A heady romp through 20th century German philosophers’ retreats

A photo of the hut which artist John Preus titled “On the Alleged Barbarism of Writing Poetry After Adorno: II. Heidegger,” which is part of “Hutopia,” on display at the Neubauer Collegium. (Contributed photo by Robert Heishman)

Staff writer

Few art exhibitions at the University of Chicago capture the institution’s aggressive esotericism as well as “Hutopia,” which contrasts reproductions of Martin Heidegger’s cabin in the Black Forest and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s mountainside hut in Skjolden, Norway, with gallery space commemorating the post-war exile of Theodor Adorno in the United States.

As if a sculptural fantasia on 20th century German philosophy was not enough on its own, guests receive a 1,500-word statement on the work printed in small type on newsprint when they arrive at the Neubauer Collegium, 5701 S. Woodlawn Ave., where the work is on display through Sept. 6.

Wittgenstein’s reproduction is half the size of the original; Chicago-based artist John Preus built all the structures. Curator Dieter Roelstraete said “Hutopia” is about “this kind of idea, this dream, of what role escape and the assumption that we make, that some of our deepest thoughts are experienced off-the-grid.” The exhibition is the second in Roelstraete’s series, following a larger piece at last year’s Venice Biennale of Architecture.

“Basically, the origin of the show is located in an observation I made — and I wasn’t the first to make it, but I was certainly the first to make it into the premise for an exhibition — that two of the most influential German language philosophers of the 20th century — and two of the most influential philosophers, period, of the modern era, whom many would consider to be completely opposition in terms of philosophical stance and temperament — had a lot of convergence in their biographies,” Roelstraete explained. Both were born around the same time, and both built country retreats.

Inside the gallery is a photograph by Ewan Telford of Adorno’s house in Brentwood, Los Angeles — “an image of exile,” Roelstraete said. “You could think of it as an image of Adorno’s hut, but more poignantly what exile looked like for a mid-20th century German intellectual forced out of his mother country by the Nazis, who were, of course, Heidegger’s allies.

“Wittgenstein and Heidegger are philosophers who dream of escape, of retreat, of refuge and of withdrawal, while Adorno is kind of somebody who was forced into that mode of being. You could say that the real subject of the exhibition between where you think of something and what you think — the location of thought,” Roelstraete continued. “Where is thought most at home? What’s thinking’s most productive environment?”

Additional photographs by Patrick Lakey, Digne Meller-Marcovics and Guy Moreton as well as vases by Goshka Macuga formed as the philosophers’ heads and filled with flowers are also on display in the gallery in what Roelstraete called “a light and subversive touch, bringing these philosophers back to earth and bringing them a little bit of grounding in the world as carriers of plants.”