The Other Side of the World: Gerhard Demetz’ Sculptural Child Figures
by Rolf Lauter

It is not surprising that Gerhard Demetz’ enigmatic child figures appear in a time marked by complex anthropological changes and developments. His central theme is man, or better, the image of man in our time, and here particularly the portrayal of children and adolescents in puberty, which is mysterious for many reasons. Demetz cuts the child figures from wood or synthetic material. Their bodies are fragmented figurative shells that express a high degree of self-questioning, skepticism, incertitude, vulnerability, ambiguity and vicissitude. At the same time they come across as hard, hermetically sealed and self-protective portraits of humans, which radiate a distanced coolness. These sensitive or wounded creatures refer us to another side of life – to a world, which broaches on an endless continuity of adult neglect as well as the children’s quest for a better understanding. Demetz child sculptures also reveal a world beyond that of established sculpture, by questioning contemporary family structures and pointing out the individual fate of children and youths as a central aspect of his artistic focus.

What is it that makes Demetz’ child figures so unfathomably sad, lonely, aloof and unique?

Firstly: it is their material. Cut from white wood or acrylic they come across as being inapproachable, almost majestic. Symbolically, the child figures’ whiteness refers to purity and innocence and at the same time it transmits an antiseptic coldness and distance that gives them a kind of aural shield against adult influence. In their statuary poses these seemingly frozen creatures assert themselves as intensely innate and self-contained people, akin to another world than those of adults or children. They are de-emotionalized beings, systematically untrained or deprived of feeling, withdrawn to their inner selves in order to protect themselves from physical or psychological injury, knowing that their outer appearance should not reveal anything about their inner conditions. Their expressions reveal that they have withdrawn to be their own masks, manifesting themselves as inspirited “machine men.” They bear resemblance to the Golem, whose lifeless mass is brought to life through Kabbalistic rituals and numerological mysticism. While the Golem was created for the sake of human society, Demetz’ child sculptures seem to turn away from the everyday world, leading estranged autistic existences as totem-like memorials to a world hostile to children and creativity.

Secondly: it is their fragmentation! Looking at the figures more closely, walking around them to explore the plasticity and structure of their bodies, one becomes aware of various rectangular gaps or openings in the material, shaft- or drawer-shaped holes, lacking material, filled only with emptiness. They are pictorial relicts from the Surrealist time warp in Salvador Dali’s paintings, which subversively draw our attention to the relativity and transience of human life. They are also points of injury, where children’s bodies break open and no longer appear intact. Besides these deliberately set blank spaces, some of the figures’ backs are hollowed out, making them more like reliefs than freestanding sculptures. In this respect we find ourselves opposite concrete “bodies of art” rather than mimetic representations of people. The figures become relicts of a structural constructivist depiction of man. They touch on Manneristic notions of l’homme machine as a harbinger of Arte Programmata and the kinetic art of the 1960s. On the other hand, Demetz’ figures are characterized by a demonstrative presence and undercutting ordinariness, which makes us shudder.

Thirdly: Demetz uses the style and attributive configuration of his works to amplify their effect. He employs theatrically charged elements to question naturalness and uses transformation to destabilize the children’s physical integrity und give them the quality of something unfinished, cocoon-like, bizarre and unreal. They are presented like little grown-ups – pubescent beings, who play with the utensils of adulthood, demonstrating their sensitive knowledge of life’s hazards and illusions. Equipped with things, like keys, women’s boots, men’s ties, scissors etc., the figures express their readiness to enter the adult world and even instinctively challenge it. In order to test reactions and learn from venturesome enterprises they temporarily slip into adult shells. In this way the child figures mirror thought-provoking ideas and meaning. Most of us can probably remember a situation where we were confronted with the stern, inaccessible and emotionless behavior, the introvert psychological expressions or cruel poises of children, and being seriously upset by their adolescent directness and honesty. Understanding this feeling of strangeness and incongruity, which the experiment of being an individual constitutes, this need to define and exert oneself, is prerequisite to being able to release children from the family context and allow them to go their own way.

Fourthly: Demetz has an interest in transporting specific ideas. The child figure sculptures are symbolically charged creatures from their very own different world, a world that usually shuts grown-ups out and only opens up when a child develops a particular sense of trust, and the adult – looking back on his or her own past – becomes aware how similar their situations are. Demetz’ figures don’t allow viewers to make eye contact or seek other kinds of dialogue with them, instead they are hermetic creatures of a strange kind, of an “other” kind, unfathomable and inaccessible. They are characters that could have escaped from „Lord of the Flies“, lonely militant creatures demonstrating the power of corporal presence and negatively geared activity, as they dominate others with their emotional coldness. Demetz transfers this childish coldness, which is particularly manifest in a feeling of loneliness, to the world of art. Art is used here as a direct means of reference to social connections with specific ideas and meanings. The representations mirror sociopolitical cultural concepts, which confront us with a clear message.

In the context of art history and contemporary sculpture, Demetz’ figures increase their potential for interpretation as partly traditional and partly innovative modules of inference in a not so ideal world. Somehow resembling the protagonists in existentialist plays, like those of Jean Paul Sartre, these hermetic child figures generally pose many questions about the certitude of existence. Is it still appropriate to grant different age groups varying degrees of recognition and respect? Could a better integration of childish ideas and attitudes not perhaps make things a little easier and improve social reality? Would it not be worth a try, to allow children to live out their creativity in everyday life, so that we can learn from them how non-linear thought processes work?

Demetz draws our attention to his perception of life, existence and being human, and his child figures introduce us to a wide range of open questions that may find answers sometime in the future, although these don’t quite seem to exist yet. However, by maximizing our empathy as adults we can aspire to create a more tolerant and just society, in which the individual can play his or her unique role regardless of age, and where this is respectfully acknowledged by others. Somehow one can be grateful to Demetz and his carefully staged und skillfully constructed sculptures, with which he questions the time after gender mainstreaming, a time, in which children have the right to develop their own personalities. This can only happen within the framework of new educational concepts and projects that foster the personal development of children and teenagers, encouraging creativity, rather than following business-oriented and functional aims. This could enable a more ambitious cultural education, through which the individual, as an artist and creative individual in the sense of Joseph Beuys’ vision, is empowered to unleash and employ his or her intrinsic intellectual und creative potential.