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