PRINT December 1997

Boris Groys

1 The Funeral of Diana The beautiful princess has traditionally played the role of mediator between life and death, fortune and defeat, power and the people. Either she was sacrificed to the dragon, or saved by the hero, or banished to the underworld, or awarded as the ultimate prize. At times she displayed compassion, at others vanity and cruelty—dealt out with the same mercurial hand as human fate. It’s no exaggeration to regard all of modern civilization as an attempt to replace the myth of the beautiful princess with something else—whether it’s communism, democracy, or an avant-garde. At century’s end we have come once again to see a beautiful princess as the embodiment of fate—and her funeral too, which grows into a global spectacle. Obviously it’s not just the fate of the Princess that’s being mourned here. The mourning’s also for all modern utopias, whose deaths have, out of false intellectual pride, gone unlamented. Only this cumulative sorrow can even begin to explain the scale of this media event.

2 Documenta X Catherine David pulled off nothing short of a miracle, managing to pass off fairly conventional pictures, conventionally displayed, as progressive, brainy, and critical with but one (albeit well-calculated) breach of taboo: cold, intransigent dealings with the press, which stunned yet also charmed journalists. Otherwise, little sticks in critics’ memory—except maybe those sweet little piggies.

3 The Love Parade (Berlin, July 12): Hundreds of thousands of young people march through the streets of Berlin on a techno high, a crowd united by a single overwhelming feeling of ecstasy. Yet nothing happens—everything’s peaceful, it ends, they go quietly home. For a moment this mass of humanity presents itself as a single work of art, then disperses. One can’t help but think that the crowd, having shown its dangerousness on numerous occasions throughout the century, is celebrating its new harmlessness: a demonstration designed to pacify modern cultural criticism, which has always taken the crowd to contain The Enemy, since in modernity the exultant human mass was no longer constrained by the traditional rules of religious ritual. The Love Parade may well become a (quasi-religious) tradition. And Berlin is particularly well suited to proving that even mass ecstasy is now ready to submit itself to a new kind of artistic ritual.

4 Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid (Ludwig Museum, Cologne): Conducting surveys of favorite and least liked pictorial elements (colors, forms, subjects, figures, etc.) and using the findings to paint the “most wanted” and “most unwanted” picture for each country was definitely a stroke of genius. Of course, the punchline is obvious, but there are still some real surprises: whereas popular taste in most countries runs to the traditional and naturalistic, the Dutch prefer abstraction and the Italian work looks like collage. It would be a shame for Komar and Melamid to give up their survey prematurely—there’s no telling what else might pop up.

5 Marcel Broodthaers “Marcel Broodthaers. Cinéma” (Kunsthalle Düsseldorf): After the countless “meditative,” meaning-laden works we’ve come to know by Gary Hill, Bill Viola, et al., Broodthaers’ witty way with filmic images—on view in this show organized by Fundació Tàpies—is still striking. How odd that the first stirrings of media art should be so superior to their rather labored sequels.

6 “Sculpture Projects in Münster” In Münster, many works (especially those by Ilya Kabakov, Fischli and Weiss, and Jorge Pardo) reveal a new modesty: rather than demanding the center of attention, they serve as a point of departure for a view of the environs. A particularly clever form of modesty, to be sure—it’s easy to criticize a work of art, but how do you criticize the sky, the clouds, water, trees, and quaint old German towns? Granted, this isn’t just a matter of an “artistic strategy,” but also of exposing such a strategy, in order to thematize as precisely as possible the relation between the work of art and its context.

7 Face/Off (dir. by John Woo): Cop and criminal swap faces, the way characters in earlier movies swapped clothes—yet “inside” they remain the same. What we have here is a new attempt to prove that beneath the face something like a soul lies concealed, inviolable, impervious to all exchange, identical only to itself—in short, a martial response to poststruturalist discourse.

8 Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 5 In his fascinating film, Barney aims to capture our contemporary decadence. And so he does, by traveling to Budapest, a city where nineteenth-century decadence was better preserved under conditions of Eastern European socialism than in the West. The recycling of East European decadence, however, is handled here with genuine American vitality and technical verve. Rarely has morbidity been so cheerfully served up.

9 Mir Space Station The television coverage of repairs to the Russian space station offered an entirely different image of decadence at the end of the twentieth century. Human beings fly out into the cosmos in some high-tech contraption—and spend the whole trip getting the gear to work. There’s simply no time left to do anything else. Then again, out there “anything else” looks like infinite darkness. All in all, a fitting metaphor for our high-tech civilization.

10 The End of Art In Germany at least, the only topic in art theory and criticism of late has been the End of Art. Even Baudrillard declares today’s art to be thoroughly useless. Is there any truth to this? Regardless, it’s welcome discourse for the mill. There’s no better way of drawing attention to something than declaring it dead. This is famously true of individual artists who had to die before they could become really interesting. Even if you secretly think art is still alive, it’s better not to say so out loud. Imagine what would happen if van Gogh and Picasso turned out to be alive and on the scene, and the distance we need to fully admire their work were to disappear. A nightmare.

Boris Groys is the author of several books, including Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin—Die gespaltene Kultur der Sowjetunion (1988; translated in 1994 by Princeton University Press as The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship and Beyond). He lives in Cologne.

Translated from the German by David Jacobson.