I’m Not Laughing

Peter Wächtler is in full control of his palette at Bergen Kunsthall.

Peter Wächtler, Franky’s Theme, installation view. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

On the one hand, the art of Brussels-and-Berlin-based Peter Wächtler seems a perfect fit for Bergen Kunsthall’s level of ambition. With an international exhibition career at prestigious venues behind him, he appears poised on the brink of making it really big. On the other hand, his project is peculiar enough to mark a complete break with many of the expectations I usually hold when attending an exhibition at Bergen Kunsthall. There is something about the entire atmosphere, a messing about with the overall artistic statement that explicitly rejects all formalism. Usually, I would have perceived this as refreshing, maybe even necessary, but right now I don’t quite know. I realise that there is something funny going on here, but not funny ha-ha; laughter never comes.

Wächtler is partly earnest, partly ironic, addressing human destiny with equal parts melancholy and humour while adding touches of autobiography’s confessional impulse. He does so in a wide range of different media – the exhibition includes watercolours, bronze figures, ceramic sculptures, drypoint etchings, and an animated film – but ultimately, writing is dearest to his heart, and so the exhibition also contains two text pieces. This textual approach has caused Wächtler’s previous exhibitions and works to be linked with the idea of ‘narrative’, even though no narrative, in the strict sense of the term, manifests itself in his work. This show is no exception. We are served up fragments and pieces of prose surrounded by huge interpretational voids. The venue’s own texts mention a possible “coherent narrative that unfolds through the gallery rooms,” before quickly qualifying this statement, suggesting that it may rather be a matter of “a pervasive atmosphere acting like the soundtrack of a movie, affecting the story told.”

Untitled (Clouds), 2018, video still.

But what does this story or mood actually involve? Well, at least one recurring theme can be observed here, even if the scope of action is limited. A bronze bat covers itself with its wing, as do five ceramic snowy owls, and a troll-like figure (in honour of Norwegian audiences?), likewise made out of bronze, sits with its head under a pelt. The last of the bronze figures, a maquette of a market pavilion similar to those found in Southern Europe, is covered by a roof to protect it against the weather. The three watercolours displayed in the same room also have elements that point to something hidden.

We also find four large, wall-hung ceramic figures shaped like pens (bearing the title ‘Writer’s block’ … very witty). Perhaps they point to Wächtler’s textual projects, which possess a certain autobiographical feel while also employing a narrator who seems decidedly unreliable? The approach is used in both texts and in the animated film about a depressed dragon. The result can be described in terms of the controversial postmodernist literary critic Paul de Man’s concept of “autobiography as de-facement.” For de Man, autobiography inherently distorts and ‘de-faces’ what it portrays to the point where it becomes unrecognisable. This dated theoretical reference (from 1979!) partly illustrates the reason why I find myself hesitating before Wächtler’s project. Mythologising the artist ‘I’ and toying with the public’s yearning for biographical interpretation feels like something we have put behind us; at least, I would like this to be the case. Here, I am unsure whether my assessment is due to my own vampiric hunger for aesthetic novelty, or whether the theme has indeed been exhausted in the course of our young century’s intense fictionalisation of the self. I fear that the latter is the case, for in the end, these gestures of concealment feel like mere coquettish teasing.

Perhaps another reason why this project fails to captivate me is the fact that Wächtler’s highly eclectic choices of medium make the exhibition unfocused. I see no reason for the choices he made; it all seems arbitrary, done with no overall plan. Each work seems to be the random fallout of the artist going, “What if I do this, and this, and this?” And when the five ceramic snowy owls, although beautifully shaped, are slightly let down by their finish, the materials and execution become obstacles to the work as such. Why does the paint make the birds less lifelike? I see no genuine necessity here, only jokes resembling those of Twitter users who offer their depression as content.

Peter Wächtler, Franky’s Theme, Bergen Kunsthall. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.