PRINT December 2009

Sabine Breitwieser


1 “Isa Genzken: Open, Sesame!” (Whitechapel Gallery, London, and Ludwig Museum, Cologne) It has already been almost ten years since Genzken added antennae to a model of Philip Johnson’s AT&T Building in New York—putting a cuckold’s horns on the architect’s commercialized reaction to Miesian modernism (Deutsche Bank Proposal, 2000)—and yet the artist is still unrivaled in the courage she demonstrates in continually and radically rethinking her practice. When the shock and controversy that follows each new body of work dies down, what remains is the consensus that she has once again created something extraordinary. Often overlooked, however, is that Genzken is also a master of display, even in difficult-to-manage spaces. This was particularly evident in the Cologne version of this retrospective, organized by Nina Gülicher and Kasper König, which opened in a semipublic area with Straßenfest (Street Party), 2008–2009, an installation that marked the beginning of an obstacle course through her sculptures and photographic works of the past thirty years.

2 Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid Manuel Borja-Villel’s relaunch of the Reina Sofía since he became its director in May 2008 is an encouraging sign that visionary leadership in museums can successfully implement an agenda that is at once critical and reformist. The institution’s most famous work, Picasso’s Guernica, is no longer merely a relic for tourists to admire but is instead presented in the fascinating context of its history and reception. The rehang of the rest of the collection, meanwhile, marks a radical shift in emphasis, reflecting a desire—as the museum’s website states—to distance the presentation from “the linear narratives of modernity . . . and likewise from the banal oblivion of postmodernist history evident in new exhibition models,” replacing these with “a web of open-ended, fragmentary narratives.”

3 “Niezgrabne przedmioty” (Awkward Objects) (Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw) Exhibiting a large selection of sculptures by Polish artist Alina Szapocznikow alongside works by Mária Bartuszová, Pauline Boty, Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, and Paulina Olowska, curators Agata Jakubowska and Joanna Mytkowska made a meaningful contribution to the ongoing project of rewriting an art history that has for too long been dominated by the West and by male protagonists.

4 11th International Istanbul Biennial, “What Keeps Mankind Alive?” “No, excuse me, that is the wrong translation,” Bertolt Brecht told the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, the day before he returned to Europe, where he almost took a job with the Salzburger Festspiele. What would this Austrian high-culture music festival look like now if he hadn’t moved to East Berlin? Perhaps it would address issues similar to those taken up in this year’s Istanbul Biennial, which the curatorial collective What, How & for Whom used as an opportunity to make a political statement much like one of Brecht’s own “learning plays.” The large number of artists from underrecognized regions was one highlight of the endeavor, which—even if certain “problems of translation” remained unresolved—was overall a refreshing surprise.

5 “The Death of the Audience” (Secession, Vienna) In curator Pierre Bal-Blanc’s apodictically titled show, housed in a building that took its impetus from early modernist ideas of difference and disruption, he presented an essayistic mix of works by marginalized artists, primarily from the 1960s and ’70s, in order to probe their significance in this second period of upheaval as well as in the present-day context. By serving up a number of surprises, such as Franz Xaver Wagenschön’s ca. 1770 portrait of Marie Antoinette, the show ultimately succeeded in both challenging and activating the concept of the audience.

6 “Gerwald Rockenschaub: Promise vs. Reality” (Museum Villa Stuck, Munich) For this exhibition, organized by Michael Buhrs and Verena Hein, Rockenschaub once again created a work skillfully responding to its site. His interpretation of the interior life of Franz von Stuck’s sculpture and painting studios involved inserting walls and large cubes into the rooms, and culminated in an anthracite-gray painting crisscrossed with red lines on the wall and ceiling of the upper floor. In accordance with the show’s title, it was tempting to read this intervention—not least in consideration of Rockenschaub’s multifaceted artistic and musical practice—against the backdrop of long-lost utopian visions of the unification of the various arts and the dissolution of the boundary between art and life.

7 Georges Adéagbo, “Die Kolonisation und die Geschichte der Kolonisierten” (Colonization and the History of the Colonized) (MAK, Vienna) Adéagbo is known for creating an often overwhelming density, with a huge proliferation of references and materials. For this show, organized by Andreas Krištof, he filled the temporary exhibition space and part of the collection display with several installations at once. The Benin-born artist treated the museum’s holdings as if they were (post)colonial abscesses ready to burst; his interventions were less monolithic than rhizomic and thus subversive—differing sharply from the interventions structured around styles and epochs undertaken in the same space in 1993 by artists including Günther Förg, Jenny Holzer, and Donald Judd.

8 “Micol Assaël: Elsewhere” (Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw) New-media installations rarely point to the simultaneously innovative and destructive power of technology without, in the end, merely celebrating it. In this exhibition, Italian artist Assaël (with Finnish musician Mika Vainio) avoided this pitfall, transforming the gallery space into a laboratory. A discarded computer (or something like it) was frozen in ice and placed in a large rectangular pool, while a hydraulic pump system and water dripping from exposed copper pipes produced unsettling sounds. The view of the Soviet-era Palace of Culture behind the work only intensified the apocalyptic sense of a society in thrall to technology and progress, here given voice by an anthropomorphic machine.

9 Sabine Bitter and Helmut Weber, Autogestion, or Henri Lefebvre in New Belgrade (Fillip/Sternberg) This unusual artist’s book takes as its starting point Henri Lefebvre’s 1968 essay “The Right to the City” and reflects rekindled interest in self-organized urban development. In addition to recent commentaries and essays by urban-studies specialists and historians of architecture and art, it contains previously unpublished texts Lefebvre wrote in 1986 for an international competition to restructure the Yugoslav city Novi Beograd.

10 Marco Bechis, La terra degli uomini rossi (Birdwatchers) This film examines the long-term consequences of colonization and the incendiary questions they raise by taking as its subject the Guaraní-Kaiowá people in Brazil, who have been fighting to have their native lands restored to them. “It is better to start from a cliché than to wind up with one,” the director says of his film, which opens with a scene acted out by locals for the benefit of tourists. In what follows, Bechis—who was born in Chile, grew up in Buenos Aires, and emigrated to Italy in the 1980s—counters the ethnological gaze by casting the Guaraní-Kaiowá themselves as actors playing out a fictional narrative.

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.

Sabine Breitwieser is an independent curator based in Vienna. Her exhibition “Modernologies” is currently on view at the Museu d’Art Contemporani di Barcelona and travels in February to the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. In fall 2010, the second stage of her exhibition “Utopia and Monument” will open in Graz, Austria, as part of the Steirischer Herbst festival.