The eponymous exhibition of German artist Stephan Balkenhol (1957) provisionally concluded Witte de With’s investigation into the depiction of the human figure and the question of mimesis in contemporary art. This inquiry began with the exhibitions by Ken Lum (in 1990), John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres (in 1991), and Philip Akkerman (in 1992).

The human and animal figures Balkenhol carves from wood deal with mimesis, in particular with the representation of body and face. The image of the human body is the most immediatly comprehensible of symbols. Accross national traditions and limitations of education and language, recognition of the body’s physiognomy and gestures creates a spontaneous acknowledgment of meaning.

Yet when Balkenhol started to create his sculptures, it was downright taboo to work figuratively: “I have to reinvent the figure, the tradition is interrupted.”

Modernist sculpture had excluded representation, replacing it with the organic creation of plastic symbolic situations, as in the work of Joseph Beuys or Jannis Kounellis, or with nonobjective systems, as in the work of Carl Andre or Donald Judd. Yet at the same time, the figurative tradition was continued by Fascist and Soviet art, which returned to the stereotypes of the nude and the uniformed hero.

Balkenhol’s sculptures simultaneously interfere with the trajectories of radical modernist sculpture and idealized, universal state symbols. His figures are rarely nude and carry no specific attributes. His representations of the human figure are neither models of a universal human ideal nor specific portraits. Presented as solitary figures or as a crowd of individuals, as in 57 Penguins (1991), his sculptures speak about difference, about the differences between what is communal and what is specific.

The exhibition presented a survey of Balkenhol’s work, including reliefs, heads, and figures of different scales, all rapidly carved from single pieces of wood. In conjunction with the exhibition, Balkenhol realized a permanent sculpture for the Witte de With stairwell, Freistehende Relieffigur.