Standing at two and a half meters tall, with its steel body arched towards the sky, Thomas Schütte's Großer Geist Nr. 6 is a monumental vision of the human form. Strange and alluring in its startling physiognomy, Schütte's outsized sculptural being is frozen in a powerful yet unknowable stance: poised on the brink of collapse, petrified in fearful surrender or perhaps captured in a moment of ecstatic praise. The work belongs to the renowned series of Große Geister (Big Spirits) that occupied Schütte's output between 1995 and 2004. The sixth of seventeen different characters, each with its own definitive posture, the present sculpture has an aluminium twin held in the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, along with two other works from the series. Articulated through expressive folds, furls and contortions, the figure is simultaneously lyrical and monstrous, verging on the comedic and yet faintly tinged with horror. "Are they [the Große Geister] science fiction characters from a strange world, stranded in ours...?" asks Julian Heynan. "Or might they not be strangely disguised human beings, frightening monsters highly expressive but acting in a meaningless way...? Whenever we try to banish them to a world of pure imagination, of playful fantasy, they reveal very human, even touching traits," (J. Heynen, "Our World," in J. Heynen (ed.), Thomas Schütte, London 1998, p. 102). Großer Geist Nr. 6 is a striking demonstration of Schütte's celebrated ability to render visible the complexities, contradictions and ambiguities of the human condition.
By the time the present work was created, Schütte's figural practice had received widespread acclaim, following his haunting installation Die Fremden (The Strangers) at Documenta IX in 1992, and his subsequent rabble of misshapen humanoids in Untitled Enemies. The artist's 1994 proclamation "I am interested in the grammar of character" is borne out anew in the Große Geister, initiated the following year in 1995, (T. Schütte, "Man kann auch Schattenboxen oder Weiterstochern im Nebel. Ein Gespräch von Heinz-Norbert Jocks," Kunstforum International No. 128, 1994, p. 252). The seventeen large-scale works were predated by a series of smaller-scale aluminium figures, cast from wax molds, that arose as part of a collaborative exhibition with the artist Richard Deacon. Shown at the Lisson Gallery in 1995, under the title Them and Us, these initial figures were the product of lengthy discussions with Deacon regarding the relationships between man and monument, scale and space. "They stood around for a while and played various roles, each time with something else," recalls Schütte. "They always relate to their surroundings, to the space, to the viewer, to each other," (T. Schütte, quoted in M. Winzen, "Collect Yourself. Ein Gespräch mit Thomas Schütte," in M. Winzen (ed.), Zuspiel. Siemens Kulturprogramm, Ostfildern 1997, p. 111). Dramatically magnified in size and frequently exhibited in groups, the Große Geister build upon these notions of spatial and visual relativity by projecting a profound sense of "otherness." Like beings from another realm, each figure causes us to recalibrate our surroundings, our own sense of scale and, indeed, our own self-image.
In line with Schütte's interests in dramaturgy and staging, the Untitled (Große Geister) may be seen to confront the viewer as almost theatrical characters: as heroic mythological protagonists, as science-fictional alien invaders, or perhaps even as clowns and court jesters. Indeed, the artist's range of figural influences may be said to span a vast lineage of human representation: from the archaic Kouros figures of early Greek sculpture, to the plastic Star Wars figurines included in one of his earliest works (Großes Theater, 1980). Großer Geist Nr. 6, like much of Schütte's sculptural oeuvre, is curiously redolent of both ancient and futuristic ideals in its otherworldly appearance. Like the Untitled Enemies, the first of which were created amongst the classical edifices of Rome during the artist's visit to Italy in 1993, a traditional aesthetic of tactile fluidity and curvaceous lines is merged with unnatural facial features and corrupted deportment. "I would rather talk with my hands and through forms and let these creatures live their own lives and tell their own stories," Schütte has claimed. "Avoiding certain fixed positions is important to me, avoiding being too classical or too predictable. I always hope that in the end the work will be physically present. That the works lead to essential questions is important," (T. Schütte, quoted in interview with J. Lingwood in J. Heynen (ed.), Thomas Schütte, London, 1998, p. 22). Through his open-ended characterization, Schütte presents terror and humor as two sides of the same coin, and we are forced to question whether we are amused or tantalizingly disarmed by his arresting visions.
