PRINT Summer 1990


EXCUSE THE PAINTING Gudrun Ensslin, 1989. The green-and-gold letters, spelling out the name of the feared West German terrorist of yesteryear, peacefully adorn the canvas with a rather seductive elegance. Not exactly a name to suit a normal bourgeois household, one might think. And yet that name, in a purely optical sense, strikes a bowdlerized and mawkish note that would seem to incarnate middle-class taste. If the ornamental script inevitably recalls the lettering on a cheap candy box, there are other ways in which the picture, with its checkerboard structure, sets out to mock good taste. In the lower-left and upper-right corners of the painting appear the names of two popular consumer goods available in the West, BOUNTY, the delectable chocolate bar, and L’ORÉAL, the cosmetics line. In the two other corners we find two other names: that of OTTO GRAF LAMBSDORFF, a West German politician from the Freie Demokratische Partei (Free democratic party; FDP) and economics minister from 1978 to 1984, who was fined DM180,000 (ca. $100,000) for his part in the 1984 “Flick Affair,” convicted of granting the Flick Corporation a sizable tax exemption in return for political contributions; and MARGARETHE SCHREINEMAKERS, a rather mediocre star of West German show business. The rest of the picture, which obviously is photobased, documents scenes in modest East German (GDR) areas: we see a discarded stove, a grill that’s been put away, a pail by a door, a filled wastepaper basket. These objects have been arranged with deliberate artistic calculation, even if the photographs themselves, taken by Ralph Bageritz, are random snapshots. So we have an uneasy alliance between the pictured East and the written West; an overlapping and merging of the quotidian domestic with elements of terrorism or entertainment, politics or consumerism. This fusion, as it soon turns out, crosses borders, not only of the picture plane but in the truest sense of the word, by documenting the events of contemporary German history.

For of all the bizarre illusions that haunt the Germans, the most obstinate has been their faith in national reunification. Now their dream seems to be coming true. And this development was predicted by any number of people on the West German art and cultural scene. One of the most prescient was the poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger, who in Ach Europa! (1987; published in the U.S. as Europe, Europe, New York: Pantheon, 1989) voiced his fear of this eventuality, describing German/German history as thoroughly dishonest and German/German harmony after the dismantling of the Berlin Wall as sheer fiction. Meanwhile, reality has caught up with the prophetic estheticizing in both literature and fine art. In some ways, art may even have outstripped it: just recall Joseph Beuys’ catchy Wirtschaftswerte (Economic values, 1980), with its shelves of lost and dirty East German goods arranged as in a GDR shop, and surrounded by glossy high-art objects. This theme—the formulation of a new notion of capital based on the division of Germany—shows up in various guises in much postwar West German art, including that of A.R. Penck, Martin Kippenberger, Walter Dahn, and Jörg Immendorff. In this respect, West German art has always been willing to practice “expansionism,” seeking theoretically, if not literally, to get over the Wall. So if we search, we can find the memory traces of the German/German present, that is, a preconceptualizing of the current reality, with its pregnant demands for unity.

This is the overall context for the topographic pictures of Bageritz, who was born in Cologne in 1958. Although reminiscent of “instant” history paintings, they were completed at a time when Erich Honecker was still head of state of the GDR and Helmut Kohl had not yet begun to play his German/German language games. So while some of these works, as political utterances about politics, may seem to be about current events, they are really objects of fantasy. Bageritz’s work would also seem to involve a youthful search by a West German artist for his own German/German roots. For as photodocuments—collages that have been painted over, enlarged, and alienated—they are primarily the result of a 1988 outing that the artist Bageritz made to the town Bageritz in the East German district of Halle, on which occasion he took a detour to the district of Dresden, there to reflect on art and the painter Georg Baselitz, né Georg Kern in the East German town of Deutschbaselitz. (Bageritz’s name is his own.)

