“The Carpet Project”

Tanja Grunert

The walls are empty; in this show the action is on the floor. With about twenty carpets of differing sizes and motifs, the mood is one of peaceful contemplation, much like the atmosphere of a mosque. In felt slippers, the visitor may walk over the carpets in quiet reflection, experiencing the works on display in a direct, bodily way. Collected here are such diverse artists as Rosemarie Trockel, David Robbins, Walter Dahn, Rob Scholte, Guillaume Bijl, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Yet the commonality of medium does not transcend the forced adjacency of images with their different motifs, patterns, colors, and individual expressions. The central, shared issue, however, is a more general one that concerns the relationship between Eastern carpet-making and Western image-making; between designers here and craftsmen there; between conceptual background and concrete realization; and perhaps even concerning a rediscovery of the decorative arts.

In this context, one may suspect that the carpet is accorded a strategic rather than an artistic position within contemporary art. For there is, if you will, a very particular art criticism concealed here within a no less particular theory of culture. Within this theoretical framework, the myth of the Orient—long westernized, commercialized, trivialized, exploited, and domesticated—is appealed to by these artists primarily and expressly for the magic it still embodies. Bijl’s piece is characteristic. In typical department-store-display fashion, he presents us with a genuine Oriental carpet for our delectation, the ambience trivial, nearly kitschy, with a decorative copper tray and tea set. Here the work of art is a feast for the eyes, arousing our desire to buy and possess. Many of the other works also bring up the issue of manual production in Eastern lands. The handmade carpets are produced by Equator Productions in India, at Heart Handicrafts Limited. Heart, in turn, works closely with charity foundations of the Dalai Lama, whose political fate, as that of his country, Tibet, reappears in a tiger-striped carpet by Gonzalez-Torres, with the slogan “Free Tibet” worked into the pattern. Furthermore, Equator Productions invites artists’ collaboration, hiring local assistants to execute the extremely demanding task of translating the preparatory drawing into a carpet pattern, raising the wool pile to a height of 20–30 millimeters, and making all necessary corrections. Those who may be disconcerted by shades of esthetic colonialism here will be reassured by Trockel’s series of “Made in Germany” carpets, 1991, which offer a silent commentary on production methods. And finally, that art, and thus the carpet, too, always operates with some camouflage mentality is cynically demonstrated in Albert Oehlen’s piece Das Geld ist in Zahlen umgewandelte Kunst (Money is art turned into numbers, 1984).

The artists here have used the opportunity provided by this project to escape the restrictions of Western image-production and have availed themselves of the skills and traditions of other cultures. The production of the carpets from artists’ sketches—a complex and demanding craft—is an art in its own right. The finished product is still a traditional art form, received in a particular way. The carpets here remain recognizable representatives of the Other, the foreign, and at the same time they clearly evince the stamp of the West. Scholte’s humorous and witty kitsch travesties address this in no uncertain terms. But overall the combination of carpet and image is successful—despite the lurking shadow of a ghost of esthetic colonialism, which raises questions of a different sort concerning, perhaps, the reusability of art, the true equivalency value of a modern work of art, and, to be sure, the new experiential context of art itself today.

Norbert Messler

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.