• Christian Hain

A Summer Threesome at KW – Featuring ALL Genders*esses


(Berlin.) Part I: It.

It can get quite dangerous to be gifted – or cursed – with a sharp tongue, a sense for bl- dark! dark! humour, or a somewhat cynical disposition in general. I certainly want to apologize for the following lines beforehand, and yet... chances are, there’s at least one or two, even a couple of readers who won’t fail to see the irony and agree - or not so much as openly agree, but silently suppress a chuckle -, that it is kind of funny, when a well known pharmaceutical company awards its biannual art prize to an artist who... well, she does look like an Olympian athlete of the Cold War era, one of those representing an Eastern European nation for whose sake the infamous sex test was invented. And she’s passed the 1980s in Moscow indeed!

This, of course, is unfair. First of all, Schering Foundation insists on having naught to do anymore with Schering AG - or its parent company Bayer, all financial ties having been cut a long time ago. They’re just another art foundation living off its funds and sche- sharing! a famous name that will still open some doors in Germany. For the rest, their cosy (or minuscule, depends on your viewpoint) central Berlin exhibition space takes care of the hazy shadowlands between art and science. Perhaps not overly endowed with undiluted artistic expertise in-house, the foundation approached KW for assistance, when establishing their award somew years ago – assistance, Berlin’s most avant-gardist artistic research centre willingly granted, and not in homoeopathic doses. This – not generic but genuine - price is intended to honour “the most important new discovery of the past two years among international artists”. Considering this year’s laureate, Anna Daučíková, has already had a career spanning several decades(!), that mission goal should not be taken too literally.

Daučíková “self-identifies” as a “transgender” person, so this must be the infamous (-ly fashionable) “d“, whose inclusion has become compulsory in job ads since lately... - or does she? On the one hand, we’re told so much, on the other, it might get a little bit contradictory here, or inconsequential: Daučíková refers to herself, and insists on being referred to by others, using the female personal pronouns, “she”, “her”, “hers” &ct. (are there actually any ceterae?) – But is she not merely a lesbian woman then, as the world has known them since the dawn of time?! What is the use of all this new vocabulary, is it indeed only marketing speech and nothing else? Martina Navratilova started her sports career at about the same time, when Daučíková launched hers in art, and she was Czech too!

Maybe, there’s an ongoing confusion of words, maybe it’s only me not getting it. I readily admit, I’m not (yet) familiar with all the subtleties - until now, I was convinced, “transgender” referred to hermaphrodites, or that ominous “third sex” allegedly having been accepted in Indian society for centuries already, or even people having undergone a sex change surgery. See, how old-fashioned I am? – I even still use “sex” instead of “gender” which sounds so much hipper! Silly me. But easy here, you will have noticed already how this article leads us once more into murky waters, and treat on more general reflections than an average exhibition review; nevertheless let’s start at the beginning, and art. ...Just to add one more thing now, and not simply because KW treated me and fellow writers to a ride in an actual VIP bus (dark-tainted windows and a star on the hood: check; the outside temperature display seemed to be broken though, despite the perils of climate change and it being really hot in Berlin, I still refuse to believe, it had 79 degrees C (174.2 F) – not even Greta personally could convince me of the opposite) to a Cultural Centre outpost of the Czech embassy, there to enjoy – and in one case: “endure” – several laudatory speeches accompanied by Champaign, dinner buffet, and wine (I’m sure, Czech Pilsner would have been available on request): Anna Daučíková appears to be an outright nice human being, no matter what she decides to identify as. Very open and cheerful, not embittered and angry at all!

She’s not happy with the body she was born into (and not the type to try influencing future reincarnations by meditation), and decided to – well, not actually change it, but to “define herself differently”.

The first works set the tone in KW’s retrospective show to accompany the award, with the artist lamenting what she has not: a video featuring nothing but a close-up of her jeans’ zipper opening to reveal – nothing (Freud would be thrilled: penis envy confirmed. Although he did not really like homosexuality; thinking about it: not even Wilhelm Reich did), and disagreeing with what she got instead: a photo series of the artist pressing her breast flat against a glass panel (no, you may not hold them for her, long as she doesn’t need them). An exchange does not come free of charge in this case, so what can you do?

