A plane ticket from Basel to Berlin costs 30 euro. If low-fare airlines like Ryanair get their way it may get even cheaper: they are lobbying to get permission to use “vertical seats” – essentially standing seats – on short-distance flights. The title of Norwegian-born and Berlin-based artist Yngve Holen’s largest institutional show to date – VERTICALSEAT at Kunsthalle Basel – refers to this seat type, even though “seat” may be a misnomer for what really looks like the back of a tall, upright chair with a narrow ledge at the bottom. Standing room only on planes is unlikely to become a reality in the immediate future: the security regulations in aviation legislation are too strict to allow this. Even so, the vertical seat is a striking symbol of the human body’s ambivalent status in a world saturated and sated by technology: endowed with an expanded scope and repertoire, it has also become quantified and a servant of the prosthetics it employs.
The vertical seat slots in willingly as a figurehead for the succession of appropriated, dissected, scanned and printed “anthropomorphised” industrial products that make up the main body of Holen’s oeuvre. When he interviews porn actors and plastic surgeons in the second issue of ETOPS (a journal published in connection with his exhibitions; the third issue was launched in Basel before this summer) the issue at hand is still this growing identification between man and machine, practices that push at the limits of the human, socially and anatomically. However, Holen cannot be cited for a naïve affirmation of the “posthumanist” ethos that these industries indirectly propose. He is haunted by the humanist subject he has driven out. This becomes evident in several ways in VERTICALSEAT, but perhaps most clearly so in how it presents the relationship between work and spectator.
Concurrently with his exhibition in Basel, Holen is also featured at the Berlin biennial this summer. The work he shows here – in the damp and dark confines of the private museum that usually houses the Feuerle collection – consists of parts of a row of seats from a Boeing aircraft where the window has been replaced by hand-blown glass decorated by concentric circles that resemble stylised eyes. Similar rows of seats appear in VERTICALSEAT, arranged along three walls and grouped by colour – yellow, purple, blue, turquoise and red. One might envision here the fuselage of a single aircraft extended across impossible geographic distances, simultaneously situated in both Berlin and Basel, a feat reminiscent of how our digitally assisted bodies have been freed from the constraints of physical location. The row of windows here could substitute for browser tabs. But these are also stained-glass windows, offering a nod to traditional ecclesiastical art. The airplane is sacralised, as if aviation technology’s promise to satisfy a desire for mobility has turned it into a modern-day cathedral.
The symbiosis between humankind and technology also obtains a sanctified aura in the collaboration between Holen and the musician Aedrhlsomrs Othryutupt Lauecehrofn. In a separate room in the centre of the exhibition, all four walls have been fitted with shelves that act as plinths for white 3D prints depicting the faces of Lauecehrofn and Holen. A 16-channel sound art work consisting of repetitions of recordings of the two men saying the vowel sounds “o” and “a” is played through the mouths of the masks via 3D printed larynxes and windpipes. Such direct depiction of the human body – his own, no less – is an atypical move for Holen, who usually describes mankind in more indirect ways, through its morphological impact on its surroundings. The chanting, faint robot singing leaks out into the adjacent rooms, adding a layer of comically mystifying elevator music to the exhibition.
As a counterpoint to such lightweight sci-fi existentialism VERTICALSEAT also veer to contemporary geopolitics – most evident in a series of rectangular modules of robust mesh fencing hung along the wall in the elongated space leading from the reception into the exhibition. As if to accentuate its tone-setting purpose, the work shares the title of the exhibition. The large, sturdy fence modules – standing three metres tall, with mounting devices reaching a depth of one metre – are of the kind that “affluent” people use to protect their property, an accompanying text informs us. The fastening devices for attaching barbed wire or possibly an electric fence, conjure up images of desperate masses kept in check by impersonal industrial mega-architecture. Reframing these fencing elements as paintings does not neutralise their immediate and topical geopolitical connotations. Rather, disguising them as art is a strategic communication tool: by allowing a metonym for a neo-feudal infrastructure to take the place of paintings, Holen prompts the spectator towards recognising a counterintuitive class allegiance. The work breaks down and dismantles boundaries, this time not between man and technology, but between different socioeconomic segments. The art space is a cultural sweatshop, and spectator and artist alike are impoverished and exploited bodies.
