Christian Jankowski

Kunstmuseum Basel, Museum für Gegenwartskunst

Right in the hall behind the museum’s entrance, where openings are usually held, stood a cardboard puppet theater painted in gestural blue strokes and placed behind two spotlights on a rickety tripod of bamboo poles. The curator’s opening remarks and an improvised dialogue with the artist, in the broad accents of the Baden region, were staged here as a kind of Punch and Judy routine. A videotape of the event ran on a monitor on a nearby tabletop on sawhorses, which also contained a book opened for visitor comments: “Of course, the world itself is a tautology. Still, most acts of self-referential art come across as boring and self-important. But not here. ‘Art is not dead, it just smells funny.’”

In this work, as in others, Christian Jankowski uses a popular medium to take on the discourses of the art world as if—à la Jean-François Lyotard—he had to explain postmodernism once more, this time to the kids. From a point above the cash register at the museum entrance, where in supermarkets one would usually find a security monitor, Jankowski presented the video Die Jagd (The Hunt), 1992, in which packages of sugar and toilet paper are vanquished with bow and arrow before landing in the shopping cart as trophies. At the spot where the visit to an exhibition turns into a purchase, the artist himself intrudes into the shopping jungle as an archaic hunter. This anachronistic gesture may serve to remind us of the anachronism of the individual artist in the age of highly technologized media. But with his various collaborations, Jankowski deliberately breaks with this role for artists. Telemistica, 1999, has become well known: A series of Italian TV fortune-tellers predict the artist’s success at the Venice Biennale. The Holy Artwork, 2001, was a television sermon by Pastor Peter Spencer in the Harvest Fellowship Church in San Antonio, Texas. Jankowski’s most complex collaborative project was the seven scenes of the art world in the film Rosa, 2001, in which segments of the film Viktor Vogel—Commercial Man (2001) by Lars Kraume were expanded by Jankowski with the help of Kraume’s film crew. “What’s the value of art? What role does longing play in the arts? Where are the limitations of art? What do art and humor have in common? What is beauty in art? How free is the free artist? Do art and commerce influence each other?” With such fundamental questions, put to the art industry, Jankowski reflects on his own praxis, in which serious inquiry is indistinguishable from travesty. Even the genres of his perfectly scripted and shot films take their cue from the functions of the art system: The Matrix Effect, 2000, made for the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, is moderated by children in the style of museum docents, while art criticism and theory find their counterpart in the Texas sermon.

It may be that after the narcissistic ’80s and ’90s, there’s not much left to say about the market that hasn’t already been said. Still, Jankowski dislodges all the clichés here from their affirmative or cynically critical anchors and subjects them to a liberating dose of self-irony. “When you make an artistic mistake as an engineer, it can have dramatic consequences!!!” according to one of the numerous text-based textiles hanging on the wall or thrown into piles as in a laundromat. Liberated from the pathos of modernity and the effusive giddiness of party culture, art could certainly have consequences once more. Why not dramatic ones?

Hans Rudolf Reust

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.