PRINT December 2008

Daniel Birnbaum


1 Alexander Kluge, Nachrichten aus der ideologischen Antike (News from the Antiquity of Ideology) (Suhrkamp/Insel) Kluge, now seventy-six years old, is still the German artist who fascinates me most. For this work, he implemented Sergei Eisenstein’s 1920s plan to make a film of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. Kluge’s 580-minute filmic collage on three DVDs is a visual polyphony (with commentaries by writers including Boris Groys and Dietmar Dath) that quickly becomes a labyrinth as absorbing as any great cultural work of the past century. News that stays news.

2 Chu Yun In the context of the unbelievable amount of overproduced art trash coming out of China, it is a relief to come across an artist whose understated use of real trash actually makes a difference. Chu’s Constellation No. 2, 2006—currently on view in the group show “Sprout from White Nights” at Stockholm’s Bonniers Konsthall—features old stereos, DVD players, and a television set installed in a dark room. As your eyes adjust, the lights of this city slowly emerge—are they miles away or just a few steps in front of you? Yet whatever the true distance and however obsolete the objects, Chu delivers a strong signal for the subtle sophistication of his work.

3 Joan Jonas, Reading Dante Linking Dante’s cosmology to the world of visionary art historian Aby Warburg, Jonas here makes use of novel forms of visualization and display. In the end, however, the scheme has no limit—it’s about the world itself. As she recently explained to “Dante thought epically during a moment—the medieval era—when people were very isolated, and Warburg attempted to synthesize widely disparate cultures through the lens of art history. For me, they both represent characters that are on a journey through life that involves thinking about the world as a whole, not just what’s immediately around them.” Jonas’s wide-ranging project must count among the most compelling and ambitious works being produced today.

4 Painting in spite of everything I Thomas Bayrle—no friend of the proliferation of pointless German painting—recently explained to me his take on a group of painters who take failure as their starting point: “They didn’t trample down this broad path of painting right away; instead, these were people who were really already very close to failure, and suddenly they can nonetheless paint. That’s also what I like so much with Michael Krebber. I’ve seen that such an impossible guy is simply someone who is needed.” There is now an entire movement of impossible painters out there—including Sergej Jensen, Andrei Koschmieder, and Michaela Meise; perhaps even Wade Guyton—whose work operates surprisingly in this mode. Would it be fair to call it a school of Krebberism? Whatever the case, it was everywhere this year, suggesting that skill, criticality, and aesthetics might yet coexist.

5 Painting in spite of everything II Gino De Dominicis has turned out to be one of the most powerful influences on young European artists. If his legacy as a provocateur was long kept alive in the work of Maurizio Cattelan and other sculptors, today it is painters who are increasingly turning to him as a creator of faces and figures. One feels his presence especially in the work of many of Italy’s most interesting artists—Simone Berti and Alessandro Pessoli among them—but echoes of De Dominicis are everywhere, and there are surely more to come.

6 Tischlein deck dich: Tafeldecken und Serviettenbrechen” (Little Table, Set Thyself: Table Settings and Napkin Folding) (Barockmuseum, Salzburg, Austria) Organized by Catalan artist Joan Sallas, this was one of the year’s most visionary shows. Elaborate constructions, re-created using linen-folding instructions from the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries, showed that folding napkins is actually a way of world making. If Gilles Deleuze were alive, he would have found it necessary to add a postscript to The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque.

7 Branden W. Joseph, Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts After Cage (Zone) A superb book about an artist whose ambition (as Joseph writes about Conrad’s The Flicker, 1965) was nothing less than “to call forth a ‘new kind’ of viewer whose central nervous system had been outered by means of electronic media, a subject residing on the microthin division separating two real, but virtual futures”—i.e., a creature like you or me.

8 Pietro Roccasalva Roccasalva marks a new chapter in the history of hermetic art—that is to say, art that engages above all with itself. He constructs systems of signification that are totally rigorous but impossible to translate into anything resembling our everyday language. Roccasalva’s works—which include ritualistic performances, solar symbols, empty rooms in which neon contours cast an enigmatic light, and paintings that bring to mind the metaphysical portraits of De Dominicis and perhaps also de Chirico—read like Pierre Klossowski’s weird novels. They are Catholic to the core.

9 Rosa Barba, They Shine Featuring imagery of a solar power plant in California’s Mojave Desert, this 35-mm film projection (made in 2007, but on view this fall in “Rooms Look Back,” a group show at the Kunsthaus Basel) conveys a truly mystifying sci-fi atmosphere. One really has no idea what’s going on, but this might be what the future looks like.

10 Benjamin Saurer In Black Sun, Julia Kristeva writes, “Melancholy cannibalism, which was emphasized by Freud and Abraham and appears in many dreams and fantasies of depressed persons . . . accounts for this passion for holding within the mouth (but vagina and anus also lend themselves to this control) the intolerable other that I crave to destroy so as to better possess it alive. Better fragmented, torn, cut up, swallowed, digested . . . than lost.” I once wrote a book on a similar subject, and since then I have been waiting for a contemporary painter who manages to combine these themes. Finally, he has arrived. With miniature works that combine archaic cruelty and dark beauty, Saurer emerges as the painter of melancholic cannibalism.

Daniel Birnbaum is director of the Städelschule and its Portikus Gallery in Frankfurt Am Main. He is curator of the 2nd Turin Triennale, on view until February 1, 2009, and of the 53rd Venice Biennale, which opens in June 2009.