Some outdoor works of art become such a part of everyday life that they end up as emblems of their location. In Malaga, one of these is 'Moving Man' (2002), Stephan Balkenhol's sculpture of a man which is outside the entrance to the Contemporary Art Centre (CAC Malaga).
The figure has been looking into the building for 15 years now, and it has just watched some of its fellows being taken inside. They feature in a powerful retrospective of this German artist's work, which opened this week.
As Balkenhol explained at the opening, 'Moving Man' is unusual: his work normally focuses on upright, inexpressive, mysterious and absent figures, almost forced out of blocks of wood. “My sculptures don't tell stories. There is something secret in them. It's not down to me to reveal what that is; it's for the spectator to discover it,”explained the artist, who is a contemporary benchmark for European figurative sculpture. More than 30 pieces of his work from the past ten years are now on display at the CAC until 22 April. However, about half were completed during the past year, so the common thread and the subtle evolution of his work are evident.
For example, the man in black trousers and white shirt carved in bas-relief in 'Raumkörper, silber, Mann' (2010) seems the same as the one swimming in 'Man with fishes' and who stands amid houses and empty streets in Relief Mann vor vier Häussern (both from 2017). They have the same attire, the same flat colours in the polychromy, the same rustic finish in the carving but, nevertheless, Balkenhol abandons the neutral background to give his work a 'stage' and the leading figure sometimes looks straight at the spectator.
“I like there to be continuity, but I believe my work is more complex now. It covers other themes and representations,”said Balkenhol. Fernando Francés, the director of the CAC Malaga, describes these sculptures as “symbols or metaphors” of common man, and the artist as someone who “thinks about life on the street, a creator who is difficult to define within one aesthetic trend.”
Religion and sexuality
Balkenhol's work travels “from the intimate to the political” in search of the interior conflict in what he is looking at. For example, in the central area of the main room, several metres above the ground in a type of Romanesque altar are several religious-type sculptures: a man with a naked lacerated body in 'Schmerzensmann' (2009), is displayed beside 'Maria' (2012) holding the character in white shirt and black trousers in her arms like Baby Jesus. A middle-aged couple dressed in contemporary clothes in 'Mann mit dunkelblauem Hemd' (2012) and 'Frau mit blondem Haar' (2012) also form part of the composition.
One of the most suggestive pieces is the naked couple lying on their backs, legs and arms apart, in two half-circles, as if they are on an altar for sacrificing or relaxing post-coital pleasure. There is more sensuality with 'Hermaphrodit' (2013), while 'Treppenrelief' (2009) offers a type of visual game with wood in the form of an accordian. Looking from one side, you see a woman. From the opposite side you see her male companion, and from anywhere else the bodies seem to intermingle.
“I'm interested in the figure itself, not in beauty,” says Balkenhol, so visitors should know what to expect. Some sculptures are like wooden mirrors; there are many static characters. There is silence. For noise and movement, you have to go back into the street, where Moving Man is waiting.