Gelatin Plays with Blocks


I’m not sure if children still play with wooden blocks, but seeing the huge block of Styrofoam that the Austrian artist group Gelatin placed in the atrium of the 21er Haus, Vienna, for the show “Hole” (through Sept. 29) made me want to help tear it down. But instead of destroying for the fun of it, Gelatin destroyed to create.

The group—made up of Wolfgang Gantner, Ali Janka, Florian Reither and Tobias Urban—glued together smaller blocks of Styrofoam to create a 26-by-26-foot cube, leaving only a small hole in one of the sides, which led to a staircase to the top. With their blank block ready, the artists, together with more than a dozen collaborators, including fellow artists Christoph Meier and Salvatore Viviano, began to dig and pick away at the white mass from the top.

Music, which ranged from a droning voice and classical piano to electronic compositions, courtesy of Philipp Quehenberger and other international musicians, accompanied the work in progress and frequently seemed to match the pace of the quarrying and chopping. Once chunks of the white material were removed, found objects, most often pieces of broken furniture, were placed into the holes and quick-setting plaster poured in. When the plaster dried, the objects were excavated, sometimes with what seemed to be great difficulty, and then lowered to ground level, where they were cleaned up. Some sit precariously atop large chunks of Styrofoam, while others rest on quickly made plinths.

The small army of people doing this worked as a unit, with little, if any, apparent coordination or direction from a leader. This lasted for six days; each day Gelatin and comrades worked from 2 to 8 P.M., with breaks for food and drink provided by friends. All the while visitors would meander through the exhibition hall that was filled with white Styrofoam fluff and an ever-increasing number of beguiling sculptures. Each of the three times I visited, I found the interaction between those working on mining art from the monumental mass and those viewing the art to be so open, so free, that I wondered whether I was witnessing a truly flattened, unhierarchical system, not only between artists in a group but also between artists and audience.

Was the relationship between artists and collaborators so egalitarian that this philosophy was filtering out to the viewers? Or maybe what made the show special was the opportunity to see how the plaster assemblages that dotted the exhibition space were made. I like to think that at least one of the factors contributing to giving this artistic event its open, democratic aura is that people simply delighted, childlike, in watching a pile of blocks torn down.