Wolf Vostell

Although Wolf Vostell used the term “décollage” to evoke a dual process of creation and destruction in his work, this retrospective exhibition, seen earlier in Bonn, framed his works between an aesthetic of physical heaviness and of the disembodied image of the television screen. Opening the display, three works titled Sara-jevo Pianos, 1994, created for a Fluxus concert that year, equate physical mass with gravitas of meaning, incorporating bowling balls, chain saws, a bust of Lenin, and a Ducati motorcycle. The heft and potentially over-determined political content of such works are redeemed by an open and poetic approach to reference. Vostell seems able to levitate even the most ponderous of materials and ideas.

A room of Vostell’s collages from the 1960s made possible a survey of the varying approaches circulating at the time, from Nouveau Réalisme to Pop. Whereas Put Finger In, 1962, recalls the pastel fragments of Richard Hamilton, Grosse Sitzung mit Da (Big Meeting with Da), 1961, evokes the torn posters of the affichistes, particularly those of Mimmo Rotella. Other works clearly evoke the assemblages of Claes Oldenburg and the collaged screenprints of Robert Rauschenberg. Vostell treats aesthetic styles in the same way he treats media images: All are fair game. This inclusiveness has often been seen as a critique of a society anaesthetized by an endless flow of images, but the exhibition renders such a reading too simplistic. The effect is, rather, redemptive. Vostell’s 16–mm film Sun in Your Head, 1963, is virtually unwatchable, a grainy and distorted collage of television imagery. Yet it is accompanied by a high-pitched monotone that offers a sense of transcendence, as if a unity to the proliferation of images could be found on a higher spiritual level.

The use of television sets in Vostell’s work from 1958 provided an alternative source of reality to the heavy aesthetic of what was to become the Fluxus object. In Millionen-Kasten I-IV (Million Box I-IV), 1958–89, four enlarged photographs of Berlin in ruins after Allied bombing are inset with small LCD screens showing live daytime television. Vostell appears less innovative when working as a painter, but where painting is mixed with assemblage, the effect is stronger. Carlos V y Rodrigo Aleman durante una visite en Corea (Carlos V and Rodrigo Aleman During a Trip in Korea), 1990, is a sort of trophy made from a stuffed bull’s head mounted upside down with a television set inserted between the horns. Vostell appears most at home when using highly loaded objects in a freely signifying manner, particularly in a way that claims poetic meaning for otherwise instrumentalized or commercially appropriated objects and things. This work may be taken on the one hand to refer to the refusal of many toreadors to be televised and the unique lack of commercialization surrounding bullfighting, but on the other to offer a criticism of what may be considered a cruel and archaic ritual.

The themes of history and technology, of ritual and ruin, culminated in the final room containing a version of Vostell’s greatest work, the installation Endogene Depression, 1980. Twenty television sets in various states of disrepair are arranged in a roughly circular formation that suggests an archaeological site (endogenic is defined as being formed beneath the surface of the earth). Chunks of rubble are strewn about as if this were a scene from a bombed-out museum of television history. Only three of the sets work, two showing white fuzz, the other showing a faint monochrome image of banal daytime programming. Although he often refers to the history and products of postwar German life, Vostell, as a result of his focus on poetic themes with much broader import, is one of the few German artists to have operated outside the debates surrounding national history and identity since 1945. Endogene Depression develops his notion of décollage, of the dualism of creation and destruction, into a threnody on technology and ruin.

John-Paul Stonard