Stephan Dillemuth

Galerie Christian Nagel

Standing on a white pedestal was a chair titled Charles Eames für Vegetarier (Charles Eames for vegetarians; all works 2002), put together with twigs found in the woods. A vitrine built of branches painted white displayed garden gnomes made of clay and coated in layers of crystallized sugar. The piece was called Grasbrüder im Fleisch der Sonne (Grass brothers in the flesh of the sun). A huge black silhouette, titled My Life as Isadora Duncan, hung across the middle of the room; a wrecked model, the Entwurf für Reformkathedrale (Model for a reform cathedral), in reference to the designs of the German architect Bruno Taut, stood on another white pedestal. T-shirts called Kein Titel, Kein Name, die 90er (No title, no name, the ’90s) hung from a rod, and a yellow flag with the chemical symbol for alcohol projected into the room. Six postcards, most showing the artist naked, observing the trees in a German forest, were framed as one picture, Am Arendsee (At the Arendsee).

Der Deutsche Jüngling” (The German youth)—this was the title of the exhibition—does seem to be present in these objects. Stephan Dillemuth has consciously appropriated emblems of disparate German reform and youth movements of the ’20s for a postmodern age that lacks reformist designs and concepts: all-natural furniture; a model by Taut, who strove to reform architecture; Duncan, whose experimental dance theater in Hellerau was part of the reform movement of the ’20s; and the artist himself as a child of nature and “kohlrabi philosopher,” as the back-to-nature prophets of the day were known. Dillemuth’s longing for progressive concepts is more than understandable. But for which ones? In the last century, people felt threatened, and not without reason, by modern industrialization. Some artists countered the products of industry with natural ones and industrial production with handcraftsmanship. Most German reform and youth movements were driven by this fear of industrialization, and in the ’30s it drove them straight into the open arms of the National Socialists.

Postmodernism says: Everything goes. Dillemuth’s room unites handmade chairs named after Eames with garden gnomes, the Suprematist square (mounted on the door in black foil: Das schwarze Quadrat in der Hand der Kunstspiesser—“the black square in the hands of the art bourgeoisie”—is what he calls this icon of modernism) with itinerant wild men and the legend of a kohlrabi prophet who lived in a hermitage from the sale of postcards that depicted him naked. And the result is good—in a postmodern sort of way. Still, in the middle of this aesthetic junk room whose dull romanticism reeks of the middle class—the same middle class that, when the time came in Germany to make fateful political decisions, shamefully failed—I couldn’t help but feel an uneasiness. A similar uneasiness moved Fredric Jameson, in his recent book A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present (2002), to take a position against such backward-directed self-affirmations, even if they pretend to be meant ironically, and to demand that we finally ask ourselves whether, in the face of aesthetic shabbiness, historical inadequacy, and an attitude that ironizes everything and thus excuses itself from any social responsibility—whether in the face of all these developments it wouldn’t be appropriate to remember the concepts of modernism and see which of them might be worth saving.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.