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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Kienholz at The Baltic

Saturday, June 25, 2005

The exhibition of Ed and Mary Kienholz*, in what is the first showing of their work in the UK for 30 years, is both expansive, sexual and violent, and minutely detailed, intimate and comic.

In one of the pieces entitled Bear Chair, from which I had to turn quickly away, a bear straddles a doll-like young girl tied with frayed rope to a small chair, the words, "IF YOU EVER TELL I'LL HURT YOUR MAMA REAL REAL BAD" scratched into a child's dressing table. But in the corridor leading up to the small room in which it is contained, the walls are covered with dollar bills, the artistic product of an amusing domestic anecdote: Kienholz, desperate for a particular screwdriver, made a watercolour and stamped on it "For Nine Screwdrivers," ultimately trading this unique piece for a set of tools of his neighbour; from this small barter, others followed, from a Mercedes to a fur coat, and spawned a variant theme in which he literally painted money, watercolour recreations of dollar bills which sold for more than their face "value."

Photograph of a black sign saying Baltic Flour Mills

At the other end of the size scale, a kitsch fairground ride entitled Ozymandias Parade, British and American leaders mounted on snarling horses drag by wires armies of plastic toys in ranks: toy soldiers, toy cars, missiles, jedi knights. A protest made in 1985, I was tempted to note how particularly relevant it is two decades later in the context of Iraq of today (and, in the case of the latter toy, of a new Lucas film); the depressing reality, of course, is that it would have made itself heard in any year of the last half-century (I assumed, at first, that it must have been a rebellion against Vietnam). As the coloured lights circle relentlessly round the base, so this plays like a piece on repeat, endlessly of the imperialistic moment.

Kienholz founded the concept of installation art, and the centerpiece of this exhibition, filling an entire room, is The Hoerengracht, a recreation of an Amsterdam street. With contemporary pop playing on tinny radios in the background, one feels like a seedy voyeur, creeping around, peering in at the prostitutes, dressed plastic marionettes, sitting in provocative poses behind warped glass. The double aspect of this voyeurism is that not only do they occupy a particular space from which to be observed, but they are also frozen in time by the copious amounts of glue which literally hold the exhibits together, sprayed against everything as if from a hosepipe, oozing down walls, forming sticky tear-like streaks down the dolls' cheeks.

Whilst contemporary installation art often presents itself as instantaneous, simply removed to a gallery from the coincidental circumstances of its creation (Tracy Emin's infamous Unmade Bed is a prominent example), in fact much of it relies on careful planning and expertise: the logistics of emptying a room in a house, or exploding a garden shed, careful lighting and filming, the preservation of animals in toxic substances. What characterises the Kienholz exhibition is the haphazard nature of its construction, the way things found on the street or in junk yards (the raw material for all these works) appear to have been placed swiftly together and bonded by adhesive before gravity had a chance to make them fall apart. In spite of the glue preserving things in time and space, the overall impression is one of speed and chaos, and of the fact that these works have been catalysed by impulsive and furious reactions to the humanitarian and political situation of the late twentieth century.

* Kienholz runs at the Baltic in Gateshead from 14 May to 29 August 2005

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