In this respect, it is interesting to note the proposed connections between the Untitled (Großer Geist No. 6) and Jonathan Swift's classic novel Gulliver's Travels. An adventure story with darkly sinister overtones, the fantastical saga is populated with characters of differing physical scales - from miniature to giant, in a similar fashion to Schütte's range of Kleine and Untitled (Großer Geist No. 6). "Swift's satire, often mistaken for a children's book, is reflected in Schütte's oeuvre insofar as he formulates perceptual and behavioral patterns that are taken for granted as open-ended questions due to the ambivalence of his figures," ("Große Geister (Figur Nr. 6)", in Contemporánea. Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, exh. cat., Fundación Juan March, Madrid, 2005, p. 196). Schütte himself has acknowledged the influence of the novel's ambiguities, expressing his desire for "keeping things in the air for as long as possible, even after death if possible, like in the third part of Gulliver's Travels, in Laputa, the floating island," (T. Schütte, quoted in M. Winzen, "Ein Gespräch mit Thomas Schütte", Kunst-Bulletin, October 1994, p. 21). The Große Geister, typically translated as "Big Spirits" but often as "Large Ghosts," embody this sense of floating illusionism; like giant puppets that might spring into life at any moment, Schütte's works are frozen mid-gesture, mid-action. Casting his figures in aluminium and bronze, as well as steel--the most weighty medium of the three - Schütte forges a compelling dialogue between his solid, earthbound materials and the precarious, ethereal beings to which they give rise. Großer Geist Nr. 6, with its arms raised in sublimation, appears to capture this very act of transcendence: the steel structure presents itself as the last remaining trace of the human spirit that may have once inhabited it.
Paradoxically, Schütte's interest in the human condition may be said to take root in his early preoccupations with architectural forms. In many ways, the figural sculptures may be understood as conceptual extensions of the architectural models he began producing in the 1980s: both are conceived as formal, spatial and material challenges. "The form mostly comes from dealing with technical problems, and the material," the artist has claimed (T. Schütte, quoted in interview with J. Lingwood in J. Heynen (ed.), Thomas Schütte, London, 1998, p. 22). Having studied a variety of contrasting media as a student at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in the 1970s, including painting and photography, Schütte has vocalized his lack of conceptual distinction between the different strands of his output. Viewing them as interchangeable and mutually dependent, the artist explains "all work off each other--in a kind of balance of contradictions," (T. Schütte, ibid., p. 31). With this in mind, the present work may be understood to be caught somewhere between the expressive physical qualities of life drawing and the stoicism of an architectural monument, formats that were both of particular interest to the artist. The Große Geisters are less sculptures than landmarks, totemic eulogies to the human physique that dominate their surroundings with statuesque grandeur.
However, as Heynen has noted, this sense of physical endurance in Untitled (Großer Geist No. 6) is ultimately challenged by their anthropomorphic nature. "The fantastical figures produced in this way have a highly artificial appearance, while at the same time revealing a careful observation of human physical expressions and gestures," he writes. "Their faces, in turn, are sketchy and blank. Almost all of their concrete physicality exists solely within their fleeting gestures...One is reminded of those special effects, produced by the most advanced film techniques, in which a body materializes out of nothing, and can be transformed into another at any time...The condition to which they refer is extremely ambiguous, and cannot actually be named in its full absurdity," (J. Heynen, "Our World", in J. Heynen (ed.), Thomas Schütte, London, 1998, p. 102). Standing before us like a beacon, Großer Geist Nr. 6 allows us to contemplate the ephemeral nature of our own existence, presenting an image of the human form that is both foreign and deeply familiar.