by Travis Jeppesen on February 25, 2014
In addition to his work as a novelist, art critic and poet, Travis Jeppesen has developed what he terms “object-oriented writing”—writing that seeks to use language as a site for a subjective, embodied encounter with and response to art objects. Jeppesen’s writing treats objects themselves as inhabitable, in an attempt to write from within the object; this approach intends to counter forms of critical analysis that assume distance from objects in order to speak about them. As he has said, “something that is located within an object can never be ‘about’ that object – aboutness is always external.”
In his installation 16 Sculptures, visitors—sitting while blindfolded—listen to recordings of Jeppesen reading his object-oriented re-creations of sculptures. Depriving us of our usual faculties for experiencing works of art—sight and visual-spatial reasoning—Jeppesen’s texts instead stage an encounter with objects through language that nonetheless retains the texture of embodied, physical experience, an imaginative realm in which he attempts to summon the autonomous essences and interior lives of objects themselves.
On the occasion of the Whitney Biennial, Jeppesen has published a book of his texts for 16 Sculptures; in addition, a marathon reading of his novel The Suiciders, published in 2013 by Semiotext(e), will be held at the Museum on May 9.
1. Les Trois Ombres, Auguste Rodin
2. Venus of Willendorf, Artist Unknown *
3. Walking Figure I (City), Thomas Houseago *
4. Untitled, Robert Morris
5. Incantatoire, Alicia Penalba
6. Spiral Jetty, Robert Smithson *
7. Untitled, Isa Genzken
8. Terrain, Koji Kamoji
9. Femme Assise (Annette), Alberto Giacometti
10. Misc. Spill, Cady Noland *
11. Neptune, Antoine Coysevox *
12. Staple Cheese (A Race), Dieter Roth
13. Relief with the Liberation of a Besieged City, Artist Unknown
14. Light Reign, James Turrell
15. Vierge à l’Enfant, Artist Unknown
16. Milon de Crotone, Pierre Puget
* These works will be included in the installation at the 2014 Whitney Biennial. The full 16 will be featured in the solo exhibition “Travis Jeppesen: 16 Sculptures” at Wilkinson Gallery, London, in July 2014.
Texts/Voice: Travis Jeppesen
Voice: Brian Tennessee Claflin
Audio Production & Sound Design: Paul “Snax” Bonomo
Graphics: Mario Dzurila
Special thanks to Stuart Comer and Amanda Wilkinson.
Published by Publication Studio (Portland, Oregon) in 2014
Copyright © 2014, Travis Jeppesen. All rights reserved.
isbn: 978 1 62462 055 3
717 SW Ankney Street
Portland, Oregon 97205
16 Sculptures is published on the occasion of the 2014 Whitney Biennial and the exhibition “Travis Jeppesen: 16 Sculptures” at Wilkinson Gallery, London.
A project supported by the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program.
Preface: On Object-Oriented Writing
This book is the culmination of a method of writing I have been working with for the past several years, a writing that attempts to inhabit the object. That is, a writing that positions itself within the work of art, while simultaneously including all the contradictions and impossibilities that come embedded within such an approach. Impossible, because of course one can never go inside a solid object. What I’m attempting here is a metaphysics of art writing. If need be, the reader of these texts can evaluate each according to its degree of failure with regards to the original work, though in the spirit of creation – or, to be precise, re-creation, the cyclical nature of art’s generationing – I have opted to exclude reproductions of the original sculptural works from this project in its various iterations, including the present volume.
It could be suggested that the father of object-oriented writing is the Gertrude Stein of Tender Buttons, the mother the Roland Barthes of Mythologies. Though object-oriented writing is more likely their aborted fetus, having been revivified on a UFO by an extra-dimensional alien race that exists on a plane parallel to our own, and returned to this reality in order to contaminate it.
Unlike criticism, which is always necessarily about an object, and unlike poetry, which is inspired by, object-oriented writing takes on the task of being. As such, another writer’s version of these 16 sculptures, selected according to whatever mysterious force drew me to them at various moments in my travels, would and should look very different from my own. This is a vehicle; not a school. I don’t believe in definitive statements and I don’t believe in endings. There is still so much more to be said and done.
- Travis Jeppesen, Berlin, 7 February 2014
by Travis Jeppesen on January 19, 2014
There is a whole other history of cinema out of which Jonas Mekas falls—kicking and screaming, alive and elastic to the necessities and vicissitudes of this thing we call life. One has to be thoroughly drenched in it to attain such a position as Mekas’s, and for evidence, one doesn’t have to look further than the films themselves, which capture a politics of the banal and everyday despite their author’s frequent assurances that he has no overarching plan, no real understanding of what it is he is doing. The films are political precisely because Mekas allows experience to serve as his sole structuring device. His cinematic submersion into total presence has been at the root of all his activities from the beginning—for he knew no other way. This not-knowing is what Mekas might term “beauty”; for the viewer, it is the spiritual impetus that compels us to go along for the ride.
It makes total sense that Mekas, a displaced person, would end up making films from a positionless position. It is also not coincidental that Mekas, after surviving Central Europe’s attempts at civilizational suicide in the Second World War, would wind up a resident of his century’s capital of displacement: New York. Once there, he and his brother Adolfas procured a Bolex camera and immediately began filming their lives in this baffling new world, to which they would both make a massive contribution as artists. Jonas Mekas would soon find himself at the very center of New York’s downtown underground film-making scene.
