March 18, 2016

Little Thoughts about Art: Coffee and Croissant

If you leave Belgium, you disappear from its radar. In Germany it’s the other way around, if you haven’t been abroad, you don’t count. Once I met the curator of a Belgian museum who was going to put up an exhibition about a Belgian avant-gardist of the 1920s I had written about in my PhD. We had a very nice conversation and he told me he wanted me to write for the catalogue. I was excited. A year later the catalogue appeared without a contribution of me. When I inquired if there had been a problem, the curator told me he had decided to work with people who live locally. I guess he meant I wasn’t able to bring by coffee and croissant in the morning? This is typically Belgian, and probably also the reason why you never heard about the Belgian avant-garde, except for René Magritte (you might even think he's French?). 

March 17, 2016


Once I proposed an exhibition idea together with a friend to a newly opened non-profit art space. Its director was a young man who got the funding from his father. I’m sure he would have said yes, if it hadn’t been for his assistant, who was acting up like a queen. We had a meeting and everything seemed to go well until she arrived, late of course, as all important people do. She didn’t bother to rush to our meeting but first had a conversation with some other people visiting the gallery. Then she sat down and told us straight away she wanted “outrageous” exhibition ideas. Her idea of “outrageous” was to do an exhibition which had, for instance, Madonna in its title. A few years later the non-profit space was turned into a profit space. This seemed unnecessary if your funding is secured, but maybe the chicken wanted to spread his own wings? A few months later it turned into a non-profit space again. Profit is hard work.

March 15, 2016

Little Thoughts about Art: What Do You Do?

The first question when you get to know somebody in the United States is: “What do you do?” In Germany the first question people ask, is “Where are you from?” Both questions can get on your nerves. I know people just want to start a conversation. But why not talk about the weather rather than about somebody’s accent? The question “where are you from” implicitly creates an inside and an outside. And Belgium just happens not to be one of my favourite topics to talk about. Not that the US equivalent is much better. Everything is measured by success and success in life is defined by your job. It’s even hard when friends you haven’t seen for a long time, ask you what you have been doing. I always feel like I should deliver some movie story of my life but most of the time I can’t even remember what I did yesterday. I must admit that I also have a tendency to introduce people by naming their profession so that some kind of networking in the art world can come about. Funnily enough, when I became a freelancer, a lot of people stopped introducing me by my profession, or they get this confused look in their eyes while they’re trying to pin it down: “curator (hesitation), art critic (pause), blogger!” 

March 14, 2016

Little Thoughts on Art: Talking the Talk

In German you can say whatever and make it sound intellectual. Yet, if you’re not German, even when you master the language, it’s almost impossible to imitate it. It must be connected to a certain twirl or bending in the brain, caused by education. I can go to a talk in German and understand only half of what is being said, whereas everybody else seems to get it. You could say it’s the same with art speak in English, but in English it sounds obviously empty, whereas in German it does sound deep. S., who works at the museum bookstore, is very good at talking this talk. Last Saturday, when discussing a show that is at the moment hyping at the museum, he said: “Es stellt die Realität des Betrachters in Frage.” (It questions the reality of the spectator.”) You can say this about almost any art work, he nodded. 

Open Letters with Chilean Art Critic Ignacio Szmulewicz, 13

Ignacio Szmulewicz and I met a few weeks ago in person at the central station in Berlin. He had a few hours time before travelling further to Prague. It's special when meeting your pen pal, isn't it! Ignacio is travelling with the train through Europe and he showed me his route crisscross Europe on the map. What comes about when you take time off? 

This is the 13th letter in our series of open letters on art criticism. 

Exterior and interior of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb

Dear An,

I will try to put into words some of the enormous amount of images that I have in my head right now. You asked me in the last letter about the relationship between images and words. It might be one of the most difficult questions for anyone who enjoys writing. How can writing express, content or divulge the senses or experiences that images produce? I found a sincere peace of mind regarding the idea that images open up an endless field or movement to be continued in any kind of media: the interruption of that continuity to express or communicate makes us humans (I think it was Georges Bataille who said the same thing about eroticism). 

