Toni Schmale: Tanke / Kunstraum Dornbirn

Toni Schmale’s installation “TANKE” at Kunstraum Dornbirn centers around a petrol station as its focal point, blending industrial aesthetics with abstraction. This environment prompts reflection on societal and environmental narratives, evoking both consternation and transformation. Schmale’s sculptures within the space expand upon the petrol station theme, exploring functionality and materiality. By refusing to offer clear interpretations, Schmale invites viewers to engage with ambiguity and irony, a characteristic present throughout her body of work. “TANKE” serves as a communal space, bridging historical contexts with contemporary challenges, and challenging the notion of temporality. Its placement in former industrial spaces adds another layer to its commentary on urban landscapes and societal functions.

Toni Schmale: Tanke / Kunstraum Dornbirn. Dornbirn (Austria), May 2, 2024.

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Press text (excerpt):

Toni Schmale has installed an environment entitled “TANKE” at Kunstraum Dornbirn, the central element of which is the petrol station referred to in the title. Technically abstract in a highly aesthetic fashion, apparently dysfunctional and potentially out of place, “TANKE” (2023/2024) allows moments of consternation and transformation to take immediate effect in an exciting interaction with the industrial architecture. Weaving together the characteristics and social function of the site “petrol station”, and its historical and socially-based narratives with new sculptural works, Schmale creates a timeless story with fictional echoes.

“I longed for sound-protection walls and dreamt that gas would just run out, that all cars would break down and the Tanke would be overgrown with wild meadow flowers of the Wienerwald, that my friends would suddenly turn up and we would have an after-work beer.” (Toni Schmale 2021)

Schmale’s dream story of reclaiming nature conjures up the image of the modern ruin. But does it also evoke a utopia? A vision of a new era, for which the automobile was once central to human history? Questions of this kind are not answered within the art work. What is certain, however, is that humanity is facing difficult and multifarious challenges – climatic, political and social. Schmale encounters this complex reality sculpturally in a way that combines abstraction, absurdity, ambivalence, irony, humour and bewilderment as pointed aids and stylistic devices, and takes them to the formal extreme. She chooses the site of the petrol station as the basic sign system and reduces it to a few basic systemic elements – two petrol pumps standing on a concrete base and a framing roof structure rising five meters high.

These component are clearly identifiable, but they obviously refuse to function as a whole. The roofing appears to be a mere skeleton of itself. The steel parts fulfil their task in accordance with the required calculations of statics; they showcase their materiality and performance, indestructible and beyond all influences; but they don’t pump petrol. The slim columns with the hoses on the sides are just contour. Everything is rigid and silver-grey and cold – hot-dip galvanized steel as the perfect materialization of eternal immobility.

The new sculptures distributed throughout the room formally and narratively expand the setting of the petrol station. In these works its functionless nature is carried forward, now extending to material and form in their entirety. Alone the manufacturing process of the individual works makes this clear: for instance, the roof of the petrol station needs technical planning, processes essential for every building. For the petrol pumps, however, it is necessary to choose the right degree of abstraction, which balances the relationship between the intended symbolic function (here in the sense of symbolic recognisability) and mere imitation in such a way that it produces an aesthetic, physically noticeable tension. In the new works “sucker #1 #2” and “sucker #3”, Schmale remains in the figurative world of the petrol station, of the tyre air pressure gauge and the vacuum cleaner. She fuses well-known shapes and props with invented ones. Against the hardness of the steel, she wrests from the material soft lines that oscillate between machine and body. In a 2020 interview, Schmale sums the effect up as follows: “The feeling arises that the sculpture could be capable of something, but it makes no suggestion as to what action might be required.”

In this stringent refusal to make a determination, bemusement and ambivalence are integral parts of the viewer’s response. This runs like a common thread through Schmale’s entire œuvre. Again and again we doubt our own understanding, bounce off the surface only then to be plunged into the depths of human existence. Schmale is internationally known for her very specific formal language. Using metal, concrete and rubber, she develops sculptural works of varying dimensions in which, for example, associations with fitness or torture devices are not arbitrarily but rather referentially enfolded. These associations extend further into the spheres of fetish, physical optimization, sexual gratification and self-dismantling. Schmale expands the concept of sculpture in a constantly advancing search for the nuances of material conditions and forms, for the obligatory examination of the resultant object’s usability and function as critical social commentary. Themes of stereotypical gender attributions or constructions, of social power relations, and of the interaction of both, resonate in Schmale’s work as a subtext that is revealed, for instance, in the ironically humorous titles. These make access to the work both easier and more difficult. In any case, they provide clues as to what the form should be or what potential it can disclose in the mirror of time.

Looking at the tersely titled “TANKE” in Dornbirn, the zeitgeist and its lineage of historical narratives plays an active, activating and easily graspable role. Through the formal citation of a globally identifiable place that is an integral part of the everyday life of millions of people, Schmale succeeds in establishing a communal basis for all viewers. Inherent in this installation is a fictionalized moment, one that is not only played out through the fluid design but also seems to oscillate between the status of a ruin and a sign-post to the future. The whole setting poses the question of temporality.

Schmale further plays with the petrol station as a site of displacement by showing the installation here in a former industrial assembly hall that is now the exhibition space of an art association. For an identical counterpart of the work has been standing in the Vienna Gürtel since 2021, in Stefan Weber Park, a strip of green sandwiched between multi-lane roadways. In her installations in public spaces, Schmale integrates, comments on and challenges the characteristics and social function of the urban spaces and landscapes for which the concepts are created. Thus, through its globally functioning model character and the multi-perspective cultural coding, “TANKE” can be a place of communication in Dornbirn and Vienna. A meeting point that allows both surface and depth, depending on use and our needs.

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