Just as the Abstract Expressionists required a dose of the old world, which came in the form of the great German painter and teacher Hans Hofmann, in order to come into being as artists, it is hard to imagine how their cinematic counterparts on the Lower East Side in the 1950s and ’60s would have turned out without Mekas’s contribution. The roots of Mekas’s sensibility, more ‘Russian’ than ‘European’, can be traced back to Soviet filmmaker and film theorist Dziga Vertov. Thanks in no small part to Mekas’s influence, as well as that of Maya Deren before him, one could read the downtown New York underground filmmaking scene as Vertovian in many of its aesthetic ambitions.
In The Man with the Movie Camera and his voluminous writings on cinema, Vertov articulated his principle of the “kino-eye,” which considered the cinematic apparatus as a means for revealing the true nature of reality and thus liberating the masses from the bondage of servitude to capital. “From the viewpoint of the ordinary eye,” writes Vertov, “you see untruth. From the viewpoint of the cinematic eye (aided by special cinematic means, in this case, accelerated shooting) you see the truth. If it’s a question of reading someone’s thoughts at a distance (and often what matters to us is not to hear a person’s words but to read his thoughts), then you have that opportunity right here. It has been revealed by the kino-eye.”1 While Vertov took as his grand subject the building of socialism in the USSR, Mekas, beginning his work at a later date, had already seen the tragic failures that such utopian schemes often descend into and the human expense that results. Here is where Mekas’s “kino-eye” departs from Vertov’s. From Walden, his first major accomplishment, onwards, Mekas’s concerns were immediately diaristic, and yet political, albeit in a more subtle way than Vertov’s could ever be. Mekas’s camera became an extension of his being, constantly on-hand to record the peregrinations of a Baudelairean flâneur. In fact, it is probably not much of an overstatement to characterize Mekas as the Charles Baudelaire of New York City. Just as the poet’s wanderings through the capital of the 19th century, Paris, formed the basis of his oeuvre, so did Mekas merge with the camera to become a moving machine, generating audio-visual poems of city life almost as a by-product.
The camera as an extension of the eye, of one’s being. All those who traveled along such a path—among them Stan Brakhage, Jack Smith, and Bruce Conner, to name but a few of Mekas’s fellow travelers—felt it within themselves that film, the vehicle to which they had dedicated themselves, and with which they had merged as they became artist-machines, had the power to do more than merely tell stories. Or else, it compelled them to tell stories in truly different ways, outside of the narrow conceptions of Hollywood. The underground film-makers were far away—geographically, aesthetically, and spiritually—from that model, in which the neurotic fears and banal desires of the middle class are spotlighted and attention spans are capitalized upon in order to generate an endless stream of copies. Instead they assumed the possibility of an entirely different means of cinematic transmission and representation, unthinkable to the mid-century mainstream, which was largely complicit with the McCarthy witch-hunts that had only just recently ravaged American society. Each of these filmmakers had his (or, admittedly less often, her) own individual style, with Mekas’s being the diaristic—which, in cinematic terms, is the home movie.
How, for instance, does one begin to make sense of the first major diary film, the 180-minute-long Walden, described by its author as simply “materials from the years 1965–1969, strung together in chronological order,” interspersed with random reflections, philosophizing, and bursts of music? The film is of course a major archival landmark of the decade, capturing as it does a number of the era’s luminaries, including Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono, John Lennon, and Allen Ginsberg. Besides that, as its title suggests, it serves as Mekas’s own version of Walden, the famous tome by the 19th-century Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau.
So here we have a Lithuanian poet-filmmaker standing between Thoreau and Vertov—two unlikely figures, the American Transcendentalist and the Soviet Revolutionary. Two radically disparate visions of reality. But are they, really? And is Mekas’s stance between them really so uncanny? What more suitable position could one adapt as an immigrant in New York from a country behind the Iron Curtain? “We loved you, world, but you did lousy things to us,” Mekas reflects in Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania. Mekas’s quest has been to locate his own mystical Walden, realizing, unlike Thoreau in his idealization of nature or Vertov in his eulogy to the city, that this Edenic realm is not likely to be found anywhere on Earth, but in the people that surround one and the experiences shared.
The diaristic mode is, from the standpoint of consumption, rife with problems for the viewer. The key to Mekas’s films, perhaps, is not to watch them, but to attempt to drift into them. His films are what those of a conventional bent call “experimental,” because they refuse to do our thinking for us. “This is a political film.” The message flashes across the screen several times, and yet his films are political in no obvious way other than their form, which is often rooted in the seeming senselessness of the collage principle, the anarchy of the chance technique. As Chris Kraus has noted, “Since diary-writing is subjective practice, it’s more fragile, looser, messier. As a transcription of live thought, diary-writing’s destined for confusion because the mind does not stay still for very long. As an art-making practice, it’s incoherent and therefore essentially flawed.”2
Adapting the diaristic mode to cinema has allowed Mekas to be at work virtually all the time, bringing his camera with him everywhere, and thus annihilate the divisions between art and life. One is, in a sense, always at work while never working – just being. His 2001 epic, As I was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty, consists of 320 minutes of film made throughout his life, randomly spliced together and featuring occasional voice-over ruminations from the author. At some point Mekas announces, “By now, you must have realized I am not a film-maker. I am a filmer.” Mekas takes on the role of the amateur, the Sunday painter, not to demean his product, but to assert the viability of a cinematic vehicle that is markedly other in design. He has no other choice; this is the language he has forged out of compromise with the world he was thrust into. “But while we are confined to books,” writes Thoreau, “though the most select and classic, and read only particular written languages, which are themselves but dialects and provincial, we are in danger of forgetting the language which all things and events speak without metaphor, which alone is copious and standard. Much is published, but little printed. The rays which stream through the shutter will be no longer remembered when the shutter is wholly removed. No method or discipline can supersede the necessity of being forever on the alert. What is a course of history, or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen? Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer? Read your fate, see what is before you, and walk on into futurity.”3 Jonas Mekas made that choice a long time ago. Walking alongside him, we are reminded that vision, an active agent, is nothing less than the life force itself.
