Born 1970 in Schaffhausen, Switzerland; lives in New York, New York
Commingling reality and illusion, authenticity and artifice, barbarism and civility, Olaf Breuning creates photographs, films, sculptures, and installations that draw heavily from popular culture and a collective visual iconography. He combines these contemporary aesthetics with more primal shared drives: violence, sexuality, ritual, and companionship. The divergent impulses collide, often with absurd and hilarious results, as Breuning exploits the thin line between humor and pain.
In his 2007 exhibition at Zurich’s Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Breuning employed art transport boxes as supports for his photographs, drawings, and sculptures. The crates and packing material, which also frame the exhibition’s architecture, take on multiple connotations as vehicles of transport and change. Arranged in a plexiglass showcase, dozens of small ceramic pieces, each incongruously fitted with a pair of large cartoonish eyes, comprise The Collectors (2007). These comical figures, mounted on the side of a carton and staring into the exhibition space, conjure comparisons to the collectors who roam international art fairs, frenziedly purchasing and packaging works. In the chromogenic print 20 Dollars (2007), five young African boys, slightly bemused but smiling broadly, present to the camera $20 bills given to them by the photographer. The detritus of a smoldering garbage heap is strewn around their feet. Mounted on and framed by an oversize shipping crate balanced on a smaller box, the glossy photograph appears broadcast from a largescreen entertainment center, underlining the distance between subject and viewer. The disparities illustrated by the image, especially between the entrenched poverty and easily gained currency, suggest the futility— and perhaps offensiveness—of looking to tourism and globalization as effective vehicles for change in this impoverished scene.
At the center of the Migros exhibition is Home 2 (2007), a video in which Breuning expands on themes of dislocation, homelessness, and cultural identity explored in his 2004 video Home. Here the original narrator, again played by actor Brian Kerstetter, joins a tourist group traveling through Papua New Guinea. He stumbles his way through assorted villages and tribes, variously charming or insulting his fellow tourists and the “natives” he encounters. In this foreign environment his mind is transported to locations of previous travel or fantasy as he sifts through notions of identity and belonging. Home is a universal, but also a specific, construct. “Each has a home they want to go to, like me,” the narrator opines as his journey comes to an end. The viewer is left with the distinct notion that neither the traveler nor the world he has left is enriched by the experience. Contextualizing the helplessness of today’s global citizen, Breuning examines a basic human quest for commonality in an increasingly global, but ever more fragmented, world. STACEY GOERGEN
Olaf Breuning, Still from Home 2, 2007. High-definition digital video, color, sound; 30 min. Collection of the artist