I don’t know if it was because of the old churches or convents that I visited last month but I discovered that we need some transcendent moments of enlightenment to recognize our complete sense as a species. Maybe my next book will be about the endless and mystic power of any form of art –I don’t know and I don’t care– but actually, it felt very rewarding that the cynical and overly rational side of my personality was overcome and conquered by this zen-kind of experiences. With that on my mind, I truly believe in the paradoxical and imperative necessity of writing –not just for practical or economical reasons. 

 The road to Sarajevo and the monument for the murdered children

I write because even though I’m a dot in the infinite way that images encounter in their endless lives, we’re nothing but the sum of dots or islands that are at a few occasions visited by others. In that way, submerging yourself in a book, or in an author’s view or thought is a form of camping or intellectual tourism or unreported visiting. We inhabit those lost places like we’re the only and first visitors of those weird and unknown islands. With regard to Chilean artists there’re none like Eugenio Dittborn how used a cartoon of a small person on a small island looking at the distance as a metaphor for the paradox of the need for travel and isolation. I was at drift in the last thirty days. I was captured by places that I didn’t know and didn’t expect. Into my eyes and memory entered a colossal amount of colors, shapes, textures, and smells that I didn’t recognize. Most of those will be completely forgotten in the darkness of “unrecorded events.”

The ruins of the II World War Monument in the hills of Sarajevo and the flag of Yugoslavia decorating the flowers in Tito's House in Beograd.

I once told you that sometimes art criticism feels to me like an experience of getting lost. This was never more so than  last month. Being in Spain this January the leap from Latin America still didn’t feel as big. Maybe it was the language, the people, and most likely it was the familiar territory. Everything was going to change in the course of just one day.
I arrived in Zagreb at a cold morning after surpassing France, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia by train. With a complete sense of loss, I used an old tourist guide for “Europa del Este”, a gift of a friend in Chile. The guide was printed in the last days of 1994, and as you can imagine the borders of Croatia, Bosnia, Yugoslavia (back then), and other countries were so different. After realizing that any kind of guide would be useless in this part of Europe I embraced the politics of a non-touristy approach. 

Museum of Yugoslavian History and the love of all nations to Tito in propaganda video

I’m not going to tell you the whole trip but with a few adjectives you can get a digital image of the places I visited –of some of those you were a part. After five days in the capital of Croatia, a mix of silent people and huge architectural complexes, a very old and slow train took me to Sarajevo in one of the most beautiful and dramatics trips of my life. The cracks of Zagreb façades revealed actual bullet marks as cemeteries in the streets of the once peaceful capital of the western part of the Otoman Empire. On the other side of the hills the snipers of the Serbian army had been firing at the citizens of Sarajevo. As many others in Europe, I feel like a running horse or a working factory, were everything is moved forward by the power of money and politics. As weird as it may sound, the feeling that remained during the rest of the journey was an extended comment of what happened in those fifteen days in the former country of Tito.

I wanted to share with you two feelings that were very new and special during and after those days and that I’m still trying to understand. I hope that you can help a little bit. The first, and here I return to my former cynical-humorous-like self, I call simply the “why are you here moments.” I was asked this by different persons, all related to the art scene, and always with a weird look on their faces. As if I came from mars or maybe the moon, having an art critic from Latin America walking on theirs street and entering their museums was experienced as a close encounter of the third kind. I laugh because on the one hand it made me realize that this was a galaxy very far away, a place were the casual visit of transatlantic critics was very unlikely and on the other hand it was the first moment when I fully incorporated the knowledge that I was on the eastern corner of the western world. Plans, projects, ideas were demanded of me, having to invent an explanation whereas in reality I was just trying to learn and incorporate as much as I can from that part of Europe. 
The second was the most mystic of all, and the reason why my letter began with such a transcendental approach. I guess that you can call it the “seeing-through-others-eyes”. It sounds like a Phil Collins song, but it was actually a very enriching experience. I wanted to live the cities in a more profound sense than just the touristy lines that worried outsiders make in maps. And luck was on my side. In every city I quickly transformed myself in Dante having several Virgilio’s types of company. In that regard, the images that are now deposited in my memory have an oral aspect attached to them. Every text that I write about this experience will be forever entwined with those live records of talks, laughs, and smiles with a select group of strangers who kept me company and made my journey feel like a group therapy session. I learnt personal stories that produced a personal image of the city, and writing, as you can imagine, is the only way for me to produce collective knowledge or cloud-kind-of-messages for people who I’ll probably never see again. 