1. Dziga Vertov, “Three Songs of Lenin and Kino-Eye,” in Annette Michelson (ed.), Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov (trans. Kevin O’Brien). London: Pluto Press, 1984, p.124.
2. Chris Kraus, “Shit on My Sleepmask,” in Video Green: Los Angeles Art and the Triumph of Nothingness. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2004, p.139.
3. Henry David Thoreau, Walden. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, p.192.
Originally published in Jonas Mekas: The Fluxus Wall, as part of the exhibition at BOZAR in Brussels, 2013.
by Travis Jeppesen on December 8, 2013
If it often feels as though a certain pathological narcissism has become so widespread as to be accepted as the normal mode of 21st century selfhood, then any gesture of generosity – of self-abnegation – warrants serious attention as the disruptive, and hence potentially critical force that it is. Further, in an era in which spirituality has been all but whitewashed by our deluded notions of “progress,” a notion that can never be justified, operating as it does beneath the accelerated entropy of hyper-capitalism, in which salvation sounds like a bad joke; then the affirmation-through-distortion of the One (the Me) into the Everyone serves as a valid and enthralling model for the eradication of those artificial barriers that keep individuals enslaved to the ego.
This is one summation of the path that AA Bronson has traversed since his journey began with General Idea, the artist group he founded with Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal in 1967, and it is the one that he has continued to widen with great integrity and persuasive force in the years since the group’s dissolution in 1994 when Partz and Zontal both succumbed to the plague. It is therefore reductive, and incorrect, to characterize the central impulse in Bronson’s work as “curatorial.” That his current solo exhibition in Rotterdam includes mostly the work of other artists suggests the permeability of that “of” in its title, “The Temptation of AA Bronson”; Bronson’s ‘I’ is many others; therefore, Bronson cannot be reduced to a mere I.
Rather, what the “Temptation” gives us is an expansion of AA Bronson in all his great reflexivity. Bronson the artist and curator, of course. But also: Bronson the shaman. Bronson the healer. Bronson the mentor to a generation of queer artists suffering from a broken lineage resulting from the AIDS years. Bronson the muse….(This is but a mere delineation, as many of these modes are often contained in within a single artwork, such as Reima Hirvonen’s dolls of Bronson and his omnipresent companion Mark Jan Krayenhoff van de Leur, made out of their underwear, reflecting the artist’s involvement with shamanism.) In a word, Bronson’s is the project of collaboration on an epic scale.
I suppose that some, perhaps being confronted head-on with Marina Abramovic’s crystal beds near the entrance of the exhibition, might have begun to ascribe a hippie New Age-ism to Bronson’s enterprise – until they arrived at the realization that sperm is everywhere. The motivating factor is sex – which is also of the spirit, mind you. And so we have, from the General Idea treasure trove, thirty untitled works from a series of tantric drawings dated from 1989 to 1992, taking up an entire room: an orgy of saggy tits and cocks and gaping orifices, barking prayers out from their two-dimensional cells. Sometimes a vag frowns at us, mocking our sense-making attempts at this altar of the body, while frequent uncircumcised elephant dongs dangle over quibbling goblin holes, some of which contain furnaces, promising to incinerate our longing with their flames. This is where the spiritual meets the corporeal. Not far from Abramovic’s healing rocks, we register Matthias Herrmann’s Cum Pieces, a series of photographic collages that all contain the same binding glue. Mike Kelley’s acrylic painting, The Death of the West, 2009, depicts a naked blue tranny with impossibly long tongue sticking out, its body decorated with skulls, shooting an impressively long jet of jizz that nearly reaches that aching tongue. In one hand, s/he holds a scythe, while the other grasps the head of what looks to be Richard Nixon. The whole thing is rendered in a joyous amateurishness, like the best thrift shop paintings, and inferring the influence of serial killer-turned-painter John Wayne Gacy.
But man-batter isn’t the only healing fluid on offer. I was incredibly moved by Sands Murray-Wassink’s Monument to Depression, two glass vitrines containing the artist’s perfume and cologne collection. These scents help him to get through his intense and frequent bouts with depression. I missed the series of performances that opened the exhibition, but apparently Murray-Wassink was there, naked sans for the words “Acceptance Art” scrawled across his chest, where he sweetly spoke to visitors and sprayed perfume on them – perhaps even making them feel better about themselves in the process.
My own personal healing came from an unexpected confrontation with some of the handmade digests waving offensive titles such as Faggo, rendered in black marker above drawings of dicks and pierced nipples, that published some of my earliest callous scribblings. In “Queer Zines,” an exhibition-within-the-exhibition Bronson co-curated with Philip Aarons, you could look (but not touch, as most of the more collectible ones, such as Vaginal Davis’s great ‘80s celebrity gossip rag Fertile LaToyah Jackson and Larry Bob’s queer punk gazette Holy Titclamps, were preserved under glass vitrines) at some of the last three or four decades’ prized emblems of fearless punk faggotry – of queer – a word that we might argue was validated just as much through these zines as in academic discourse. After waving goodbye at my teenage self, I made my way over to a wall display of some of the newer zines, which you are allowed to read and peruse. I discovered a brilliant new one from Japan called Ossu, which seems to be the work of a small group of friends, and is entirely photo-based. More pared-down but equally exciting are the Casual Encounters of Michael Max McLeod, who will, for instance, write “Some Computers and a Hustler” on his cover, and then with four pages give us exactly that: photos of computers, then suddenly a hustler appears. Crude and unrefined, it shows you the sad state of fag culture in the 21st century; now, cruising is only possible with a wifi connection.
