Das Duell – Okka-Esther Hungerbühler


In Mary Shelley’s 19th century novel Frankenstein, a man tries to play God (or a woman) and creates his own child. It’s a story about the dangers in subverting nature and the wrath of the unloved child (Frankenstein’s monster) and his unloving parent (Viktor Frankenstein, also a monster). The child Frankenstein’s maker is three things: god, parent, and artist [1].

In her exhibition Das Duell, Okka-Esther Hüngerbuhler continues her practice of embodying entropy through sculptural forms. Her works are delicate, the means of their production exposed like rough stitches along assembled limbs. Parts are attached with hot glue and tape. The ephemera that they consist of are often the stuff of childhood play: dyed feathers, sparkles, craft paper and cardboard. Upon encountering Hungerbühler’s paintings and sculptures, the works are slightly difficult to evaluate, playing on the dual nature of fragility and cheapness, the rough and the feminine. The artist bravely embraces paradox in her practice, in an act of rebellion against preconceived notions of value and taste.

Her works tell the story of the lonely protagonist. In her paintings imagery of empty rooms and bars are threaded through the series. The self is an actor who has just left the stage, leaving only architecture behind. The works are permeated by a sense of absence and loss. As abstractions of theatre scenes and womanly figuration, they vibrate with magic energy, a fantasy narrative where things are not what they seem and could change. Bold, simple, and nuanced, figures dodge out of frame or have already left. The vibrant colors and playful gestures in these paintings contradict the loneliness and anxiety that pervades them. Aerial views remind us of omnipotence and security footage–a privileged and isolated perspective.

The protagonist in Frankenstein is a monster as a stitched together form; he is an electrical experiment turned sentient being–the first robot of fiction. In him, Shelley addresses ethical questions about artificial intelligence, love and the boundary between the human and sub-human. Hungerbühler’s raw and crafty surfaces belie their own complex robotic inner workings, and theirs is also a story of a precarious optimism, a broken promise from all their worlds’ futures. These anthropomorphic creatures tumble from grace, but they are resplendent in their failure. The two main actors, Blue Flower and Big Wurm stand opposite one another like two figures in a perpetual choreography–they are as two steps in the biological dance of birth and decay. Their fates are entwined. Their worlds are separate, if only for now.

Blue Flower commands our attention. Hers is the external world of light, love and growth and Big Wurm her character foil, a pawn of the underworld and its humus- filled darkness. Hungerbühler’s robotic flower is motion censored, opening and closing when it senses a viewer approach. “But what kind of love is it, really?” asks Maggie Nelson of her love for the color blue in her novella Bluets, “Don’t fool yourself and call it sublimity.[2]” She walks us through her desire to consume a little pile of blue pigment, before denouncing the desire as irrational, saying “But still you wouldn’t be accessing the blue of it. Not exactly.” Rarely occurring in nature, the blue-colored flower represents the human spirit quest, in its image the promise of the connectedness of nature and the human spirit. Who is this most beautiful one, who opens and closes, but will not let us in?

And anyway, isn’t the artist always playing god? Maybe not, but there is definitely something parental or maternal to the behavior of art making. So often it is an act of love unrequited. The child orbits the mother like a floating, dismembered limb. Hüngerbuhler’s sculptures are not unlike children in their diminutive quality and absolute fragility, and we are reminded that they, ultimately, are objects under her control. They can be unplugged at the end of the day, at the closing of the show. Their repetitive motion keeps them trapped in a moment that they seem disallowed to move beyond. They are not unlike tired limbs, asking to be nurtured as they dance on the edge of the own obsolescence.

Text: Kate Brown



[1] Solnit, Rebecca. The Faraway Nearby. 2014, Penguin Books.
[2] Nelson, Maggie. Bluets. 2009, Wave Books.

Photos: Jürgen Schabel

Internationales Künstlerhaus Villa Concordia
Okka-Esther Hungerbühler
Das Duell