PRINT January 2011


View of Nina Könnemann, The Apple in the Eye of the Worm, 2000, color video (on monitor). Apple Car Service, Hull, UK.

NINA KÖNNEMANN’S VIDEO M.U.D., 2000, surveys a bizarre landscape suffused with mist and smoke, littered with bottles and trash bags, and peopled by youths of varying identity styles and the occasional anonymous, refugee-like figure staggering about wrapped in a blanket. It’s not clear whether it is dawn or dusk, the past or the future, or whether this scene is “real” or orchestrated for the camera. Straight, neutral shots track the hapless meanderings of the characters in this scenario, who appear reluctant to resurface from the delirium and the ruins of whatever riot or festivity brought them to this place. All we know is that we are witness to the aftermath—of a war reenactment, a protest, a B-movie apocalypse, a rave. The attempt to “read” the scene for identifying clues gives way to a fascination with the details, the various gestures and signals that constitute not the event, but its undoing. The work’s title reinforces this sense of perpetual belatedness: MUD is an abbreviation for “multi-user dungeon,” a kind of early, text-based online community that could accommodate and link fantasy worlds created by its users via archaic command lines.

Conceptually and culturally engineered realms—their boundaries and points of overlap—are the arena in which all of Könnemann’s videos take place. The Berlin-based artist’s works dissolve the cohesion of time, place, and narrative, tracing her own observations of the public sphere via incidents found on the sidelines: the banal margins of event culture and public excess. By shifting from a neutral point of view to absorbing the frame of mind of the people she films, Könnemann constructs an innately destabilizing experience in which boundaries between subjects blur and distend. Her aleatory camerawork and editing crack open the quotidian—“free time,” boredom, banality—to expose its potential for anarchy.

In Der Firmling (The Confirmation Candidate), 2004, which takes a subjective point of view and an evocative gesture as guides through Berlin’s Love Parade, Könnemann zeroes in on an incongruous detail, a quiet disruption of this massive event. Fixated on the hand of a boy who, as if impelled by self-protective instincts, has looped his hand into the strap of a man’s backpack, the camera follows the two as they wind through the masses of people standing around shirtless, gawking, gyrating to techno beats—which we can’t hear, since the video is silent. In the eerie quiet, the incidental glimpses of public hedonism and freedom at the edge of the parade, so full of rhythmic action and frenetic signification, appear distant, foreign, curious. In the absence of politically or aesthetically motivated gestures, the self-presentation and the actions of the bystanders verge on expressions of hysteria, and it is hard to understand what is supposed to be being communicated or exchanged. A sense of terror comes and goes, as you become momentarily a part of the crowd and then remember that you’re looking for a way out.

Evasion and escape take on a different significance in The Fence, 2008. Here, the mental states produced by and accompanying tourism, the self in the Ausland (“abroad” in German; literally, “the country outside”), approach abstraction. A study of a rough-hewn fence in Madagascar, shot at night, The Fence presents us with an artifact, a surface to be filmed that also literalizes mental perimeters, nonaccessibility. The visual texture of this animation, made from 16-mm stills that stutter over the harshly lit tree-branch fence posts, has the effect of a double estrangement because it appears virtual—as if Könnemann’s camera were wearing the viewfinder of a video-game character, exploring the endless, repetitive surfaces of a game level. The phantasms of authenticity, verité, and projection flash by and create a perceptual maze as the video loops.

British seaside resort towns, sites of permanent spring break throbbing with bars, fairground attractions, and girls and boys gone wild, have been a point of departure for several of Könnemann’s videos. Not only are such places ruled by a permanent suspension of disbelief, they are also places of continual obsolescence, as each season provides the sensations and accoutrements of entertainment and distraction in an endless cycle of sameness: new trends, new rides, new party hats, new drinks, all of them dated as soon as they appear. The Apple from the Eye of the Worm, 2000, Könnemann’s only public art installation, consisted of a video animation playing on a loop in the waiting room of the Apple Car Service in Hull, UK, a town known for its parties and funfairs. In Könnemann’s documentation of the intervention, which she calls “a video for drunk people,” the animation fits seamlessly into the absurdity of the waiting-room antics. A motley crew of drunk, stoned, or otherwise out-of-it kids are gathered in a red storefront on a bustling street, waiting to be taken home to bed. They smoke, eat pizza, and erupt in inebriated argument. Two giggling young women in party dresses let their attention drift to an upper corner of the room, where Könnemann’s spazzy animation plays on a wall-mounted monitor, rolling, slot machine–like, through images and logos. The content of the animation seems arbitrary, until one notices that the emblems, gum wrappers, cartoons, candy bars, and toys, their gaudy packaging covered in English, French, or German exclamations, all feature apples. All night long the apple video scrolls down the screen, omnipresent yet mostly unnoticed. As useless and indeterminate as Könnemann’s gesture may be, it is its own kind of sabotage, inserting into the existing system an element that impedes or alters its function.