A second exhibition within, “Ancestors,” its subject genealogy, lineage – something that young artists nowadays are often accused of forgetting about in their oblivious neomaniacal quests for instant bucks and glory. Here, in another set of glass vitrines, we find totemic entries of those who came before, some of whom brushed elbows with Bronson. Rarities like a Black Sparrow Press edition of Charles Henri Ford’s Flag of Ecstasy are displayed alongside Bronson’s correspondence with William S. Burroughs and a rare manuscript by the author, amended with a hand-written note from his secretary James Grauerholz asking that the manuscript be returned once they were done using it for General Idea’s great magazine FILE – a request that Bronson wisely ignored.
“Ancestors” is housed on the second story exhibition, which is permeated with the scent of rosemary, clumps of which fertilize the gallery floor for reasons I was unable to ascertain. Anyway, combined with the dim lighting and the prominent installation of TM Davy’s romantic painted portrait of Bronson nude in the forest, the exhibition is suddenly endowed with an enchanted aura that contrasts markedly with the more traditional white cube-and-fluorescent lighting of the lower level. The repeated melodies of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” came from a video called The Dolly Shot by Mr. and Mrs. Keith Murray (one person, apparently); it is work like this that Bronson seems to favor, just on the verge of being corny or kitsch yet not quite crossing the line – a nude tranny lip-synching to Dolly’s ditty, recorded using a whitening effect that makes the body glow in a way that is pseudo-celestial (okay, camp.) Also, one came across Bronson’s collaboration with Terence Koh, a wooden cell divided by a wall with gloryhole – though sadly no one was on the other side on the day I attempted to use it.
On the publicity materials for the exhibition, Bronson lists the included artists in two categories: living and dead. Of course, in the actual exhibition, this serves as mere background information – it’s like there is no difference between the two. Still, there is something of a communion going on, and it feeds into Bronson’s interest in – his own private summoning of – shamanism. (This is fully articulated by an included photo credited to General Idea of a photo of Bronson-as-shaman dating from 1973.) Death as a happening force: without it, we could never speak of that eternal return or speculate on any means of transcendence. The most potent example in this regard is Bronson’s own sepia photographic triptych of Jorge, February 3, 1994, 2000, which witnesses Zontal’s emaciated, AIDS-wasted body staring out the window, perhaps at that very field we spend our lives trying to comprehend in vain, until in the end, it claims us without ever having reached it.
For those unable to summon the forest nymphs and faeries, the exhibition came with a more ready-at-hand guide in the form of a 43-page book called A more precise distance between the reader and the ultimate visions, a project by Gareth Long. Formally recalling The Divine Comedy, though on a much more complex spiritual level than Dante’s tripartite template, taking in as it does a multitude of spiritual perspectives and traditions, the work combines fictional excerpts from Bronson’s diary and hijacked bits of Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony (from whence the exhibition hijacks its title), with a cast of the exhibiting artists alongside several of the gods and prophets from Flaubert’s original work. And really, it’s a fitting means of articulating the deification of both Bronson and the artists he has gathered around him, living and dead: a polytheism of the polyamorous. Amen.
by Travis Jeppesen on November 29, 2013
The sky. Someone’s little sister is trying to eat a cloud. Reach into that perpetuality, feel the sky’s innards. We’re not the kind of boundary-seekers experience once probed to proffer. What’s sad is the roar that proceeds the silence. Can there be any comfort in that roar, ever, it is unthinkable. Slowed down, the sound of the sky vehicle breaking apart can be its own exotic percussion, soundtrack to the wind dance of a long lost desert tribe, sound of bleeding and breaking. The plane is like a body, it can shatter against a cloud just like a skeleton. You got on thinking if anything goes wrong, this will be my chance to really try it out: to go beyond the inevitable into the near-impossible. How many have chanced this feat. The crew had to be trained to get us this far, but how does one train to be a passenger. There is nothing offered in the way of sacrifice training, one can only learn to be a ghoul through experience. The marshals,
Their guns soon to be buried in the sand. Bodies disintegrated, children of a flash-in-the-pan experience, their wives will send floral wreaths to the rescue plot, not worth visiting, nothing to be recovered there. First to go is your sense of smell, best to not sniff the burning, all the membranes in your nostrils having been burnt out to protect you from that coldest slab of knowledge, the defeatist quartet playing their medley in the skyscrape,
Black crackling of disintegration, a meter, a bit of the command post flies right past your head, you could have reached out and grabbed it but you were preoccupied with your own leveling, chores of the desertwind. Bright snatches of light from the burning darkness, it is a Sunday, that much to be remembered, a final thought for one or two perhaps: Oh yeah, Sunday,
Burning, the sky and the swallows swimming past, I love myself the sky, I was a third-rate businessman in this life but I can be something greater in the next, perhaps a parasite,
Filth falling from the sky, tile manufacturing firm’s vice president tumbling through plastic towers and vials of pills, he will never have a chance to evolve past his own fears, terribilities, at this phase. At this phase, forever falling, pills in his eyes, eyelids scrunching over three-inch slit of metal, eyeball juices, the sentient space of no movement, losing control as your liver melts into your spleen, the attitude of silence some of us take when becoming hoarse unbridled,
Love me and forever in the sky falling,
Reverse falling now back up into the heavens,
Skull dried out still encasing brain, frontal lobe frozen in fluids rear lobe aflame, thoughts continue unabated by pain and suffering,
Forever murder the sky,