This gesture of solidarity is unexpected in view of the associations to exclusive commodity transactions usually evoked by Holen’s smooth showroom aesthetics: bright white vaulted spaces punctured by a few carefully selected displays of photogenic industrial design. Only occasionally do his “things” bleed out over their meticulously policed borders to make the gallery space something more than simply a sanitised backdrop. Holen’s visual and thematic precision, coupled with this sterile presentation, means that several of his pictures attract a kind of icon status; a tendency that reaches an acme in the cartoonish Hater Headlight, where the headlights of various vehicles are hung in pairs at eye level, their lights on. Piercing machine eyes that make you automatically avert your eyes.
An ur-scene in Holen’s oeuvre is the subjection of utensils and devices to cool, precise cuts. The series Parasagittal Brain, which was also the title of his exhibition at Johan Berggren Gallery in Malmö in 2011, is entirely devoted to objects that contain water – kettles, water coolers, and so on – that have been clinically split in two. Taxi B-ON 959 kommt innerhalb von 1 Minuten is the title of one of four fronts from X-ray machines (CT scanners) that continue a series which Holen first began in 2015; for VERTICALSEAT the front has been painted the same beige colour as a Berlin taxi. A CT scanner allows us to look inside a human being without cutting it open. In Holen’s work the machine itself has had its sides sliced off, allowing us to look inside. However, the cut only gives access to a generic, almost flat hollow space, placing emphasis instead on the gesture of dissection. Holen’s front is also punctured by the circular hole that receives the patient’s body. In an earlier version Holen dressed the scanner fronts in fishnet stockings, eroticising these openings as if to point out how the “dissection” of the body is animated not only by medical needs but also aesthetic or sexual desire. However, the taxi-coloured scanner fronts shown in Basel keep us caught in a dry loop between clinical forms of penetrating the human body – a reminder of the distanced, sober mode of observation Holen prescribes.
CAKE is one of the few objects in VERTICALSEAT that does not operate on this narrow semiotic frequency, but is allowed to spread out, forming a broader, more complex interface. Not only has the partitioned Porsche been released from the wall and the habitual mode of display redolent of painting; the vehicle is also second-hand rather than yet another freshly painted machine part lifted straight from the assembly line. An intrusive smell of motor oil and old leather seats bores into your nostrils, and if you move in close you can inspect the layers of dust, metal filings and dirt that have accrued in the interior, and the chaos of rusty cavities, cylinders, pipes, cogs and pistons revealed by the cut. CAKE responds to the desire to see (and smell) something uncovered. Like an inversion of Damien Hirst’s famous Mother and Child (Divided) from 1993 – a somewhat disheartening reference, it has to be said – where the cut sides of the divided cattle can only be inspected from a narrow passage between the two tanks of formaldehyde – CAKE shows the innards of the car brutally turned out against the thoroughfares along the walls of the room. Whereas Hirst orchestrates a sentimental, private rendezvous between an individuated observer and the exposed entrails of the dissected body, Holen’s celebratorily titled car is surrounded by an imagined flock of consumers devoid of compassionate or “humanist” leanings. They represent our contemporary era’s quantifying, pleasure-seeking gaze; a panoptic accretion of techno-scientific instrumentalism and unbridled visceral fascination.
The kind of immersion successfully stimulated in CAKE is an exception to the rule. As a whole, VERTICALSEAT mainly appeals to a critical and selective gaze that operates at a safe distance from the things that surround it. Perhaps the eye, rather than the future standing seats of Ryanair, is the key figure in this exhibition. We find it explicitly depicted in the aircraft windows and the headlights, metaphorized by the scanner fronts and activated by the works themselves, which are generally hung on the walls at eye level. This sober arrangement panders to the spectator’s default perception of herself as an autonomous visual consumer. The distinction between subject and object that Holen’s conjoining of man and machine seeks to blur, is reintroduced via the backdoor as an almost indispensable premise for the relationship between spectator and work. VERTICALSEAT is a laconic reflection on the collapse of the subject-object relationship, which, in the same move, invokes this very model as a precondition for our dealings and interactions with art.