New York

Christian Jankowski

Swiss Institute

Robert Frost famously remarked that poetry is what gets lost in translation. Berlin-based artist Christian Jankowski seems to have taken the bard to heart, albeit turning his dictum on its head. By fashioning art out of the strange, often wonderful juxtapositions that arise in witty linguistic and visual transformations,
Jankowski has arguably made translation itself his medium. For a 1997 piece, Let's Get Physical/Digital (recently shown at Apex Art in New York), Jankowski and his girlfriend, he in Stockholm, she in Milan, restricted their communication for a week to instant-message conversations on the Internet. The transcript of their perfectly ordinary exchanges was then translated from German into Swedish and given to seven pairs of actors, who played out the two roles in a series of vignettes that were videotaped, given English subtitles, and broadcast on the Web—made digital again. Mediation and translation make up the very fiber of the project, and it is precisely in the slippage between the written and the spoken—between the digital and the physical—that the quotidian graduates to art. The transcript records several moments of lost connection between the two computers; when reenacted by the young “lovers” looking searchingly into each other's eyes, the repeated question “Are you there!” carries a potent emotional charge.

More typically, however, Jankowski's transformations traffic in sly humor rather than angst. All three performative videos on view in the artist's New York solo debut handle weighty issues with a light touch. My Life as a Dove, a series of photographs and a grainy video projection documenting a 1996 project, is the earliest piece here. Jankowski hired a magician to “transform” him into a bird, which remained in a cage in the gallery for the duration of the exhibition. For three weeks, the “artist” was fed and photographed by gallery visitors; he was restored to his usual form in a ceremony at the show's close. Though gimmicky in an art-school kind of way, My Life as a Dove neatly embodies the kind of alchemical transformations that are central to Jankowski's production. By turning artist into animal, no matter how illusionlessly, Jankowski reformulates classic modernist questions concerning the nature of all artistic production.

The Matrix Effect, 2000, another video projection accompanied by photographs, poses these aesthetic and ontological questions even more pointedly. Extending the role-play that characterized Let's Get Physical/Digital, Jankowski here cast children as art-world heavyweights and had them act out a series of interviews (based on a program of talks at the Wadsworth Atheneum, in Hartford, Connecticut) and sit for photographs. Seeing seven-year-old incarnations of Adrian Piper and Sol LeWitt blow air kisses and discuss institutional critique is simultaneously hilarious and disconcerting. Not only does The Matrix Effect throw into relief the sometime self-importance and cliquishness of the art world, it raises serious questions about contemporary art's meaning and audience. Indeed, the disconnect between the speakers and their words highlights the inaccessibility—and perhaps the facileness—of much art today. The Matrix Effect deliberately leaves unresolved whether the art discussed is entirely above these children's heads or is itself childishly simple. The implications of either option are also coyly reserved.

Jankowski's peculiar brew of irony, transformation, and role-play finds its most nuanced balance in Singing Customs Officers, 1999. Here the artist enlisted border guards from Austria, France, Italy, and Germany to sing their respective national anthems for the camera. The officers obliged—then declared the video footage art and collected the appropriate duties (the customs receipts are also on view). Not only does the piece underscore the performative actions whereby an individual can be transformed (here, from officer to artist), it pinpoints that elusive moment when a simple videotape turns into art. Jankowski's work consistently occupies this liminal space and revels in the instability of meaning there. By posing tough questions about art and its potential, Jankowski asks his viewers to draw their own conclusions, inviting them to find their own poetic transformation.

Jordan Kantor