The aboveness is one angle. You always hated that mirror that fucked you every morning. Upcoming sabbath to be a reunion of sorts among distant relatives, now shall be an occasion to mourn. For them to ask themselves what has really been lost. You, a person they barely know, a person unknown to most, let all your secrets die with you, only this way can you be said to be free. A window has opened on to the scene of your drowning. Straight away you see another body, his fate quite similar to yours. The screams dissipated after the first fifteen seconds when most of them began to die. You didn’t fuck the fire, the fire fucked you. Oh just straining to fucking understand. The suffering of children,
Dim haze renaissance of failure that comes buzzing through the mires. Worried to see that seasonal every day spleen that hits the engulfed brain explodes so lightly. Oh the wires. No babies can swim in the ocean. To talk about sand as you’re falling is really enough sky mutilation. One of them already dead, a soldier, his carcass in the cargo, made his fortune in the war. A land whose capital he couldn’t name, a land he couldn’t situate on a blank map presented to him only a month before, found in the circuitry of death a treasure trove of ancient bronze sculptures, buried in sand long forgotten, buddhas and strange deities long lost to our even stranger customs, sold to rogue collectors of the sacred and unsavory, he met his death before this flight, sentience undilated, it was his massive stupid fucking indifference to the plight of all those buried civilizations that eventually killed him, he became a rebel cockroach fighter in a nebulous guerilla war, the war didn’t belong to any country he had once belonged to, he was only in it for the riches he thought he’d acquire, ambition vomits a certain type and forces it to make out with its own mortality device, the situation of ostriches bred for some deviant psychopath’s neuraesthetic dementia,
The earth is not quaking. That was the sound of the plane breaking apart, a loud crack, like at a shotgun wedding hick flight attendant might have once attended back in her home state of fight more clarity,
The dismality of being a body falling through a cloud is quite purplish and voluble. Head wants to vomit satan, but suddenly it’s so sped up, it’s like the speed of yr agony is rushing through yr head in circles. Transguired. Sneeze and a martian might come out, a serpent alien being that could survive this,
Dying only lasts as long as a sneeze,
From Written in the Sky. Forthcoming in All Fall, a book of two novellas, to be published by Publication Studio in their Fellow Traveler’s Series in 2014.
by Travis Jeppesen on November 28, 2013
Living in Berlin, you become obsessed with light. Throughout most of the year, there is so little of it to go around that one grows heavy with lethargy and despair—it’s all you can do to get out of bed before noon. Imagine how the city’s artists must feel, doomed to create in all that darkness. One year it became so overwhelming that I invested in a full-spectrum sunlamp, the kind that is supposed to brighten your spirits and magically imbue you with summer energy if you just sit before it for half an hour each day. The question I always got was, “Does it really work?” I never knew what to reply. “Well, I haven’t killed myself yet, it must be doing something.”
Sadly, in a later period of financial duress, I had to sell the lamp to my friend Stevie Hanley, an artist I wrote about in my first Atlas column [A.i.A., Dec. ’11]. Stevie will soon leave Berlin to attend the MFA program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. But back then, he was very excited by his new purchase. Finally he’d be able to look at the drawings he’d been making all winter in his sun-deprived studio! I haven’t yet asked him what will happen to the sunlamp when he returns home across the Atlantic. I suspect it will pass to another artist comrade, still militant enough to brave the cold and gloom in hopes of spotting a small glimmer through the perpetual gray overhead.
“Friendship,” says writer and freelance curator John Holten in his new novel, The Readymades, “is seeing people you recognize disfigured and mutated again and again, becoming disgusting or loveable in turn.”
As I’ve tried to show in my previous Atlas columns, Berlin is an intense microcosm in which all the components that once made up the art world have been relegated to the fringes, where they fall under the deadening force of a professionalization that now contaminates the entire field. Reflecting this malaise, Holten’s novel is one of the greatest works of art to come out of Berlin in recent years.
Set in a Europe of not too long ago, covering the period that arguably constitutes the formation of our 21st-century milieu (from the 1990s Balkan Wars up to the mid-aughts), The Readymades documents a fictional network of Serbian artists known as the LGB Group (after the surnames of its three core members). Though vaguely reminiscent of real-life collectives from the region such as Irwin/NSK, the OHO Group—and much like an update of fellow Balkanite Tristan Tzara and his Dada cronies—Holten’s artists find themselves caught in the changing tide of history and war.
In defiance of the 21st century’s obsession with the virtual, LGB strives to produce an art of the everyday—having experienced the everyday in its murderous aspect. Their output can take the form of sculptures, performative interventions, drawings or paintings (Holten’s collaborator is the Serbian-born, Berlin-based artist Darko Dragicevic, who created all of the LGB pieces illlustrated in the book), though an argument could be made that the artists’ turbulent relationships with each other are equally important as the work. The bulk of the text is a “reproduction” of an unfinished book by the group’s suicided figurehead, Djordje Bojic (the “B” in LGB). It is less a history of the collective’s activities than an analysis of its members’ varied conditions of estrangement.
Detailing alcoholic and chemical excesses, delirious group orgies, wildly intense interpersonal dynamics, not to mention the alienating effects of a still legible East-West divide on the continent, The Readymades offers an all-too-authentic portrait of the near past, instantly familiar to anyone who has spent time among the decadent elements of the post-Wall Berlin art scene—although the novel is actually set in Paris. (Holten has explained, “Berlin, where I wrote almost all of the book, also fed the details: I’d go out at the weekend to all these bars and clubs and meet people from all over the place. All of that went into the book too; I just changed the setting. Paris is not as exciting as The Readymades probably makes out, whereas Berlin does a passable job.”)
