December 29, 2014

2015 Prediction Nr. 3: No Need To Fake It Till You Make It

Don’t get me wrong: I dig the “fake it till you make it” message of Amy Cuddy’s TED-talk. You can fake the self-confident body posture not only until you make it, but until you become it. Nothing wrong with becoming self-confident, right - although in the arts, I would advice against it since isn’t it despair and doubt that evoke the best ideas in artists, huh. Na, I’m talking about the fakery in residencies and fellowships. Because yes, I’m spending my holidays in my home country where the continuous drizzle makes me surf the internet for residencies in all places but Belgium. See, there’s a difference between Belgium and my other home country Germany. In Germany you can only make it if you first make it abroad. In Belgium, you have to stay put to make it. No kidding, once a Belgian curator told me that he didn’t ask me to write for a catalogue because he preferred to work with writers who live nearby. One wouldn’t even think of making such an excuse in Germany- the farther you are, the better. Anyway, this little detour only to come to the main point: residencies are a great occasion to network, to work in peace, to change your habitat, to push your boundaries and once you’re in, the ball mostly keeps on rolling until you no longer apply but get invited for residencies and until, in the very end, you come to that point that you rather stay home. (However, beware, there is the risk that you end up being stuck in the first phase and never have an art career, just an art residency career... ). 

My best residency ever: the Getty Research Library, a paradise on a hill in Los Angeles

So what’s the fakery of residencies and fellowships and how do we participate in the faking? Let me give you one example of the many that I came upon. In Istanbul there is the maumau writer-in-residence program which “aims to create an atmosphere for writers in which they can work isolated from everyday life while experiencing the inspiring nature of Istanbul.” That sounds very promising until you read the details. For a period of 3 weeks the fee is 600 Euros for a bedroom and the use of a library, a common kitchen, a shared bathroom and wireless internet. Applicants “are responsible for the transportation costs including the travel to Istanbul, around the city, also the funding for their project and daily expenses such as food and medical care.” So you’re basically renting a room and it probably wouldn’t be more expensive (or even less so) to book a room on airbnb, which will equally enable you “to work isolated from everyday life while experiencing the inspiring nature of Istanbul.” Probably the owners think they can call it a residency because it’s located in a gallery building and it adds to their own reputation to have a so-called artist residency. Quite a lucrative business, working with artists... Art residencies are no longer about nourishing the arts. On the contrary, willingly or unwillingly there’re creating an art world that is accessible to only the elite. 

It gets worse when big reputable institutions start doing the same thing: giving fellowships that artists need to fund themselves. Like the legendary Rijksakademie residency program, whose call for applications was posted two weeks ago with a new amendment. Let me quote: “Every resident artist is asked to raise a Fellowship of € 15,000, preferably in their home country. Selected candidates will be provided with more information after the interview round.” Hurray, one must feel elated to get picked for that residency knowing that the application process is only starting unless you are in the position not to worry about 15,000 Euros. Nowadays the worst thing is no longer that you are mostly working without pay in the art world, but that you have to pay to get some work done. What else do we have left than to participate in this extortion of artists? One can say that crowdfunding makes it even worse, because it lets the institutions off the hook. So shall we stick to Amy Cuddy’s advice and put the arms up in the V of victory in front of the bathroom mirror? Maybe, but for now, New Years Eve, there is this great opportunity to write down your goals for 2015 (here’s a post from the minimalists on how to do it right) and then you put them in a crack of a wall (this worked for a friend of mine) and everything you wish for will become reality in the year ahead (or maximum 3 years). 

December 18, 2014

2015 Prediction Nr. 2: Clubs And Critics Are The Next Big Things

Me at the dinner club, korean barbecue at Arirang, Charlottenburg

This might be new to you but the latest trend in town is to be part of a club. I myself actually kind of set this trend in 2014 and in 2015 it’s gonna be hyping. Drop your music band, join a club! At the moment I’m part of a glee club, a drawing club, and a dinner club. It’s not only me, other cool people have started clubs this year. The thing is, they don’t call it a “club” yet but they will in 2015 because everybody will be clubbing. Of course, I might be the trendsetter of this trend but I’m not the avant-garde. Craig Shuftan is. He was talking culture club as early as 2002 (first on the radio Triple J, then in the book The Culture Club: Modern Art, Rock and Roll, and Other Things Your Parents Warned You About, 2007). That’s the thing about being avant-garde. Andy Warhol was one, and he explained it like this: “Whenever I’m interested in something, I know the timing’s off, because I’m always interested in the right thing at the wrong time. I should just be getting interested after I’m not interested any more, because right after I’m embarrassed to still be thinking about a certain idea, that’s when the idea is just about to make somebody a few million dollars. My same good mistakes.” No wonder then, that Craig Shuftan just started a new music band Ducks! (check it out here).  

 The electronic music duo Craig Shuftan and Lani Bagley  

Craig Shuftan brings me to the next topic of 2015: great art writing, and this is the part where I make the obligatory suggestions for Christmas presents. But first of all, what is good art criticism? Mainly it opens up the artwork or the exhibition to a more abstract level - call it phenomenology - and that’s why you can can still read it decades later although the artwork itself might have disappeared. However, it’s been a while now that art criticism is stuck in a lurch or is it in a slump, and as Dr. Seuss taught us: it is really hard to un-slump yourself. This week a review about the Jorinde Voigt exhibit at Johann König Galerie in the Berliner Zeitung made me cry out how on earth?! Because yes, it is a mystery to me how these art reviews get published saying nothing but blablabla on an entire page. Nowadays art critics don’t express an opinion, nor do they seem to have an outlook. Art reviews are written purely to please the gallerist, the collector and the museum director. Shouldn’t it be the other way around: the art critic defining what should please the gallerist, the collector and the museum director? 

