January 28, 2015

Art Object of the Week: Self-Destructive Art

Franziska Klinkmüller, restoring in the Deutsches Technikmuseum Berlin

There are those kinds of artists, that are consciously making self-destructive art - the great Dieter Roth was one of them and he excelled in mold. But most artists are making self-destructive art out of utter cluelessness. They use glue that turns yellow or a paper that cracks under the paint. And on top of that, there are the limitations of the modern material: aluminum that oxidizes, plexiglas that gets scratched, and audio-visual equipment that becomes obsolete. This week I visited the person who is saving contemporary art from self-destruction: my friend, the restorer Franziska Klinkmüller. At the moment, she’s busy fixing a 19th century train wagon in the Deutsches Technikmuseum Berlin, uncovering its original paint with red stripes (you know how I love stripes so I can’t wait to see the result). Last year she was restoring early 20th century mechanical display puppets at the Deutsches Spielzeugmuseum in Sonneberg. Besides mechanisms in dolls and clockworks, I know that Franziska especially likes to work with gum (also the chewing one) and glue. I met Franziska in 2009 in Hamburger Bahnhof - Museum of Contemporary Art while she was dusting the Dieter Roth Garden Sculpture, but I’m sure that once I turned my back she was doing the fun stuff, like filling up the sculpture’s bottles with rainwater and taking Polaroids. Not that dust isn’t a fascinating topic - it is. I gave guided tours together with the restorers of Joseph Beuys’ Directional Forces in Hamburger Bahnhof and we talked about almost nothing else but dust. And I learnt that one shouldn’t use hair spray to fixate chalk - it makes the color disappear whereas chalk is a pretty resilient material (think of the Caves of Lascaux). I do love restorers - they give you a totally new perspective on art, entering via its material. Coming to think of it on a more philosophical level, Franziska is basically slowing down time. And to top it off, she is also wearing this cute white lab coat.

January 25, 2015

The Struggle of the Art Critic. Or How to Write About Roman Signer’s "Kitfox Experimental"

Roman Signer, Kitfox Experimental, 2014 at KINDL, Berlin

It’s hard to write about Roman Signer’s artwork. You might have noticed in my last post that I took the easy way out and sidetracked to a manifesto about the tie-dyed T-shirt... Oh how I love it when art teases me like that: I know it’s good but I can’t tell exactly why and how it works. So here I am again giving it another try. What exactly is the difficulty in describing Roman Signer’s art? First, the art doesn’t look difficult, it looks quite easy, and we all know that the simple things are the hardest ones to explain in life. Also, Signer’s art has such a humor to it. You can’t write about it in an overly intellectual way because the art will totally prick your balloon. But it isn't all fun and lightness either. In general, it’s difficult to write about really great art. Because really great art doesn’t fit into the confines of the given aesthetic matrix so you can’t rely on explaining the rules. Nor is it about the mere destruction of that matrix. It finds itself on that difficult to grasp threshold  described eloquently by Roland Barthes as the instant when Marquis de Sade “manages to be hanged and then to cut the rope at the very moment of his orgasm, his bliss.” 

Roman Signer, Kitfox Experimental, 2014 at KINDL, Berlin

So where is that edge, that seam, to be found in Kitfox Experimental, the art installation that Signer created for the newly opened KINDL - Center of Contemporary Art Berlin? The Boiler Hall of this former brewery is amazing architecture. It’s not easy for an artist to work in amazing architecture because you can’t escape it (aren't we all the victims of the architect) and your art has to deal with it and reach a same or even higher level of awesomeness. Look at the transparent hall of Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin - rarely an artist manages to work with that space in a way that both respects and transforms it. Roman Signer turned the Boiler Hall into an open air fly zone - dismantling the architecture spot-on while simultaneously using its full potential. Fans hanging on the wall create the sound of a roaring aircraft engine, which is in this case a Kitfox Experimental dangling from the ceiling. On its website the Kitfox company promotes its aircraft as “FUN - EASY TO BUILD - AFFORDABLE - SAFE - ACHIEVABLE”. Yet Signer’s Kitfox Experimental is obviously having some trouble because it’s nosediving to earth. 

My friend Elisa walked leisurely underneath the crashing aircraft to look up to that nose. Such risk-taking is not my cup of tea; I could already see the headlines in BILD-magazine: “Art Critic Squashed Underneath Art Installation.” However, Signer’s Kitfox Experimental makes you also think of a cartoon with a happy ending: Donald Duck struggling to pull his plane out of the dive, then to see that Donald is seated safely in a chair on the ground, flying a model airplane. And because Kitfox Experimental doesn’t feel like "spectacular" art - Signer’s art never really does. Even if it’s an aircraft nosediving in a Boiler Hall, Signer manages to make it seem prosaic and not in the least exalted. His art is not about influencing us or the world to higher ends but rather, as Virginia Woolf proposed in A Room of One's Ownto "think of things in themselves." Although loud and dynamic, Kitfox Experimental captures a moment of lull and suspension. For instance, when realising that, logically thinking, it's impossible for man to fly, right at the moment that the force of things launches you into space.

