The great Baroque master Bernini was among the first sculptors to reimagine the potential of the sculpture as art form. His oeuvre exemplifies one of the first successful attempts to use the much more restrictive medium of sculpture to capture the same level of movement and dynamism that painting was able to convey. By imbuing his marble behemoths with litheness and buoyancy, he created masterpieces that conveyed a sense of lightness and fluidity. Visual artist Hans Hemmert has taken this notion of airiness to a whole other level in his contemporary sculptures. His conceptualization of these same concepts is achieved through an abstractness not yet conceived in the 17th century. One can say that Hemmert is engaged in his own reimagination of his genre.
Ode to Air
Inhale. Exhale. A natural and automatic process. An expansion into the space around us. A connection with air and all living, breathing things. Hemmert’s sculptures can be viewed as an ode to air of sorts. He grants form to its formlessness. He adds weight to its weightlessness. He offers visibility to its invisibleness. Air is one of the fundamental mediums for the conception of his works. It breathes life into them. It sustains them. It makes possible their very existence. There is a symbiosis. The one transforms the other into art.
And by immersing himself into the space of his yellow latex balloons, the visual artist also enters into a symbiotic relationship with his art. Each of his gestures or lack thereof, all his movements and even his stillness affect how the sculpture is perceived. The sculpture, on the other hand, dictates his boundaries by confining him in an otherworldly cocoon. Both subsist on an intangible and invisible element. Both rely on each other to interact with an outside world. It is exactly this aspect of Hemmert’s art that makes it so special and unique. It is not only his involvement in the process that brings it to life: a brush stroke, a click of the trigger, a chisel in a hunk of marble. It is his very corporality that allows his sculpture to emerge.
The Constraints of a Separate World
However, the sculptures also test the physical limits of the artist. Their walls define his environs. They determine what he has access to, including air. The smaller latex balloons only contain enough of it for Hemmert to breathe for 15 minutes. The balloons, too, have their threshold. As the time limit of his encapsulation starts nearing its end, the artist begins to feel “woozy” from lack of oxygen.
o.T. (yellow sculpture fitting to camera), 1998, © Hans Hemmert / Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017
And there are also emotional limits to contend with. Before the sculptures are filled with air, Hemmert is stuck inside and must “breathe through a garden hose”. The latex walls cling to him as he waits for the balloon to fill, a situation that understandably creates a “feeling of confinement”. For 30 minutes, the hose is his only source of air. The limitations placed on space and breath restrictive. A feeling of claustrophobia inevitable.
Once the balloon is filled, Hemmert is transported into his own world. A world that is only superficially removed from the real world outside. However, the familiar objects, the voices of his colleagues all seem far away. He can “grasp at the real world to overcome the separation”. Nevertheless he is separate. A feeling he likens to being “in an empty church”. There is something “dreamy” yet also meditative about the experience.
The Hidden Message
But Hemmert is most interested in the impression that the image, in this case a photograph of his sculptures, has on the audience. For him, the purpose of fine art is to offer up a blank canvas of sorts. To be able to speak to everyone about everything. This is why he strives to embrace a quality of openness in his art. One that allows all viewers to conjure up their own emotions and associations. One on to which anyone can imprint individual hopes, dreams, fears, desires…
It is the very act of “concealment” that makes this possible. His disappearance into the balloon lends increased visibility and focus to the fact that he is unseen. Knowing that the artist is concealed inside the sculpture elicits completely unique narratives. What is happening in that other world, the one inside those latex walls? Is it a world of solitude? Is it a space for reflection? These inquiries give rise to stories and visions that would not arise with an empty hollowed out or solid sculpture interior. And they are distinct for each person who has the opportunity to see Hemmert’s contemporary photographs or witness his sculptures in person.
Only Hans Hemmert will ever truly know the experience of being inside his latex balloon sculptures. However, his photographs have gifted us, the viewers, with vivid imagery we can delve into to envision our own realm inside these hollowed out walls.