or want to love, or that I want to love me.”
In the second gallery is Murmur: Watery Ecstatic, Kabuki, Blizzard of White, Super Boo, Monster (2003), a 16mm film installation by Gallagher made in collaboration with Cleijne. Visitors will travel through a labyrinth of lights mapping the gallery space where “the voyage itself becomes a kind of origin myth,” says Gallagher, unfolding an apocalyptic revelation of a lawless territory.
The exhibition concludes with Hirschhorn’s Cavemanman (2002). Composed of five interconnected rooms, this walk-in “cave” presents a series of philosophical trails that traverse capitalist ideological paths and subterranean anarchist passageways. In their journey through this manmade cavern, viewers will encounter information overload; dozens of books; a video monitor showing footage of Lascaux II (a theme-park recreation of the prehistoric painted caves in Montignac, France); a series of clocks that tell the time in different cities; and other paraphernalia perhaps belonging to a hermetic inhabitant in search of an alternative world in which all human beings are equal.
The artists’ propositions, filled with idealism, poetry, and sometimes humor, visualize a space independent of social conventions and xenophobia, where different experiences of love, approval, racial and sexual identification, and equality could exist. In contrast to Conrad’s novel, the nonconformist idealism and fervent irrationality of these works propose a quixotic, alternative view of the world.