PRINT March 2004


Everyone played at being terrorists when I was young,” confides Sophie von Hellermann, one of the founding members of hobbypopMUSEUM, an insouciant German artists’ collective that dared to romanticize terrorism even in the wake of 9/11. This group of young artists—von Hellermann, Christian Jendreiko, Matthias Lahme, Dietmar Lutz and André Niebur form the core—banded together in 1998 while studying at Düsseldorf’s famous Kunstakademie. Von Hellerman’s deadpan remark was intended to “explain” the inspiration for hobbypop’s installation Baader-Meinhof (also known by its subtitle, Hänsel und Gretel)—realized at London’s Assembly gallery in 2000 and at the Saatchi Gallery in 2001—which reimagined the fate of Ulrike Meinhof and Andreas Baader.

With juvenile disregard for historical veracity, hobbypopMUSEUM inhabited the roles of these notorious German radicals while giving their story a Hollywood ending: Andreas and Ulrike survive captivity and move to London, where they live as a well-adjusted bourgeois couple. The nucleus of Hänsel und Gretel consisted of eight oversize paintings, which were propped up on wooden supports evocative of theatrical sets and depicted scenes from Baader-Meinhof’s would-be “normal life.” Rejecting the mortuary grisaille of Gerhard Richter’s “October 18, 1977” cycle, 1988, as well as that work’s political gravitas, hobbypopMUSEUM’s installation was formally as whimsical as its make-believe premise. The faux-naive figurative canvases were painted with vibrant washes of color and loose brushstrokes. The prominently scrawled signatures and dates (Ulrike, 1985; Andreas, 1980) borne by each canvas assign (fake) authorship and acknowledge their debt to chic “bad painting” à la Bernard Buffet.

This détournement of the Hänsel und Gretel tale, fueled by childlike romanticism, takes a jab at state-sponsored collective reconciliation by replacing acceptance of historical responsibility with a retreat into individual delusions. Hänsel und Gretel is ultimately more Prada-Meinhof than Baader-Meinhof, as hobbypopMUSEUM’s lighthearted treatment of terrorism deliberately mimics the fashion industry’s exploitation of “edgy” subjects. The work’s power to provoke is the consequence of a host of strategies that mix antagonism with sincerity. Projecting romantic optimism, generating empty imagery, promulgating laconic yet heartfelt discourse, and actively de-skilling their painterly craft—these are the key ingredients that drive hobbypopMUSEUM’s troubling yet amusing practice.

This potent combination of “strategy and heart” (as hobbypop put it) is injected into all of their projects, which combine media as diverse as painting, environmental installation, music, and performance. Eschewing the sociopolitical agenda typically associated with collective artmaking—think ArtClub 2000, Gelatin, or Atelier van Lieshout—hobbypopMUSEUM stake their identity on a certain strategic frivolity and a winking semblance of capitalist collusion.

HobbypopMUSEUM sprang from the genealogical tree that blossomed in their hometown. Düsseldorf is not only host to the academy where Beuys once preached his message of “art-as-life-as-myth” but the city that nurtured the masters of postwar German painting: Richter, Sigmar Polke, Blinky Palermo, and Martin Kippenberger. The legacy they left to hobbypopMUSEUM’s generation is permission to “play” with the oldest art’s historical baggage, to make paintings that are simultaneously self-aware and self-abnegating, virtuoso and vulgar all within a single canvas. But perhaps hobbypopMUSEUM owe their biggest debt to Konrad Lueg and Gerhard Richter’s performance Leben mit Pop: eine Demonstration für den kapitalistischen Realismus (Life with Pop: A Demonstration for Capitalist Realism), 1963, at a Düsseldorf furniture store. That watershed event not only integrated “autonomous paintings” into a literal consumer scenario, it freed the painter from the silence of his easel. Instead of letting their paintings do all the talking, Lueg and Richter became active players on the public stage of artistic reception.

Having digested this lesson from their Capitalist Realist forefathers, hobbypopMUSEUM try to articulate the notion of “artistic agency” within the current conditions of the art world. The primary vehicle for this campaign comes in the form of earnest posturing and low-key theatrics. In a series of group photographs staged for various posters and publications, hobbypopMUSEUM appear as a troupe of nice-looking twentysomethings with no visible reason for their affiliation. In these group portraits (including one by Thomas Ruff), the members of hobbypopMUSEUM seem to share nothing more than vacant facial expressions and good taste in casual clothes. The deliberate vacuity of these images corresponds to contemporary societal assumptions about the figure of the artist. As empty vessels for the fashion industry—flagrant examples include Maurizio Cattelan’s Gap ad or that special Evening Standard Magazine feature with Tracey Emin in Vivienne Westwood—hobbypopMUSEUM offer no critical resistance. Instead, they make self-promotional images that conform to the “establishment” notion of how artists should look and behave.

Addressing the social machinations of the art world, hobbypopMUSEUM staged Furore at an East London gallery in 2000. Once again the group created an elaborate suite of paintings–cum–stage sets, this time depicting the life of the gallery’s namesake, Vilma Gold, herself a character invented by the gallery’s owners. Over the course of the evening, members of hobbypopMUSEUM orchestrated a full-fledged Happening: Original music, trashy atmospherics, rambunctious drinking and chatter, off-the-runway fashion, and performative vignettes coexisted with the paintings. Wearing an elaborate goddess costume, a sexy female member of the group lay silent on a bed in the middle of the fray, holding a picket sign that read “Ich habe keine Kraft für London” (I have no strength for London). That melancholic avowal was the crux of the event: Without much irony, hobbypopMUSEUM staged an attempt (however feeble) to compete with the money, power, glitter, and mythology of their YBA peers but a few tube stops away in Central London.

In a similar tableaux vivant performance entitled Neue Arbeiten auf Papier (New Works on Paper), 2001, hobbypopMUSEUM turned their attention to the received wisdom that current art must embrace participatory aesthetics. The members of hobbypopMUSEUM gathered on the stage of Düsseldorf’s Malkasten. Three large paintings depicting a fictitious equestrian battle served as a backdrop for the “performance.” A painted banner reading “Fight for the right idea” hung below the stage, which was adorned with a few pieces of furniture and several elegant vases of flowers. A portable record player broadcast LPs by Studio Apartment, the musical branch of hobbypopMUSEUM. Yet as the audience was allowed to observe only from behind a barricade far from the stage, the content of the performance was inaudible. (At Tate Britain last June, hobbypopMUSEUM staged The Melody of Destiny, which likewise strategically segregated artists and audience—this time fencing off the public with a long, pleated-paper painting.) As in the painted backdrops, pure visuality won out over information or exchange.

HobbypopMUSEUM make political art, but not in the conventional understanding of the term. While there is a narrative trail that draws on contentious topics—German radicalism, collective memory, art-world power games, and the mechanisms of artistic reception—the collective shies away from making any clear value judgments in regard to these issues. Instead, with an indifference that mirrors the times, the artists present the viewer with a highly aestheticized amalgamation of fantasized scenarios, images, and sounds. Romanticism replaces ideology, and imagination substitutes for didactics, in hobbypopMUSEUM’s unique blend of painting, theater, music, and artistic personae.

Alison M. Gingeras is curator of contemporary art at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.