It was the idea of the heroic equestrian statue which the French artist Julien Berthier reexamined for his “Kunstplatz Graben” project, letting the frontal character and intimidating effect usually conveyed by such monuments take a break: a MONUMENTAL BREAK. Using a disc grinder on a cast resin sculpture modeled on a classical bronze, the artist aimed in two directions: While the sitting horseman was removed from the body of the horse and placed on the ground, the traditionally erect head of the horse was lowered to suggest a grazing posture. This intervention questioned the demonstration and representation of power and history in public space.
The title MONUMENTAL BREAK related to the pause enjoyed by man and animal on the one hand and to the formal interference in or break with the sculpture on the other. Particularly in a city like Vienna where you come upon equestrian monuments triggering historical topoi in many critical places of the urban realm – on Heldenplatz, Josefsplatz, Schwarzenbergplatz, and the Augustinian bastion – Julien Berthier’s installation called for abandoning familiar and ultimately unquestioned modes of behavior and perception. Right in the middle of Vienna’s Graben, Austria’s center of consumerism, luxury, and business, the simple act of taking a break turned into a subversive gesture of rejection and deceleration: a “break of two workers within the logics of efficiency in contemporary work, an inglorious pose, doing nothing in a place of intensive movement and consumerism” (J. Berthier).
Historically speaking, Berthier’s MONUMENTAL BREAK broached three touchy subjects in one go: the beginning of the history of the equestrian statue (Marcus Aurelius and his horse in the Campidoglio, Rome, dating from 173 CE, is the oldest and probably still most famous statue of this kind in the world); World War I (the clothes and function of Berthier’s horseman simulated a military figure of that time in which cavalry and the glorification of knightly virtues became an anachronism; and the year 2015 (it was a contemporary Don Quixote who did not give two hoots about any majestic code of behavior and turned his back on the pictorial language of traditional sculpture.
The strategy of falling back on and undermining a familiar visual impression of the viewer is typical of Julien Berthier. The artist has installed outsized rear-view mirrors or entire mazes of blank road signs in urban space, for example, invented the subway station “Home,” or designed a boat that is fully functional but, with its hull vertically projecting from the water, seems to be about to capsize. Berthier belongs to a generation of contemporary sculptors that draws on the radical changes the genre of sculpture has undergone since the 1960s. Already in 1979, the US art critic Rosalind Krauss remarked in a contribution to the art magazine October that “rather surprising things have come to be called sculpture.” Traditional, millennium-old techniques of art such as chiseling, modeling, or carving, however, had already been increasingly abandoned since Marcel Duchamp’s ready-made approach. The general dissolution of boundaries in the arts and their understanding went hand in hand with an extension of the concept of sculpture. In his sculptural work Julien Berthier is no longer concerned with forming something in the traditional sense or even, as Michelangelo put it, “discovering the statue that every block of stone has inside it.” He rather exploits the overabundant archive of past and present forms, subjecting it to subtle transformations and reducing it to the absurd. Weird proportions often produce a humorous effect: Whereas a larger-than-life conventional equestrian statue on a pedestal in public space will hardly strike us as conspicuous, we will become aware of its monumental character as soon as the position of man and animal changes—Berthier’s horse and rider confronted us as inhabitants of a Lilliputian island like the one in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.
Text: Lisa Ortner-Kreil
Kunstplatz Graben, in front of Graben 21, 1010 Vienna
*1975 in Besançon (FRA), lives and works in Paris (FRA).