Christian Falsnaes, One, 2013. Performance view, November 7, 2013. Center: Christian Falsnaes. Photo: Alwin Lay.

Christian Falsnaes, One, 2013. Performance view, November 7, 2013. Center: Christian Falsnaes. Photo: Alwin Lay.

Christian Falsnaes

Christian Falsnaes, One, 2013. Performance view, November 7, 2013. Center: Christian Falsnaes. Photo: Alwin Lay.

The performances of Christian Falsnaes, a Danish artist who lives in Berlin, often seem pretty mean-spirited—even cynical. And yet by balancing his art on the brink of the intolerable, he has given it a unique power. His performances draw viewers in with deft manipulation and involve them in the action. Since the 1960s, this sort of art has generally been described as emancipatory, even though it sometimes has a distinctly authoritarian edge to it; think of Joseph Beuys’s actions, in which the problem of authority was notoriously unresolved.

Falsnaes’s actions address the issue of authority head-on. The performance that constituted the opening of his exhibition “One” at DREI in Cologne, organized by Oriane Durand, a curator at Kunstverein Nürnberg in Nuremberg, was no exception. It took place in an all-white room whose walls were hung with white canvases; Falsnaes himself was there, engaging the steadily growing crowd in light banter. Then, suddenly, he picked up tubes of paint and brushes from the floor, thrust them into the hands of several people, and instructed them to paint on the canvases. Initially hesitant, but goaded on by Falsnaes and, soon enough, by the onlookers, they complied with his request. The mood grew spirited, then boisterous, and the pictures started filling up; what remained after the action were painted canvases, a dirty floor, and splotches of paint on the walls. Coming into the room later on during the course of the exhibition, visitors encountered Abstract Expressionist–style canvases and the wreckage left behind by a painting frenzy; a sound recording of the action was playing.

Falsnaes is interested in the relationship between the individual and the group—a fundamental issue in art, given that, at least since modernism, the work of art has usually been regarded as the self-expression of a single individual who stands apart from the collective and often even comes into conflict with it. Falsnaes, turning this model on its head, arranges for the creation of a communal work. But then, things aren’t quite so simple. It’s he who initiates and manipulates the action with the thorough professionalism of a talk-show host. He sees the audience as the raw material for his art and tries to shape it. His interest is in exploring his sway over the participants. His themes are power, authority, seduction, and control on the one hand, the merging of the individual in an expertly manipulated collective on the other. The documentary video of an earlier performance with the telling title Masculine demeanor as a consequence of social power relations between artist and audience, held at the Bonner Kunstverein, in Bonn, in 2013, reveals the amazing things that people who are perfectly conversant with contemporary art—curators and collectors among them—can be inveigled into doing through the potent pull of group dynamics. The absurdity of their actions raises questions not only about power and seduction but also about what audiences expect from a contemporary artist and how far they are willing to follow him.

In a second room in the exhibition in Cologne, Falsnaes offered three drawings for sale. But once again, he gave the relationship between public and artist a twist: Purchasers of a drawing were given five, ten, or fifteen minutes to draw a copy of it and burn the original. A photograph and certificate were produced to document the process by which the collector had become the creator of the work he had acquired.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.