Olaf Breuning’s complex multimedia installations suggestively combine elements of stage sets, film scenarios, theme parks and fairground freak shows.

They are obviously sets – artificial and staged, with the paraphernalia of illusion clearly visible. Breuning’s mise en scenes (draw liberally from advertising, cinema, television, and music videos. Evoking disaster scenes, horror films and B-movies, they are darkly atmospheric – synthetic chambers of horrors, deeply rooted in the realities of ordinary experience and animated by a disparate soundtrack ranging from heavy metal rhythms via Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker to orchestral film scores. Breuning creates images that are at once humorous and sinister, nonsensical and disturbing, obsessive and throwaway.

Breuning works in the tradition of artists such as Ed Kienholz and Paul McCarthy, and shares with Matthew Barney and Jake and Dinos Chapman an inventive iconography of hybridised mythological characters. His fantastical creatures (mutants who seem unsure of their identity and ancestry) originate in the multiple genres of popular culture – they are both archaic and modern trash. Drawing from his imagination in a relentlessly inventive stream-of-consciousness, he conjures up the fantastic, the grotesque, the preposterous – the double take – using a richness of detail that verges on the baroque. Without a conventional narrative, yet full of loaded, symbolic-seeming elements (which we don’t need to decipher to identify and enjoy), Breuning’s tableaux are, in a sense, mythological. His invented fantasy worlds are absolutely related to a real world in which it is increasingly difficult to distinguish fact from fiction.

In Breuning’s installation for International 02 entitled Hello Darkness (2002), the viewer was faced with the chaos of a destroyed library, clouds of smoke, a hypnotic tunnel of light, and an atmospheric soundtrack. We encountered an axe-wielding sex doll and entered a new world cast out of the realm of knowledge and abstract ideas. Purchased over the Internet, the Real Doll – not just any old sex doll, but the most exclusive on the planet – represented the ultimate in artifice. In placing the Real Doll in the context of an art installation, Breuning not only exposed her artificiality, but also shook up our trust in the supposed reality of the art world. His unsettling coupling of Internet sexuality with aggression, set against the foundations of the historical world, was nevertheless seductive.

A speculation on life, sex and death and the extremes of Internet shopping, Hello Darkness played with ideas of artifice and luxury by remixing cultural codes, aesthetics and attitudes and contrasted them with the supposed ‘high culture’ found in books and art. The reality and availability of such extravagant items is what interests Breuning: ‘I deliberately keep very close to media sources,’ he says, ‘so-called media reality is a presence that’s almost everywhere you look today … I’m tempted to cut the concept of reality out of my vocabulary.’

Hello Darkness, 2002
Mixed media installation
Courtesy of the artist and Swiss Institute, New York
Exhibited at the Bluecoat Gallery



Pro Helvetia – The Arts Council of Switzerland