Los Angeles

Wolf Vostell, Endogen Depression, 1980/2013, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Wolf Vostell, Endogen Depression, 1980/2013, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Wolf Vostell

Wolf Vostell, Endogen Depression, 1980/2013, mixed media, dimensions variable.

After recent shows devoted to the likes of Simone Forti and Judith Bernstein, Mara McCarthy’s quasi-commercial space the Box has once again given us the gift of a welcome revival. This time it was the work of an overlooked figure of the neo-avant-garde whose practice bears important lessons for the present: Wolf Vostell, Fluxus affiliate, key proponent of Happenings in Germany, and progenitor of dé-coll/age (the artist’s term for an expanded notion of collage that embraces installations, events, images, and processes of destruction as the means to constructively transformative experiences of alienation). In 1980, Vostell traveled to the then-thriving Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art to install his multimedia environment Endogen Depression, a work shown in ten varying iterations between 1975 and 1984. It did not appear again in the United States until the Box’s reconstruction, which was realized in consultation with the artist’s son (Vostell died in 1998) and included most of the original materials.

The resulting installation was a landscape of thirty-some tube televisions arrayed in a rough grid on the sawdust-covered floor and on top of secondhand media consoles, dressers, nightstands, and tables. Many of the TVs were partially or wholly encased in concrete, some further encrusted with large pebbles. Others lay in pieces, their circuit-board innards exposed. Littering the floor were large slabs and chunks of concrete that had broken off in the thirty-odd years since they were originally cast. The few still-operable TVs emitted visual and audio static, and one could also detect the threatening hum of electrical current. In this post-apocalyptic cemetery of outmoded technology, a raft of turkeys strutted, pecked, perched, shat, and laid eggs.

It was, of course, amusing—and, at times, discomfiting—to be among the birds. Visitors were alternately approached by the curious and friendly hens and stalked by the aggressive, protective toms. But the environment, separated from the rest of the gallery by a tall chain-link fence, amounted to more than spectacle. Together Vostell’s carefully choreographed live and object-based elements cannily achieved that uncomfortable mélange of humor and violence that Susan Sontag once famously ascribed to Happenings. And each element contributed a symbolic valence attuned to the installation’s LA context, both past and present. The exuberant chaos and lightness of the animal life and functioning electronics (formerly much more animated, alas) maintained a dynamic tension with the material opacity, density, and deadness of the concrete. More specifically, the concrete, a metonym for LA as a rapidly expanding metropolitan experiment, called forth images of rubble left in the wake of earthquakes and riots. Whereas iterations of Endogen Depression in 1970s Europe had included dogs or no animals at all, in LA Vostell had introduced turkeys, conjuring our country’s repressed history of violence against native peoples. (To ensure that this point was not lost, photographs of Native Americans were originally planted in several open drawers, but many of these were missing from the reconstruction.)

In the curators’ decision to privilege the junky materiality of the TVs over their ability to transmit programming, the exhibition ventured a successful negotiation between reconstructing a past work and allowing it to show its decay. Other, newer resonances were welcomed (from the 1992 LA riots to the evolution of American TV culture), in neo-avant-garde recognition that an artistic gesture never reads the same way twice. But then these are the same dynamics that were inherent in Vostell’s practice, positioned as it was between ruin and reconstruction, apocalypse and utopia, or simply death and bare life.

Natilee Harren