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.” 

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