Abschüssige Heiterkeit und abgründige Oberflächen
Max Brand, Matthias Dornfeld, Greogor Hylla und Maria Loboda in der Galerie Jacky Strenz, Frankfurt am Main (2010)
In einer Hinsicht – und wenn auch nur da - sind sich die vier KünstlerInnen der „Abschüssigen Heiterkeit“ einig. Und zwar in der Vermeidung dessen, was ein Papst des 20. Jahrhunderts namens Greenberg als Grundlage von Malerei bezeichnete: Fläche. So scheinbar flach die scheinbare Flachware auch die Wände ziert, so plastisch gebärdet sie sich schon beim geringsten Annäherungsversuch.
Um seiner Freude an ungebremster Farbigkeit und anarchischen Formen Anhalts- und Anknüpfungspunkte zu liefern, beginnt Max Brand seine Materialschlachten mit der Anfertigung des Spielfeldes. Durch lockeres Applizieren unterschiedlicher Stoffstücke entsteht eine dreidimensionale Struktur, die in das spezifische Verhalten der mal pastosen, mal gesprühten Farbe den kontrollierten Zufall einfügt: Nähte, Falten, Löcher leiten den Farbverlauf.
Aus diesem Urzustand der Gestaltungsmittel treten wiedererkennbare Elemente hervor, die sich mit solcher Entschlossenheit über lose Lappen und knotige Krusten hinwegsetzen, dass sich der Verdacht geheimer Botschaften aufdrängt. Welches Gewicht lastet auf der Ente? Und warum widersetzen sich die Grundfarben im Destillierkolben traditionellen Farb-Form-Zuordnungen? Die Mischung der komplementären Farben Rot und Grün ergibt bekanntlich Grau, nicht Gelb, und auch die den Farben zugewiesenen Formen verstoßen gegen Kandinskys so intuitive wie zählebige Konvention. So setzen die über der Wildnis schwebenden Figuren eine Fahndung nach semantischen Untiefen in Gang.
Die bei Brand nebeneinander liegenden und somit nachvollziehbaren Schritte vom Suchen zum Finden sind bei Matthias Dornfeld als einander überlagernde Schichten mehr ahn- als sichtbar. Dornfelds figurative Motive sind Endstufe einer Entwicklung, die noch unterhalb der Fläche rumort. Halbtransparente Zonen geben den Blick frei auf vergangene Stadien, bizarre Krusten umschließen die durch Abkratzen und Hinzufügen von Materie aufgeworfenen Unebenheiten. Keine der menschlichen Figuren lässt sich auf Blickkontakt ein. Die einen, weil wir sie im Profil sehen, und auch die sich uns frontal zuwendenden weichen aus. Mal fokussieren ihre Pupillen einen Punkt knapp neben uns, mal suchen wir vergebens Augen in den Höhlen. So sind Dornfelds Bildnisse nie Porträt, sondern stets überindividuell – reine Typen, doch von zwingender Eindringlichkeit.
Ihre Ähnlichkeit mit archaischen Idolen resultiert aus der feierlichen Strenge, mit der Details zu Flächen zusammen gefasst, und Gestik und Mimik zu maskenhafter Regelmäßigkeit begradigt ist. Locken, Falten und kleinteilige Strukturen sind unter einer abstrahierenden, fast undurchsichtigen Farbschicht nur mehr zu vermuten.
Aufgrund ihrer kantigen Flächigkeit bilden Dornfelds Schemen das Scharnier zwischen dem Aufruhr, den Brands Objekte um sich verbreiten, und der Disziplin, mit der sich Gregor Hyllas konkrete Malerei in sich zurück zieht. Die exakte Umsetzung ausgeklügelter Konzepte ergibt eine Gliederung der Bildfläche in horizontale, vertikale und diagonale Zonen in den Grundfarben sowie weniger Mischungen. Gedeckte Töne dominieren, ungebrochene treten nur in kleinem Umfang in Erscheinung - auf größeren Flächen ist ihre Leuchtkraft verdunkelt und vertieft. Diese gewichtigen Zonen würden sich zu einer Wand fügen, öffnete nicht ein fleckiges Weiß den Bildraum. Nachträglich auf vormals farbige Flächen aufgebracht, lässt das Weiß die darunterliegende Schicht als Tönung erkennen. So wirkt es weniger als Farbe denn als Lücke, ohne dabei einen illusionären Raumeindruck zu erzeugen.