The crisis of art criticism is an old debate (it started around 2000). But I have a positive feeling that art critics are growing an opinion in 2015. To help them on their way, here are a few examples of good art writing and at the same time it's also a list for the non-art-writers of what to read during Christmas break:

1. Be punk

It takes guts to be an art critic. The most punk of the current critics is the artist Wolfgang Müller. Not only because he happened to have a punk band in the 1980s, Die Tödliche Doris. Nor because he publishes his articles in the smallest newspaper of Germany, the leftist newspaper Die Junge Welt. He also writes extensively on a forum like facebook. So what is a punk attitude? Take this Facebook status update as an example: “Once I was asked by a journalist: ‘What did you think when you noticed that punk-music and Super-8-films from 1980s subculture ended up in the museum?’ My answer: ‘That is wonderful! Where else can it end up? Or do you think, it would be better if it ends up on the scrapheap?’” Equally badass was Wolfgang Müller's suggestion about crowdfunding in the cultural magazine TIP: “When I would have the feeling that a diffuse flock of intelligentsia expected something particular of me, I would possibly make something disappointing so I could at least surprise myself. Like using the money to fly to Hawaii and send everybody a postcard with vinyl loops on which you can hear the reconstructed sound of the Hawaiian O’o - a bird last spotted in 1934.” To write punk is to write about underground culture, which is a culture that is not acknowledged like, for instance, deaf culture, promoted by Wolfgang Müller as “visual culture” (unfortunately this article in Die Junge Welt is not online anymore). And writing punk means also to be political. In a recent interview in the Berliner Zeitung, Müller asked a pertinent question about our society that we can try to answer in 2015: “Are the best ones those egoists who worked themselves up in the shortest time possible? Is that their record performance? The simple question about humanity absolutely has to be asked again. Thus: what is a human being?” 

2. Have a laugh,will you!

Nothing worse than art criticism that is too serious about everything, including itself. Dorothy Parker is not alive anymore, but her sharp wit is timeless. She said things one wasn't supposed to be saying and did so with a great self-humor. Let me quote from Dorothy Parker. Complete Broadway, 1918-1923: “It’s like this: If they were to come to me tonight as I sit at dinner, and tell me that an amendment had just been added to the constitution prohibiting the performance of the plays of William Shakespeare on any stage, I should politely remark, “Oh, is that so?” and calmly go on eating. For the horrid truth is that Shakespeare on the stage is not for me. I don’t mean to be bigoted about the thing. Some of my best friends heartily and sincerely enjoy Shakespearean performances. But, for me, the plays of Shakespeare in the theatre are as so many helpings of creamed carrots - I know they will do me good and I ought to enjoy them, but I am congenitally unable to.”  

3. Generalise boldly

The most common problem with art criticism is that it tends to stick to the little facts instead of rising above them. Gertrude Stein knew how to make bold statements for the hell of it. She made generalisations in such an absurd way that it totally made sense. My favourite one is how she described her encounter with Ernest Hemingway who, she wrote, “looks like a modern and smells of the museums.”: “I remember very well the impression I had of Hemingway that first afternoon. He was an extraordinarily good-looking young man, twenty-three years old. It was not long after that that everybody was twenty-six. It became the period of being twenty-six. During the next two or three years all the young men were twenty-six years old. It was the right age apparently for that time and place.”  And Gertrude Stein was head-on in her definition about the twentieth century: “So the twentieth century [] is a time when everything cracks, where everything is destroyed, everything isolates itself, it is a more splendid thing than a period where everything follows itself.” 

4. Be Pop

Art writing that keeps to rationality and logic is plain boring - you can do that in academia. Great art writing doesn't follow the trodden paths. It's the result of associative thinking, a mind that puts together things that didn’t belong together and makes it work. That’s the mindset of Craig Shuftan. He doesn’t even care being unreasonable once in a while - feeling unreasonable is actually what made him write his book Hey Nietzsche! Leave Them Kids Alone! in which he jumps back and forth between 20th century rock & roll and 19th century Romanticism. Indeed, Shuftan takes great leaps in time and he does it with ease. And yes, he's not afraid of Pop. As a fan of Andy Warhol I dig writing in which, so to speak, rice and beans are put together with cokes and hamburgers. Craig Shuftan introduces disco into the stuck-up language of art criticism (also called International Art English). And similar to early twentieth-century cultural critics Walter Benjamin and Alfred Döblin, Shuftan makes the genre of art criticism radioactive. Listen to his latest radio program Love In The Nineties

5. Write Poetry

Art critics tend to forget that also the genre of art criticism can be a form of art in itself. Not only content counts, but it’s equally important to play with language. It was Roland Barthes who wrote about the pleasure a text can give to the reader: “The text you write must prove to me that it desires me. This proof exists: it is writing. Writing is: the science of the various blisses of language, its Kama Sutra (this science has but one treatise: writing itself).” An art critic who I admire most for her use of language is Catherine Nichols. I think the exquisite pleasure of reading Nichols’ texts derives from the fact that she knows how to write with both the eye and the ear. A whole paragraph just to proof my point: 

“In stark contrast to its object - the discourse surrounding sound art - and hence the work of Rolf Julius who is widely considered a major exponent of this movement - is quite concerned with finding its feet, in finding legs to stand on. Indeed, approaches to this direction in art, which have radically proliferated since the late 1960s, have a considerable gravity about them. The very act of designating works incorporating the element of sound in some way as sound art affords sound a weight, a significance, which precludes it from being merely one of many elements in a work; it has a tendency to make sound central, all-consuming, and the other elements subservient, peripheral, perhaps even exchangeable. The phenomenon has had philosophers like Adorno worrying over the integrity of the arts and music, art historians and musicologists wondering where they might locate the beginnings and the boundaries of the movement, and artists nervous about the limitations of subsumption into this fluid category.” (Rolf Julius, Für den Blick nach unten, 2007). 

