New York

Heimo Zobernig

Heimo Zobernig’s recent exhibition at Friedrich Petzel Gallery was his solo debut there, but it was not the first time that the Austrian artist had paraded his naked body about: His 1996 show at the Renaissance Society in Chicago featured Nr. 12, 1996, a deadpan video intervention that appeared to show Zobernig walking, in his birthday suit, through the streets of the Windy City (blue-screen technology was used to create the effect, as it was actually shot inside the building). This injection of “naked” urbanism into the not-so-naked frame of the gallery suggested the stripped-down figure of the artist-as-flaneur-in-the-buff parading another form of sly institutional critique. And in 2003, at Galerie Meyer Kainer, Vienna, he exhibited a life-size, full-body department store mannequin made into a self-portrait.

In this show, Zobernig presented Nr. 24, 2007, a video wherein he once again seems to appear nude, courtesy of the blue screen. On this occasion, he is seen engaging in a mock struggle with three anonymous antagonists outfitted in oversize jumpsuits representing the chroma-key colors (blue, red, and green), suggesting a reference to the technicalities of image reproduction as they might intersect with post-painterly discourse. Zobernig is accosted by the figures who place tape over his mouth and genitals (thereby “erasing” them), wrestle with him, and heap art magazines and catalogues upon him to the point where he virtually collapses. The three figures then pile onto him, and onto one another, leading to a symbolic corporeal annihilation. The atmosphere is alternately clownish and threatening, and despite its allusions to amateur theater, poking fun at the body as surrogate object and performative vehicle (Wiener Aktionismus, for example), the video is not much more than a soft critique of the art world (as well as of the putative authority of the artist), and one defeated by a saturation of irony. With its low-tech look, the work conveys a mannered dilettantism at odds with the artist’s usually sophisticated manipulation of the interrelated codes of modernist painting, design, and architecture.

Since the 1980s, Zobernig has coolly unpacked modernism as formal language and as social ideology, reminding us that design (gallery architecture included) is never neutral. Subtle and precise, his practice has often challenged us to think about spatial design as an autonomous aesthetic phenomenon and as a utilitarian instrument, referencing the interpenetrations of art and design that characterize Bauhaus and De Stijl. Zobernig has produced exhibition design as art, and vice versa, such as his auditorium for Documenta X in 1997. At Petzel, he installed “paravents” in the gallery’s main space, quasi-architectural matrices of canvases and supports. These elements operated here as a system of spatial dividers/markers, echoing the grid structures depicted in paintings from his series “Untitled,” 2006–2008.

“Untitled” skillfully if dutifully rehearses well-trodden codes of geometric abstraction sampled from a reified modernist/neomodernist/postmodernist menu (Piet Mondrian, Josef Albers, Blinky Palermo, Imi Knoebel). A set of diamond-shaped paintings encrusted with Swarovski crystals constitutes a thinly disguised swipe at the age-old conflation of art and treasure; if we needed reminding of how deeply we inhabit these cultural contradictions, Damien Hirst’s diamond-studded skull did the trick better. Zobernig needs to be taken seriously, but if these constructions are meant to deconstruct the gallery experience, to elicit amplified levels of critical consciousness about the rituals of gazing at (the artist’s own) paintings-as-baubles, this seemed like the arch, forced gesture of an artist seeking to perform a critique that, ironically, can be banked on these days.

Joshua Decter