It was a bizarre and brilliant experience encountering Martin Honert's Foto (Photo) during the Vancouver Art Gallery's signature Fuse event on a balmy Friday evening. As hundreds of the city's beautiful people buzzed and babbled amid the thump-thump of music, the German artist's rendering of a viscerally evocative moment from his childhood – frozen in time, by way of epoxy resin, oil and acrylic on wood – became the (still) life of the party. The hubbub at the VAG was simply no match for the little boy seated at a kitchen table, his feet dangling beneath him – sweet and lonely, curious, vulnerable, maybe a little sad.
Honert, who was born in 1953 in Bottrop, an industrial city in the Ruhr Valley of what was then West Germany, has returned to his childhood repeatedly in his practice, creating work that conjures not just an era and a place but specific memories – and, often, highly charged, intensely personal moments – from his boyhood. This is the first exhibition to be held in Canada for the Dresden- and Dusseldorf-based artist, who is well-respected at home, and has already shown at the Venice Biennale and London's Royal Academy of Arts. The exhibit is one in a series, co-curated by VAG director Kathleen Bartels and Vancouver photoconceptualist Jeff Wall, that has included shows by Chicago-based Kerry James Marshall and Paris's Patrick Faigenbaum.
"It's a significant body of work that's never been seen [here]," says Wall, of the current exhibit. "The aim of this whole series of exhibitions is … to present a kind of small selection of work by artists who have made a contribution over, now, at least 20 or 30 years to the ongoing evolution of what I would think of as serious art, and that has not been seen in Vancouver. So for Vancouver, Martin Honert is a new artist, even though he's been around since the eighties."
As if to claim that significance with the force of an army, the colourful Kinderkreuzzug (Children's Crusade) marches confidently into the centre of its third-floor gallery. Here, life-sized versions of the toy soldiers of Honert's boyhood burst out of a pastoral painting. Doing so, they act out a history lesson from the artist's youth about the 13th-century Children's Crusade, where, it was said, boys and girls from Germany and France led a march to the Holy Land. This, one of Honert's earliest works, is not intended to be a rendering of the event but a reconstruction of a grade-school lesson as it feverishly unfolded in his 10-year-old imagination, where toy soldiers stood in for the faceless crusading children described by his teachers.
Linde (Linden), which would be very much at home in the rolling green landscape depicted in Kinderkreuzzug, has been installed nearby, and is the first thing visitors see as they ascend the escalator – an entry point to this world constructed from memory. With lace-like paper leaves blooming robustly to life over metal branches, this is a delicate yet dense reconstruction of a linden tree. It is nature on a pedestal, scaled down to a size at which its magnificence is accessible: where it can be taken in as a whole. Despite his flights into quasi-mythical subjects, Honert's fascination with his everyday surroundings is seen repeatedly in his work and in this compact exhibition, with pieces that may depict a tree, a bird or a fire.
Educated in the 1980s at the Staatliche Kunstakademie in Dusseldorf (where he was influenced by the likes of photographic legends Bernd and Hilla Becher), Honert – who eschews air travel, and did not come to Vancouver for the exhibition – is part of a generation of artists who made it their mission to explore everyday German life at a time when it was changing rapidly. "He's one of those artists who tried to create a new feeling about what Germany was, not necessarily accept popular definitions of what was important in that country at the time or in that culture at the time," says Wall, who in his catalogue essay also writes about a new artistic and cultural confidence that emerged in Germany around 1980, the year before Honert entered the art academy.
Combining the artist's fascination with the heroic and the ordinary, looming over the show are two figures that make up the wonderfully creepy Riesen (Giants). These are not the giants of fairy tales, but rather gigantic men with human qualities; they evoke pity rather than fear. One gazes off into the distance; the other looks directly down at gallerygoers. Dressed in contemporary travelling clothes – hoodies and jeans – and carrying knapsacks, they appear to be on the move, and weary. A viewer imagines they are tired of being outcasts: freaks excluded from society because of their enormity; forced to watch the action, in this installation, from the sidelines.
In an interview, Bartels explained that Giants arose, in Honert's imagination, not from childhood fairy tales, but from the artist's recollections of stories he heard, growing up, about the tallest man in the world. As Honert remembered it, the man was American, and so the artist borrowed from American pop culture for his outsize rendering of these 2.5-metre-tall sculptures: the Giant from David Lynch's Twin Peaks; the towering, taciturn Lurch from The Addams Family; the evil Jaws from The Spy Who Loved Me. This is American pop culture looming large.
Schlafsaal, Modell 1:5 (Dormitory, Model 1:5), shown here for the first time, is a stark, scaled-down reconstruction of a dorm room from Honert's boarding school – minus the boys and all of the accoutrements of boyhood. Here is a space stripped to its basics: striped mattresses; wooden chairs; tile floor. Installed in a dark gallery, the work is illuminated with light that calls to mind an X-ray or a photo negative. Light glows from places that to a boy may be sources of fearful imaginings: under the bed, inside the closets, behind the radiators. Places where one might have imagined the giants of Riesen, lurking.
Also emerging from Honert's boarding-school experience is Englischlehrer (English Teacher), a photographic sculpture depicting an unloved teacher in a suit and tie. Where Schlafsaal is stripped of all human content, Englischlehrer is stripped of all context – save for the book under his arm. According to Wall's description in the catalogue, the work is slightly smaller than real life, and so the man appears (very) short. He is smiling – but his smile is sly and vengeful, the smile of a power-tripper rather than of someone who finds joy in helping boys. We get the impression that this man was small, and not just physically.
The piece was created from a group photograph of Honert's teachers, and is one of several sculptures from his 2012 work Group Photo of Prefects. Bringing the entire creation to Vancouver proved logistically impossible, and so only the English teacher made it. (Not that he finds himself entirely bereft of company: At Fuse, a security guard was dedicated to watching over Englischlehrer and Foto, to stop people from draping their arms around them and snapping photos – the works are that approachable.)
The little-boy-at-the-table Foto, as its name suggests, also emerged from a photograph – in this case, a slide taken during a family vacation to Spain when Honert was just 5. In the original image, he is surrounded by his parents and two older brothers. But in Honert's 3-D rendering of the scene, it is only young Martin at the table. "He's kind of distilled everything out of the image, other than himself," says Bartels. "So it was really about his memory of that particular moment." In the photograph, the family was studying maps and tourist literature. Young Martin, however, was more interested in the camera: He is looking straight at the lens. In this extraordinary work, Honert evokes both a real event and the essence of youth.
While Honert's art is based on his memories, he has said he does not want to be overly nostalgic. In meticulous detail – the hair on the veiny hands of the giants in Riesen, the little shoes in Foto, the wallpaper in Schlafsaal – it is childhood itself that he conjures. Still, it's hard not to wonder whether Honert's young years weren't at least a little traumatic – and whether his creations are not his way of working through them.
It is a question the artist has been asked before, Bartels says. The answer, she reports, is no. "He has said to me: 'It just was a normal childhood. There was nothing haunting or terrible. Not good, not bad. Just kind of a boring childhood, like everybody else.'" Even if the art that came from it is anything but ordinary.