Catherine Nichols writes not so much for magazines or newspapers, but she has left her mark on many catalogues. My last advice: buy them all! Beuys, Die Revolution sind wirBruce Nauman, Ein LesebuchDie Leidenschaften, ein Drama in fünf AktenThe End of the 20th Century. The Best Is Yet To Come. 

December 9, 2014

2015 Prediction Nr. 1: The Boy’s Club Breathes Its Last

I wish art were more like fashion, looking ahead instead of back. While fashion is now busy predicting the trends of 2015, the art world is still going on about the best of 2014. I can’t even remember what I did last week, so I have no other choice than to talk about tomorrow. And I do have a very good feeling about 2015 - I see positive signs for change everywhere. A few of them come in the form of a “last rally”, like this one:

By the end of the year you have to let yourself go once in a while and I did so last Friday in Blain⎢Southern. I got very worked up just reading the press release upon entering the gallery and seeing from the corner of my eye the words VIOLATE ME. That was enough to get me going and I started my feministing with the gallery woman sitting behind the desk, of whom I got only the first name: Marie. Sed Tantum Dic Verbo (Just Say The Word) is curated by Glenn O’Brien and it examines the use of words in art by artists who all have/had a strong relationship to the curator. These are: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Stefan Brüggemann, Dan Colen, Jonah Freeman & Justin Lowe, Charles Gaines, John Giorno, Wayne Gonzales, Douglas Gordon, Brion Gysin, Ray Johnson, Atsushi Kaga, Joseph Kosuth, McDermott & McGough, Jack Pierson, Richard Prince, Rob Pruitt, Ed Ruscha, Tom Sachs, Dash Snow, Lawrence Weiner, Christopher Wool and Aaron Young. That list of names made my blood run cold and so did the short biography on Glenn O’Brien who “wrote monographs on many artists including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Freeman & Lowe, Mark Grotjahn, Richard Prince, Tom Sachs, Keith Sonnier, Dash Snow, Andy Warhol and Christopher Wool.” And then I looked around, searching for more evidence in the exhibit, and of course, one always finds what one is looking for: not only “VIOLATE ME”, but also “SEX CHANGES ROMANCE”, WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH HER”, “I MET MY FIRST GIRL. HER NAME WAS SALLY. WAS THAT A GIRL WAS THAT A GIRL THAT’S WHAT PEOPLE KEPT ASKING” and the nice joke “WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A BAR AND CLITORIS? MOST MEN CAN FIND A BAR.” And yeah, obviously, I didn’t take into account the context in which this art had been made and by whom, but WTF [here is where a blood vessel burst cheering]: the cynical discrimination technique of the boy’s club will find its end in 2015.

McDermott & McGough, The Vilest Way, 2005. Image courtesy Cheim & Read, New York. Photo: Christian Glaeser, September 2014

In the meantime Marie and I were not exactly on the same page about my apocalyptical thinking. She explained to me that none of O’Brien’s women friends would deliver a piece, so the women were to blame, not the curator. When I turned even paler with anger, she told me that there is no problem whatsoever in the art world. Her argument was not the gallery that she works for but another one: Johann König Galerie, which has like 20 female artists and only 4 male artists and that balances out a shows like this one at Blain⎢Southern. Later I checked Johann König’s website and the gallery has 15 female artists and 12 male artists. Great, luckily we now have Johann König to balance out the whole Berlin art scene, for instance galleries like Johnen Galerie that presents 32 male artists and 3 female artists. If we must go in for statistics, here is one on the USA. By the way, this visit to Blain⎢ Southern was not an isolated incident - last Wednesday I noticed that there was only one show of a woman artist in a total of 11 galleries in the Lindenstraße. And I don’t have to pain my memory to remember the shock I got at the Hans Richter show in Martin Gropius Bau, curated by Timothy Benson of LACMA, in which Richter was shown together with his colleagues Moholy-Nagy (no, not Lucia!), Eggeling, Ruttmann, Van Doesburg etc. Same for the period after 1945: Cage, Duchamp, Leger, Ernst. There was a woman who made it onto the wall, Irene Bayer-Hecht, for making a portrait of her husband Herbert Bayer. On top of it, the introduction of the exhibition catalogue was written by the current 5 male directors of Centre Pompidou, LACMA, Martin Gropius, etc.. And Hans Richter worked, so the catalogue introduction stated, with the "who's who" of the 20th century avant-garde: "Hans Arp, John Cage, Jean Cocteau, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Fernand Leger, Mies van der Rohe, Kurt Schwitters and Tristan Tzara." Amen. 

At the Hans Richter show in Martin Gropius Bau, a little blurry since I was shaken

Not to say that I like womens' shows, especially, as my friend Katharina Raab said, when they are named after the size of a mattress. Last Saturday the exhibition Queensize opened at ME Collectors Room, displaying the works of women artists in the collection. No, I didn’t visit the show, no need to do so. Why do such shows get explicitly promoted as “womens' shows”? Why not act like Blain⎢Southern and bury your head in the sand?  Let me finish with a few don’ts that I gathered during art hopping in 2014 on how to show the work of women artists:

-don’t show women artists together as if they’re handicapped 
-if you happen to curate a show with only women, no need to emphasize it. It just happened to be like that, right, just like it happens to be that some shows are exclusively male. -don’t show the work of a women artist next to that of their male life partner 
-don’t historicize the woman artist by putting early 20th century chairs in front of the exhibit, you don’t do it with Marcel Duchamp either. 

