“Most of the time, the ideas come to us. They are falling into our net,” says Jonas Mueller-Ahlheim, co-founder of the sspatz collective. When pandemic lockdowns closed art galleries in 2020, Mueller-Ahlheim and fellow sspatz cofounder, Thomas Georg Blank, were already hoping to reimagine art venues. Suddenly, their idea coincided with reality, as the world needed art outside of the gallery and inside of their homes.
The then-roommates, living together in Karlsruhe, Germany, launched sspatz’s “Toolbox” project, an art collection designed to be experienced in domestic spaces. Featuring contributions from 12 artists, the sspatz collective shipped 55 boxes packed with the same art and manuals to homes worldwide by 2021, offering people chosen by the artists an opportunity to participate in artmaking and challenging the isolation felt by the lockdowns. Now, nearly three years after its launch, sspatz is hosting its first public “Toolbox” exhibition at Compound Yellow, inviting Chicagoans to interact with artwork previously only available in the 55 original boxes.
“Toolbox” features work provided by an international group of artists: Franziska Windolf, Eva Gentner, Esther Steinbrecher, John Dombroski and Trevor Amery, Julia Dorflinger, Simon Fischer, Anas, Lukas Picard, Simon Pfeffel, Markus Vater, and Aida El-Oweidy. The components include a wooden block meant for meditation and a swimming tube meant to be inflated and deflated. Vater’s manual instructs guests to create a text piece on the walls with a brush and black watercolor. The exhibition encourages guests to manipulate and create, accompanied by instructions from the artists that can be followed or not.
The work is designed to puzzle people and inspire playfulness, challenging the traditional boundaries of art galleries, and this is especially present in Steinbrecher’s The Hand Maid’s Tale, positioned at the center of the gallery. The piece features simple household items including soap and multicolored sponges that Steinbrecher decontextualizes, saying “It’s not about solving the riddle, it’s about liberating the material.” Defining the items becomes the responsibility of others. Without active participation from others, the pieces are incomplete, giving visitors a chance to interact with art by breaking down the exclusive walls that define much of the art world. For sspatz, sharing art and exchanging ideas is essential to creation.
Three years before the lockdown, Blank and Mueller-Ahlheim formed the sspatz collective with former member Dóme Scharfenberg, because they felt disenchanted by gallery spaces and an endemic lack of exchange in art. “Toolbox” reinvents the stagnant experience of art appreciation, typically defined by silent gallery walks and impersonal observation. Instead, sspatz invites the public to participate in the artmaking process directly. “Toolbox” emerges from this desire to disrupt the exclusivity of art.
“The people that produce art are often not financially able to afford living with art from other people,” Blank says. “It’s this weird thing where we produce it and then other people live with art in luxurious places. There’s this idea that art is a part of this exclusive world. The three of us who founded sspatz had this urge that it didn’t have to be like that. You don’t need to live in a fancy mansion to live with art. You can also live with art in your shared flat in a crappy old building.”
The Compound Yellow exhibition highlights the materiality of art. For two years, recipients of the original “Toolbox” packages could manipulate the artwork by any means. The “Toolbox” becomes highly personal, obscuring the distinctions of authorship and confronting the traditional practice of artmaking. To activate the art, guests cannot simply browse an exhibition. They are required to play with the tools. Gallery visitors get the chance to take art into their own hands at Compound Yellow.
“Sspatz is something that can help us challenge things that we encounter in our professional life, because the art world, the social system, is such a heavily regulated thing with so many rules, may they be implicit or explicit. Sspatz is a platform where we can question a lot of things in terms of where art has to be presented or how art can be perceived,” Blank says.
Touching artwork is disorienting and sometimes unsettling, even when the instructions explicitly ask for it. Countless visits defined by “Do Not Touch” signs condition us to avoid overstepping in a gallery space, but Fischer’s ceramic plate is meant to be thrown, directing visitors to destroy an art piece despite their natural reluctance.
Both Mueller-Ahlheim and Blank believe that these interactions allow people to understand the art with deeper meaning. Experimentation and play becomes integral to the work, not exclusive to the artist. Similarly, Compound Yellow works to facilitate a space where creative work bleeds into everyday life and art is purposely shared. Sspatz reached out to Compound Yellow last year and cofounder Laura Shaeffer was impressed by the similarities of sspatz’s mission to her own.
“It was clear that Compound Yellow shares some fundamental interests and values with the sspatz collective,” Shaeffer says. “Showing art in unconventional spaces and domestic spaces, making contemporary art tangible as part of living spaces and testing how it can be presented and received in completely regular homes, outside of exclusive properties or pure white cube settings. Sspatz and Compound Yellow both try to blur the lines between art and everyday life and to normalize living with art.”
Mueller-Ahlheim is now finishing his master’s degree in painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Blank lives in Los Angeles, where his personal practice takes a documentary approach to the city’s manufactured landscape. “Toolbox” will be on view through March 25, though the project is conceived as an open-ended process for visitors. Once enraptured by the artwork, visitors are incorporated into an ongoing artmaking project, where the playfulness and exchange of ideas persist.
“There are so many different ways in this box that you can deal with art,” Mueller-Ahlheim says. “What I love about the ‘Toolbox’ is that every art piece requires some sort of engagement. You have to execute the artwork yourself, which gets you in touch with the process of art-making because you are a part of it. You are very much considered. It is just a beautiful thing.”
Through 3/25: Sat 2-6 PM, Compound Yellow, 244 Lake, Oak Park, compoundyellow.com/exhibitions