Welcome to the domain of ghosts, where you pass through the mists of time and come face to face with victims of human greed and disregard.
But don’t worry: it’s all quirky good fun.
The German installation artists Matthias Boehler and Christian Orendt are bringing their clever, oddball art to the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art in the form of a weird and wonderful walk-through show that stars nine extinct animals.
“The Carrion Cheer: A Faunistic Tragedy” is funny and serious at the same time. It opens May 18 and runs through July 7. Enter tents set up in the galleries for the purpose of confronting animated, talking versions of your victims: the white-crested jumping spider of Hawaii, Pinta Island tortoise, Yangtze River dolphin, bluebuck antelope of South Africa, great auk of the North Atlantic, Carolina parakeet, Honshu wolf of Japan, Stellar’s sea cow of the Bering Sea and pig-footed bandicoot of Australia.
The creatures, presented as computer-generated images projected onto a mist, seem ghostly indeed as they sing a sloppy song of forgiveness, describe how they died off, and cheer us humans on. Silhouette drawings reminiscent of cave paintings line the interior of the structures.
As the animals sing of their demise, they get out of tune, partly due to a lack of discipline and partly because of nerves, Boehler said. The voices spell things out. They nag. They reassure. The biggest animal, the sea cow, has the highest-pitch voice. The wolf has the lowest voice.
“In the classic way of haunting, it’s kind of annoying,” he said.
As visitors move from tent to tent, they will hear a chorus of extinction. The artists use an old nursery rhyme, “Old Abram Brown” from “Mother Goose,” that goes:
Old Abram Brown is dead and gone, you’ll never see him more.
He used to wear a long brown coat, That button'd down before.
Except they change the words.
The bandicoot is dead and gone...
It sounds like a choir “that didn’t practice a lot,” Boehler said.
He and Orendt have been making art together for 10 years now, often works that offer shrewd critiques of capitalism and the world it has wrought. A 2012 project that put scrap wood to good use resulted in a set of pie charts. “The Schlock of Glory” from 2016 is a “fountain installation” of war memorials and sculptural soldiers with dismembered limbs spewing blood (actual red liquid that spills to the floor). The memorials “(parrot) nationalistic epigraphs in a multilingual babylonian babble.”
Last year, the pair created an installation that featured sad-looking mannequins in a wooded environment. It was called “Rest on the Escape from the Confrontation with the F****d-up-ness of the Status Quo.” Weird.
“The work has to do with humans’ relationship with the world,” said Bryan Granger, the Halsey’s manager of exhibitions and public programs.
“The Carrion Cheer” was commissioned by the Halsey. It is part of the visual art offerings of the Piccolo Spoleto Festival. After its showing in Charleston it will travel to the Kunsthalle Goeppingen in Germany.
“It’s something different in this space,” Granger said. “But I think it fits well in the Halsey canon.”
Cares of the world
Boehler, originally from Vienna, and Orendt, a Leipzig native, first met when they were both attending the Nuremburg Academy of Fine Arts. They each participated in a 2007 group show and quickly recognized they were kindred spirits. Their taste in literature and art was similar. They both liked the Coen Brothers. They both disliked minimalism and documentary art. They shared a sense of sardonic humor.
“We realized that working together was fun and should continue,” Boehner said.
They enjoyed using morality tales and messages as recurring leitmotifs. And when they launched in 2011 their first “Mehrung” project, it was soon evident how their approach resonated with the public.
“Mehrung” means “increase,” and it refers to the growth curve you see in economic or scientific graphs. The artists invented a secret “Society of Multiplication” whose members (at first) were actors whose identities were obscured and who were asked to produce idols of exponential growth — physical iterations of the curve shape — in a workshop setting.
Members of the public were encouraged to join in. They were “coached” on how to make the objects and taught the principles of the secret society.
“We are critical of the behavioral structures we’re used to repeating so often we’re not thinking about them anymore,” Boehler said. Too often, we fail to consider the implications and effects of our consumer society, the damage wrought by corporations we support unthinkingly, he said. “We like to put bitter messages in chocolate or candy.”
The connivance was a success, so Boehler and Orendt did it again the following year, and three times in 2013, each implementation a little different. So if you see a sculptural growth curve sitting on a shelf or hanging on a wall somewhere, perhaps its origins can be traced to Germany.
The artists, with tongues firmly planted in cheeks, also made an ironic work called “Against All the Cares of the World,” and even subtitled their “Reference Companion” book with that phrase. The conceit was to purposefully “ignore the elephant in the room,” Boehler said. Needless to say, they are somewhat obsessed with the cares of the world.
Sense of humor
“The Carrion Cheer” is another bitter message hidden in chocolate, which makes it easy to consume. Repleat with irony and dark humor, even a drone of sadness, the show tells the story of human-caused extinctions “in a fun way.”
The Halsey caught wind of this work when Orendt happened to visit Charleston in the fall of 2016.
“Mark (Sloan, director of the Halsey) and I met with him and we were pretty intrigued,” Granger said. “They were dealing with pretty sensitive issues, pretty charged issues, but always with a quirky sense of humor.”
And there is nothing the Halsey people like better than a quirky sense of humor. They were charmed by the artists’ industrial maquettes, tickled by the statues squirting blood, thrilled by the pie charts and growth curves. So they decided to join Boehler’s and Orendt’s secret society.
“We saw their proposal (for 'Carrion Cheer') and were taken by the originality,” Granger said.
So go see the ghosts of the dead, listen to the songs they sing, pass through the mists of time. Enjoy the strange experience. After you might think about what it all means.
“Moralizing is boring, tedious,” Boehler said. The critique becomes more interesting after the candy has dissolved.