Although Kai Althoff moved from Cologne to New York some years ago, this whole-room installation at MoMA is profoundly European in character. A gauzy tented gallery with diffuse light and a rather close, painty smell is furnished with a multitude of different items, as it were, displaced together. They are gently or “domestically” historical, spanning perhaps three generations reaching up until the 1990s, from parasols to chairs and sneakers, presumably mostly from Germany. Over their arrangement along the walls, on stepladders, in glass cases, on partition walls and on low platforms plays a soundtrack also composed by Althoff; this varies from low humming to childish squeaks, creating extra atmosphere around the nostalgic trove that surrounds one like a story.
Treading the white-painted floorboards, one passes by loose groupings of objects and artworks, many of them paintings or coloured-pencil drawings in Althoff’s vivid figurative manner, redolent of Schiele and other early twentieth-century Expressionists. One has a sense of a temporal progression in the way the props go from the more positive and youthful at the beginning – a collection of shadow puppets, for example, or two life-sized stuffed-fabric dolls passed out by a coffee table as if after a twenty-something party – towards more frightening things, such as a metal chair with stirrups and glass panels in place of padding, and, still later, episodic scenes suggesting horror or its aftermath. A wrecked sleeping area with bundled clothes occupies some of the third section of the room, near which rounded objects like large cowry shells spread away from a sort of effigy of red and yellow scraps. Not far off, a black cardboard set-up has a miniature church and blank-windowed buildings, with life-sized footprints stamping past them and, at the edge, a strange deposit of fine coal. After that, the installation quietens into a kind of attic storage. The last wall has a mixture of paintings and drawings hanging on it, while further canvases and boards lie packed up in brown paper to the side.
As this suggests, “and then leave me to the common swifts” carries a pervasive melancholy. It is evident in the taut, Nietzschean attitude of Althoff’s bodies, in the bygone aura of old lace and other familial detritus simultaneously kept and forgotten, in a rather childlike compulsion to arrangement and display, in its abstract noises and the mock purity of its blanched housing, not to mention in its title. It’s impossible to take in this show without also feeling one’s knowledge of the events that unfolded in Europe – particularly Germany – in the period of time these objects collectively recall. The way they have been gathered, somewhere between abandonment and rediscovery, conjures a delicate ambiance evoking pain or distance. While fresh images of displacement, loss and migration increasingly populate the news, this disparate installation reaches for a certain past (not unlike a squatter in MoMA’s otherwise very ordered rooms) in a very personal way. Walking back towards the entrance, one finds oneself wondering about the present and how it can be grasped, if at all.