Gehard Demetz. CONTENITORE
Beck & Eggeling, New Quarters, Düsseldorf
September 10 – October 29, 2011

Little big creatures They never look at you – they watch you
by Kirsten Nordahl

„I am interested in another level of analysis, where the superficial gloss of the image does not count but rather the understanding of the deep roots of my subjects, those roots that make them act and be in a certain way.“ 1

The sculptures by the Italian artist Gehard Demetz generally depict children, who confront the viewer as small adults. They consciously irritate and provoke the beholder, all the while remaining distanced and unapproachable, as though they were retreating into a small 'big world' of their own, within which they playfully explore all that matters to grown-ups. They examine everything very carefully, scrutinize adult motivations and tend to take a critical view of world affairs. They play with fire, probing the boundaries of their own power. They walk a fine line between being a child and becoming an adult, between unconscious action and conscious behaviour, between playful innocence and painful awakening.

The playfulness so innate to children is reflected in their creator's practice. Instead of carving the figures out of a single block of wood, he uses a number of modular components to mould and construct them. Demetz employs the traditional craftsmanship of woodcarving and transforms it into a completely unique and contemporary language within the field of sculpture. Upon closer examination, his figures appear fragmentary and complete at the same time. The body is a shell constructed out of wooden modules – a shell out of which emerge the distinguishing parts and accessories, all carved in an elaborate and realistic manner. Only the bare skin, the face, hands and legs are generally delicate. Hair and clothes are carved in an expressive manner. Geometrical signs arise from the cracks and empty spaces left between the modules. The abstract composition thus created (re-)structures the realistic character of the frontal view. Seen from behind, the figure is a mere silhouette built from geometrical elements. The unity of the sculpture originates from a multiplicity of wooden modules glued together. Tradition and innovation, the finished and the unfinished, realism and its denial are only some of the contradictions in the wake of which these sculptures develop their full intensity.

Demetz endows his figures with a critical mind of their own. These children seem to take responsibility for their parents' and ancestors' actions and the intrigues of other adults. And yet they keep a critical distance to it all. By placing them life-size on a pedestal, the artist gives his figures and their behaviour a seriousness, which is not easy to disregard. Due to the integrated plinth, the youngsters always communicate at eye level with the adult viewer, though they rarely allow direct eye contact. They demand respect.

Four life-size figures engaged in questioning the frequently contradictory cultural values which characterise contemporary society form the core of the current exhibition. The moral values are represented here by religion, the material ones by economics. His legs apart and face transfixed, a small boy holds a crucifix in his hands as if he were protecting himself or threatening the viewer with a rifle. Whether a child warrior coerced into fighting for specific beliefs or a child that was abused by a person of trust or member of the Church, innocence and childhood are irrevocably lost. The artist is, in this case, less interested in how specific values are pursued and lived than he is in the way people let themselves be corrupted by them or the way in which they are exploited until eventually a loss of these same values appears unavoidable.

A cross and a tabernacle symbolise religion and the values intrinsic to it, while a jerrycan represents the profane. Being a container used for transporting and storing liquids, the jerrycan functions as a symbol either for water and its life-sustaining qualities or for the lucrative aspects of petrol and the material values of industrial societies. The ruthlessness of industry and money making was the subject of an earlier work by Demetz: Be Priest, a small girl armed with an oil pump, was created in 2010 at a time when the whole world was watching one of the most devastating ecological disasters unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico after an explosion had occurred on the oil rig Deepwater Horizon. The initials of the title of the sculpture are a discreet allusion to the oil company responsible for the disaster.

The artist's most recent works feature two significant new developments. For the first time two objects are taken out of their usual context and set apart as sculptures in their own right: A contorted tabernacle and a jerrycan embedded in Gothic ornaments with an almost sacred appearance. Taken in combination with the figures, these same props now forcibly penetrate the children's bodies like sharp weapons. What the viewer might, at first glance, perceive as an act of violence is in fact a logical development: it builds on the subversive sharpness intrinsic to all previous works by the artist. Seen in the context of the exhibition and its main theme, this initial perception of brutality can be interpreted as the subject 's internalisation of the moral concepts being symbolised.

The title of the exhibition contenitore – containers – is not only a reference to the props given by Demetz to his most recent child figures. They are also a metaphor for the children themselves. According to the artist, children can be seen as a kind of container, because of their capacity to absorb or contain certain contents - contents which can be taken out again at a later time. In a similar way, children, in their zeal and fervour to discover the world, assimilate everything they experience with their five senses and, to everybody's surprise, spurt it out again without any prejudice and with irresistible charm, humour, stubbornness or defiance. In a way, this is exactly how the figures Demetz creates would behave.

One of the essential characteristics of Demetz' figures is their ability and willpower to successfully free themselves from the burdens of the past. Because he appears to have no hands, a small orthodox Jew is sentenced not to be able to act for himself. Could this little Hebrew's assumed incapacitation be a symbol for the history of his fellow believers – a history shaped by a threatened existence? It is striking how sad and yet determined the boy looks, as if he were clearly opting for the future, while still honouring the past. Man might, through his actions, jeopardise the future of his children. But Demetz' child figures are definitely no victims. On the contrary, they are headstrong, self-conscious, curious, ingenious and determined. They even defend themselves if need be. They are enigmatic creatures, who, beyond their critical attitude towards society and the burden of their past, are at peace with themselves and always nurse a glimmer of hope.

„They live with the burden of guilt transmitted from generation to generation, which does not belong to them. They are children who feel sad about not being able to really be children, but who have, on the other hand, the possibility of choosing to become adults, totally independently, thus freeing themselves little by little of all the influences transmitted by their ancestors.“2

1 Gehard Demetz, Conversation with Luigi Fassi in: Paolo Galli (ed.), Gehard Demetz. Sculptural Child Figures, Silvana Editoriale, Milan, 2008, p. 50.

2 Ibid., p. 44.