A mural of KURS collective on the streets of Beograd and a nightly art performance in Belgrad's underground scene

It’s clear for me that art criticism, as any kind of creative writing, is constantly pushed by the most unlikely of experiences. Even in the most subjective of forms it depends on and demands a certain connection with a greater world. Can you describe those experiences for you? Have the words been able to transmit or fulfill the capacity of language to communicate those experiences?

You can say that this letter was a compelling way to surpass the song “Tourist in your town” of The Pink Mountaintops. I still need more time to figure it out. I hope you can help.


March 11, 2016

Little Thoughts on Art: The Job Interview

Once I got invited for a job interview without having applied. That’s how I expect it to be, of course, jobs should just be offered to me on a silver platter. It was for a curatorial job in an alternative art centre in the Netherlands. The interview took place in Berlin during the Bienniale opening weekend in the apartment of the director. When I rang the bell downstairs, I was invited to come up to the fifth floor. There was no elevator so I guess they assumed I was in a good health condition and wasn’t handicapped. Arriving upstairs,  out of breath, I joked “You can see I’m fit for the job!” but the director turned her face so I couldn’t see if she found that funny.  After a little chit chat we came to the real deal: "How do you imagine yourself to be in 5 years time?" “Beautiful, rich and successful just like you!” would have been the ideal answer, but I was a little unprepared because I hadn’t expected traditional interview questions from an alternative art space. Others followed: "What is your weak spot?" “Perfectionism,” I nodded. “That’s a classic,” she said. A classic answer for a classic question, why not? But I tried a little harder: “I always arrive on time, mostly even too early, which can be really annoying.” We finished with: “How do you follow up on the exhibitions happening in our art space?” I hesitated, because until then I didn't really have the Netherlands on my radar. “E-flux?,” she suggested. “Sure,” I said. 

March 10, 2016

Little Thoughts on Art: Mussels on a Rooftop

There’s this rumor that Marcel Broodthaers used to hang out in the bookstore in Brussels all day long, and that it was his wife Maria Gilissen who was the thriving force behind him to get it together and make art. If you meet Gilissen, you know why. She has this special energy going on, one that expresses itself in a pair of green radiant eyes. She told me a funny story about Broodthaers. Once, they had to transport a piece with mussels to a gallery and they called a cab. It was too big to go inside so they decided to strap it on the rooftop of the cab. When Gilissen came back from the expedition, Broodthaers did not ask her anything about the gallery or the exhibition. But he did want to know about the cab driver: did he enjoy driving around with the mussel piece on his roof?

Marcel Broodthaers in his Jardin d'hiver

March 8, 2016

Little Thoughts on Art: What Does It Mean?

They were a couple, traveling to Berlin for the first time. “Where are you from?” I asked, although that’s a question I hate myself. "Israel," so they told me, and yes, they knew about contemporary art. They had a few questions starting with Andy Warhol and that’s where they took me first, rather then the other way around, me taking them around. “Why,” he asked me while pointing his finger at Andy Warhol’s huge Mao silkscreen painting, “is this Korean dictator hanging at the museum?” “He’s Chinese,” I said. That annoyed him but he still managed to make his point: “Why is this Chinese dictator shown here?” “It’s art,” I explained. Then they took me to Cy Twombly where they immediately interrupted my little speech: “What does it mean?” “It’s art,” I replied, “it’s not about meaning.” They got visibly more and more dissatisfied and the last drop came when we arrived at the exhibition of art made, confiscated, or sold between 1933 and 1945: “Why is Hitler’s portrait shown in the exhibition?” “Imagine,” they told me, “that there would be a big poster on the museum’s facade with Hitler’s portrait on.” “But there isn’t!” I said, bewildered.  

