For the duration of his exhibition, street musicians will be coming out of the cold courtesy of Polish artist Paweł Althamer, 46, who is opening his first U.S. museum solo show at New York's New Museum. Seeking to integrate the museum more closely into its wider community, Althamer has recruited a rotating cast of local buskers, including cellists, bagpipers and a full brass band, to play in the museum's lobby and on the sidewalk outside as weather permits. In the galleries, "Paweł Althamer: The Neighbors" (through Apr. 13) features the artist's signature figurative sculptures as well as an experimental interactive installation.
The live music from the lobby is piped to the third floor, where visitors encounter sculptures representing Althamer, his family and members of the diverse communities where the artist has worked. The materials Althamer has employed in these pieces are varied, reflecting the different social, cultural and geographic contexts in which each work was made. A fairy-tale like portrait of the artist's daughter, created in a Swiss mountain town, is composed of straw, grass, hay and animal intestines. Black Market (2007), an installation made in collaboration with African immigrants living in Warsaw, includes a larger-than-life male figure-a portrait of the Althamer-crafted from ebony. On the museum's second floor is Venetians (2013), a group of sculptural portraits of the titular city's inhabitants. The monumental piece was originally conceived for "Encyclopedic Palace" at the 55th Venice Biennale, an exhibition curated by Massimiliano Gioni, the New Museum's associate director and director of exhibitions.
"The Neighbors" is co-organized by Gioni and New Museum curator Gary Carrion-Murayari, who explained in conversation with A.i.A. that for Althamer, "sculpture is an inherently social medium." That ideal, Carrion-Murayari said, "manifests itself in the way that he collaborates with other people, but also in the way [the work] functions to tie together a social group or serve as a signpost for the community."
Althamer's commitment to public engagement through art is embodied in the full-floor installation Draftsmen's Congress (2012). Visitors are encouraged to draw and paint with museum-provided art supplies on every available surface, including the gallery floors, walls and a central teepee-like structure. Althamer has invited a number of local community groups to leave their mark on the project over the course of the exhibition. Versions of the installation have been shown previously in Kiev and Berlin, but how Draftsmen's Congress develops in New York is up to the public.
"I think it's a little bit of an experiment for him," explained Carrion-Murayari. Indeed, an experimental ethos permeates the show. Althamer invited five collaborators from Warsaw to join him in New York for the run of the exhibition with the aim of producing work onsite. Additionally, So-Called Waves and Other Phenomena of the Mind (2003-04), a group of videos installed alongside Venetians, offer a humorous take on self-exploration and mind expansion. Althamer ingested various drugs such as LSD, magic mushrooms and a "truth serum" while artist Artur Żmijewski recorded his friend's chemically altered behavior.
In keeping with the show's title, Althamer will engage the neighborhood beyond the museum. Carrion-Murayari explained that Althamer was drawn to the Bowery Mission, a shelter next door to the museum, and learned that the organization was short of men's coasts this winter. As such, anyone who comes in with a men's coat gets free admission to the show. "Art is a tool," Carrion-Murayari continued, allowing Althamer "to alter reality in a slight way that makes a difference for people who he feels might need it or benefit from it."