Hinsichtlich der Hard-Edge-Malerei vergangener Jahrzehnte stellt sich mitunter die Frage, ob deren Streben nach Präzision der Natur des Mediums Malerei angemessen war oder aber in den Zuständigkeitsbereich von Grafikprogrammen gefallen wäre – hätten solche zur Verfügung gestanden. Doch während man damals noch mühsam Verfahren zum Tilgen subjektive Spuren suchte, ist heute nichts einfacher ist als das.
Daher verdankt sich Hyllas Konzentration auf wenige Formen und Farben einer bewussten Entscheidung für Malerei – samt ihrer Eigenheiten. Weit davon entfernt, eine diesem Medium widersprechende Perfektion zu behaupten, setzt er ganz auf die ihr eigenen Effekte, wie sie etwa durch Trocknen und Gerinnen der Pigmente oder ähnliche Reaktionen entstehen: Risse, Krakelluren, Tropfen, Nähte und Pinselstriche unterscheiden die so strukturierte Oberfläche von der versuchten Sterilität jener früheren Malerei, die keine mehr sein wollte.
Auf dem Raster bauen auch Maria Lobodas Collagen auf, doch wird die Gewebestruktur von verspielt tänzerischen, wiewohl durchdacht platzierten Fremdkörpern überlagert. Unregelmäßig konturierte Formen bewegen sich durch das und über dem Geflecht und erzeugen so einen Luftraum vor dem Teppich aus miteinander verspannten Linien. Ihre Präsentation auf grauem Textil betont die stoffliche Machart der Gebilde und bindet die zweidimensional wirkenden Arbeiten in Lobodas vorwiegend innenarchitektonisches Werk ein.
Formal der Ästhetik des Werkbunds und insbesondere der Interieurs von Eileen Gray nahestehend, enthalten Lobodas Installationen zuweilen Elemente okkulter Traditionen, die Anfang des 20. Jahrhundert in Europa kursierten. Von dieser Vorliebe für die Verbindung von handwerklicher Sorgfalt und spiritueller Symbolik zeugt auch The same Cabinet with it's Doors Open: Zwei Objekte aus Buchenholz, die sich aufgrund ihrer surrealistisch langen Beine der Bezeichnung „Schränkchen“ entziehen.
Mit roten Korallen anstelle eines Griffs versehen, drängt sich angesichts dieser wenig funktionalen Grazien ohnehin eher die Assoziation an Tabernakel oder sonstige Gefäße des Sakralen auf, galt doch die Koralle aufgrund ihrer Ähnlichkeit zum Schlangenhaar der Medusa einst als unschlagbar zur Abwehr des Bösen Blicks. Aufgrund dieser Eigenschaft kann man diesem mit allen magischen Wassern gewaschenen Türsteher getrost das Bewachen eines geheimen Raums anvertrauen – sogar bei angelehnter Tür.
Abgründe der Moderne
The Deep of the Modern - die 9. Manifesta in Genk (2012)
So eigenwillig eine Ausstellung auch sein mag – an einer Bedingung kommt keine vorbei: Ortsspezifisch muss es sein.Diesen bisweilen großzügig ausgelegten Anspruch erfüllt die 9. Manifesta so präzise wie umfassend.
Eine Installation aus Robert Smithson's Serie der Non-Sites ist Teil und Sinnbild der traditionell lokal ausgerichteten Wanderausstellung, die diesmal von der vom Steinkohlebergbau geprägten Region im belgischen Limburg ihren Ausgangspunkt nimmt
In den Non-Sites fasste Smithson die Beziehung zwischen ausstellendem Rahmen und ausgestelltem Gegenstand zusammen: Site ist der Ort im Außenraum, in den der Künstler eingreift; Non-Site ist die Form, die dieser Ort im Kontext seiner Repräsentation annimmt. Folglich arrangierte Smithson im vorliegenden Fall etwa Steinkohle in industriell gefertigten Metallboxen, wodurch amorphe und kristalline Strukturen sich zu natürlich synthetischen Skulpturen verbinden, und der sperrige Rohstoff unter institutionellen Bedingungen dargeboten wird.
Diese Transformation von Natur im kulturellen Umfeld beschäftigte auch Smithsons Land Art-Kollegen wie Richard Long, dessen charakteristisches Geröllfeld hier ebenfalls aus Kohle besteht.
Neben 39 zeitgenössischen Arbeiten aus bildender Kunst, Film und Performance zeichnet eine kunsthistorische Sektion die Entwicklung des Kohlebergbaus als Gegenstand der Grafik und Malerei seit der Romantik nach, während die dritte Abteilung die soziokulturelle Entwicklung der Bergarbeiter-Region dokumentiert.