Warhol in Beijing in 1982, imitating the dragon's smile at the Forbidden City. Photo Christopher Makos
Warhol in his hotel mimicking the Tai Chi movements he saw in China. Photo: Christopher Makos

Little Thoughts on Art: Artist's Lofts

Artists like lofts - this might be because they can’t stand barriers, even when they take on the form of doors. The open space reflects the open mind. Practically, a loft comes in handy if one tends to make big work. I personally like to close a door and when I see those artists’ lofts I get anxious about heating costs in the winter. I was once talking to an artist who told me he found himself on a sinking boat, and suddenly his majestic loft got the looks of a Titanic. It might also be the other way around, you acquire a loft so that it will invite success to follow - it’s called "positive visualisation," and when nothing happens, it’s called "keeping up appearances." Mostly, artists look for each other’s inspiring vicinity and if you visit one you can see on the door bell tons of others. Rosemarie Trockel and Nan Goldin are working like that in the same building. But they probably didn’t know what they bought themselves into. The renovated Max Taut house in Kreuzberg has become the hate object of gentrification opponents. The windows are smashed in constantly, so that reparation doesn’t help. No insurance will keep on covering that. You see, this Max Taut building, Bauhaus style, was used for workers unions whereas now it looks like a bunker of those who have “succeeded” in society, keeping everybody else out. The renovation was done by the Ingenbeek architects, who are known for “label” fashion housing and not exactly neigborhood sensitive architecture. An estate agency is selling one of the apartments at the Max Taut house as “factory loft for individualists”. I don’t know if you, as an artist, feel addressed by that?

The smashed windows of the Max Taut Haus, appropriated by the inhabitants as an art work, plastered wounds with sayings as "Memorial for the newcomers", "Memorial for the cohabitation of different people", "Memorial for Latte Macchiato and beer cans"

March 6, 2016

Little Thoughts on Art: Gallery Furniture

In December I visited for the first time Wolfgang Tillmans’ gallery Between Bridges in the Keithstraße in Charlottenburg. A gallery attendant greeted us in the elegantly curated exhibition of Jochen Lempert. The hanging seemed to be such a part of the art work that I wondered if the artist had done it all by himself: “Did the artist do the curating?” “An artist doesn’t curate his own work,” the young hansom man responded cranky, “he installs it.” He seemed to be a little agitated by my question and when I left the gallery I thought it was the lack of a chair for him to sit on in the gallery space that made him feel edgy. A table would have been nice too. Galleries should give their employees a sitting possibility, even if it’s not the most aesthetic object in the room?

Jochen Lempert at Between Bridges, Berlin. Photo: Between Bridges

March 4, 2016

A Thriller about Warhol?! Reading Jörg Heiser’s Art and Pop Music

Jörg Heiser, chief editor of the legendary Frieze magazine, published his Magnum Opus about pop music and art. Well, at least, the book has the size of a Magnum Opus. I despaired by the sight of it and decided to limit myself to the chapter that was recommended on the cover by Oliver Koerner von Gustdorf, editor of Deutsch Bank art magazine. What a luck: that chapter turned out to be about my favorite Andy Warhol, and according to the cover text it would read as a thriller. Warhol and a thriller, could it be better?! I was very curious and this is what I found out: 

- Jörg Heiser thinks he has found out Warhol’s weak spot and, at the same time, his central characteristic: he was a “social climber” (he seems even satisfied to say that Warhol really hated it when people called him like this). There’s nothing wrong with wanting to come forward in life, but Heiser manages to tell the story in such a moralistic tone (stigmatizing) and combining it, for instance, with the way Warhol paid his employees badly (the old story of Warhol exploiting people to get to the top, whereas one could also say that he helped people to make it and do their own thing). 

