Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010 – Exhibition at Tate Modern!

Exhibition brochure

Exhibition brochure featuring ‘Polke as Astronaut…Polke as Drug’

I ventured up to London to see the Sigmar Polke exhibition, ‘Alibis’ at the Tate Modern. Polke’s work and ideas span numerous mediums, which inspires me, and his voice is radical and anarchistic, but often delivered with parody and humour. From painting and drawing, to film, sculpture and slide projections, his work is experimental and challenges the conventions of artist style labels.

Polke’s family fled Silesia (Poland) in 1945 during WWII, to eventually settle in West Germany and his work possesses a defiant dislike towards authority. He also expresses anti-consumerism ideas and the trivialities of materialism, whilst challenging perspectives and exposing corruption. Polke’s work seems to carry a constant thread of destruction and transformation, of darkness and light, despair and hope.



There are 14 rooms in the exhibition gallery, which separate Polke’s varied work into a timeline of his influences and styles. The first room is titled ‘Capitalist Realism’, a term he coined to separate himself from the pop and social realism art of the time. Although influenced by pop art, his work exposes the marketing and consumerist machines of Western culture using luxury and ready-made items such as chocolate, biscuits and soap, items which were scarce during post-war Germany. He depicts the gluttony of capitalism and the washing of sins.


Raster image, 'Police Pig'

Raster image, ‘Police Pig’

Dots are a known feature of Polke’s work, so much so they are known as the ‘Polke dot’. They can be seen within his raster images, but also cropping up elsewhere in the layers of his other works. Some examples of these raster and fabric paintings can be seen in room 2.  The raster images have been printed using rows of dots, which when blown up to a large scale break up the image. When looking at the painting from afar the dots recreate the original image again. Some of these dots Polke painted by hand and a certain degree of messiness has come with that, but seems to add to the effect of the image. His painting ‘Girlfriends’, a typical 60’s carefree image, is an ironic depiction from the world of politics and his painting of ‘Police Pig’ parodies the authorities like many of his other works, seen in room 1 and later on.

In room 4 some of Polke’s sculpture pieces are displayed, such as ‘Potato House’. This is a build of painted, lattice framework with potatoes at the cross points. He uses daily objects such as rulers, string and photographs to create his sculpture works, such as the palm tree in ‘Immunity From Seizure’. The image of the palm tree features repeatedly throughout Polke’s work and is thought to mock the promise of ‘escape’ suggested by tourism.

'Alice in Wonderland

‘Alice in Wonderland


During the 70’s Polke lived in a communal house with  a number of other artists and experimented with various drugs and hallucinogens. He made a number of surreal films, painted on different types of fabrics and found new ways of looking at images. Some of these films can be seen in rooms 5-6, along with his painting on fabric, ‘Alice In Wonderland’, which features his ‘Polke dots’ again. This combination of surreal film reels, paintings of mushrooms and the large smoking caterpillar, highlights the ‘topsy-turvy’ world we live in and his questioning of reality and fiction during this period. There is certainly a feeling of walking amongst Polke’s own ‘Mad Hatter’s Tea Party’ at a time when he was discovering new perceptions and stretching the boundaries of live art.


Polke experimented with numerous materials from paint and photographic chemicals to meteor dust and even a purplish dye taken from slug trails – it seems anything is something creative to use if you can find a way! His work is resourceful, using things which he had available to him or that he could find easily.

'Quetta, Pakistan'

‘Quetta, Pakistan’

Growing up with a keen interest in photography, which had been passed on to him by his Grandfather, he travelled with his camera across Afghanistan, Pakistan, Brazil and France and took hundreds of photographs. He has used some of these images in his work, layering them and folding them, manipulating the images and experimenting with various chemicals, dyes and processing techniques, to create sometimes haunting images which juxtapose ‘reality’.

Polke’s work varies in size from the smallest of canvases and notebooks to huge, large scale pieces, ‘Alice in Wonderland’ being around 10ft x 9ft. In room 9 are the ‘Watchtower’ paintings, a series which he painted in the 80’s and also of large scale.  They are somewhat haunting and their macabre energy is reminiscent of the imprisonment and control of the war camps, yet also provokes thought to our own watchful Governments and surveillance. He has used a number of different materials again and in two he has used photographic chemicals which fade over time with sensitivity to light. This means the watchtower is slowly fading and is becoming harder and harder to see, just as perhaps haunting memories fade, but are still there beneath the surface.



In the last room, 14, is his painting ‘The Illusionist’, along with four untitled abstract paintings. ‘The Illusionist’ is one of his ‘lens paintings’ where he has overlaid images and then created his own lens, by raking through thick paint gel over the top. His overlapping techniques and ‘lens’, distort and un-focus the image (unlike a usual lens), giving it different perspectives as you move around the painting.

The four untitled pieces were amongst my favourites for their sheer vibrancy and smoky colour. His use of iridescent paint with his layering technique gives them movement and fluidity, with an almost ghostly feeling. Their bluish, purples are calming and I just felt as if I could stare at them for hours and drift off!

Polke really was an incredible artist, an alchemist of sorts, creating a cauldron of materials and seemingly turning lead into gold, or at least finding a way to alter perception and give the illusion of such. Polke certainly seems to have had a unique journey and a surreal adventure along the way, with some of his work being quite graphic or questioning realms of sanity, but I can’t help but absolutely love him! His creativity, boundary-less questions, exploration and challenging risks with his art, is something I’m quite in awe of and would happily go back to see this exhibition in a heartbeat if I could.


The exhibition runs until 08/02/15 at the Tate Modern, London, so get there quick to see it! You can find more information here.

Also, if you have an interest in subversive art, take a look at our other blog on the ‘Disobedient Objects’ exhibition at the V&A here


Robynne Willowby, January 2015.