And to end on a positive note: can't wait for The Feminist Utopia Project of 2015.

November 30, 2014

How to Experiment. Onika Simon's ARTSHO5 in Istanbul

Limited Edition Poster of ARTSHO5, Experiment, designed by Kwame Charles, 2014

It’s a fact, isn’t it: Berlin is the hubbub of contemporary art. Other cities have been trying to catch up and even take over. Belgium is eager to promote Brussels as the New Berlin but it’s never a good idea to try being something else. And then there is Istanbul that just wants to be Istanbul and it’s quite rocking at it. I made my first trip to Istanbul over the weekend to visit Onika Simon’s ARTSHO5, titled “Experiment.” Istanbul might not want to be the New Berlin, but the show did remind me of my first year in Berlin in 1998 (yes, I’m getting into that life phase in which one starts to have memories). The winter of 1998 felt like the coldest winter in the history of mankind, but the parties were exotic and literally located underground. Similarly, the 2014 Istanbul-based ARTSHO5 was to be reached by going below ground level through a long and narrow corridor and similar to Berlin 1998 it took place in the middle of a construction site. It was the first show I’d seen where construction workers and artists worked side by side, both wearing overalls and doing their thing, which was renovating a building or making experimental art: on the surface it’s hard to see the difference in who’s dismantling what. The artists had various reactions to the circumstances. While some went along, getting high on the foams of melting nails or making paintings with tools like blow dryers, others worked desperately against it, playing Sisyphus by trying to clean the fine dust from the floor so one could start making art to begin with. The push and pull actually led to a great dynamic. Olafur Eliasson’s recent Festival of Future Nows at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin was just lame compared to this one. 

Winston Chmielinski, Valerie Schmidt, Onika Simon and
Carleen Coulter in ARTSHO5 outfit. Photo by Anders Pearson

A world wide web event: opening talk of ARTSHO5 with Onika Simon, Seyhan Musaoglu from Space Debris and Budapest curator Gaspar Bonta

That’s because experimentation has two edges and ARTSHO5 managed to reach both. One is the despair or the breakdown which brings you to that edge, or a little over the top to that point where you’re pushed forward. Needless to say, making art in the middle of a construction site was very helpful in that sense, but the artists contributed by, for instance, offering “collapsing” exercises. I collapsed so carefully, anxious to get hurt, that it made me realize I still have heaps of work to do in the letting go section of experimentation. The other edge is on the site of community. Let me go back to my Erasmus year 1998 in Berlin, where the constant socializing with new people in new circumstances drove me to tears every now and then, but also to bliss every so often. ARTSHO5 created this feeling of elation that comes about after spending some intensive days together in the midst of chaos (which is the natural state of things). The art was made during the exhibition (as experimentation is not a final product) in interaction with everything and everybody around. In this process Catherine Greig’s project make:good asked you to solicit help and offer help (of which the latter - recognizing yourself as being useful to others - is surprisingly the hardest thing to do). This kind of trustful connecting and sharing is the philosophy behind Onika Simon’s curating (and her Berlin-based company Spokehub). Yes indeed, it’s the new thing to do after a decade of selfishly protecting and disconnecting. During the Istanbul show tweets with hashtag ARTSHO5 moved across the wall and gave the happening a World Wide Web atmosphere. I myself was happily tweeting all along. 

I definitely need the help of @amanda_amport @wemakegood 

So does experimentation lead to innovation? Well, ARTSHO5 gave me a new perspective on what the next revolution will be about. The turn of mind happened upon encountering Winston Chmielinski’s art piece that invited the spectator to write something down. Chmielinski sighed when he saw me thinking hard to come up with an original idea and said he secretly wished for something plain and ordinary. It was then that it suddenly dawned on me that after centuries of living in the Age of the Extraordinary (with traveling to the moon, and making paintings through dripping, and other exceptional originalities) we have now arrived in the age without the extra. The Age of the Ordinary has this particular ambivalence to it that it looks simple but is complex at the same time (which is my favorite combination). I found more evidence for this theory at the Istanbul Design Biennial, which showcased the 2006-2007 show Super Normal at Axis Gallery in Tokyo that did not exhibit new work but existing objects that “favor synthesis over innovation, invisibility over ostentation, and they achieve their status through use”. Its catalogue said: “Super normal [...] is re-realizing something that you already knew, re-acknowledging what you naturally thought was good in something... super normal indicates our ‘realization’ of what is good in ‘normal’.” And then there was my encounter with innovation strategist Richard Watkins at ARTSHO5, who tried to convince me of the benefits of repair as a way to go forward and not so much the search for the new. The Repair Society at the Istanbul Design Biennial gave Watkins food for his argument: “Repairing is about the constant struggle to make things work, from language, to things, to relations between people, to systems in society.” 