Der sich so ergebende rhythmische Wechsel von Bildfasten und Augenschmaus entzerrt den potentiellen Informations-Overkill, zumal die vier Stockwerke des kathedralenartig dimensionierten Art Deco-Baus sowohl kleingedruckten als auch monumentalen Exponaten ihre Schutzzonen und Hoheitsgebiete zugestehen.
Die Veranschaulichung abstrakter Prozesse von Produktion, Distribution und Zerstörung industrieller Produkte gelingt mittels einer Flotte buchstäblich zwischengelandeter Gebetsteppiche der in den 50er und 60er Jahren angeworbenen 'Gastarbeiter' ebenso wie mit freundlicher Unterstützung einer Ameisen-Kolonie. Während Magdalena Jitrik die Aufbruchstimmung des revolutionären Russlands in einer multimedialen Installation beschreibt, beschränkt sich der Kommentar der Gruppe Claire Fontaine zum Ende der Sowjetunion auf die Rekonstruktion der optimistisch farbenfrohen Neonschrift, die einst 'das Haus der energetischen Kultur' im bei Chernobyl gelegenen Pripyat zierte.
Beim Publikum führt eine diffuse Ahnung der eigenen Einbindung in von unbekannter Seite gesteuerte Abläufe zur Identifikation mit Ante Timmermans, der inmitten eines Käfigs aus Tonnen geduldig wartenden Papiers mit quälender Gewissenhaftigkeit ein Blatt nach dem anderen stempelt und locht, wobei er einen Konfettihügel produziert. Angesichts der vom Fenster aus sichtbaren Abraumhalden ließe sich der langsam wachsende Kegel als Migration der Form bezeichnen, oder als postindustrielle Variante der Königstochter inmitten des Strohs, das sie zu Gold spinnen soll.
Die hier manifeste Aussichtslosigkeit entfremdeter Arbeit nimmt auch in Ni Haifengs hallenfüllender Mitmach-Aktion groteske Gestalt an, wo sich eine so majestätische wie lächerliche Kaskade wahllos aneinander genähter Fetzen auf ein Gebirge weiterer Textilreste senkt. Einzelnen, die das Ihre zum Gemeinwohl beizutragen wünschen, steht eine ganze Produktionsstraße funktionstüchtiger Nähmaschinen zur Verfügung.
Eine solch ästhetische Erfahrung unbewussten Handelns ermöglicht auch Nemanja Cvijanovićs Ermunterung zur Betätigung einer unprätentiösen Spieluhr, woraufhin leise Die Internationale erklingt. Erst später und damit zu spät, wird das jeweilige Opfer – vielmehr Täter – feststellen, dass die arglose Einwilligung zum Gehorsam gegenüber einem undurchschaubaren System dazu führt, dass Verstärker im Außenbereich die Botschaft verlautbaren. Durchschnittlich drei Personen pro Minute werden auf diese Weise zu unwissenden Rädchen im Getriebe, die die Völker auf der Terrasse zum Hören der Signale nötigen. Sie wird der redundante Pep-Talk weniger zum letzten Gefecht inspirieren, als vielmehr dazu, über die räumlich und zeitlich entfernten Konsequenzen des eigenen Tuns früher nachzudenken als es während der Industrialisierung nebst ihrer Spätfolgen geschah.
Manifesta 9 gazes into 'The Deep of the Modern' (2012)
In the early 1990s fifteen European arts councils endeavoured on a nomadic “pop-up biennial” which takes refuge off the conventional strongholds of official culture in order to investigate the respective social or economical issues on site. Hence the title of this year's 9. Manifesta 'The Deep of the Modern' refers literally and metaphorically to the abysses beneath thin modern layers, as can be exemplified by the culture and consequences of the coal mining industry.
No one would ever dare to impose any restrictions on what an exhibition be – as long as it meets one crucial requirement: it better be site-specific. Although this malleable term has been used quite excessively during the last couple of years, the 9. Manifesta lives up to it in a comprehensive and yet concrete manner.
A floor piece from Robert Smithson's series of 'non-sites' is part and epitome of this traditionally locally focused travelling exhibition that takes the coal mining region of Limburg in northeastern Belgium as its reference point. Those 'non-sites' comprise the relationship between the exhibiting frame and the exhibited object. 'Site' means the outdoors where the artists intervenes, 'non-site' however is the shape of this space within the exhibition context. In order to visualize the shift from the initial location to its interior representation, Smithson would arrange found footage – in this particular case coal - within industrially manufactured metal containers, thus amalgamating amorphous with crystalline structures to present an unwieldy raw material under institutional conditions.
This transformation of the exhibit by the exhibition was topical among Smithson's earth art-peers, the most prominent being Richard Long, who on this occasion created his accustomed floor piece out of coal instead of limestone, a material he usually favours.
