Marion von Osten (1963–2020)

Marion von Osten. Photo: Wolfgang Stahr.

MARION VON OSTEN was a warmhearted punk who took punk’s contrarian and collaborative ethos to unexplored domains. She made it impossible to identify her role in any production process. If you wanted an artist, you might get a curator, and if you wanted a curator, you might get a researcher. If you wanted a professional, you might end up with an amateur equestrian. Dealing with Marion, one could not help but feel their own limited epistemology and imagination put to the test. If you wanted to have a serious discussion, she would drive you to tears of laughter. If you wanted to make a joke, she would discover a politics within it. If you said work, Marion said life. If you said life, Marion would go to work. Even now, she would disagree with our present focus on a singular Marion, because what grounded and energized nearly all of her projects and methodologies was collaboration: Marion ist Viele!

This was embodied in her transgressive “project exhibitions,” a format which allowed her and contributors to investigate an urgent phenomenon or question organically, over an extended period of time. Her partner and fellow artist Peter Spillmann was often part of the process. “Be Creative! The Creative Imperative” (2002–03)—developed at the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK) in Zurich and shown at the school’s Museum für Gestaltung—and “Studio Europe” (2003) at Kunstverein München both investigated the instrumentalization of artistic ideologies of creativity under capitalism. “Project Migration” (2002–06) at the Kunstverein in Cologne was the first major exhibition on the geopolitics of mobility in Germany after World War Two, challenging assumptions about “the society of immigration” and assimilationist approaches to cultural and ethnic difference. This show and the sprawling “TRANSIT MIGRATION,” which toured Zürich, Frankfurt, and Cologne between 2003 and 2005, were both accompanied by majestic publications, as was “In the Desert of Modernity: Colonial Planning and After” (2008) at Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin. Its ensuing book, Colonial Modern: Aesthetics of the Past, Rebellions of the Future (2010), proved one of the field’s key texts, paving the way for a discourse on the politics of urban space and decolonial praxis in the German-speaking world and beyond.

Until the early 2000s, Marion von Osten was a deeply influential and yet well-kept secret of this German-speaking world. The frequently shown video A Small Post-Fordist Drama, which she made in 2003 together with Brigitta Kuster, Isabell Lorey, and Katja Reichard, helped to finally make her work more widely known. Not least because in order to exhibit the video, institutions were required to organize a discussion on neoliberal working conditions within culture with at least one of the video’s makers: a hint at Marion’s ever-present dialogical—and political—approach to the world. In the US, she appeared as a guest lecturer at CCS Bard and in a public forum hosted by W.A.G.E. and Artists Space, among other venues. With her final large-scale collaboration, “bauhaus imaginista” (2017–19), curated with Grant Watson alongside an international team of researchers and artists, the diasporic internationalism of the Bauhaus’s pedagogic network brought her work far beyond Europe and the US. The project challenged dominant narratives and decentered mythologies in ways that defined much of Marion’s work, even as early as the 1990s in the exhibitions “Sex & Space: Space, Gender and Economy” (1996–97) and “MoneyNations” (1997–2001), both at Zurich’s experimental Shedhalle, where she was a curator from 1996 to 1998.

Contrarianism can often lapse into the reactionary moral inversions of the “devil’s advocate,” but Marion was too sophisticated for reflexive provocation. Rather, she would take hold of a dominant narrative and gently draw in other voices and actors, saturating it from the inside out with real tensions and unexpected promises and failures. Equal parts dialectical method and cosmological intuition, her living and embodied approach to various topics as the politics of migration, colonial architecture, post-Fordist care labor, the shifting sites of feminist struggle often made it hard to tell whether she was contributing to existing work in these areas or initiating new areas of study.

This quiet radicality was often transformative in ways that were hard to trace back to Marion, both because she was always on to the next thing and so resolutely collaborative in all that she did. In very few steps, she was able to completely rewire your thinking, but in such a way that you wouldn’t realize what she’d done, or that she’d actually done anything at all. Her students and fellow faculty at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna and Leuphana University in Lüneburg, among other places, experienced this, as did those of us who worked with her in other capacities. Her curiosity seemed endless. In the case of the 2016 project “Viet Nam Discourse Stockholm” at Tensta konsthall, which took as its starting point Peter Weiss’s eponymous 1968 play that shook the foundations of the Western theater world, she brought to light the acclaimed but forgotten set design by Weiss’s research and life partner, Gunilla Palmstierna Weiss. A year later, Maria Hlavajova and Tom Holert edited Marion von Osten: Once We Were Artists, a valiant attempt at tracing the contours of Marion’s manifold work through a series of essays and conversations. At the publication’s launch at BAK in Utrecht, Marion responded to the spotlight by admitting that she only understood the reason for doing the book after she had finished reading it.

In retrospect, Marion’s enormous influence becomes clear, both in terms of her methodology and in the prescient questions she insisted on asking. Also more apparent than ever is her respect for the autonomy of those of us who muddle through the same problems as she did, without much hope of coming out the other side. Marion did not seem to suffer from impasses, or rather she would flip them into new lines of research with absolute determination. Even her cancer opened onto a deeper biopolitical exploration of human-animal relations. This meant history, theory, and writing, but also private and personal relationships with the horses she adopted, Lucky (and Lucky’s foal, Delphi) and Lola (a beautiful mare who was present at Marion’s funeral). Faced with an extremely difficult situation, she took back control by fully inhabiting it as a new field of possibility.

Marion passed away too early, aged only fifty-seven, of a cancer she cheekily mocked for years as her “little monster.” We knew it was serious, as one could detect unfamiliar shadows of fear and doubt suggesting that the situation was not good. But that was some years ago, and more recently she had embarked on a new round of projects and writing with renewed energy. We who remain in the world she left behind might realize that we were never really convinced that anything could ever overcome someone as indomitable as Marion. Especially for a friend who lived in a different city, one regrets that time together was always hurried, with the clock ticking, thoughts deferred to the next meeting or a silly WhatsApp chain. What a luxury, what an honor, to know such a person over the years, but what a tragedy to have spent so little time together between such long intervals. Marion’s partner Peter Spillmann and her close circle of friends in Berlin are truly lucky. We can only hope that Marion enjoyed the same “good life” that she often pointed to as a primary principle. For those of us who knew her, loved her, and were challenged and inspired by her, we learned what the good life really is, and how to fight for it.

Maria Lind is a curator, writer and educator, currently based in Moscow as the counsellor of culture at the Embassy of Sweden.

Brian Kuan Wood is a writer based in New York. He is an editor of 
e-flux journal and the director of research at the Masters in Curatorial Practice program at the School of Visual Arts.