Text by Michael Mulvihill
BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art presents All-in-One, a major survey exhibition of German Artist Thomas Bayrle. Bayrle had featured prominently in Documenta 13 yet has been relatively unknown outside Germany. All-in-One, the artist’s first major show in the United Kingdom features over two hundred art works, covering the artist’s career from the 1960s to the present day. While it is tempting to equate Bayrle’s repeated patterns featuring common consumer goods with Andy Warhol and American Pop Art, the story this show tells is much more particular to Germany’s postwar economic recovery, and the country’s frontline position in the Cold War.
Bayrle began his career as an apprentice weaver in a textile factory in the mid-1950s, and it was during this time that he observed parallels between the fabric being woven and the socio-economic structures of society. This was also when the competing ideologies of Western capitalist-consumer democracy and Soviet communist economy split Germany into two separate states of East and West. Yet for Bayrle there was little distinction between these ideologies in terms of how both presented ways of organising and distributing production, which is something he has celebrated over and over, almost as if such forms of organisation are a given part of human nature.
In the work Ajax (1966) regiments of cleaners are mechanically animated, evoking the large scale communist parades in the image of a western consumer product. Bayrle develops this idea through graphic works that repeat and transform capitalist, consumerist, militarist and communist motifs into hallucinogenic and transcendent incantation such as La vache qui rit (1967), Der Tiger (1969) andTelephone AT and T (1970).
Bayrle’s poetic contemplation upon human nature and mechanised production is distinct from Anglo-American experiential representations of consumption; while American and British pop artists revelled in the the sensory experience of mass consumerism, Bayrle and fellow German artist’s like Kraftwerk serenade the infra-structure and machinery of production and distribution – for example in Kraftwerk’s celebration of limitless automobile travel in Autobahn (1976) contrasted with the Beach Boy’s hedonistic Fun Fun Fun (1964) – . Even sex and sexuality in works such as Fire in the Wheat (1970) are depicted like a coupling within a machine or engine with a purpose beyond either love, or gratification.
Like the Thomas Scheibitz exhibition held at Baltic last summer, All-in-One demonstrates an artist committed to using their art as a tool to divine meaning and reason from the workings of the world. Bayrle’s generation had emerged from the homicidal excess of totalitarianism, which also brought virtual annihilation of cities, populations and infra-structure; W G Sebald writes in A Natural History of Destruction that the German character is resolutely future bound, lest they remember the rat and disease ridden necropolis of Germany immediately after World War II. While Bayrle could be critical of ideologies such as consumer capitalism that construct the modern world, his work is also a philosophical restorative, that likens human life to mechanical or computerised functions, or for example in the film work Rubber Plant (1993) where human existence is likened to the coming and going of ants on a leaf.
Thomas Bayrle: All-in-One continues at BALTIC, Gateshead until 23 February 2014.
Image by Colin Davison