As a teenager, my boyfriend and I would often smoke weed and go on city adventures — walking all the way from Eldridge Street through Gramercy Park, Midtown, Korea Town, all the way to Central Park. Our detachment from reality during these aimless missions would allow us to observe the New Yorkers; they seemed grotesque and hilarious, sometimes scary. We were in our own private bubble, and although we didn’t care much about the outside world, we were well-aware of its heaviness.
With “The Neighbors”, Pawel Althamer brings the heavy essence of Warsaw, his hometown, to his first American museum exhibition at The New Museum. Attention is given to the marginals of society, the people that one wouldn’t necessarily notice: the homeless, drug addicts, and other outsiders. These are all universal figures, products of our capitalist societies. Althamer’s hyper naturalistic sculptures of these types are grotesque, like the characters I would encounter on my city adventures — they could very well be from the Bowery Mission right next door to the New Museum; their presence within the sacred art space forces us to look them straight in the eye, while looking at the world from a detached perspective.
In the video triptych “So-Called Waves and Other Phenomena of the Mind”, Althamer puts himself in the vulnerable position of the outsider by taking LSD, smoking hashish and injecting truth serum, with the three experiences filmed by fellow polish artist Artur Żmijewski. As you watch, you observe the “trip” from outside the perspective of the artist, judging him. But then the roles are reversed, because throughout the room is an installation of creepy human-sized sculptures, the “Venitians”. These figures look like skeletons, but Althamer reminds you that this distorted army is around you all the time. Think about the crowd when you cross 34th street and Broadway: if observed too closely that crowd could turn into its own set of creepy figures. You are back to being an outsider, trapped into your own consciousness, whether on LSD, hashish, weed or nothing at all. Pawel points to these universal representations of city-living — whether New York or Warsaw — as “The Neighbors” explores the downside of capitalism, and its gritty yet significant fringes and undercurrents.