PRINT October 2005


Berlin-based artist Michael S. Riedel has been confusing audiences for years now, drawing them into a world of echoes, afterimages, and replicas in which nothing is simple or straightforward. Using strategies of doubling and inversion, reversal and distortion, Riedel creates a kind of parallel universe of “filmed films” and “clubbed clubs”—simulacra that are never merely mechanical copies but rather creative restagings, displaced facsimiles of architectural structures, or any number of other miming recontextualizations of artworks and cultural situations. A few examples: At Moscow’s Lenin Museum in 2005, Riedel revisited a classic work by Joseph Kosuth—One and Three Chairs, 1965—and tweaked it in more ways than one, the most significant twist being that the chairs, rather than funcioning merely as objects for contemplation, were used in a performance. For an exhibition at Frankfurt’s Galerie Michael Neff in 2004, Riedel, who was based in that city before moving to Berlin this year, duplicated the interiors of Robert Johnson, a famous local nightclub; but he installed everything upside down, with tables and banquettes hanging precariously from the ceiling. (During the gallery’s several “club evenings,” dance music was played backwards.) And at a Gilbert & George opening in the same city in 2002, two smart-looking young actors discreetly shadowed the famous duo, aping their every movement. Hardly anyone noticed at the time, but, as with all of Riedel’s projects, it’s all recorded for posterity in meticulous photo documentation.

As the preceding might suggest, Riedel’s art is just as much about social context and the technological dispersals of our information-based culture as it is about any sort of appropriation. New layers of discourse are always being added to any of Riedel’s already-existing projects via a seemingly infinite flow of brochures and books that issue from his studio (sometimes published in collaboration with the independent press Revolver). He also organizes gatherings—“anecdote conferences,” as he calls them—during which select groups of invited participants discuss and evaluate his projects in detail. The transcripts of these sometimes exceedingly long proceedings are ultimately incorporated into the work whenever it is presented, so that discourse, social reception, and, on occasion, even hearsay become, in a sense, Riedel’s underlying subject. For his aforementioned performance at the Lenin Museum, which took place before the show had been installed, Riedel invited three friends, who had traveled with him to the Russian capital, to sit with him on chairs in the still-empty gallery and discuss, as the artist explains, “the gaze into empty space, the voice of the work of art, the putting to use of sculpture.” A transcript of the conversation was presented as a handout in the exhibition. Such descriptive exercises recur in Riedel’s practice, albeit sometimes with near-total opacity. For instance, his book Roberto Ohrt (2004) is a 128-page inventory of the titular historian of Situationism’s Hamburg apartment, as seen from his green couch. Only the scholar’s subject hints at the premise behind the artist’s practice.

The collective mode of production typified by Riedel’s “anecdote conferences” is characteristic of most of his projects; when you invite him to an opening, at least four people show up. But his only formalized long-term collaborator is artist Dennis Loesch, with whom he took over an abandoned building on Oskar-von-Miller Strasse 16 in Frankfurt in 2000 and turned it into a kind of giant copy machine, spitting out puzzling printed replicas of ads and posters for films, exhibitions, and concerts. At the same location, the pair also manufactured deformed versions of artworks—and occasionally entire shows—by the likes of Simon Starling, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and Jason Rhoades. (In Tiravanija’s case, the corresponding “social sculpture” took the form of a party in the ladies’ room, something very few people have ever had the chance to experience as an artistic endeavor.) Some artists who visited the space over the years were not only aware of the duplication but also actively participated in the mimicry. Rhoades, for example, co-organized a performance (once again, held in the bathroom). But others have been taken entirely by surprise, as when Starling found himself attending an opening for an exhibition there with the unexpected title “The Life of Simon Starling.” No artist showing in Frankfurt during the first few years of the new millennium could be certain that there wouldn’t be some kind of looking-glass version of his or her show in this derelict space only a few blocks away from the galleries. Then, in 2004, the artistic parasitism stopped, giving way to the Freitags Küche (Friday Kitchen), a restaurant open only one night a week where artists were invited to cook for an ever-growing audience. (It was never clear whether Riedel considered this “art,” but in any case the activities finally came to a close this past summer, when the city decided to tear the building down.)

As Louise Lawler has observed, “Art is always a collaboration with what came before you and what comes after you.” Riedel is keen to point out that his activities should not be reduced to appropriation as it was practiced in the ’80s. Rather, as the Ohrt project suggests, he’s more directly engaged in a dialogue with Situationism, mimicking the disseminating structures of information in mass culture (not to mention in the art world more locally) and thereby detourning them for audiences—and grabbing hold of the subtle sense of dissociation that attends our media-saturated contemporary experience in the process. In the last regard, he no doubt still shares Lawler’s interest in the “before” and “after.” Some of his works revisit long-ago moments from the careers of figures like Guy Debord or Andy Warhol. Others practice a kind of simultaneous translation, as was the case with the aforementioned Gilbert & George performance, or Riedel’s decision to infiltrate the 2004 Frieze Art Fair with counterfeit copies of its catalogue. At first glance it looks like the real thing, but it is filled with the artist’s customary subtle derangements. The fake document enabled Riedel to bypass satellite events, where “edgier” work is usually found, and smuggle his subversive aesthetic into high-roller territory.

And then there are the artist’s most unusual restagings—namely, of events that have not yet taken place. “Perhaps if the future existed, concretely and individually, as something that could be discerned by a better brain, the past would not be so seductive,” writes Vladimir Nabokov. It seems that Riedel is already in possession of such a brain, or at least is attempting to develop one. His exhibition of the Oskar-von-Miller Strasse 16 projects at the Vienna Secession in 2003, for instance, featured an architectural installation anticipating the demolition of the real building. Riedel calls such works “speculative exhibitions of a future taking place in reality,” and they constitute a whole new genre for him (or anybody, for that matter). The temporal complexities of such speculative events seem particularly acute in an object that Riedel has already presented in Vienna, Frankfurt, London, and New York. A large circular chronometer that appears to show the time on both sides, the piece is a found object whose title—Double-sided clock with contrary running directions and variable velocity, 2005—sums up its confounding qualities. It used to hang on the façade at Oskar-von-Miller Strasse 16, confusing me and everyone else passing by, and no doubt the instrument has the same effect on audiences in the other cities it visits. Certainly Riedel would seem to have planned his numerous “speculations”—which have included a future show, a future film, and a future clubbing night—by the time this clock keeps. We can undoubtedly expect similar clairvoyant flashes from Riedel in forthcoming projects. Perhaps we’ll recognize them when they (finally) happen (again).

Daniel Birnbaum is a contributing editor of Artforum.