January 20, 2015

Art Object of the Week: Tie-Dyed Will Never Die!

Roman Signer's Kitfox Experimental at KINDL - Centre for Contemporary Art Berlin,
Sept. 14, 2014 - June 28, 2015

My friend, the curator Faith Powell, brought beer into the museum in a newly opened exhibition, Brewing Culture: The Craft of Beer at the High Desert Museum in Bend, Oregon (USA). In honor of my transatlantic friendship, I went to see some great art by Roman Signer in the former brewery complex KINDL in Neuköln, Berlin, now turned into a new Centre for Contemporary Art. As a Belgian, I’m always asked about beer as if it must be my natural disposition to know all about it. I don’t, but I can have this sudden craving for beer in the middle of a hot summer day and I like to think it’s because I’m Belgian. I will talk more in detail about my love for Roman Signer’s art soon, and about Belgian beer probably in the foreseeable future. But for now I would like to make a little detour and tell you about my trip to Oregon last summer, where I discovered that the art of the tie-dyed T-shirt is still alive. You might be familiar with the Portlandia-Phenomenon- a place where young people go to retire, act as if Bush never happened, and still wear do-it-yourself tie-dyed t-shirts as we used to in the 1990s. That's what is great about the United States, there are all these parallel worlds happening (for the 1980s go to Santa Cruz!). In Oregon I celebrated my 36th birthday at Voodoo Doughnuts and climbed Rock Smith with my University of Oregon tie-dyed T-shirt. 

With my friend curator Faith Powell climbing Rock Smith in Oregon, outfit: a tie-dye T-shirt from the University of Oregon, Eugene

Do you remember the 90s?

January 15, 2015

Art and Politics, Politics and Art

In the midst of the frantic reaction to the Charlie Hebdo-attack there were a few people who kept their calm: like the chief editor of the German satirical magazine Titanic. It was refreshing to see how Tim Wolff refused to participate in the media circus. No, Wolff had to repeat twice to the pushy interviewer, he is not afraid because this terrorist attack is about a very specific French situation. Titanic is not going to spread even more Charlie Hebdo Muslim satire but rather terrorism satire. Not so calm was the “I am not Charlie” outburst by Berlin based artist Candice Breitz on Facebook. But yes, the loads of Facebook “I am Charlie” posts (we’re all one body now: collectivism is okay again!) upset me too. Then there was a reaction against this reaction to the mainstream reaction, equating any criticism to Charlie Hebdo with saying that “they had it coming”. Art critic Jorg Heiser found it a disgrace that his fellow colleagues dared to object to anti-Muslim racism in Charlie Hebdo and to nuance the freedom of the West. One of his statements was the following: “It’s fair enough to object to what can be considered racist and islamophobic content in Charlie Hebdo, as long as one acknowledges its anti-racist and anti-fascist content as well.” I thought that the comment section had some good answers. Phuoc Dang: “You think there's more people justifying the killings in mainstream western media than people asking for the racist cartoons* to be republished? And sure the speech itself “doesn't kill you” but what if it creates an alienating environment that further marginalises and brings violence on you. *explain how repeatedly characterising a religion as comprised of hook-nosed brown people with beards is not racialised?” And J. Rives: “Thanks for the whitemansplain.”

I must admit: I have difficulties with “political art”. Most of it seems to fall so flat. The recipe goes like this: you take a picture of a political topic and put it on the canvas. Tatatata... a clear political statement! Or Fukushima happens and you run to Fukushima to make a video because it’s always more exotic over there than over here. Or you take some “outsiders” and use them in your art project. Or you take some stereotypes and clichés and repeat them to show us something. Such political art attracts attention and has a quick effect. It’s shocking and provocative - and a lot of political artists are convinced that that's what contemporary art is all about. While at the same time everything stays in place and nothing is disrupted. But you can create a press scandal and that pushes your sales and your reputation. Your art work is being sold and exhibited, the gallery is happy, even the people in power are happy and will buy it because they can wash themselves with it and show how self-critical and free-minded they are. 

You see, in my opinion the so-called non-political Andy Warhol was the most political artist of the twentieth century. Sure, you might hang his work in a Hollywood villa or in the Reichstag, but you probably don’t know what’s hanging there on your wall. Great art can’t be functionalized, it resists. Andy Warhol’s genius is his positioning - something that most political artists forget about. They are hovering in the air and showing us something. They got some calling, but from whom? They forget they have a body themselves that is positioned in this society. Awareness of your position in society seems to me a quality that could significantly improve political art as a genre (Jorg Heiser mentioned above, is white male, just in case you were wondering). Awareness to differences in context would help too. Warhol’s genius is also his humour - which is not a haha-humour that goes at the expense of others. Not that haha-humour is a problem that political artists in particular suffer from. Most of the time they are so serious about themselves and their art work in their quest to change the world that it bores me out of my mind. But maybe that is something that we should bear in mind: it might sound a little cheesy and "we are the world" but artists should use their skill for the benefit of mankind and for the betterment of the world - they should, shouldn't they? Andy Warhol's answer: "I'm trying to."