Spreading over four floors of a former mine's main building, the show unfolds in front of the elegantly wasted backdrop of a 1924 built art-deco structure.
The issue of the mining industry's contribution to the creation and destruction of culture and nature is addressed from three angles, starting with an outline of the different ways the region's heritage is preserved since the shut-down of the mines in the second half of the 20th century. Here the alternation of archive and spectacle creates a balance of cerebral and retinal stimulation: by showing how the coal mining heritage impinges on family life and entertainment industry, fashion and children's fantasies, the extent to which a profession evolves to a way of life becomes palpable - as does biopolitics avant la lettre, meaning the encroachment of working life into the employees' private sphere.
An art historical department traces coal as form and content, that is as a building material as well as the subject matter of visual and lens-based art since the 19th century, starting with John Martin's notion of deep mining as a reserve of the unconscious, where the forces of light and dark clash and angels wrestle with demons. Psychological renderings like Martin's prevail in this, as it were, pre-historic division, where Moore's depictions of the miner's agonizing labour seem like a sinister depiction of the human condition: contorted bodies grinding away in tomblike dugouts. Painters at the outset of the industrialisation however glorified mining as culture taking over the wilderness, in other words: sense conquering senselessness.
The third section consists of visual, lens-based, performative and participative work by 39 contemporary artists, that again changes from small print to the monumental, from the obvious to the liminal, from chilly to playful.
This shift between research and contemplation suspends the imminent information overkill, the more so as the cathedral-sized location provides the exhibits with ample space to stay clear of each other.
The visualisation of the abstract procedures of production, distribution and devastation of industrial produce is brought about by a variety of installations, including a flotilla of prayer mats, once owned by first generation migrants from Turkey. Heading straight towards Mekka, as is their wont, they establish a spiritual relationship between material and immaterial forms of life.
Amazingly material forms of life manifest in the shape of a colony of ants, creating their sophisticated collective metabolism in front of our very eyes. Watching them busily carrying leaves three times their size one can't help wondering how the average miner's workload would feature if it became visible this way. A similarly bizarre imbalance – though not as gracefully looking - would probably be the outcome.
Labour as a means of social engineering certainly looms large in post-revolutionary Russia – a period of vivid discussions concerning the artists' role within the construction of a socialist society. While Magdalena Jitrik's blend of instruction and painting – a board fraught with historic reminders next to four wannabe constructive tableaus - invokes the commitment and spirit of the optimism of this past, Claire Fontaine recalls one of the last results of this social experiment which had started so promisingly by reconstructing the neon sign of a communal building in the town next to the Chernobyl power plant, pronouncing “The House of Energetic Culture”.
The visitors' hazy notion of being part of systems beyond their control becomes apparent at the sight of Ante Timmermans' pointlessly stamping and punching sheets of paper, with the confetti 'Creating a Molehill out of a Mountain of Work', as the title has it.
The sheer insanity of some activities based on the division of labour also takes shape in Ni Haifeng's extensive join-in activity, which includes the ongoing production of a ridiculously majestic cascade of rags, stitched together as a result of systematic waste of time and energy. Who ever wishes to participate in this dubious creativity in order to contribute to the corporate good is welcome to do so by taking a seat within a production line of sewing machines and sharing the experience workers in nowadays so called post-industrial societies enjoy.
A similar possibility to experience in a sensual manner what usually remains off the radar of our consciousness, is Nemanja Cvijanović's invitation to turn the handle of an unassuming music box, apparently causing it to sound the 'Internationale' ever so gently. Only later – and thus too late – the respective victim – culprit rather – will realize that their unsuspecting consent to an inscrutable system had large speakers outside spread the message. At an average rate of three people per minute performing another turn of the screw, so to speak, the slightly enervating repetition is unlikely to make the masses mount the barricades, but maybe to consider even distant consequences of one's own actions earlier than people used to during the industrial age and its remote and long-term effects.
Looking for Mushrooms
Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany (2009)
Not all of the pictures inserted in the text were contained in the exhibiton, but rather grabbed from the web.
This sigh, which accompanies the history of mankind, came to my mind when I read the title of an exhibition in Cologne, announcing “Beat Poets, Hippies, Funk, Minimal Art. San Francisco 1955-1968”.
