Nick Hackworth

Lothar Hempel, ICA

Essays & Reviews Evening Standard

It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry in response to the work of Lothar Hempel. Maybe it’s more fashionable to do both at once. A German artist, he makes complex installations with lumbering titles such as Abstract Socialism, on display here, and employs amusingly simple visual metaphors, like bicycles without front wheels called Bismark and images of people with keyholes in their foreheads waiting for their consciousness to be unlocked.

Despite Hempel’s evident liking for the simple and direct, his pieces are in fact absurdly indecipherable. In general they include man-made objects, bits of newspapers, and sometimes human figures made of pieces of felt stitched together, all of which are situated in relation to large sculptural elements made by the artist. Hempel’s mix of the complex and the simple is so gratuitous that one is left with the disconcertingly uncertain suspicion that he might be completely taking the piss.

Such suspicions are fuelled by the video pieces that accompany each of three installations. Shot in black and white, each one features the same scenario shot from a different angle. Highlights include a severe looking German lady falling off a chair, an earnest man who makes a stew out of paper and root vegetables and a bit when the severe-looking lady finds a large key in a bowl of stew and promptly unlocks someone’s mind.

Elements within the video pieces and the installations play off each other, but obliquely and incoherently. In Strike, for example, the video plays next to a large wooden screen that frames bits of medieval tracery. Beyond sit two tables. On one stand two coffee machines, one of which is made by Krups, the German manufacturer, and might be a casual reference to Germany’s Nazi past. On the other table, amid odd black wooden objects, lie fish bones and whole loaves, conjuring an image of a gluten-free version of the feeding of the 5,000.

All these disparate elements are meant to come together and evoke emotive responses and associations. Specifically they point towards the failure of the Utopian dreams of the West, including socialism and modernism — heavy topics which, in the hands of this joker turn into silly putty.

Until 3 November (020 7930 3647)