We’re told, Anna Daučíková perceives the - photo or video - camera as a prosthesis, an addition to – or enhancement of? – her body, and she uses it to study that body closely, challenging, modifying, reinterpreting - coming to terms with it?

Trivial, but every image, including that of your own body, exists in two versions at least, one in your eyes and one in your mind, both of which don’t necessarily overlap. Now which is the best way to (not know thy- but:) see yourself in your own eyes? - You squat down and gaze into a river? Yeah fine, thanks for the input, Narcissus, we’ll come back to you, and no, dear millenials, "selfie" is not the correct answer, either, but in this case, it’s all about glass, and mirrors. The show is full of glass panels, yet they don’t work properly, won’t reflect anything, are perfectly transparent glass walls that will tell nothing at all – and are open to every interpretation. “Living in a glass house” comes to mind, shattered images too, and that absence of reflection must be really important – reflecting the absence of a defined, interpersonal, image. On a more practical level let’s hope, KW has talked this through with the insurance agency, there are no warning signs around, and it can get really hard to avoid running into one of those walls like a poor bird (m/f/d) hitting a window (the crash could be intended to work as a catharsis, a shock treatment to awake you to the reality of multiple genders!?). Since an early stage of her career, the material has mattered a lot to Daučíková.

Apart from glass, there’s mostly body parts: images – photographs, videos - of such, and it’s not a huge show by number of works. It might seem logical how there are hardly any “conventional” notions of aesthetics involved, the focus is put primarily on information and, to a slightly lesser degree, self-expression.

Then, there’s the central installation, and it’s a nice one, taking all of KW’s main hall with large screens showing close ups of male and female hands or feet in motion, supposedly performing “sexualised“ movements of dancers, also documenting the artist cutting and breaking glass, or sorting, folding, unfolding, clothes. The floor is covered by more glass plates, held in place by common rocks, and they carry inscriptions – do study the above photo attentively: it being really dark in there, you won’t be able to decipher anything in the exhibition, no more than one or two letters, a single word if you’re lucky. There’s no transcript, and no, taking your own photos to change the lighting at home is no viable option, just imagine you let your phone slip while balancing it over the plates... The installation as a whole is impressive, the ambiance (ok, that might just be the lighting), the whole experience, the “feel” of it, add something special to an otherwise thoroughly unimpressive exhibition. Political art is often only (more or less) artistic politics. And add notions of an artistic equivalent to crisis autobiographies and self-help books (“How I mastered...”, “My Life/Fight/Struggle Against”,...) - might be more interesting, if you’re affected yourself, but you wouldn’t hope so, given all the trouble.

The insurance company comes into play again, those fragile plates on the floor, in the dark... do you think, KW employees place bets among themselves, how much of the installation will make it to the end of the show/day? (In addition to the death poll asking how many visitors will run into a wall of glass today.)

Anna Daučíková’s is an autobiographic, and thus naturally self-centred, art, in a wider respect it aims at rising awareness to a topic everyone is talking about anyway. - “Marginalized minorities” begins to sound like an anachronism, they are all the fashion now... She seems to share a character trait of many “trans-people”, namely a rather self-obsessed character. Daučíková makes no exception here, as you’ve seen she is deeply engrossed in herself, her hands, feet, her body, it’s almost everything her art is about. Reaffirming oneself can convey a positive message, but also gets tiring after a while. All this campaigning unfortunately creates the image of an exceptionally self-centred population group, people who, in parts at least, generate their proper problems, nature having gifted them with an above-average sense of self-importance. Thoughts circling about oneself day in, day out, never willing to accept a given situation, but forever desperate to change, re-invent and -define. The question must be allowed: does it make you happy (assuming for once, this were indeed important)?

Was not the world a simpler place some years ago, when you’d simply talk of “transvestites”, before newspeak took over? “Travesty” in “reversed form”, of women posing as men (by the way, that’s one point I never got with lesbians: Their “male” style from short hair to suits seems kind of contradictory if they are attracted by females..., saying this sincerely interested: If you don’t find men attractive how can you feel – visually, aesthetically - attracted by each other?). Subtleties and difficulties multiply as soon as one starts looking for them, in one of those Schering laudatory speeches we heard, how many male and female artists have been honoured so far – in which category did they count Anna Daučíková (remember, she defines herself as “transgender”)? Oh, and how can you speak of “chosen gender identities” at all, if at the same time you fight all identities for supposedly being illusory means of societal oppression?