Maybe you, the gentle reader, are more attentive than I was, and already recognized what I ignored, namely the date “1955”. I however winced at the sight of the calamitous figure 1968, which has been haunting me since I started to learn about politics, music and literature of an epoch usually summarized by the token “1968”. Since that period I know that focusing on the date 1968 is a common misunderstanding – at best. Actually 1968 is “the year after” – after all. After all which had been true and authentic. Even after the funeral of the hippie movement, which had been buried ritually in the summer of 1967, when the San Francisco community realized that a sell-off of all what was known as counter culture had begun. With respects to rock music 1968 was the year when burnout settled in, when the law of the music industry took over and their first victims were to be bemoaned.
This is not the place to go into detail of cultural history, but those were the associations which immediately popped up when I read the title mentioned above, making me blind for its actual meaning.
I just felt reminded of a number of exhibitions on the subject of “those were the days”, which had washed a heap of stuff inside museum walls, which – so I thought - don't belong there.
The bad news is: they do belong there.
After all the museum is supposed to protect and preserve what needs protection and deserves preservation. And of course the remnants of past societies meet these requirements.
When 05/06 Kunsthalle Schirn in Frankfurt am Main had staged an exhibition called “Summer of Love”, its curator, Tates director Christopher Grunenberg, stated the show was to emphasize the “visionary and creative potential” of those days' art. To convince those who are too young now or had been too old then to come into contact with happyhippieloveandpeace – or who just had not wanted to – the Frankfurt exhibition had created an immensely successful theme park where everybody was enabled to play “psychedelic”.
This was certainly entertaining – for school classes. And slightly boring for those who remember once owning the stuff themselves now filling the display cases, and discarding it decades ago. Too bad, but it won't happen again. Because meanwhile we have developed a historical view of our own life span and do look at our biography from a museum perspective. There already have been attempts in the 1990s, when middle-aged artists – that is those around the age of twenty-five – emulated Warhol's Time Capsulesby sweeping their personal belongings into exhibition spaces and calling it individual mythologies.1
Hence the process of situating one's own history within the general one has set in and we all start taking closer looks at seemingly self-evident gimmicks we are about to throw away, wondering if they might be valuable some day.
Putting events like the “Summer of Love” on display may be of educational value – to teach “visionary and creative” skills, for instance. But the effect of those accumulations of remainders are hardly comparable to the sudden flash of recognition you experience by coming across some familiar residue where you didn't expect it – like a record player on the floor of a large museum, playing Star Spangled Banner.2
1 Not to be confused with the subtitle of Harald Szeemann´s documenta 5 in Kassel, Germany, 1972.
2 Installation within the collection of the Kunst Museum Bonn, Germany.
However all those has got little to do with the Cologne mushroom-exhibition – as it turned out. Because this show has nothing in common with tediously repeated clichés imbuing the mass media renderings of the “hippie era”. The image of the 1960s, as it is multiplied endlessly in advertising, tabloid press and entertainment industry, is distorted beyond all recognition. The reason for this falsification of history lies in the fact that what was really changing, was too ephemeral, too ... live. Lively perhaps.
Back then the means of communicating and working had not been been contrived with a long-term perspective in mind. Photographs, slides, films, audiotapes, magazines and books were of poor-quality. In those days the term “alternative” – like alternative methods of production and distribution – was synonymous with low-budget. Until today those media have had approximately 40 to 50 years time to peacefully bleach, crumble and decompose. While the relics were mouldering, they were outlived by industrially manufactured, brightly coloured consumer goods which spread in the aftermath of a cultural movement already dissolving. The 1960s are the decade when advertising discovered youth - and everything which goes with it - as a powerful sales promotion. Since then merchandising has been tirelessly sticking to the heels of any alternative culture. That's why the majority of sixties' imagery nowadays just exists as a commercialized version of inventions having disappeared long ago.
Almost. Yes, there is material – within the Cologne exhibition for example. Unfortunately it's not as garish as today's fashion ads, not as catchy as immortal ditties on the level of “if you're going to Saan Fraan Ciscooo” and similar lite products. Curators Barbara Engelbach, Friederike Wappler and Hans Winkler assembled authentic documents – another word for material which needs either a sound personal memory or an advanced imaginative ability in order to be complemented with sensorial quality.
In the realm of mass media the wish to create an atmospherically intensive picture of days gone by demands a simplified and thus fictional history. However by accumulation of unvarnished material the exhibition offers one main insight which usually falls victim to glorification. And this is: the respective period was one of inconsistencies.
Unfortunately those discrepancies are not as quite as promotionally effective as soft focus images of rainbow-coloured, furry youngsters with eyes widened by … an expanded consciousness, frolicking in the park and only taking omnipresent joints from their lips to kiss everything that moves.