Nina Könnemann, M.U.D., 2000, stills from a color video, 8 minutes.

In her 2009 exhibition at Frankfurt’s Portikus, Könnemann pressed the limits of the political implications of her project, exhibiting works drawn from her visits to Blackpool, another British resort town, and Madagascar. The exhibition’s title, “Free Mumia,” almost withers in the mouth, connoting naïveté and incoherence, evoking a strain of political apathy disguised by an arbitrary political cause, conjuring images of, college students with FREE MUMIA stickers, pins, T-shirts, not unlike university students who mistake a fashion statement—a Palestinian kaffiyeh—for a political one.

It is just the husk of a catchphrase, standing for the deflation of political momentum, and the quick turnaround of the present and the forgotten “just past.” By choosing the phrase as the title of a major institutional exhibition—using it as a sign held in front of a meaning that has evaporated—Könnemann bravely casts a shadow of doubt over the entire enterprise while also insisting on a duality, if not a multiplicity, of potential readings. The show was billed as consisting of “two video works and a towel,” the towel in question having been inspired by a “marginal trend” Könnemann observed during a trip to Madagascar, where she noticed men wearing beach towels instead of traditional robes. “Especially popular is a neon-pink towel with sprayed-on flowers,” she wrote. “It is produced in China and sold by itinerant merchants. Returning two years later, I find that a dark red towel with a basketball pattern is now the most popular.” Könnemann’s Basketball-Handtuch (Basketball Towel), 2009—featuring an abstract orange and black design, the surface of a basketball translated into two dimensions—attempts to create a commodity that would be as popular in Madagascar as in Blackpool, though used differently in each place. The feigned attempt to merge these impossibly disparate realities nevertheless establishes a speculative equivalence between the two locations and their economies.

A similar tension was implied in Könnemann’s 2010 exhibition “Sommerleute” (Summer People) at Galerie Karin Guenther, in the presentation of two videos of bottle collectors on Berlin’s Alexanderplatz. One video, Sommerleute, 2009, presented in a slick high-definition projection on the gallery wall, builds up a visual and acoustic rhythm in shots of bottles being discarded and almost instantly retrieved from the orifices of public trash containers by the collectors, who scrape together a living from bottle refunds. Scanning the dense pedestrian traffic around the relict socialist fountain dedicated to the “friendship of peoples,” and surrounded by shopping malls and chain stores, the camera fixates on and sees nothing but this indirect, almost subliminal, constant bottle economy, the deposit and retrieval of discarded objects seeming at once a compulsive reflex and a stylized social ritual.

The second video, displayed on a small flat-screen monitor with headphones, is the music video for the song Kraft Unseres Amtes” (By the Power Vested in Us), commissioned by the German rock-pop crossover band Söhne Mannheims (Sons of Mannheim). In this piece, similar footage of bottle collectors and the incidental details of anonymous urban life fuses with lyrics by one of Germany’s most popular bands. It is not obvious to people outside Germany that the mere mention of Söhne Mannheims in a gallery context is a willful intervention: The band’s mainstream, earnestly political, and Christianity-inflected songs could not be more cringeworthy to certain audiences for contemporary art. The lead singer, Xavier Naidoo, rails against the hypocrisy of German politicians with lyrics such as “Angela Merkel, run away. . . . She was the vassal of Mr. George Bush,” and sings the refrain “By the power vested in us as citizens of this country / You are no longer the protectors of our pledge,” which links, through wordplay, to the video’s main visual motif of bottle collecting: The German word for “pledge” (Unterpfand), sung in the de-Nazified German national anthem, echoes the word for “refund” (Pfand). The balletic qualities of the projected video are drowned out, made aggressive by the harshness of the lyric overlay in the music video. Könnemann’s deadpan bifurcation of the gallery requires the gallerygoer to do double duty, asking whether one work can be put in the service of two radically divergent systems.

Könnemann describes known worlds but shows them to be unraveling, strange, transient. If the conception of free time has come to resemble the interior of a Hollister store, painted black, full of palms, and made up of endlessly repeating levels offering the same plaid shirt, windows looking out onto surveillance footage of swarms of bodies moving around on beaches and boardwalks, Könnemann’s split analysis offers other ways to move through this space, even approaching Adorno’s notion that “there is a chance here for political maturity that ultimately could do its part to help free time turn into freedom.” Empty bottles, no future, no climax, no denouement.

Nick Mauss is an artist based in New York.