Amazing thermo-reactive screen printing: Dolly Demoratti
proves that blow dryer and Becks go well together

So if experimentation is no longer about the search for the new and the original, it doesn’t mean you have to start mending your clothes with needle and thread (but of course, why not). Valencia James, for instance, is working with the newest technology to renew her own body language that was formed by years of routines and habits. At ARTSHO5 she presented her newest dance piece with artificial intelligence in which she taught her own body movements to an avatar that then improvised on those, which James took as material to improvise on again in real life. And what did the experimentation of ARTSHO 5 say about Istanbul?  At the Coffee Curating and Cultural Management Club of Kate Brehme (née Martin) back in Berlin, Kate told me her impression was that the Istanbul art scene has this grassroots look to it. And yes, Onika Simon definitely had her stamp on the experimentation (and she pulled it through despite the many obstacles) but it also took form the way it did because of the fact that it took place in Istanbul. Visiting the Book Lab at Studio-X and BAS, a space of artists books and fanzines run by Banu Cennetoğlu I got a similar vibe that comes across at that moment when there is a flash between two edges.  

November 18, 2014

The Lavatorial Etiquette of Joachim Bandau and Jorge Pardo

Gallery hopping has its ups and down. Last Wednesday it got so down that I had to drink my first glühwein at the pre-Christmas market at Potsdamer Platz. Friday night my vitamin B+C supplements finally seemed to kick in, because, starting at Johann König Galerie, I looked on the bright side of things, even considering the idea of producing earrings based on Jorinde Voigt’s drawings. This was followed by being astonished by Louise Lawler’s tracings that fit perfectly on the huge gallery walls of Sprüth Magers, and accepting not quite understanding what Robert Elfgen was trying to do on the second floor with just a light shrug of the shoulders. At Esther Schipper I had a good laugh with the doorman who was trying to prevent the fish balloons from escaping the gallery - which is all there is to say about the Philippe Parreno show, except maybe a suggestion to Esther Schipper to curate a show instead of packing whatever you can get of an artist in your space so you can sell (it doesn’t look good). At Guido W. Baudach I realized at first sight that it was art created by somebody born in 1987, which seems awfully young to me (born in 1978), and I am willing to blame the generation gap for my dislike. Yet I very much enjoyed Jorge Pardo at neugerriemschneider - I even went back the next day to look at it without the opening crowd. It reminded me of the Joachim Bandau show I had seen the night before at Galerie Thomas Fischer. I like it when things come together and similarities can be drawn. Check 1: both artists, Joachim Bandau and Jorge Pardo, use the bathroom in their sculptural work. Check 2: bathroom stuff has been a winner from the very beginning of contemporary art (no need to name names). 

The shower scene from Psycho, 1960

Of course, in 1917, nobody was bothered by it. The master said so himself in an interview with Pierre Cabanne: “It's only now, forty years later, that we discover things had happened forty years before that might have bothered some people - but they couldn't have cared less then!” Indeed, it was only in the year 1960 that the bathroom made its spectacular entree -  not in the arts, but in film: the sound of a toilet flushing, the plastic shower curtain swishing open with the plastic rings rattling on rail, climaxing in the shrieking death-scream of Janet Leigh. We are talking Psycho. Yes, more pleasant bathroom scenes have followed - like a soaped-up Julia Roberts singing adorably in Pretty Woman. But the bathroom is an edgy place where murders in the shower cubicle, suicides in the bathtub, breakdowns on the floor tiles, and interrogations in the mirror are being committed. As a film critic put it: it’s a small room for big pain. In the bathroom you are naked and basically at the mercy of lavatory tools. Joachim Bandau’s genius is in knowing how to tap these subconscious fears. His “monsters” of the 1960s and early 1970s are made of mannequins, deconstructed, then pasted and covered with polyester, varnished with shiny lack and adorned with shower heads and tubes. Mostly moving on rollers they are free-wheeling after your primal vulnerabilities.

Joachim Bandau, Figuren und Geräte, Installation view, Galerie Thomas Fischer, 2014
Courtesy the Artist and Galerie Thomas Fischer, Photo: Torben Hoeke

During the opening at the Galerie Thomas Fischer, every conversation I had that night was interrupted by one and the same art restorer whom I had never met before, but who apparently had a great urging to talk with me. It dawned on me later that the universe was trying to tell me something (isn’t it always like that in life...). The uneasiness that Bandau’s sculptures provoke is not only to be found in the bathroom fixtures, but also in his use of material. It was Roland Barthes who wrote about the spectacle of plastic as a “shaped” substance, “less a thing than the trace of a movement”: “Whatever its final state, plastic keeps a flocculent appearance, something opaque, creamy and curdled, something powerless ever to achieve the triumphant smoothness of nature. But what best reveals it for what it is, is the sound it gives, at once hollow and flat, its noise is its undoing, as are its colours, for it seems capable of retaining only the most chemical-looking ones. Of yellow, red and green, it keeps only the aggressive quality, and uses them as mere names, being able to display only concepts of colour.”

@Jorge Pardo. Photo by Jens Ziehe, Berlin. Courtesy of the artist and neugerriemschneider, Berlin

Jorge Pardo’s bathroom sculptures are different. First of all, they are very real bathrooms, you can even flush the toilet in the gallery - it works. And they are bathrooms that calm your nerves. The sculptures are not in the slightest degree unsettling (except maybe for those who wonder what bathrooms are doing in a gallery space). Nor do they make you dread a restroom humiliation - visitors leisurely try out the flush and the sound is strange to hear in a gallery but not ugly. Unlike Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, the lavatory of Pardo is attractive and pleasing to the senses. There is wood, and warm colors like brown and orange and yellow. You feel like you are on vacation, almost hearing, so to speak, the soothing sound of ocean waves and sensing the tropical heat of the beach outside. “I’m not a white cube kind of guy,” the artist explained to the New York Times, “I don’t think you can be a white cube guy if you’re an immigrant.” So the artist who once turned his house in Los Angeles into a museum, now turns Neugerriemschneider into your place of private function. And you can rest assured: what happens in the bathroom, stays in the bathroom.  

