PRINT December 2005

Isabelle Graw

1 JAN TIMME (GALERIE CHRISTIAN NAGEL, BERLIN) At first glance, this was a not-so-spectacular show in the tradition of the empty gallery, à la Yves Klein. But on closer inspection it packed quite a punch. A tile placed high on the wall bore the ambiguous inscription “Carrer qui no passa”—a phrase taken from a street sign on the island of Minorca that can be understood to mean “dead end” but could also be translated as “There’s no moving on here.” With this apparent acknowledgment of the dubious viability of simply “moving on” in one’s art career, Timme rejected the rampant careerism abounding in the art world. But at the same time he produced a limited edition (four bar stools with the definition of the word fall etched on brass plaques under their seats), as if to admit that there’s no escape from the logic of the market after all.

2 DAMIEN HIRST (GAGOSIAN GALLERY, NEW YORK) This show, too, seemed to want to disappoint. But it is precisely the artist’s up-front declaration of bankruptcy that I think holds potential. Hirst’s Photorealist paintings illustrated the subject of illness—pills, syringes, hospital hallways—but exuded heartlessness rather than pathos. These pictures don’t believe in themselves, and furthermore, they show an utter lack of orientation—a refusal to align themselves with any intelligible conceptual or aesthetic program—that seems appropriate in the face of questionable current models like the provo artist or corporate artist.

3 RETORT, AFFLICTED POWERS: CAPITAL AND SPECTACLE IN A NEW AGE OF WAR (VERSO) An impressive initiative undertaken by four members of the Bay Area collective Retort who refuse to resign themselves to the rule of what they call “military neoliberalism,” Afflicted Powers provides historical context and conceptual tools in an effort to help us understand political realities post-9/11. The authors—Iain Boal, T. J. Clark, Joseph Matthews, and Michael Watts—explicate the perfidious collaborations of spectacle culture, capital, and “permanent war”; their book is essential reading for anyone who insists on holding on to the notion of social engagement.

4 DANIEL BUREN (SOLOMON R. GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM, NEW YORK) Daniel Buren’s gigantic mirrored installation, Around the Corner, 2000–2005, stirred up some controversy. Had he committed himself to the decorative once and for all? And if so, could his work still claim to be critical.
If you take critique to mean “the articulation of objections,” then the answer to the latter question is no; but if being critical means challenging conditions by literally holding up a mirror to them, then what we have here is indeed critique. Buren’s mirrors, like those in a department store, carried out a performative function: They allowed visitors to see and, more importantly, to be seen. By emphasizing the boutiquelike character of the museum and pushing the analogy between shopping and art-viewing, Buren’s monumental gesture provocatively took up the ramifications of the transformation of public space into corporate space.

5 GWEN STEFANI, LOVE. ANGEL. MUSIC. BABY. (INTERSCOPE RECORDS) In tune with Stefani’s platinum blond– diva persona, Love. Angel. Music. Baby. has an over-the-top, operetta-like quality, by turns hysterical, opulent, and grotesque. Signal aspects of consumer culture—hypochondria, preoccupation with beauty and celebrity, the fixation on romance as a weapon against anxiety and anomie—are condensed and integrated within it. You can’t escape capitalism’s spectacular phase—at best, you can only relate to it. Stefani’s music makes this an almost appealing proposition.

6 “JOSHUA REYNOLDS: THE CREATION OF CELEBRITY” (TATE BRITAIN, LONDON) Joshua Reynolds was a celebrity painter avant la lettre. While edifying in its historicization of a modern phenomenon, this exhibition was most instructive in its recapitulation of a decidedly contemporary phenomenon. Foregrounding the identities of Reynolds’s society sitters, the wall texts and catalogue put the focus squarely on personalities, with hardly a thought for painting as such. This reductiveness is itself illuminating, symptomatic as it is of a situation in which art is becoming more and more like a subject, and artists more and more like objects.

7 GEORGE MICHAEL: A DIFFERENT STORY (AEGEAN FILMS) Whereas pop stars who document their own lives usually seem bent on mythologizing themselves, Michael tells his story without glossing anything over—his sexuality, his politics, or his contractual battles with Sony. I would go so far as to say that the film qualifies him as a practitioner of institutional critique, one who examines the constraints and possibilities that confront artists in the music business in an entertainingly self-reflexive way.

8 ROSEMARIE TROCKEL (MUSEUM LUDWIG, COLOGNE) The title of this midcareer retrospective—“Post-Menopause”—suggested a return to biological essentialism, but what viewers found was a combination of self-criticism and self-empowerment. Discernment was the key word: The judicious selection and intelligent non-chronological arrangement made the work look fresh. Most impressive was a large room usually reserved for the art world’s alpha males, a Hall of Heroes that Trockel took over with her famous knitted paintings. It was Trockel who established knitting as a valid painterly practice and arguably paved the way for the rehabilitation of the crafty and feminine, but here we finally got to enjoy her whole textile repertoire, installed so as to produce surprising diachronic constellations.

9 MICHAEL KREBBER (WIENER SECESSION) This exhibition did justice to Krebber’s reputation as a master of delay, postponement, and deprivation, in that the artist seemed to have put most of his energy into designing the pictures’ frames, as if to remind a public interested in neo-formalist immanence that context is still everything. Krebber continues to display a knack for ruthlessly if wittily quashing viewers’ hopes for sensitive painterly gestures, and even for gestures of negation, which he shows to be just another established aesthetic routine.

10 JÖRG IMMENDORFF (NEUE NATIONALGALERIE, BERLIN) At a moment when Germany’s parliamentary coalition of socialists and environmentalists had to face the prospect of Mrs. Merkel becoming chancellor, Immendorff let everyone know which side he was on. His entire retrospective was steeped in red—the red not only of the Social Democrats but of Mao’s Red Book and the Soviet flag. The ambitious installation design featured lots of little red hutlike structures connected by red carpet pathways, while the paintings themselves demonstrated their continuing topicality—especially those from the 1972–73 series “Das zu tun, was zu tun ist” (To Do What Needs to Be Done), which suggest the internal struggles of an artist trying to reconcile political engagement with a naked desire for fame. Art and politics can be brought together after all.

Translated from German by Brian Currid and Wilhelm Werthern.

Berlin-based critic Isabelle Graw is the publisher of Texte Zur Kunst and a professor of art theory and art history at the Kunsthochschule Städelschule in Frankfurt. She is currently working on a book about the structural relations between art, fashion, and the market.