January 11, 2015

Art Object of the Week: Wolfgang Müller’s KauÞing-Bank Baseball-Cap

Many people have been screaming this week that they have to defend the freedom of the West that has been with us since Enlightenment (by spreading stereotypical satire on Muslims in a Europe that is already full of anti-Muslim racism). So here is an object that talks about this kind of freedom that, for instance, keeps the top bankers responsible for the 2008 financial crisis in the United States of America out of jail. This baseball cap is not exactly an art object since Wolfgang Müller is not wearing it as an art performance but while living everyday life in Kreuzberg, Berlin. It does, however, reflect the punk attitude of Müller’s art practice. And if he would wear it in Iceland it would be quite similar to Sid Vicious running around with a Hakenkreuz T-shirt on his rock’n roll swindle through Paris. KauÞing-bank was a major bank in Iceland that collapsed in 2008 with the economic crisis. In 2013 four former bosses from the bank were prosecuted in Reykjavik for "orchestrating five large-scale market manipulation conspiracies" and, unlike the bankers in the USA, they were sentenced to between three and five and a half years in jail.

January 6, 2015

Like Old Cheese. What Museum Cafés Tell You About The Avant-Garde

I’ve written about museum bookstores as the backstage to the art world. Museum cafés are equally important. They are like the kitchen at home. It’s a big mistake not to have one. Kunsthaus Bethanien, for instance, didn’t think of it when it relocated to Kottbusser Damm in Kreuzberg and the new space, and every exhibition in it, lacks an ambiance. The café I spend most time in, is the Sarah Wiener one in Hamburger Bahnhof - Museum of Contemporary Art, Berlin. Not that it’s my favorite: the acoustics are very bad (you can’t hear a thing of what your neighbor is saying), the red walls are agitating, and the altar of Sarah Wiener books and products at the bar gets incredibly on my nerves. In 2014 Sarah Wiener renovated for a few months and after the renovation everything still looked the same. Except that the altar had disappeared but after a few days it was back again and it seemed to have grown even bigger. I wish Sarah Wiener had inherited some of her mother’s wit, Ingrid Wiener, who together with Valie Export sung a funny song about lemons and bananas making out in bed: “Bananen, Zitronen, sie gehen in ein Haus / Bananen, Zitronen, und zieh’n sich nackert aus / Halli-Halli-Hallo, und finden sich ganz nett / Halli-Halli-Hallo, und legen sich ins Bett / Halli-Halli-Hallo, und vögeln um die Wett’. Hallo.”

What does Sarah Wiener’s cacophony** reveal about the state of contemporary art? Grayson Perry puts it like this: “I don’t believe there is an avant-garde any more. There are just multiple sites all over the world at different levels, in different places, using different media for experimentation, and we live in this globalized, pluralistic art world with a lot of money sloshing around in it, and it’s as varied as we are.” Yet the idea of avant-garde is not even celebrated in a place where you would expect it most: the Bauhaus Archiv. At the lockers the odor suggest the close proximity of bathrooms and in the restaurant the food smells as if it has been heated in an airplane. I was considering a cheese sandwich but the bread looked harder than my teeth could manage and the cheese seemed to have dried out because of too long exposure. There is no way to bring dried out cheese back to life and that’s what the Laszlo Moholy-Nagy exhibition looked like. Everything seemed very sad and moldy as if the avant-garde is a really old and silly idea, contaminated with bacteria you don’t want to eat. 

C/O Berlin at Amerika Haus

I also checked out the new location of C/O Berlin, which has a reputation of being hip and trendy. The Amerika Haus truly is a great space and the café is wonderful, with big windows that give you a beautiful view of the railway station Zoologischer Garten. I had a delicious sandwich with goat cheese and a fig chutney for only 3 Euros. My neighbor had a vegan sandwich that was designed like the Triadic Ballet of Oskar Schlemmer. My hope is only that the new C/O turns out to be more like its restaurant: solid and original. Because the opening exhibitions are certainly not cutting edge and avant-garde. C/O seems too eager to please. The Magnum exhibition is a safe choice, the Berlin photos are for the tourists, and the selfies are for the children. I always wonder why photography exhibitions look so conventional. It seems that it’s the only contemporary medium that doesn’t question the space and the walls it is displayed upon. Rows of framed photography hang closely together at the conventional height of 1,50m eye level... yawn. This was also the very first show that I visited in which Wikipedia is openly used as a source for the labels. When art gets down to a Wikipedia-level, I feel it’s high time for a new avant-garde. Anybody interested?

From Douglas Huebler's Wikipedia page...
** Just got the news that Mercedes-Benz Museum resigns Sarah Wiener restaurant because of bad working circumstances. More here