Especially from a German perspective one striking feature of the US-American hippie-movement has always been the easy compatibility – or rather inseparability – of an alternative society with national values. Of course one of the samples of rock music present in the show is a track of Jefferson Airplane's record Volunteers, addressing “volunteers of America” and hence evoking the endemic American virtue of volunteering for a good cause. This notion demonstrates the impartiality whereby the followers of the dawning1“Age of Aquarius” surmounted traditional oppositions by identifying with the old and new society at the same time.
1 On the Woodstock record the song starts with Grace Slick's assertion “it´s a new dawn.”
This being proud of and critical towards one's nation simultaneously characterizes the majority of exhibits. Another example for this ambivalent, yet not incompatible attitude is H.C. Westermann's series of prints See America first,which proves his devotion to his country's sights together with his repulsion of its military enterprises. Rainbows and skulls populate the pages in harmony.
The way the former member of the navy jams US-Marine vessels between icebergs, surrounded by swimming rats, leads the way to Peter Saul's paintings, which render cash flow and the ever increasing desire for more in a poster-like fashion between pop art and comics. Imaginative, humorous and cynical at the same time Saul expresses an occupation with epidemic industrialisation and the mentality of cold-warriors like Edgar C. Hoover in surrealist, or - more precisely – plainly sexist images.
Anyway this goes for a great number of visual artists of Saul's generation: Whatever nowadays is considered politically correct wasn't their aim exactly.
Robert Crumb and his entourage however is clearly leading the way to a continuous celebration of sexism and violence. Less funny but more aggressive than Freakbrothers' inventor Gilbert Shelton, Crumb's cartoons wallow in sex and drugs and bashing and slashing - in order to attack each and every no-no society ad to offer.
So did Wallace Berman, albeit quite differently. His magazine Semina belongs to the deliberately primitively made media mentioned above, intended to contrast with the increasingly streamlined way of publications within the art world. Utterly unprofessional in terms of manufacturing, Berman's collection of loose leaves, tucked together between cardboard, elaborates on possibilities of discovering sacred aspects of everyday life. Focusing on interpersonal relationships as the ultimate source of art, Berman's enthusiasm for more or less spiritual love earned him a series of trials in the 1950s. Berman is another example for the roots connecting the then new with the old society. Given the significance Berman attributes to family life, his work is as much in accordance with the traditional American value-system as it became his source of an autonomous way of living.
The inseparability of tenderness and cruelty which dominated a society living in cold war and the Age of Aquarius at once, manifests in a series of photos which show performance artist Terry Fox burning down Chinese jasmine with a flame thrower. Growing in front of the Berkeley Art Museum of UCLA the exotic plant functioned as an outpost of the building's content: the fine arts, which enjoyed national protection while outside the country wars were raging. With this miniature model of the usage of napalm in Vietnam, Fox confronted the devotees of beauty with ugly reality. By destroying flowers with a weapon he demonstrated that two terms, which for centuries had been mistaken as identical, in fact can be highly contrary: art and beauty.
Dr. Leary and Mr. Hide
Quite the opposite reaction to the political violence in- and outside the US is represented by Allen Ginsberg's Human Be-In1967. This well known way of introducing large audiences to the good life had started with a group called “The Merry Pranksters”, touring the country in a fantastically painted ancient school bus to acquaint respectable citizens with the blessings of a just recently discovered substance called LSD. Those then legal “acid tests” took place in the first half of the sixties, hence at a time when professor Timothy Leary did research on this auspicious substance quite legally in his laboratory at Harvard College.
Leary himself could be termed a personification of contradiction. Shortly before his death 1996 he admitted having received funding by the CIA temporarily in exchange for results of his experiments. Since the 1950s the CIA had been using LSD as a method to interrogate and torture prisoners.
Of Panthers and Men
Consisting of peaceful and militant sections, the Black Panther-movement was an equally ambivalent phenomenon. Within the exhibition audio recorded descriptions of planned attacks with explosives, along with snappy quotes by Eldridge Cleaver are placed opposite to documents of pieces dealing with victims of death penalty1, next to imaginative ways of processing waste products.
A bizarre example for the latter would be a mysterious object called Slant Step, around which Bruce Nauman and his teacher, the sculptor and performance artist William T. Wiley, raised a downright cult.
1 That is Bruce Connor's Homage to Chessman.
Differences of time and space
Apart from this visualization of omnipresent opposite forces, the show specifies differences of time and space, thereby clarifying why San Francisco was to become the hotbed for the development of alternatives of all kind. Compared to the application of mechanised ways of working as practised by pop artists at the east cost, their western peers addressed the flourishing art market in a kind of arte povera approach by employing objects and actions which had been excluded from all kinds of market.