@Jorge Pardo. Photo by Jens Ziehe, Berlin. Courtesy of the artist and neugerriemschneider, Berlin

November 9, 2014

Simply The Best: How Grace Jones Beat Andy Warhol and Germany

Andy Warhol introduced Keith Haring to Grace Jones. In 1985 Jones and Haring
collaborated in a performance staged at Paradise Garage in NY City.  Check out Warhol
and Haring featuring in Jones' video I'm Not Perfect (But I'm Perfect For You).

My Grace Jones fascination started in 2013, when writing about her for the catalogue of the exhibition The End of the 20th Century. The Best is Yet To Come curated by Catherine Nichols and Eugen Blume at the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum for Contemporary Art, Berlin.  For those who don’t know it yet: Grace Jones is an artist big time. I know that I’m hooked when I start taking over certain features: I had a Valeska Gert period in which I subconsciously adapted her way of talking and lately I noticed that my laugh goes a little higher than usual. Have you heard Grace Jones giggling? It’s such a cute high-pitch giggle, quite in contrast with the tough warrior queen image she has.  

Grace Jones at the Paradise Garage, 1985

To start with, let me break some tough news. You know that I am Andy Warhol’s biggest fan alive and this didn’t change. But the truth is that Grace Jones is even more intelligent than Warhol. Due to my in-depth online research, I can prove to you now that Jones beat Warhol exactly twice. On 12 January 1983 Warhol advised Jones to tone down her look because the general public would never accept her outrageousness. It proved to be the wrong advice - her high-top fade haircut and cross-dressing marked a turning point in the 1980s. Warhol was ashamed of himself for being so wrong (check the diaries). Yet Warhol tried again during a conversation with the artist in October 1984. He wanted to discourage Jones' obsession with fur coats and persuade her to collect diamonds instead: 
AW: "Diamonds would look great on you." 
GJ: "Well, I don't think I could get away with it. I would be held up in the street. But no one comes over to me and says 'give me that fur coat'."

Grace Jones draped in fur. Polaroid by Andy Warhol

Grace Jones also beat Germany. I did some expanded research since I happen to live in this country and the story could still happen today, no kidding. Not only because the TV show Wetten, dass..? is still on, which is quite unbelievable as it is - they are even talking about bringing Thomas Gotschalk back. But also because Germany has this strange idea of what is not racism (for those in Berlin, check out the AOK publicity in Hallesches Tor subway U6: “Wir wollen Sie so, wie Sie sind (“We want you the way you are” - which implies you are not normal but it’s ok anyway). In 1985, Jones was invited to appear on Wetten, dass..?, which is a show based on rather silly competitions, to sing her new hit Slave To The Rhythm. When she arrived, a stage had been prepared with African masks and in the center of it all was a picture of Jones’ distorted face of the LP-cover. Jones refused the scene and asked for a big cube on which she would stand with in the back an eagle projected on a white screen in the background. For Wetten, dass ...?  the final drop came when Jones decided to cover her face with a veil until the very last seconds of the song. The concert was cancelled. Yet Jones returned to the show in 1990 and oh boy, did she win! Covered with a veil she entered the stage, singing the song Amado Mio. On stage were several white male Roman statues. Towards the end of the song they suddenly became alive and started dancing the electric boogaloo.

Grace Jones entering the stage of Wetten, dass…? with veil, singing Amado Mio, 1990

Grace Jones is still kicking it. She did so in England in 2011, singing Slave to The Rhythm for the Queens jubilee concert while hula hooping during the entire performance. Needless to say that for Jones the visuals are an intrinsic part of her music. She has been working together with several artists over the years but my guess is that she herself has it very much under control. The last video she produced was in 2008 for her new album Hurricane, released just before the economic crisis hit America in the fall of that year, to which she commented: “There’s a meltdown and we have this economic crisis. But I watch the news and I just think, let the dying die.” Like many female artists Grace Jones works with her body as a medium and material, yet at the same time she is very smart about sabotaging the fetishizing and making exotic of her body. In Hurricane her body takes on different forms and materials; on the album cover it is transformed into chocolate. In the video Corporate Cannibal, Jones dissolves her body into a digital virus. But no matter how political Jones’ visuals are, there is one main question that interests the hosts of the talk shows I watched online: “What kind of man dares to approach you?”  So, in case you too want to know the answer to that, here it is: “If I like someone, I don't usually wait for them to approach me. I would just sit down and say: what's your name?” 

Addendum: during my research I met some more Grace Jones fans:

Grace Jones Islandlife in Asier's collection

Slave to the Rhythm in Patrick's collection

August 2, 2014

Laughter, Top of Tobu building roof in Tokyo, 1956

Laughing is a lot easier when the sun is shining. A little summer show Sorry for Laughing with artists Ditte Lyngkaer Pedersen and Raphael Abrams, which I co-curated with Onika Simon, is opening on Wednesday August 6, at 7pm at KN, Berlin. I myself had the pleasure to participate in Ditte's piece Laughter, it was very funny, and here you can read my account:

"Laughter - Rooftop of Tobu Building in Tokyo", photo: Kenji Oomori, 1956, in Ditte Lyngkær Pedersen, Laughter, video, 2010-2014.

