Thomas Bayrle

“I was a Maoist in 1968,” Thomas Bayrle told Hans-Ulrich Obrist in Guangzhou last year. But Bayrle’s Maoism was less a form of radicalism than a way to envision the compatibility between the revolutionary masses and a mass market. Already by 1966 Bayrle had produced kinetic sculptures he describes as “a mix of Western advertising and Eastern mass demonstrations. . . . I paid little attention to the ideological differences and jumbled together . . . Communist and capitalist elements and content.” How prophetic. Bayrle could not have known, but he shared a kinship with Henry Kissinger, whose secret 1971 mission to China opened the door to Sino-American rapprochement—arguably, globalization’s opening gambit.

In a vivacious silk screen from 1968, Bayrle offers a bird’s-eye view of thousands of Chinese farmhands, their choreographed hoes plunging toward earth in a performance of cultivation. Its title, Revolutionäre Kräfte ernten Raps (Revolutionary Forces Harvest Rape), tells us Bayrle was not immune to routine Communist rhetoric, or that he could resist endorsing the allegory of cultivating by way of cultural conformity. But Bayrle was also underlining an early conclusion about China’s awakening to industrialization just as Umberto Boccioni had framed Italy’s in The City Rises, 1910: Bayrle understood that so massive was China’s undertaking it could be grasped only by taking the long view; the workers’ yellow, white, red, and green hats marshal together, forming the churning image of a tractor. Development would be attained by unyielding discipline, patience, and resolve. Unlike Arthur Mole with his “living photographs” from the Great War, in which thousands of troops were choreographed in formations illustrating patriotic symbols—including a Mao-like portrait of President Woodrow Wilson—Bayrle persuasively presents an image of national identity, not the spectacle of nationalist propaganda. You might call Bayrle a China watcher, but rather than reasoning by analysis, he depends on intuition. His insights are like those of the alluring woman in Martin Kippenberger’s Sympathische Kommunistin (The Friendly Communist), 1983, who apprised us that cold-war foes would not be foes for long.

Bayrle recently returned with new works from a residency in China; they appear among his earlier things in this exhibition, titled “40 Years Chinese Rock ’n’ Roll.” Evoking his paintings of juggernaut autobahns telegraphing the economic entitlement of postwar Germany, his new sculptures of interwoven superhighways—each one modeled on the character for a portentous Chinese word—forecast Bayrle’s fresh assumptions regarding China’s opening up to globalization. In an installation of two works, Turm (Tower) and Autobahn, 2003 and 2006, respectively, a two-lane momentarily spirals off the ground like a Hot Wheels racetrack, before landing to career headlong into a Piranesian fantasy tower of vertical highway ribbons. Bayrle is telling us that freedom, improvisation, speed, mystification, and competition—humdrum phenomena in the West—are hard currency in the East. Onto these interlacing highways Bayrle has superimposed pictures of life under Mao, reiterating the unbending tenacity he foresaw in his Revolutionary Forces picture—the same tenacity that makes the West blink in the face of China’s latent potential. “China’s large and educated population, its vast markets, its growing role in the world economy and global financial system foreshadow an increasing capacity to pose an array of incentives and risks, the currency of international influence.” This acute summary might easily have come from an essay about Bayrle’s exhibition, but it was in fact penned last year by his old comrade Kissinger.

Ronald Jones