I must insist though, I’m not “homophobic”, and not really miso-homo either, just tremendously selfish: I like my queers like e.g. Hubert Selby described them, a counter culture – not equal, but different. That’s one reason why I regret the irrevocable destruction of subcultures by “equality”. As is always the case with modern equalitarian tendencies: equalizing means the destruction of otherness, absorption into the mainstream, into that most devastating “unity”. Differences only exist if and when you create them. That’s no argument against them.

There’s also a war of and on words going on, and as often, if not always, it’s exaggerated, nonsensical, moronic. Personally, I was born with a defect of vision that I am perfectly able to balance out by wearing glasses or contact lenses. I don’t suffer from it, and neither would I suffer from people claiming, myopia were an “illness”. It is, sort of. Accordingly, it’s hard to dispute the phrase “A congenital, psychological, form of infertility that can be perfectly balanced out by modern reproductive medicine – or even the overcoming of a psychological restraint at least once, is an illness.” Now go and stone me (before a wall, fittingly). Sometimes you wonder, whether the differences between the situation for example in Russia where public praise of homosexuality will lead to serious, and legal, consequences and elsewhere in the world, where the public dismissal of homosexuality will result in the same, are as huge as generally claimed. There was a third way once, of toleration, laissez-faire, neither active prosecution nor forced celebration. (But that’s marketing, too: If you have nothing good to say, hold your tongue.)

Erratum: Anna Daučíková was not born in Czech Czechoslovakia, but in Slovakian Czechoslovakia, yet the award ceremony indeed took place at a Cultural Centre of Czech-no-Slovakia, i.e. the Czech Republic. I am sure of that, for two reasons: They had promotion brochures of Prague and Czech beer, and I didn’t drink any of the latter.

Now, the idea was to cover all KW’s summer exhibitions in a single article, because it felt like Anna Daučíková alone could not provide enough material for one. See, how that worked out... Anyway, two weeks later, the next shows opened at the institute (that’s KW’s family name: “Institute”, although it gets a little bit complicated with the bilingual grammar here).

Part II: She.

The second artist here does not place herself (not “itself”) between the sexes, but is “merely” a woman – which shouldn’t count for “marginalized” anymore, beside having never been a minority.

First thing to know about Heike-Karen Föll: She’s teaching “Art in Context” at Berlin University of the Arts. Did you have any idea, something like this existed? I certainly didn’t, and the more I learn about - ok, let’s be honest here: desperately try grasping - it, I realize, art is pretty much expendable in the context. Or maybe not, but contemplating an artwork, that ominous entity that might alone survive to later centuries when survivors of World War III, the zombie apocalypse, or climate change - of course: climate change!, - will take elaborate guesses at function and meaning, won’t take you anywhere near the intended context. Prefabricated interpretation and context missing, every interpretation that could be drawn from the work itself will have little to do with the artist’s ideas. You could also say, artworks that by itself are meaningless, irrelevant, and without any interest independent of the context, that the artist in his mind assigned to them. It’s like writing elaborate novels and cleverest academic papers without ever touching a pen or keyboard (and no touchscreen, either – by the way, f--- you, Apple for preparing us for a world without physical keyboards by implementing the worst ever in your latest laptops) and putting all your thoughts into the cover design instead, or the index (which you actually do write). Take this quite literally: Föll shows indexes of – unidentified in the show, but indeed her own – artist books, she also says she likes to read those most (indexes, not her own academic works!) when visiting book shops and libraries. Something seems odd about them though, indicating up to five chapters per page, not to mention their rather fantastical titles. Never judge a book by its cover, yet some clues might tell, or create a very different construct, meaning, context in the recipient’s mind.... Thinking about it, this is admittedly not the worst idea.