Like a ritual enacted again and again, the photo Laughter made its appearance on several occasions, each with at least five persons present. It didn’t happen, however, at random events. The settings had to be cordial, with friends or family of the artist Ditte Lyngkaer Pedersen. Being Ditte’s roommate, I participated in the “happening” during a dinner at our Berlin home in 2011. The original photo served as guidance: Laughter is a depiction of four women and one man laughing on a rooftop in Tokyo, 1956. Mystery always enhances ritual. The exact circumstances in which the picture was taken are unclear. Ditte’s friend, Yoshiko Okuzawa, Ditte's friend who is depicted in the photograph, doesn’t remember. And the photographer Kenji Oomori refuses to dig up the past. So we will never know what was so funny that day on the roof in 1956. Was it a laughing with or at? And was it real fun, laughing out loud? Or was it staged? 

Ditte Lyngkær Pedersen, Laughter. ZK/U Fellow Residents, Berlin, 2014, video 2010-2014 
It is hard to laugh for real in front of the camera. To do so, one has to forget the photographer. Like this other facial activity, lovers kissing, laughing out loud is unflattering for the face - except in Hollywood film. The opening of the mouth never fails to affect every other part of the face, immediately modifying its character with wrinkles, crinkles, and laugh lines. While struggling with breath, the reddening of the face follows suit, accompanied by tears. And then the body contracts - the limbs, the diaphragm and the back getting into strange contortions. Yet despite it all, laughing is fun to do. When a camera appears, however, we prefer to stay in control and crack a smile – conditioned by the Kodak “cheese” publicity of the 1950s. It’s the cultural reflex of the “we are so happy” philosophy of capitalist society. The open smile in front of the camera must not be seen as an expression, but as a reaction.

Me on the left in Ditte Lyngkær Pedersen, Laughter. Christmas Party, Kottbusser Damm, Berlin, 2011, video 2010-2014

Laughing, however, is the most visible expression of happiness, as we discussed before. We know that art can make us happy, but can it make us visibly happy? Was Ditte looking for that connection between art and happiness? Seeing Laughter in the album of her Japanese friend, something had pierced her, so she told me, and since then the photo had stuck in her mind. In his  Roland Barthes talked about the "punctum" that jumps out at the viewer within a photograph - 'the accident which pricks, bruises me'." Like a therapeutic treatment to heal that "punctum", Ditte asked her friends and family to re-enact the 1956 roof top scene again and again. So at that dinner in 2011, the five of us had our pick and positioned ourselves in front of Ditte’s camera. I chose the woman on the left side of the picture - with the arms crossed in front of the diaphragm and the head bent to the back. Did Ditte then say something to make us laugh? If she did, I have forgotten. Nor do I recall the dinner or the food itself. And furthermore, I can’t recognise every person in the picture. But I do remember the laughing very well. Upon throwing my head to the back and opening the mouth, it had followed naturally. The fakery of the first seconds turned into real pleasure. Laughing even until the pleasure turned even into a kind of pain. 

Ditte Lyngkær Pedersen, Laughter. Christmas Party, Kottbusser Damm, Berlin, 2010, video 2010-2014 

Laughter therapy encourages people to laugh at things that hurt. The photo Laughter seems to induce this kind of rebellion: "The greatest enemy of authority,” Hannah Arendt said, “[…] is contempt, and the surest way to undermine it is laughter.” Laughing out loud is considered inappropriate - not only in traditional, but occasionally also in modern Japanese society - and is especially disgraceful for women. This custom of discreetly covering the mouth with the hand is often interpreted by Westerners as shyness or as an oppression that asks for liberation. In 2013 the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity awarded the Japanese fast food chain Freshness Burger for their “liberation wrapper”. The wrapper, with a closed mouth (“ochobo”) depicted on it, allows Japanese women to chew down a gigantic burger and still look lady-like. Behind the paper wrapper she can now open her mouth wide for a big bite. That the commercial was so appealing to Western critics and media might be because of their belief that for women, liberation begins with the body. 

The laughing fit captured by Ditte in 2011 had no particular reason – and maybe the same counts for the 1956 one. Smiles in art history are enigmatic - the ironic self portrait by Rembrandt or the legendary Mona Lisa being the most famous examples. There is something in these smiles that can never be fully grasped - a mystical truth that stays out of reach. Yet laughter is rarely attributed this power in art history. It is reduced to jokes or to a coping with distress - a laughing in the face of death. Also in daily life it is hard not to feel excluded in the presence of people having a laughing fit: from the outside the unreasonable laughter makes no sense. However, if one has that laughing experience, which becomes so rare in adulthood, then there is a kind of bliss that envelops you until the ecstasy fizzles out. Is it this bliss that shimmers in Laughter, Top of Tobu building roof in Tokyo, 1956?

July 24, 2014

Little Theories on Contemporary Art. Following Jennifer Danos' “The Way is Not in the Sky”

Don't mistake the geyser for a hot tub.

That I’m going to write this piece with the minimum use of punctuations is because at the moment I’m under the great influence of Gertrude Stein whose writing I just discovered and if you haven’t yet I can recommend to start with reading her Everyone’s Autobiography in which she tries among other things to convince Pablo Picasso to stop writing poetry and that we should probably be thankful for. I myself have been soaking in Iceland’s hot tubs for 14 subsequent days. While my bodily lower part found itself in 39/42 degree sulphur water and my upper part in a 12 degrees fresh breeze, the dialectical tension between the poles of hot and cold cleared the head during day time whereas the nights were crowded with confused dreams and it was in the twilight of both that a few little theories bubbled up in my mind. Initiation took place before leaving Berlin for Iceland, while attending a preview of Jennifer Danos' The Way is Not in the Sky at Mila Kunstgalerie - an exhibition essentially based on earth and water and those two components are what Iceland is about, which is how my experience was only intensified in the following weeks after seeing Danos’ art. 

