“Make Your Own Life”

FOCUSING ON ARTISTIC productions and provocations in Cologne from roughly the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, “Make Your Own Life” is an introduction to an important and fertile moment in (mainly) German contemporary art, and it is not an easy show. In attempting to track the connections within and among the overlapping circles of artists, gallerists, musicians, and writers of that near-mythical time and place, curator Bennett Simpson has mounted an exhibition that exemplifies the difficulties of framing the complex social relations central to many crucial art-historical developments. Simpson acknowledges the impact of the imperatives of the present on our understanding of the past when he writes in the catalogue that the show “has been predicated on a belief that historical reception is ongoing and contradictory, a product of desires that are political and intellectual as well as libidinal and economic.” To the extent that “Cologne” was in fact produced by the desires of the artists who participated in it, the critics who documented and mythologized it, and the curator who aims to reconstruct it, it exists today only as a Rashomon-like memory. The individual actors and their acts, however, are very real, and it is the conflict between myth and actuality that the show endeavors to negotiate.

Critic Diedrich Diederichsen, in the exhibition catalogue, cites a historical dividing line between a “pre-critical and a critical moment” in Cologne—that is, between the bad-boy, in-your-face approach of Martin Kippenberger, Albert Oehlen, and other artists associated with Galerie Max Hetzler, and a more cerebral version of institutional critique practiced by a coterie that took shape slightly later around Galerie Christian Nagel. Many of the twenty-eight artists in “Make Your Own Life” showed their work at one of these two galleries: Stephen Prina, Mike Kelley, Christopher Williams, and Christopher Wool, as well as Kippenberger and Oehlen, exhibited with Hetzler; Andrea Fraser, Cosima von Bonin, Michael Krebber, and Christian Philipp Müller worked with Nagel. There are also four artists—Merlin Carpenter, Stephen Dillemuth, Josef Strau, and Nils Norman—associated with the shortlived alternative venue Friesenwall 120, which was a communal social space as much as a site for exhibiting works. The dividing lines among these groups are of course not clear-cut, given, for instance, the alignment of critical projects such as Williams’s and Prina’s with Max Hetzler, or Kippenberger’s continued influence, through his former assistants Krebber and Carpenter, on the group around Nagel. (And by foregrounding the stables of other gallerists, like Daniel Buchholz, Rafael Jablonka, Esther Schipper, or Tanja Grunert—all of whom were operating and significant at the time—one could easily have constructed a very different picture of the city.) Nevertheless, the particular Cologne that emerges here is a place where, as Simpson puts it, “artists confronted and transformed the forms of identification and instrumentalization that make so much contemporary art a smooth operation of consumable goods.” And so Simpson’s choices posit Cologne circa 1990 as “a site where artists submitted themselves to a process of critical self-construction . . . exploring the decisions and assumptions entailed by the words ‘artist’ and ‘art work.’”

In other words, “Make Your Own Life” is not really, or not primarily, a show about artistic production; it is, rather, a show about artists performing the act of production, here before an audience comprising a specifically social and communal context. Simpson extends this particular model of artistic production as a form of self-performance into the present, by including a number of younger practitioners—such as Lucy McKenzie, Blake Rayne, Bernadette Corporation, and Gareth James and Roe Ethridge—whose work resonates with that of the Cologne artists. This combination of diachronic and synchronic approaches further complicates an already complex curatorial proposition, and, probably wisely, Simpson does not attempt to place the artists in discrete categories. Rather, he has organized the exhibition around what might loosely be called three “topics,” which are not named as such but which emerge as the respective themes of the show’s trio of galleries.

In the first space, an excerpt from Prina’s monumental project Galerie Max Hetzler, 1991, sets the tone for a group of works demonstrating the varied (and sometimes humorous) ways in which Cologne’s artists addressed their institutional contexts. Conceived for Prina’s debut at the eponymous gallery, Galerie Max Hetzler comprises rephotographed documentation of every single show Hetzler ever presented in his various galleries up to that point; the selection on view in Philadelphia, some 42 out of 163 photographs, covers the years 1988 to 1990. Müller’s contribution, drawn from his larger installation A Sense of Friendliness, Mellowness, Permanence, 1991, was created for his first show at New York’s American Fine Arts, a gallery that, at the time, shared many artists with Nagel. A maître d’ stand and a heavy felt curtain like those used to control drafts at the doors of restaurants create a bistrolike mise-en-scène; on the stand is an ironically deadpan “menu” listing and describing AFA’s artists. Von Bonin’s video Die Fröliche Wallfahrt (The Merry Pilgrimage), 1991, modeled on a popular form of German folk theater, drolly recasts the social scene around Galerie Nagel as a provincial Bavarian drama, with the gallery’s actual denizens playing the roles. And in the center of the space, Dillemuth and Norman have constructed a sort of ruin—an already-crumbling resurrection of Friesenwall 120—and added small works (drawings, postcards, photographs) by a number of artists associated with that space.