As leader of the group, Bojic becomes the unstable mediator between the opposing impulses of the other two members: the poet Milos Lubarda, whose product is by its nature uncommodifiable, and Aleksandar Gojkovic, whose encounter with the Western art market during the Bush years has corrupted him with dreams of wealth and glamour—which he eventually pursues by becoming an art dealer. (Holten and Dragicevic have gone so far as to create a Gojkovic Gallery website.) The tragedy that haunts all three, of course, is their earlier participation as soldiers in the wars back home. Scars in the collective consciousness of LGB cause the group to shatter before it can fulfill its promise of greatness, despite the international success the artists attain early on.
Berlin, of course, saw its own share of wars in the past century. The Allied bombing and subsequent Cold War paranoia are things of the past, but history, weighing heavily, continues to strike a precarious balance between the Stalinist structures of the former East and the corporate brutalism of the West. For all its many virtues, one always stops short of claiming Berlin is a beautiful city.
Gallerist turned project space director Oliver Koerner von Gustorf suggested in my last column [A.i.A., Mar. ’12] that the only way the art world might change would be if art itself were to change. The Readymades represents one possible scenario: a novelist and artist collaborating to create other artists and their artworks—an entire network, sprung from the mad fantasies of two individuals, infiltrating the world via a novel (which is available from Holten’s own Broken Dimanche Press) and a slew of recent LGB Group exhibitions mounted throughout Europe and at the Armory Show in New York this past March. So you could say that LGB are the Next Big Thing to come out of Berlin: the timely projection of an embattled nexus—East versus West, the Real World versus the Art World, Purity versus Commodification, Literature versus the Visual Arts, Fiction versus Truth.
Thus Belin perpetuates its allure to the young and art-crazed through the gloom of its long winters. By the time you read this, it will be summertime, the city flooded in light. It reaches its zenith at some point in July, when a trace of sun can still be discerned at 11:00 pm, finally disappearing only to reemerge about four hours later. While not as dramatic as the white nights of St. Petersburg or the Nordic lands, Berlin’s lingering summer twilight is strong enough to suggest why so many of us flock to this most nocturnal of cities, and why the streets brim with the energy of reawakening at all hours. As slow-moving as it seems at times, Berlin is a manic beast seething with contradictions. Charting them becomes the task of all artists drawn in by its grace and gravity.
by Travis Jeppesen on November 28, 2013
Volatility. If there’s one word to sum up the times we’re living in, that would have to be it. In conversation, people will often aver that the financial crises of the last few years have had little effect on the Berlin art scene. After all, the logic goes, when you have nothing or very little to begin with, it’s pretty hard for any force to come along and take it away.
Yet there is a slicker, cleaner and increasingly more professionalized side to Berlin’s cultural milieu, in contrast to the wild, anarchic orgy of creative expression I depicted in my December column. In the international art market, the German capital is a force to be reckoned with—still an up-and-comer, perhaps, compared to New York and London, but nearly on a par. Not only are some of the city’s major galleries adapting to standards of international blue-chip prominence, they are assuming positions of power and influence that have sent waves of angst throughout the city’s precocious gallery scene.
Those small waves coalesced into a veritable tsunami last year when it was announced that three of Berlin’s most prominent fixtures—Galerie Giti Nourbakhsch, Galerie Eigen + Art and Galerie Mehdi Chouakri—had been excluded from Art Basel. Three of the six jurors were Berlin dealers: Jochen Meyer of Meyer Riegger, Tim Neuger of neugerriemschneider and Claes Nordenhake of Galerie Nordenhake. Nourbakhsch and Gerd Harry Lybke of Eigen + Art voiced their outrage publicly, igniting a media backlash against the offending parties and giving rise to talk of a Berlin “art mafia.”
“I’m not sure you can really call it a ‘mafia,’” objects Philipp Haverkampf of Contemporary Fine Arts, undoubtedly one of Berlin’s most notable galleries, with a roster of artists that includes Daniel Richter and Jonathan Meese. “There are always people who know each other and do projects together, sharing common interests. But there is not necessarily a plan. There are many emerging galleries in Berlin. The competition is huge. The problem is that some of these people have been very active from early on.” Many others I talked to agree with Haverkampf’s suggestion that it’s somewhat natural—at least in a quasi-Darwinistic way—that those at the top of the food chain take charge, given that Berlin contains 400, 600, or even up to 800 galleries, depending on who you ask.
Few would deny that Berlin has too much influence on the Basel selection committee at the moment. Yet others feel that the ambitious stance of a few prominent Berlin dealers is what put the city on the contemporary art map—especially given its continuing dearth of collectors, which makes the local art market an “export only” business. While Jochen Meyer declined to comment on last year’s Basel controversy, citing the confidentiality of the jury’s decision-making process, he stated unequivocally that one of his goals when serving on such committees is to represent his colleagues back home.
Berlin is somewhat unusual among art capitals. Its larger, more established galleries nearly all have their roots in humble project spaces, labors of love endorsing the work of then unknown 1990s artists, who would subsequently go on to become international stars. Many key dealers effectively grew up with their artists, from the salad days through to the caviar nights. Included in that list would certainly be Esther Schipper, now one of the organizers of Gallery Weekend and the Art Berlin Contemporary fair, who was also recently elected to the jury of the new Frieze New York art fair. Says Schipper, “When I started working in the gallery scene in the 1980s, Germany was the main collecting country in Europe, if not the world. At one point, there was even talk that Cologne might replace New York as the center of the art world.” Then the economic downturn of the 1990s happened, and the winds began to change. “Cologne wasn’t offering us any situation. Things were getting very conservative. The old guard really blocked younger galleries. But then you had a situation here in Berlin that was quite the opposite.”