Jennifer Danos, The Way is Not in the Sky, 2014, Mila Kunstgalerie, Berlin

According to my first little theory I can now claim that the time of artists hovering in the air is over which is a relief indeed because no longer do we have to throw the head to the back and wonder where the artists got their calling from. Final bankruptcy of the bird-eye view might have been the 2012 Berlin Biennial of Artur Zmijewski who since then seems to have disappeared into thin air. According to my second little theory the artist has left behind the bird-eye view to touch level ground again. This change of direction - down instead of up - and here is my third little theory, has most likely to do with the economical crisis that hit the world in 2008. It took a while to seep in and affect the artist’s approach to their object of study that is society. In the aftermath the artist started to touch base by  searching for real things that are palpable, sizable, tangible, and can preferably can be told as stories. It is a trend which, so a friend suggested, could be named “Neo-Neue-Sachlichkeit” (or Neo-New-Objectivity), referring to the movement from the 1920s that reacted to crisis in society by returning to the object.

Jennifer Danos’ exhibition The Way is Not in the Sky might at first sight look like a perfect example of this trend - her medium and material is literally level ground - but in essence she is simultaneously doing exactly the opposite. That the trend described in my third little theory needs to be countered is intrinsic to trends. Art should counter what is trending, and this can be considered to be my fourth little theory. Andy Warhol, for instance, made his film Sleep at a time, the 1960s, that everybody wanted to be awake. The Neo-Neue-Sachlichkeit of the 2010s comes out of a feeling of fear and fear in general makes people shut down instead of open up. In art the shutting down becomes apparent in a work of art that displays archives with long and didactic wall texts on the side in which the artist is reduced to a mere researcher. Whereas, in short, the difference between both is that the artist can go beyond to what can be called “mystical truth,” as named by Bruce Nauman revealing something that again and again escapes us. 

But the Neo-Neue-Sachlichkeit takes on different shapes. The trend also reveals itself in a work of art that feels the need to show its how it was made, afraid to be understood differently or out of a need to make a story of the work. In video, it is a close-up shot of old things or left-behind spaces, preferably in slow motion and accompanied by  dramatic, cinematic music. And it manifests itself in an art that repeats clichés, stereotypes and codifications in an effort, indeed with the good intention, to subvert or reclaim them. “The thing is like this,” Gertrude Stein wrote in the book I'm reading, “it is all the question of identity. It is all a question of the outside being outside and the inside being inside. As long as the outside does not put a value on you it remains outside but when it does put a value on you then it gets inside or rather if the outside puts a value on you then all your inside gets to be outside.”

Economic crisis does not necessarily need to lead to a flattening or to a take the air out or to take the wind out of the sails. You know me, I'm a great fan of the slacking trend of the early 1990s, such as the tone that was set by Richard Linklater’s Slacker-movie:  "Every thought you have creates its own reality. Every choice or decision you make, the thing you choose not to do, fractions off and becomes its own reality and goes on from there, forever. ... All those other directions just because they thought about it, became separate realities We will never see it because we are trapped in this one reality restriction type of thing  We can have just a momentary glimpse into this other reality. I could have a dream from that reality into this one

Sachlichkeit, actually, is not a bad thing at all, as long as it doesn't suffocate. In Iceland I attended the performance of Haraldur Jonnson at Kling & Bang. Jonnson leafed through some colored papers, while uttering only one word which was "þessi" meaning “this one” or "this" in Icelandic, possibly female, male or neutral. In German, this is impossible because of "der die das" but also in English no real equivalent can be found. Veturlidi, who we visited on the way to the hot tub, revealed to me another plus of Sachlichkeit. He had been breaking his head on how to translate the word "music-hall" into Icelandic for the subtitles of English and German TV-series. He had a breakthrough just when we arrived. The viewers won’t stumble over it, so he said, they won’t think it’s good or bad, they will just not notice. Best-case scenario is that they forget they are reading at all. Key to Veturlidi’s creative work is to be as invisible as possible. The greatest graphic designers are like that, curators should be too, and visible/invisible is what art is essentially all about, This is my, let’s scroll back, oh yes fourth little theory. 

Haraldur Jonnson performing at Kling & Bang, Reykjavik
Before returning to my departure point, Jennifer Danos’ "The Way is Not in The Sky”, I have to tell you about my fifth little theory for which I only need a few lines. In my opinion, to be counter-capitalist in art, it doesn’t mean any longer to make street art without a budget to elude the capitalist system, but, on the contrary, working without a budget has become very capitalist nowadays. So to be counter-capitalist is to ask for an adequate pay. 

Jennifer Danos, The Way is Not in the Sky, 2014, Kunstgalerie Mila, Berlin.

Not only does the Berlin-based artist Jennifer Danos work with level ground, she makes you look down as well. At Mila Kunstgalerie two labyrinths have been made on the floor. These are quite simple lines, and it is hard to imagine that along that line you might loose yourself, which of course you do, at least mentally. Nearby flatscreens show the water of the river Spree. The water, however, is not running in one direction, naturally downhill from one place to another, but in a two-way spirited streaming, constantly crossing and recrossing, ascending and descending in our dominantly one-way world. When you reach the middle of Danos’ labyrinth, you are invited to look up into a mirror sheet attached to the ceiling. Only much later, my friend Dirk gave me the key to understanding by quoting Justin Torres on a roof terrace during a beautiful summer night: “What we gotta do is, we gotta figure out a way to reverse gravity, so that we all fall upward, through the clouds and sky, all the way to Heaven.”