Isa Genzken’s installation for the German pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennale, 2007, was a tour de force in the genre of grunge chic. One had an intimation of this even at the doorway of the pavilion courtesy of a massive pile of German Vogue magazine offprints of an article on Genzken’s show.
Grunge is so beloved of art at the turn of the millennium that it even has its “great masters” such as the late Jason Rhoades and his mentor Paul McCarthy. Genzken, an ardent stylist, obviously understands the vocabulary of grunge extremely well: she even included a hookah in her paraphernalia (see left) which was a direct reference to Rhoades’ sculptural “palette”.
Genzken, however, was not always dedicated to grunge, she came to it a little later than most of the new generation of artists who rose into prominence in the 1990s. The bulk of her sculptural oeuvre is dominated by what one might consider as the opposite of grunge, namely minimal-modernism (see images above).
But as her work developed through the 1990s her dedication to the understated elegance of minimal-modernism became increasingly subverted by her conversion to the irreverence of postmodernity. Her work became funky and grunge oriented as is witnessed by the images above from 1997-98 and 2000 respectively. The image on the right is especially interesting due to its title: Fuck the Bauhaus: New Buildings for New York. Evidently she decided to jettison her devotion to one stylistic philosophy for another, more fashionable, variety.
When her work was more minimal-modernist in orientation Genzken specialised in columnar sculptures which only too obviously referred to high-rise bulidings, and the city that was, up until c. 1990, the centre of the post WWII art world: New York (things have become more internationalised now). Given the manner in which columns typified Genzken’s sculptural output even into the early 2000s (see above left) her grunge tour de force at Venice in 2007 may have been surprising for some visitors. At the same time, however, it would also be a little too déjà vu for some of the more informed observers of art at the turn of the millennium.
Grunge is one of the most salient features of art at the turn of the millennium and Genzken’s arrival on the grunge scene is a little tardy. One can point to many younger artists who embraced this particular aesthetic vocabulary earlier: Sarah Lucas, Tracey Emin, Jason Rhoades, Mike Kelley, Rivane Neuenschwander, Malachi Farrell, Mike Nelson, Thomas Hirschhorn, Rachel Harrison, John Bock, and the list goes on.
The contemporary grunge aesthetic has long roots stretching back to Cubist collage including Picasso’s junk sculptures, the Duchampian Readymade, Schwitters’ Merz, Assemblage, and the radical interplay of sculpture and painting that Robert Rauschenberg pioneered from the mid 1950s onwards. In the 1960s two movements are outstanding with regard to their use of junk-like materials: Nouvelle Réalisme (Cesar, Arman, Spoerri) and Arte Povera (”poor art”). Of the two movements Arte Povera is especially pertinent due to the fact that its very name points to a desire to distance art from preciousness, embracing instead the nitty-gritty of everyday life.
This has led to the rather naive notion that grunge is innately “transgressive”. On can see this in the image above of a work from 1997-98 that Genzken entitled Gay Baby. Her title has a shock value that is typically “transgressive” but the question that has to be asked is whether this transgression embraces an ethical frame of reference or is simply, punk chic: which is to say stylistic in a manner that reflects Genzken’s rather monotonous obsession with minimal-modernist columns.
The question seems answered by the title of her Venice Biennale exhibition: “Oil”. Like her use on grunge vocabulary the theme “oil” seems more fashionable than genuinely critical.
Let us take a tour around her show and see what it might signify. The first room I entered (image grid above, also VIDEO CLIP) contained a large number of suitcases that probably relate to travel which has become something of a topic in art at the turn of the millennium due to the internationalisation of avant-gardism. In the old days when the art world had a centre—and from the 1950s through to the 1980s this was New York—one did not really have to travel much. Pretty well everything came to New York negating the need for travel. Today there is no artistic centre, not even Berlin. The explosion of biennials across the world is an index of the viral proliferation of contemporary art. It is almost impossible, for example, to gain access to a contemporary art star because they are constantly travelling from one contemporary art museum or biennale to another.
But, we might ask, what about the other appendages that Genzken has added to her suitcases: the kitsch reproduction paintings and the owls? I would suggest that they don’t really signify anything because we are in the realm of what might be broadly referred to as “non-linear narrative”. And from Robert Rauschenberg’s pioneering work in the mid-1950s onwards this has consisted, in the sphere of fine art, of quite simply connecting anything with anything else, with scant regard for what might be termed “meaning”.
What we are dealing with in the sphere of contemporary fine art is actually a continuation of the discourse of abstraction. In 1984 Brian Wallis asked us to “rethink representation” (Wallis 1984) but that was a largely a diversion. Rauschenberg’s post-Dada, post-abstractionist methodology appeared to reintroduce narrative into fine art but in reality he had found a loophole in artistic licence which even the Surrealists had not observed.
Surrealism like Dada was different than other art movements in the first half of the 20th century due to the fact that both Dada and Surrealism were not simply dedicated to visual art but also to the literary arts. And it was the Surrealist poet Pierre Reverdy who provided one of most succinct aesthetic analyses of “non-linear narrative” which was cited in Andre Breton’s 1924 Manifesto of Surrealism in the following form:
The image is a pure creation of the mind.
It cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities.
The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be — the greater its emotional power and poetic reality (in Breton 1924)
This is a truly ingenious and deeply perceptive understanding of the process of metaphorisation that underlies the best instances non-linear narrative. But unfortunately Reverdy’s apercu became derailed by a more Dadaistic focus on pure chance. The randomness of Rauschenberg’s painting and sculptures from the mid-1950s onwards set the scene for what is essentially a nonsense approach to narrative; which is to say what might appear to be narrative actually is not.
One can imagine a continuum stretching from easily understandable conventional, linear narrative as one pole and total nonsense at the other. It would seem reasonable to suggest that the most productive and imaginative play with narrative structure would lie somewhere in between rather than at either of the two poles. But the fact of the matter is that a great deal of fine art seems very content with meaninglessness.
When installation art came to the fore as a movement in the 1990s it seemed that sculpture would be able to enter into a dimension of narrativity previously impossible. Although this has occurred on rare occasions, and principally in politically oriented art, most of the time fine artist is content to continue the discourse of abstraction under the guise of narrative.
And Genzken is a perfect instance of this, because unlike her younger colleagues such as the late Jason Rhodes (who was a grand master of nonsense) her oeuvre very clearly begins with a dedication to the modernist discourse of abstraction, and a fascination with stylistic surface and decoration. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that when she enters into the funky, punk, postmodern discourse of grunge she should treat it similarly.
Returning to the German pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennale, at the back of the room filled with suitcases there was a line of stainless steel poles on top of which were an assortment of icons of death of a somewhat kitschy nature possibly purchased from a Gothic gift shop. References to death are often used to give philosophical credibility to otherwise jejune artistic concoctions and one could mention the work of Damien Hirst in this context.
And being in Venice Genzken also just had to to use Venetian masks, so available from innumerable tourist shops in that city. The addition of the fake Oscar at the end of the array which is labelled “for the best film” could be interpreted as a searing indictment the American Empire’s involvement in Iraq, if we are to take seriously the title of Genzken’s exhibition: “Oil”.
Moving into the next room one was confronted by a series of portables seats containing strange cartoon character-like creatures. These were surmounted by a languid character, in a much more comfortable chair bolted high up on the wall, who was enjoying his headphones and sipping a drink from a luxuriously long straw. Perhaps this was the “boss” with all of his rather stupid underlings down below. But the stylistic references seem less an original commentary and more a self-conscious reference to the pioneering grunge aburdism of Jason Rhoades’ mentor Paul McCarthy. McCarthy’s work is certainly critical of the “American dream” so is Genzken trying to hitch a ride on McCarthy’s transgressive credentials?
In case the title of the show “Oil” had not got the message through regarding the American theme another room rammed the message home via copious references to the adventures of the American Empire in space. This was transmitted by photographic images ripped out of magazines and slapped down large shiny metal panels with chromium tape. There was also another ensemble of grunge sculptures consisting of hacked up and distorted human beings and the perfect American couple dressed in aluminium foil space suits. The only vaguely political comment that I could find in this room was a small plaque, such as one might place on the front door of one’s house, which read “Keine Zeitungen u. Reklame!” (no newspapers or advertisements).
My gaze then shifted to yet another grunge concoction this time attacking fine art. One of the most interesting aspects of art since the 1960s lies in its post-Dadaistic suicidal impulse—which is perfectly epitomised in the discourse of grunge. Looking at Genzken’s grungified Mona Lisa’s one immediately thought of Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q, 1919 (above right) in which Duchamp took a reproduction of the Mona Lisa on which he drew a moustache and a goatee beard and wrote underneath the image the letters “L.H.O.O.Q”. When these letters are read out loud in the manner in which the French would pronounce them they sound remarkably akin to the French phrase “elle a chaud au cul” which roughly means “she has a hot ass”. There does not appear to be anything in particular to add with regard to Genzken’s contribution.
One of the most successful rooms, in my opinion, is the one pictured above in which there were some refreshingly honest decorative abstract sculptures made of transparent materials. I particularly liked the ripple ice cube-like constructions in which there was embedded a couple of Russian dolls which as one moved around the sculpture adopted a multitude of transformations that seemed to resonate with the metaphor of infinity implicit in the Russian doll motif (VIDEO CLIP). Perhaps Genzken is at her strongest when she focuses on pure visuality rather than attempting to (or pretending to) articulate a narrative dimension. The degeneration of visual imagery into pure abstraction evident in the wallpieces in the same room seemed to reinforce this analysis.
Genzken’s “Oil” is more a stylistic statement than a political statement; and when one left the German pavilion and looked once more at the massive pile of Vogue magazine articles this interpretation was confirmed. Genzken may have proved her adeptness at handling the vocabulary of grunge and grunge-kitsch, but from the perspective of political art this exhibition was vapid; unless one read it in terms of the “death of art”, then it became quite profound.
Wallis, Brian, ed. 1984. Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation. New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art.