The survey show includes works from 1993 until now and again, it’s not huge. Calligraphy influenced monochromes executed in only a brushstroke are fine, but we’ve seen that millions of times before, by greater artists and lesser ones - the context is different, which certainly matters a lot. Appropriation is a big thing in Föll’s work, there’s a series covering a whole wall with reinterpretations of Lucio Fontana’s “spatial” slits, i.e. vertical holes in the canvas. Föll adds terms and phrases to push the interpretation – the context, hey! – into a certain direction, but unfortunately not an original one. “An Outsider” stroke through next to one (yeah, that’s feminism, how cunning), the book title “Gilles Deleuze: ‘Sacher-Masov and Masochism’” next to another, &ct. Yes, Fontana’s originals can – also - be interpreted as stylized female genitals, we’ve know that already, everybody knows it, there’s no need to point it out again. Doing this does little more than dragging the works into vulgarity, where they don’t really belong.

If much of the show looks like you’d imagine a fashion designer’s studio, with half-finished sketches and collected “inspirations” on the walls, you might not be all wrong. Thus titled It-Paintings reference “It Girls“ (no, that’s not derogative for transsexuals, more ‘in need of a brain trans-plant’), in a mix of manual and digital drawings. Animated, moving, images of digitally drawn human hair on an iPad, not unreminiscent of a painter’s brush – and in some angles/states of rotation: the Nike swoosh (wrong context?) - the artist intends to put it in the context of a Disney movie, Tangled, that in German adlibbed version has a play on words with hairstyles in its title. You’d never know.

Occasionally, interpretations unbeknownst of context come easy, a single innocent line and the words “total femme”, another, almost blank, canvas and “pretty boy”. It’s all open, all lies in the eye of the beholder?

More appropriations, now photographs of advertisements and commercial packagings from Lego toys to cereals, also a collection of artist books’ covers adorned with small drawings of Föll’s doing, some of this you could confuse for conventional collages. The artist has also contributed to, or even orchestrated the scénographie, the exhibition design, but you won’t necessarily notice. Interestingly, some of these changes to the architecture (the “Föll House”?) include “empty spaces”, and “nonsensical corners”. I’ll just leave that here.

Once again, contextual discourse overshadows, and suffocates, art.

Part III: He.

On KW’s top floor, we find another retrospective, of 1970s Canadian collective Image Bank. It comes at the right time with a huge 1970’s dedicated show recently opening at Palais Populaire (read about it soon). In a mix of mail art and premature file sharing network, participating artists would send, and request from, each other images documenting or being themselves artworks, performances, and just about everything else. Lengthy lists reveal who sent, asked for, and received what images, artists, galleries and institutions counting among the contributors that besides aimed at undermining art’s traditional distribution chain. They also reveal the project’s scale international relations – the group was active in several countries with particularly strong ties to Paris where it found allies in Robert Filiou and Fluxus.

Image Bank took inspiration from William Borroughs’ cut up technique, and the writer in turn endorsed Vincent Trasov’s project to run for mayor of Vancouver in 1974 - in character of Mr Peanuts. This was the appropriation of an existing mascot to spread dadaist chaos in various emanations. It’s one of Image Bank’s more memorable projects, even though pranksters did it before, since the very first US elections probably. Mr Peanuts was not elected, but got a respectable result of 3.4 % of votes. We see videos, an original costume, and lots of documents relating to the episode, he even appears in a nice installation in a side room, in a video with naked people, things floating down a river, and many colour and light reflections. That installation is quite nice, there are more colourful objects to help with the ambiance, “groovy” should be the most fitting term here.

A scene from that video, people “drawing” on each others bodies with sunrays and a mirror (not long enough to make it - more or less –permanent, apparently) returns in photography. It needs to be said though, not all of this equally stands the test of time. Perhaps you need that 70’s vibe of anarchic opposition, that “anything goes” attitude, the willingness to try out new ways in everything mixed with total opposition to almost everything that came before in order to fully appreciate what could otherwise appear a rather dry archive.

Anna Daučíková, 7 June-18 August

Heike-Karin Föll, speed, 22 June-1 September

Image Bank, 22 June-1 September

KW Institute for Contemporary Arts

World of Arts Magazine - Contemporary Art Criticism




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