A serious omission of the show is the total absence of feminist artists, who had been among the first and most inventive ones concerning the expansion of art's forms and contents.
Chronological differences within the US-American art scene are made visible by the evaluation of the individual. The beatniks of the 1950ies had been a rather small group of nonconformists, whose insistence on individuality encouraged their quite peculiar pursuit of happiness. The counter culture of the following decade, which involved an incomparably high number of people, was shaped by the very opposite: the awareness of connectedness, solidarity – in short: the capital WE which was to overcome all worldly evil.
Since the curators' intention was to emphasize interdisciplinary processes involving music, literature, film, performing and visual arts, as well as political engagement, the result is not exactly a feast for the eyes. Rather it displays the demure charm of photo albums in the attic. But once the dust is blown off, the exhibits call forth the wish to further investigate into an era, consisting of simultaneous social and artistic approaches, which haven't even been followed through, let alone being exhausted.
The Medium is another Message
"Medium Religion" - on religion in the media at ZKM Karlsruhe (08/09)
(Since I didn't have a digital camera back then, there are no photographs from the actual show. All pics were chosen according to the context.)
All over TV broadcasts and playgrounds, the exclamation “OMG” is yelled worldwide. Previously decent citizens used to confine themselves to “oh my gosh” or “Jee”, if you like. But days of religious restraint are gone. Nowadays religious issues are omnipresent. So what has happened to mankind? Where do they all come from, those ardent fighters for truths and values? And this doesn't mean the ones with firearms but as well those with fiery voices, quivering with emotion. Once again: Has their number increased?
The Karlsruhe answer is: not really. The devout representatives of (almost) all creeds result from the same source as the mad and maddening outcry “oh my God” does: from the media. As well as language disorders infect one TV series after another before echoing from every corner, so called religious issues trickle from each and every satellite. Briefly speaking: not the amount of believers has increased but their visibility.
Curated by philosopher Boris Groys and ZKM's director Peter Weibel, a great number of video screens and installations show past and present forms of religious dissemination.
As the diffusion of religious convictions didn't start with the first televangelists thundering from American TV sets in the 1950s, nor with Iranian ayatollahs bellowing from Teheran's public address systems into living rooms all around the world. Instead there are archaic forms of medial diffusion, like itinerant preachers and cloistral scriptoriums, where monks were diligently copying holy texts.
Within the exhibition the latter example of early media technology is present in a slightly contemporary fashion: A group called robotlab imitates the arduous handwriting of medieval friars by instructing a machine to repeat one of mankind's cultural achievements with high-tech precision. A huge robot arm, borrowed from some industrial product line and slowly navigating a fountain pen, is writing down the whole bible in perfectly regular ancient typography. Seven months will pass before the pious work will be accomplished.
The once wandering missionary however appears on various monitors, as in the guise of Tom Cruise accepting magniloquently a grotesquely gorgeous medal from his fellow Scientologists. The operetta-like scenery stands in marked contrast to the actor's professionally skilful rhetoric. On the opposite wall two Bin Ladens are announcing the collapse of the Occident, clothed as a divine fighter in camouflage on the left and as a serene pontiff on the right screen.
The adjacent compartment contains Joshua Simon's (1979) collage of the last farewell-videos of six Palestinian future suicide assassins, using the internet to enhance the public impact of their mission.
… and other Madmen
Right beside these Islamic fundamentalist “chronicles of a death foretold”1one stumbles into visualizations of Christian fundamentalists' wishful thinking. In a computer game, strikingly popular within the US-American evangelical movement, the participant is encouraged to clear the streets from heathens by means of heavy artillery.
Apart from those evidences of extraordinary mental states one finds less dramatic equally strange behaviour like historic films about charismatic faith healing, or contemporary posters of a public campaign against the construction of a large mosque in Cologne.
1 “Chronicle of a death foretold” is the translation of Gabriel García Márquez´ Crónica de una muerte anunciada.
Complementary to the documentary material a couple of installations take rather a subjective point of view. As if to visualize the multitude and adaptability of a religion's founder, two identical statues of Jesus are covered in twinkling sequin, while just around the corner curator Boris Groys, officiating as an artist, chose sequences of Mel Gibson's Passion of Christto present the very figure from quite a different angle.
Although alarming pictures prevail in the exhibition, those of joyful aspects occur as well. Oreet Ashery's video Dancing with Mendocumented her – disguised - participation in an orthodox Jewish celebration, where she experienced a strong sense of shared identity.