Bageritz is thus investigating both his personal and his artistic genealogy in his work. Traveling to East Germany as a Western artist of the subculture, he links individual, private concerns with sociopolitical ones; all of which are revealed in a Sigmar Polkelike, multilevel process, in which various pictorial strata are superimposed and juxtaposed. The outcome is a cathartic leveling, a German “purging,” whereby politics and the artist’s life, contemporary society and everyday culture, meld into art, and bourgeois notions coalesce with themes of quotidian life in East and West Germany. Products or names associated with the West, and viewed in East Germany as symbols of a longed-for life-style, are pushed to the point where they implode into provocation, irony, sarcasm.

Sarcasm, irony, and a sense of bizarre exhibitionism—he staged performances in 1985 in a Cologne sex shop and in the Star Club in Hamburg’s renowned red-light district of Sankt Pauli, using both as “alternative” spaces—have always been major components of Bageritz’s art. Indeed, he rather coyly calls himself a “worker of the public,” an inventor, a “trademark finder.” His schooling, under such mentors as the Swiss object-artist Daniel Spoerri, brought him conceptually close to the neo-Dada identification of life and art, inspiring him to seek everyday themes and materials in the media, politics, even art itself.

Picture titles and plays on words—or, rather, verbal distortions—are of central importance to Bageritz. Betroffenheit, Teil 2 (Perplexity, part 2, 1989), in part a gauge of the proper emotional state for the viewing of artworks, leads the viewer from perplexity to sadness and loneliness, a process underscored by the forlorn presence of the inevitable white East German Trabi sitting defeated by an East German curb. (West Germans are driven mad by the two-cylinder cars’ slow speed on the autobahn.) Jürgen von der Lippe, 1989, titled after a tacky TV entertainer with a propensity for off-color jokes, recalls the cover of a record album of Heimatlieder, patriotic songs reminiscent of traditional folk songs. The system of visual assemblage, and the faintly repellent palette of faded blues and browns, evoke a diagnosable malaise that is made all the more palpable when we recognize the names of Franz Schönhuber, the leader of the radical right Repubikanische Partei (Republican party), in the upper-right-hand corner, and of Freya Barschel, the widow of a politician who committed suicide as a result of a political scandal, in the lower left.

For its part, Terese Orlowski, also 1989, radiates a strange mental emptiness, matched by the emptiness of its decor. By naming this picture for a flashy porn star, Bageritz seems to be making parallels between art and pornography, a comparison extended to the nebulous photograph of the ill-fated Honecker in the lower part of the painting. Juxtaposing this name, and this image, in this artistic context, debases all three, indicating the decline of ethical and esthetic standards in our society, and of the spiritual demands made on present-day art.

Art, Bageritz also seems to be suggesting by means of such German/German pictures, is itself an esthetically aloof—we might even say haughty—consumer product, in which images, persons, and events (including future ones) are reintegrated and leveled through an extraordinarily self-conscious and artificial approach. Bageritz’s works say “Look but don’t touch.” Nevertheless, Bageritz implicates us in this process—the viewer of these paintings is also their consumer. And nothing seems to shock us anymore.

Bageritz’s paintings are thus only in part subversive documents of a unity-obsessed Germany. Their essential component is the emptying out of images per se, a depletion that can be seen to unite both East and West. In these pictures of West German consumer society, “pacemakers” from the worlds of advertising, politics, and show business (they keep it going at a certain speed) clash with photo-scenes of small German towns and their rustic life-styles, which we, in the West, dismiss as backward. Models of taste are sucked into image and script; trivial myths of our economic advantage are probed. The photographed situations, people, or things, which due to Bageritz’s interventions make their claims as art, become interchangeable set pieces of reality. Equivalences and reciprocities dictate German/German experiences. In his pictorial approach to the latter, Bageritz, rather than presenting these experiences as “real,” unmasks the opticality of the images themselves—East and West—exposing them as shabby, fragile, and finally immaterial.

Norbert Messler is a writer who lives in Cologne. He contributes regularly to Artforum.

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.