PRINT March 1989

And Meager Magnetism

The two friends charge forward, close and side by side, Harmodius powerfully swinging his sword, Aristogeiton ready to stab forward with his, and holding his cloak in front of him. The vehement motion is rendered strongly and freely. A masterful solution has been found to the difficult problem of uniting two people acting together, of fusing them into a group that appears lucid and effective from the front as well as from the sides.
—Anton Springer, 1921, on Kritios’ and Nesiotes’ Group of Tyrannicides (477 B.C.)

AS AN EXHIBITION, “The BiNational,” a two-part show of West German and American art organized by curatorial teams from both countries and traveling simultaneously in both, is of only moderate interest. However, it does propose some suggestions about contemporary national styles. On the evidence here, for example, one could say that German artists today are no longer “wildly” wallowing in their culture’s soul, like their colleagues at the start of the ’80s. Their art is no longer dark and expressive but conscious and coolly rational. Individualism is replacing esprit de corps in today’s German art, and many artists want to deal with space in more complete ways than conventional painting or sculpture allows. Many of the offerings in the American section, on the other hand, reveal a certain lightness, a playfulness, an attitude of carefree surface consumerism.

Both these descriptions, of course, touch on national stereotypes, as if one were registering whatever truths cohere within the respective clichés. But to expand such truths into large conclusions is a treacherous business. Some of the German artists of the late ’80s, for example, seem quite close to Andy Warhol; the Americans, however, do not seem close to Joseph Beuys. An expressionistic approach seems equally remote from both groups. The Americans include three times as many women as the Germans, but still manage a representation of little better than 20 percent.

Despite the exhibition’s title, a hybrid implying some kind of unified “binational” effort from the two countries, the show itself is as divided as Berlin. It is literally “bilocated”: the two bodies of work are not shown together. (The American work was shown first in Boston, then in Düsseldorf, the German first in Düsseldorf, then in Boston.) Yet haven’t the curators secretly yielded to the temptation of a discordia concors, a harmony rising out of discordance? Does the seemingly innocuous title suggest the tacit hope (of Germans and/or Americans) that Germany’s and America’s art could in fact become something “binational”?

The show’s premise, the juxtaposition of the respective arts of the two different countries, implicitly demands comparison, and comparison implicitly helps to clarify the identities of whatever is compared. So we’re talking about the revelation of national traits. This is always a problematic cause, and surely the more so when applied to Germany, where the tendency to delimit the “character” of a race was not so long ago something worse than a social pathology. Should national traits, or some obscure American/German “binational” quality, be an issue for artists? The question is further vexed in Germany by the division of the country into East and West. (And Germany’s troubled sense of its nationhood goes back considerably farther than 1945.) No one can say to what extent the German public needs or misses an art growing out of a sense of collective national intactness, or whether it would be better off with such an art, or whether its response to the title “BiNational” involves a perhaps unconscious desire for a new, surrogate collectivity. But in the context of the country’s disturbed relationship to nationhood, one could understand if a German visitor to the show on some level hoped that the national—“consistently with its artistic and almost rapturous nature, and more and more unconditionally as the object of a cult of peace” (Thomas Mann)—could be absorbed into a staged “binationalism” with the United States.

The art can hardly answer questions such as these unequivocally. Should we be dictated to by the German “lack”? Is that why we’re positing an artistic friendship between Germany and America? And if we are to deal with the question of a country’s identity, should we approach it as simply, as indulgently, as uncontroversially as in this exhibition? The show avoids any really declarative national statements: there are no echoes of the grandiloquence of a Hölderlin, no Whitman-like hymns to the athletic, symbolic love between “divinely magnetic” countries. That may be just as well in our century, but our more doubtful attitude to nationhood is neither amplified nor provoked either. To what conclusion would the viewer have been drawn, for example, had Ulrich Horndash’s and Gerhard Merz’s work been shown in the same room? Both echo the style of ’30s fascist display; this was a lost opportunity to emphasize their relevance to a debate on nationalism.

The selection reveals as much similarity as deference between the two country’s arts. It is almost as if the process of “binationalization” were complete: as if no memory remained of America as an occupying power, democracy everywhere prevailed, German mass culture were utterly Americanized, and “binational” thinking and planning had become realities in economics, politics, and culture. Thus artists of both nationalities, looking now at art history, now at the sociocultural environment, produce art full of self-consciousness as art, as if it were on stage: Axel Kasseböhmer and Stephen Balkenhol on one side of the Atlantic, Haim Steinbach and Tim Rollins + K.O.S. on the other. Ludger Gerdes in Germany and Robert Gober in America both address the idiosyncrasies of the installation space, as do other artists, again on both sides of the Atlantic, again with references now to art history, now to the culture at large. It’s true that American artists such as Peter Halley are more interested in philosophical or theoretical ideas than any of the Germans here, and that the Americans are also more concerned with an intercourse among various media or fields—Lorna Simpson bringing together photography and language, for example, and Jeff Koons sculpture and interior decor. But artists of both countries return constantly to the past (art-historical or social), Klaus Merkel and Kasseböhmer as much as Philip Taaffe and Christopher Wool; post-Modern eclecticism, repetition, and the aloof historicism of a Koons also make their appearance in, perhaps, Merz; Felix Stephan Huber and Doug and Mike Starn share strangely similar techniques; and American as well as German artists are trying to make multipartite works that don’t fit the conventional categories of painting and sculpture.

Be all these things as they may, “The BiNational” is an exhibition of meager theatrics and a slight overall arrogance in its conception. Above all it is safe. It is not intended to be truly representative, nor is it; no masterful solution has been found to the difficult problem of uniting two nations acting together, of fusing them into a group that appears lucid and effective from the front as well as from the sides.

Norbert Messier is a writer who lives in Cologne and contributes regularly to Artforum.

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.

The American section of “The BiNational” was curated by Trevor Fairbrother, David Joselit, and Elisabeth Sussman, the German by Rainer Crone, Jürgen Harten, Ulrich Luckhardt, David A. Ross, and Jiri Svestka. The American section opend at the Institute of Contemporary Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the German at the Städtische Kunsthalle, the Kunstsammlung Nordheim-Westfalen, and the Kunstverein für die Rheinlande and Westfalen, Düsseldorf. The American section then moved to Düsseldorf, to the Kunsthalle Bremen (until March 27), and can be seen at the Württembergischer Kunstverein, Stuttgart, from April 12 to June 4. The German section moved to Boston, to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (March–June), and will be at the Blaffer Gallery, University of Houston, from November to January 1990.