Thomas Schütte was born in Germany in 1954. Since the 1970s he has produced a diverse body of work, including grotesquely distorted puppets, architectural models, watercolours and ceramic sculptures. He lives and works in Dusseldorf.
‘At a certain moment in Germany’, Thomas Schütte has said, ‘after the unification in 1989 when housing problems and unemployment became more severe, the foreigners - the ones who had come from the East or from Yugoslavia or Africa - became the scapegoats.’ The Strangers was a response to this climate of xenophobia in Germany.
These ceramic, life-size figures were originally made for the 1992 Documenta exhibition in Kassel, where they were sited on the roof of a department store, high above a square. Whether they are arriving or departing with their baggage is impossible to tell, but their downcast eyes and frozen stance mark them as victims, passively awaiting an unknown fate.
‘Basically, in 1992 the political dimension was changing every week - and all these issues are still unresolved. What defines a German, the passport, the blood, the country of birth, the language or the mentality?’, Schütte asks. The complex issues surrounding individual and group identity are mirrored in the stylistic shifts between representation and abstraction in the work. The faces of the figures are relatively realistic, revealing diverse ethnic origins. In contrast, their lower bodies are of a single type, a cylindrical form that echoes the shapes of the containers surrounding them. These vase-like bases allude to the vessel of life, inviting us to consider not only external physical qualities, but interior presence.
After the 1992 exhibition, Schütte broke The Strangers up into smaller groups. Since then, like refugees on the move, they have appeared in many different countries. Transcending the specifics of political circumstance, they quietly memorialise the suffering of all who are oppressed.