Clearly the show doesn't promote “fine” arts. Due to the explicit aim to shed light on the presentation of religion by mass media there isn't much to enjoy. Just two participants venture to reanimate the ancient myth of “art must be beautiful”1. One example of the scarce feast of the eyes is Sacred Realityby Hermes Zygott, who stages photographs of damaged Byzantine icons in Jeff Wall-fashion onto luminous boxes. Another example is Adel Abdessemed's film God is Design. In Reaction to the xenophobic atmosphere after 9/11 the Algerian combined 3000 parts of geometric ornaments of all times and spaces together with cellular structures to an exciting flow of configurations, in which cultural hierarchies sink into insignificance.
1 Art must be beautiful, artist must be beautiful is the title of a 1975 performance by Marina Abramović.
Whereas Abdessemed visualizes the transformation of religious signs into “free” art, the Slovenian artists' collective IRWIN stages the transfer of art to a position which usually is occupied by religious symbols. In a not necessarily authentic fashion IRWIN's five members reconstruct the scenography by which the dead Malevich was presented in his flat 1935, surrounded by reminders of his work. The artistic design of the coffin, right beneath the Black Square– “the last picture at all times” (he thought, before continuing to paint additional ones) - exemplifies the advancing of art in the sphere of the supernatural – or rather “Suprematist”, in Malevich's terms. This way the adamant believer in the absolute qualities of painting functions as an example of the totalitarian claim of artists at the beginning of 20thCentury. But since it is a coffin, which is adorned by elementary forms, this embodiment of art's final superiority will be buried together with its creator.
On the contrary Christoph Büchel's display of 1000 copies of Hitler's Mein Kampfin Arabic Language appears amazingly sculptural. Having been a bestseller in Arabian countries for years, the Swiss artist has 1000 covers with Hitler's likeness and Arabic lettering spill from American cigarette cartons onto wooden pallets. On a formal level this series of identical building blocks takes on an almost modular character. From a textual point of view however the piled up print media allude to the historic relationship between some Arabic countries and German National Socialism, dating back to the 1930s. And looking at the mixture of stacked books, towering over rows and rows of flatly outstretched ones, with a little malignity their form resembles Muslim believers, kneeling in prayer.
Another constructive application of print media is realized by Osvaldo Romberg, who rebuilds the floor plan of a Jewish ritual bathhouse with stacks of obsolete newspaper. This way the shape of a once concrete building appears, which then served abstract purposes. Now it is made from equally abstract materials, that is written language. But while the mikveh's foundation has been lasting about 2000 years, the bundles of newspaper represent the breathtaking speed with which information is becoming obsolete.
The Unavoidable …
In so doing Romberg's structure belongs to those pieces which expand the narrow range of institutional religion to integrate existential situations as a form of religious experience. Shortly after returning from a journey through Nepal in 07 Christoph Schlingensief was diagnosed with cancer. Integrating his personal in his artistic life, as he's always done, he set up a series of cabins where medical procedures in western countries are put into context with photographs of sacrificial ceremonies and Indian hospices on opposite walls.
Can any life threatening situation be declared a religious experience? Although this question goes beyond the scope of this discussion, it's safe to say that Schlingensief created a course for rites of passage – on a more mental level in Nepal, on a physical one in a local hospital. Rites of passage have always been an interface between secular and supernatural experiences. Together with a taped interview, in which the artist describes his present state of mind in a hauntingly personal fashion, this multifaceted installation is representative for the majority of exhibits, which are characterized by complexity.
… and the Superfluous
Slightly adolescent pieces however make up the smaller part, like Michael Schuster's Golgatha, featuring a wooden cross, onto which a can of spray-glue is fixed, reading “no more nails”. While the late Martin Kippenberger once by means of poignant wit created pieces which were offensive and funny at the same time1, the traditional heresy of the Austrian born Schuster seems just to fulfil the role of the flagship provocateur, whose deliberate viciousness appears oddly one-dimensional.
Much more subtle and stronger at the same time Wael Shawky interlocks the spiritual and the profane when he has himself filmed, wandering through an Amsterdam supermarket, reciting the 18thsura2, which deals with the Islamic perception of a city governed by Christians.
1 See Kippenberger's notorious crucified frog, being evacuated on occasion of the pope's visit in the South Tyrolian city where it was on display.
2 The 18th sura contains sentences like “These cities, we destroyed them when they were unjust; and for their destruction we set an appointed time.”
The Sublimity on or of the Marketplace
These last example in particular comprises the exhibition's bottom line: although the medium is not the only message, it certainly moulds its content. The apprehension of a text changes whether it is yelled into microphones in front of an agitated audience, quietly read from a book or rather dispassionately quoted in an environment which provides the otherwise abstract spoken word with concrete and hence suggestive pictures.