Giti Nourbakhsch, whose gallery opened in the former Eastern Bloc neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg in 1999, says that she originally wanted to create a bridge between Cologne and Berlin. “They were treating us in Berlin as the dirty kids, the Schmuddelkinder. They thought, ‘In Berlin, they are too fast, they just want to make money, they don’t have any style. But we in Cologne have our style because we’re old school.’ It was very German: ‘You have to go much slower!’ I didn’t want to accept these borders.” Nourbakhsch launched an ambitious program that featured Berlin and Cologne luminaries such as Hans-Jörg Mayer and Vincent Tavenne, and was subsequently enriched with international artists like Tomma Abts and Ida Ekblad.
Nourbakhsch was instrumental in helping to organize the first few editions of Gallery Weekend, leaving the project once she felt that there was no further work to be done. Many suspect that her exclusion from Basel was an act of revenge on the part of the committee.
Nevertheless, until her gallery closing scheduled for this month, Nourbakhsch oversaw one of the city’s most eclectic and daring gallery programs, retaining a youthful air of intellectual curiosity and a strong sense of purpose. “My idea was always to put something subversive or playful into society. Of course there is a power struggle going on now, but this is something that I was never interested in.”
Nourbakhsch is clear about what really matters to her. “For me, it’s more relevant at the moment to talk about motivation, ideas, heroes. Whether we still remember our old heroes. You change a lot over time. . . . We used to talk more about art in the past than we do now. Our fights in the art world were about things like, ‘Is it strong enough to show? Is it really punk enough?’ Now it’s all about positioning oneself in relation to others, it’s about power. If you’re not interested in this, then it quickly becomes very boring.”
It could be suggested that the Berlin scene is a victim of its own spirit of independence, its boundless capacity for creativity, and its passion for radical, anti-capitalist politics. To an extent, I’m convinced by Jochen Meyer, when he points out that this year’s Gallery Weekend has reached out to younger galleries by lowering their participation fees. But, again, Gallery Weekend is regarded by many as an affair of the elite, including only 50 galleries on the official program, though locals are all aware that every gallery in Berlin tries to put on something big for Gallery Weekend. It seems that, once the “bottom line” mentality of the international art market takes hold, no attempt at innovation can be much more than an empty gesture.
Take Art Berlin Contemporary, the art-fair-as-group-exhibition (or group-exhibition-as-art-fair) set up to be an alternative to the now deceased Artforum Berlin. At last year’s ABC, the most prominent galleries, many of which played a role in organizing the event, clearly received the best placement in the exhibition halls, while up-and-coming galleries were left in a no-man’s-land on the far side of a mazelike architectural structure. For this “exhibition,” two curators – Rita Kersting (former director of the Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen) and Marc Gloede (film theorist) – chose a single artist to represent each of the participating galleries. Many visitors, however, were left with the strong impression that the curators were little more than puppets hired to create an illusion of critical independence. ABC is perhaps the best example of how radical chic plays out in Berlin: a meek challenge to an established concept, serving only to enhance the existing power structure.
Maybe the situation makes sense only from the outside. No one here still believes in a canon of greatness, a Grand Narrative. Indeed, one need only briefly survey the current art landscape to find that “making it” as an artist is almost completely arbitrary. And yet dealers are forced to pretend otherwise. The art market is ruled by certain now classic dealer types, not a few of them opportunistic schemers. Everyone knows that many Berlin spaces will close in the coming years; there is simply no infrastructure to support so many galleries. Much of the questionable behavior can be attributed to the fear of an increasingly uncertain future. Some dealers are hunkering down and doing whatever they perceive is necessary to preserve their slice of the cake, while others are taking bold and risky steps—including downsizing.
Oliver Koerner von Gustorf founded September with Frank Mueller in 2007. It quickly blossomed into one of the flashiest galleries in town and established an international reputation for showing work typically found in Berlin’s “off” spaces in a sleek commercial context. Despite their relative success, September recently shocked its represented artists and the public alike by announcing that it would cease operating as a gallery and reopen in April as a project space. This move was accompanied by the symbolic decision to leave the Mitte gallery district and relocate to Kreuzberg, a neighborhood where many of the city’s edgier commercial galleries and project spaces are congregated.
“The more I got to know the whole system, the less I liked the job of being a gallerist,” admits Koerner von Gustorf. “It means, for me, that you’re some kind of a pimp. You bring your whores into the art market, and you create something like a fashion line or product. The normal thing you do as a young art gallery is participate in four or five art fairs a year. We had a good reputation, but this means stress, because you have to invest in all the art fairs. I wasn’t completely broke when I decided to close down the gallery, but I didn’t want this lifestyle. I didn’t want to be living out of hotels, always talking to these prototypes of collectors you see everywhere—the women with the helmet hair and yoga arms, the men with the high blood pressure in tailored suits. I know it sounds arrogant, but I just couldn’t do it anymore.”
Koerner von Gustorf fully intends to continue working with his roster of artists, though he will no longer be representing them as a dealer. He is also happy that his new uncompromised position enables him to return to the activity he left behind to start the gallery: criticism. Indeed, Koerner von Gustorf has always been less a salesman than a public intellectual, and his daring extends to questioning the role of art and the intentions of artists. “Perhaps now is not the time when art has the most important thing to say. Maybe something like Occupy Wall Street is more relevant right now. You can’t be critical and then go have dinner with the bankers you criticize, who are buying the stuff. Then again, it’s not easy to escape this system. I’m not so naive as to think that I’m now outside of it just because I’m doing a project space.”
He pauses to reflect. “But that’s the thing—if art were to change, then the way you represent it would also have to change. If everything is falling apart, why should the art market stay the same? The few blue-chip galleries that are still selling loads of art are the one percent that don’t care about the crisis. But the others will have to rethink the structures they’re working in. They should at least have an interest in doing that. Because those structures are going to crumble.”