- Heiser claims that Warhol’s dream was to become a mainstream star by selling anti-mainstream to the mainstream. Doing so, he implies that his ambition was what primarily drove him. When Warhol said that in the future everyone would have 15 minutes of fame, doesn’t that mean in the end nobody is a star anymore? That’s humor, but this brings me to the next point:

- Who walks with Heiser, is sure to do so on humorless paths. At the end of the chapter, he says that Warhol succeeded his dream of becoming a mainstream star, at least symbolically, by featuring in The Love Boat two years before his death. His satisfaction showed, so Heiser, in his dairy: “ ...Went to Soteby’s and they had my painting of Ten Lizzes up. Ran into a lot of old ladies who said they saw me on The Love Boat.”  This diary entry is humorous and sympathetic - Warhol at its best. But Jörg Heiser gives it such a cynical turn, it’s perverse.

- As such, Heiser interprets everything 1/1. When Paul Morrisey says that they brought Velvet Underground to the Factory for pure commercial reasons, then Jörg Heiser takes this 1/1 as an argument for Warhol’s social climbing ambitions. Haha, Velvet Underground for commercial reasons! 

- Heiser likes to make assumptions and then claims them to be truths. Take the following statement: “Schon im Bezug auf Hollywood hatte Warhol ein großes, wenn nicht zu großes Vertrauen in die Bereitschaft des Mainstreams gesetzt, glamouröse Negationen von Mainstream-Formen zu umarmen und als solche zu popularisieren.” (Already in relation to Hollywood Warhol had a big, if not a too big trust in the willingness of mainstream, to embrace glamorous negations of mainstream forms and as such, popularize them.”)  Why doesn’t Heiser say that Warhol never made compromises, not even with Hollywood? Instead he prefers to say that Warhol failed his dream to become a mainstream star.

- Heiser gives out poisoned compliments: “Warhol kam mit seinem Mainstream-Hoffnungen ökonomisch mindestens zehn, eher dreißig Jahre zu früh. Er wollte anti-mainstream an den Mainstream verkaufen.”  (Warhol was 10 to 30 years too early with his mainstream hopes. He wanted to sell anti-mainstream to the mainstream.”) Yet, Warhol was well aware of how to sell anti-mainstream to the mainstream, he saw others do it. Let me quote Warhol: “The way to be counterculture and have commercial success was to say and do radical things in a conservative format. Like have a well-choreographed, well-scored, anti-establishment “hippie-be-in” in a well ventilated well located theatre.”

PS: Leafing through the rest of the book, it’s clear that Heiser tries his best to be aware of gender issues. It might be, of course, that somebody else read through it just to gender police the whole thing. But Heiser himself has an all male band called La Stampa, with art people Jan Verwoert, Thomas Hug and Jons Vukoren, which might have made him conscious there is an issue in music. And as an art critic he might also be aware since it's still a profession where your voice is taken more seriously if it’s a male, white and heterosexual one. But no matter how hard Heiser tries his best to be gender conscious, in praxis he tends to fail at moments. In the John Lennon and Yoko Ono chapter he explains thoroughly how Lennon took on a “traditional female role” when he decided to stay home for his kid. But strangely enough, by stating it like this and giving it such emphasis, he reproduces the stereotype. The same in the Andy Warhol chapter, where he states that Warhol didn’t take drugs or alcohol, but the “amphetaminhältige Schlankheitspille Obetrol als typisches Hausfraukick.” (“amphetamine slimming pill as typical housewife kick”). Here he stereotypes Obetrol as a “female” (“housewife”!) drugs, whereas the other drugs like heroin must then be the male ones? Implicitly, without noticing, Heiser reproduces sexist and homophobe patterns, saying Warhol is of course taking the “female” drugs.