At the entrance to the second gallery is a series of drawings by Kippenberger, done on hotel receipts, charting the floor plans of his various apartments and studios over the years; the work functions as a bridge into a section of the show structured around the persistence of painting as the archetypal arena in which Cologne’s artists played out the different responses to the necessity of both engaging in and resisting “production.” From Kippenberger’s and Oehlen’s innumerable “bad paintings” to Krebber’s and Carpenter’s resistance of proliferation, the medium serves as the perfect matrix for this problem, and here makes for a visually stunning presentation: Sparingly arrayed in the spacious gallery are paintings by Jutta Koether, von Bonin, Oehlen, Charline von Heyl, and Rayne, as well as two flags by Reena Spaulings. But also on view is Krebber’s vitrine of books and paraphernalia on the subject of dandies, from Oscar Wilde to Joris-Karl Huysmans—a perfect crystallization of what Strau, in the catalogue, calls “the nonproductive attitude.” And Carpenter’s contribution, on the floor in the center of the gallery, might even serve as a centerpiece of the production/nonproduction debate. Carpenter had the ICA release his four thousand dollar budget in cash, and used it for a shopping spree; the work consists of a pile of receipts and empty bags from stores both upmarket (Yves Saint Laurent) and down- (the Hard Rock Cafe). Krebber and Carpenter, former Kippenberger assistants, occupy a central role here, connecting Cologne’s “precritical” and “critical” moments as they reflect and break with the Kippenbergerian emphasis on prolific output.

In the third gallery, Fraser’s fantastic video Kunst muss hängen (Art Must Hang), 2001, showing the artist’s verbatim recitation of a drunken post-opening speech made by Kippenberger, takes a wryer approach to the anxiety of the latter’s influence. As if evoking for the last time the specters of the local with Fraser’s rueful homage, this final section of the show engages the broadest context, charting artists’ positions with respect to their habitus both in and beyond Cologne. Williams’s Bouquet, for Bas Jan Ader and Christopher D’Arcangelo, 1991, and Josephine Pryde’s massive installation Chains, 2004—a clear homage to Eva Hesse’s Untitled (“Rope Piece”), 1970—are obviously concerned with issues of artistic lineage and history. Michaela Eichwald’s collages of party snapshots, as well as Koether and Kim Gordon’s Club in the Shadows, 2003, an installation and documentation of an artist-run social club, function within the social network of scenes. A reading room with magazines, books, and records, as well as videos by the short-lived Filmgruppe West (of which artist Kai Althoff was a member), Mike Kelley, and Bernadette Corporation, has a loungelike atmosphere and is the only place in the show where a more communal, “other” space is opened up, allowing the viewer to experience a sense of belonging.

“Make Your Own Life” places serious demands on its visitors, especially on those unfamiliar with the protagonists of Cologne’s scene fifteen or so years ago. In part, this dynamic may stem from Simpson’s decision to extend his consideration of Cologne to the present, including a number of apparently like-minded artists based mostly in present-day New York City. Since Cologne was a community with specific players and problems—something conveyed strongly and convincingly by the exhibition when it allows material from that previous time and place to stand on its own—this extension risks eliding differences between the two milieux. Indeed, the seamlessness with which newer works are integrated into the exhibition seems to propose that the issues motivating artists fifteen years ago are the same as those mobilizing artists today and, further, that Cologne should not be understood as a historical phenomenon so much as part of a single, smooth continuum linking all of the participants in “Make Your Own Life.” While presumably not Simpson’s intended effect, the gradually increasing presence of contemporary work from gallery to gallery even implies that the younger artists in New York represent a kind of culmination or perfection of experiments begun years ago. Here it would seem the show stumbles over that conflict between mythic and actual Cologne, seeming to do too little to untangle the relationships that defined the productions and attitudes of that previous moment; to parse Cologners’ efforts to unite the production/nonproduction paradigm with a critical consciousness and a sensorium finely attuned to the social economies of the art world; and to meet each artist on the terms of his or her own specific projects.

There are surely mutually illuminating correspondences to tease out between recent practices and older ones—as a participant in the same local New York milieu, I intuitively understand the comparisons, from Rayne’s engagement with “problem painting” in the vein of Krebber to Spaulings’s performance of the artist as persona. But maybe a continuity between past and present should have been only hinted at, rather then realized. For it seems that this exhibition’s real passion rests outside the particular ways in which production and its refusal, critique and its social application, and artistic self-invention were thought through and made visible in the mid-’80s and early ’90s in Cologne. It’s impossible to judge an exhibition like “Make Your Own Life” in all its ambition on historical grounds alone, given the stature and the complicated nature of its subject; for the same reason, it would be unfair to expect comprehensiveness. And yet my desire to understand the historical situation in more complexity makes me wish Simpson had placed the focus of the show on this other time and place. Maybe I just want to learn more about a moment that I was too young to partake of, but that shaped the debates of my education. Or maybe my disappointment stems from the fact that, while I believe that “Cologne” existed, I’m still not so sure about “New York.”

Christian Rattemeyer is curator of Artists Space in New York.

“Make Your Own Life: Artists In & Out of Cologne” is on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, through July 30, and travels to the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Toronto, Sept. 9–Nov. 25; the Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle, Jan. 20–Apr. 15, 2007; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, May–July 2007.