Originally published in the March 2012 issue of Art in America, as the second of my three-part “Atlas Berlin” column. The first installment can be read here.)
by Travis Jeppesen on November 26, 2013
With the gray light cast on my stillness, I am permitted to wait. Clouds eat my angular agency, wooden is barren – oh, beware. Eyeball eats sky also – which I is ceiling to be and what for. There are no angles, world is something contained. Specks keep still the self. A forecast block. The me inside the inanimate’s longing. Bird scissors through cutting line across eggeye. Blue gap’s squeals through cloud machinery’s blip of conscience. Day’s weight the gift of sound. Not fog nor foregoance but rather vehicle’s achy groans before the halt.
Please, evil airplane stuck in the cloud, allow this stillness to echo throughout the frame.
by Travis Jeppesen on November 21, 2013
My review of the 2013 edition of DocLisboa, at Artforum.
by Travis Jeppesen on November 14, 2013
You can book tickets here.
On Saturday at the Henry, I’ll be teaching a workshop on object-oriented writing, which you can register for here.
by Travis Jeppesen on November 8, 2013
For Sung Hwan Kim, ideas are less the thing than stories. “I know that it doesn’t matter if things are true or not,” Kim begins in From the Commanding Heights…, 2007. “But this is a true story.” He launches into a narrative that starts out believably enough but grows increasingly fantastical, about a woman with a preternaturally long neck and a third ear on top of her head. As we hear his recorded voice, we see the artist’s face above a transparent sheet, which he draws on to illustrate the bizarre fable. From the Commanding Heights… jumps from one narrative mode and style to the next, often with confrontationally abrupt transitions. Suddenly, we are presented with an image of the Seoul apartment building Kim lived in as a child, and the story that comes with it, which presents yet another type of truth: rumor. (It was said that when the lights in the complex went out, the Korean president was arriving incognito to visit his mistress.) Further narrative shifts give us “a day in the life,” following musician David Michael DiGregorio, here a proxy for Kim, in his quotidian peregrinations; and footage of a Lynchian surveillance tape, flickering on a monitor, of a masked figure, shot from above, reversing the perspective we began with.
If we were to try to untangle the chaos of codes at play in From the Commanding Heights…, we might posit that there is a crisis in being and becoming that is probed here – but also elsewhere. Kim’s oeuvre is a strange network of gestures whose totality is not easily homed in on. Narrative seems to come apart and reconstitute itself perpetually, governed by the ambivalent logic of rumor – that most contemporary mode of storytelling, in which epistemological certainty is eclipsed by constant speculative flux. Kim never makes it easy: His projects, which may incorporate performance, sculpture, and the moving image, are often unfurled in complicated rituals alongside his frequent collaborators, DiGregorio and artist Nina Yuen; one performance, Pushing Against the Air, 2007 – in which Kim interview DiGregorio and a fellow musician, Byungjun Kwon, about love songs they have composed – had an air of spontaneity about it when it was first performed at Amsterdam’s De Appel, but was repeated in several cities and venues with only slight variations. Some of the material was later used in a video; in Kim’s art, works are not clearly separated from one another. The restlessness of the artist becomes its own world, and the emphasis is less on establishing a firm, static position than on the impetus to keep moving – and forming a terrain in the process, much like a spider spins its web, oblivious to the constraints of linear time. Kim’s persistent return to a lo-fi aesthetic – his sometimes fuzzy footage, his creation of “special effects” from transparent plastic sheets – is a part of this becoming, as if to be too polished is to arrest momentum, to partake of an ossified visual economy. His videos also have a tendency to centrifugally disperse themselves into space: Kim imbricates the moving image in complex environments, a tendency that may bespeak the influence of his mentor, Joan Jonas. In his 2012 exhibition at the Tanks at Tate Modern in London, for example, a welter of video screens, black panels, mirrors, tinsel, curvilinear seating, and lights created an insubstantial matrix of shifting visual planes and fragments.
A number of Kim’s works engage with the history of the Korean peninsula throughout the past century, which is in many ways a saga of a land attempting to articulate its own identity, to become itself while struggling for sovereignty. Near the beginning of the twenty-four-minute video Temper Clay, 2012 – whose very title evokes a process of becoming, of wrestling form from inchoate matter – a series of intertitles proclaims, IT IS GOOD TO HAVE A PATCH OF LAND / BUILD A HOUSE / LIVE IN IT / GET SOMEONE/ TO TAKE CARE OF YOU. The black-and-white montage that follows illustrates this simple idea and the complications that arise from it: A man makes an ax handle out of a stick of wood; a young girl speaks affectionately, in Korean, to said ax, lying next to it like a lover in what looks like an isolated stretch of forest; a second girl appears, and the two fight over the ax; a wood fire replaces the ax as the object of the girls’ competing affection. It continues unrelentingly, from one association to the next: bare feet walking back and forth across a floor as a woman frantically attempts to clean it with a rag, the installation of US military units in cities and towns throughout South Korea in the 1960s. We return to the forest, where a voice intones: “Where is your wife? Where is your husband?” (With rare exceptions, North and South Koreans have been forbidden to visit family members on the other side since the peninsula’s partition.) Finally, we see a man, standing before a river, on the other side of which is a house. Now he has the fire with him: It is in a can, attached to a wire, which he swings around him with increasing fury.
The film is an elegy for the dream of certainty. Where Deleuze and Guattari famously suggested that the primal impulse to make art can be found in the animal when it builds its own home, Kim’s stories suggest that for humans – for whom notions of identity and territory have become intertwined – this impulse is always fraught, always compromising. The desire to build a house and stay as long as you can has been perverted by our own failed attempts at establishing order throughout the mess of history. Kim’s work implies that art’s task is to unravel those knots – even if doing so requires weaving yet more tangled paths.
This essay originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of Artforum.