Music for German Airports

John Haber
in New York City

Isa Genzken and Christoph Schlingensief

Isa Genzken comes with a lot of baggage. You know, the kind with wheels—that and some Samsonite, a locked attaché case, and whatever else comes to mind. At the Museum of Modern Art, the landing on the way to the sculpture garden or atrium becomes an airport waiting lounge, only devoid of people.

Perhaps they have already taken off, for a few spacesuits circle overheard. Facing down, they have not lost their interest in planet earth. Other world travelers have moved upstairs, where Genzken's retrospective has quite a welcoming committee just outside. Backed by posters from her past shows, a multiracial cast lolls around in masks, glitter, and all sorts of rude, awkward, or seductive poses. Isa Genzken's Elefant (New Museum of Contemporary Art, 2006)The mannequins could be attending a costume party, with the stipulation that attendees must create their own costumes from found objects. Their ragtag but familiar parts attest to a born scavenger.

They are also way over the top, but that is exactly why you came, much as for an even louder and loonier German artist, Christoph Schlingensief at MoMA PS1. Packed to the gills with objects and personal history, both exhibitions suggest the creativity, the excess, and the rootlessness of the international art scene at its very best and worst. Divided not quite chronologically into "chapters," Genzken's also shows her long-running obsessions and sudden changes of heart. For a decade now, that adds up to an obsession with consumer culture, human heartbreak, and life after 9/11. Why after 9/11? We shall see, but if you are looking for things to make all that much sense, you have come to the wrong retrospectives.

Landing on ground zero

Americans may know Isa Genzken, if at all, as the scavenger. She stood out in "Unmonumental," the show that opened the New Museum on the Bowery, for a colorful, shiny elephant of rags, toys, art supplies, artificial flowers, and packing materials. One could picture her prowling Chinatown for whatever caught her eye. One could just as easily picture oneself taking the elephant for a ride. The whole show focused on an alternative to sculpture as monument or Minimalism, at the risk of producing little more than litter—or a disturbing monumentalism of its own. Genzken avoided both extremes.

She became for a while a fixture at the New Museum, with an oversized flower on the building's front. An even stiffer and taller one stands erect in MoMA's sculpture garden, although the astronauts have turned their backs. One could still mistake Genzken for an emerging artist. Well, surprise: her retrospective covers nearly forty years, dating back to a quirky but real immersion in Minimalism. And it comes to life around halfway through, when the minimal becomes maximal. But what if anything does it mean?

To see where she lands, one might fly back to the museum entry, with the astronauts. She describes them as visitors from another planet, astonished to explore a landscape in ruins. Yet she plainly enjoys the ruins, in full color, and she delights in the products of modernity, consumption, and design. She earned money for a while as a model, and she had her first major New York show in 2000 (although still at an artist-run gallery), with (pardon my language) Fuck the Bauhaus. The towers on pedestals, surrounded by toy cars, model trees, a pizza box, and a Slinky make fun of the stultifying ideals of the Bauhaus or Le Corbusier. Yet she also makes them her playground.

Those overstuffed suitcases downstairs attest to a long stay, and Genzken is herself a global traveler, starting with her first visit to New York in 1960. On her return to the city in 1980, she photographed the ear lobes of women on the street, as well as her own. Genzken approaches everything as an outsider, struggling to look past the glitter, the street traffic, and herself. She photographs her feet in bed in a hotel, and a book of photographs from 1995, I Love New York, Crazy City, flits from hotel to hotel. Maybe she relishes hotels so much because she has been thrown out of them. She is not at home there either—or anywhere else in the modern world.

If an airport also makes you think of airport security, travel brings fears of its own—which takes one right back to 9/11. A photo of the luggage includes a walk-through metal detector, although the museum display does not. Work after work since 2001 alludes to America, the Twin Towers, and destruction. Her development follows her Bauhaus mock-ups naturally enough, but it becomes an outpouring that has never stopped. It includes untitled model towers for Berlin and her own plans for Ground Zero. A September 11 tribute at MoMA PS1 called it "the most pictured disaster in history," and Genzken has no shortage of pictures.

Are they pictures of loss or just images for mass consumption? Genzken seems both never to look all that deeply and yet never to turn away. One appropriated ruin even consists of airplane windows shut tight. Politics enters, as with a 2004 series on America as Empire/Vampire, but it is also impossible to pin down. One may see the ambiguity as restlessness or evasion, spontaneity or self-indulgence. The retrospective traces her imagination and unease through some one-hundred fifty objects.

The clean and simple truth

Born in 1948, Isa Genzken studied in Dusseldorf with Gerhard Richter. And she did pick up on his squeegee paintings, although not until around 1990, while they were married. (She abandoned the series soon enough, along with the marriage.) Where Richter, though, evokes at once the anonymity of conceptual art, the lushness of stained canvas, and purity of abstraction, she gives the illusion of a thickly textured surface. She could have discovered another planet, but in black on black. Maybe the astronauts call it home.

She is already piling things on, even at her most minimal, while taking cues from a high-tech world. So she was in the 1970s, too, with rods of polished wood laid parallel on the floor. They look straightforward enough, but they come to a point like airfoils or weapons, and they purport to follow the mathematical form of ellipsoids and hyperboloids, with an assist from computer modeling. To the extent that they engage primarily the viewer's space, as with Minimalism, they do so by their promise of motion. They belong to late modern art, but also to an ancient era of spear carriers and a more contemporary one of applied science—or maybe science fiction. They are also ill at ease with any of these.

In the same years, Genzken was appropriating ads for audio equipment—"the clean and simple truth." In the 1980s, she then scavenges for the thing itself, a boom box. She also starts sculpting in concrete and radio antennas, bringing together all of the above, from tree branches to technology. At the press preview, the display could well have encompassed the sound system for the curator, Laura Hoptman. The only differences lay in Genzken's deliberate roughness and dated technology. Like Everett Kane, she cannot get enough of modernity, but it has already passed into ruins.

She only slowly finds her way, past another ten years of concrete, pedestals, and photograms. She has to work past rougher lumps, with such titles as Rubbish Pile and My Brain. The grandchild of a Nazi doctor and war criminal, the product of an unhappy childhood, and an adult suffering from bouts of alcoholism and mental illness, she does not take any of these things lightly. Yet she seems to struggle to do just that. When she exhibits x-rays of herself in profile drinking and smoking, in 1991, even death has become an occasion for self-indulgence and laughter. And then death comes in person, with 9/11.

Her first towers, from 1998 and 1999, purport to be portraits of artist friends in wood, metal, and mirrors—with a collage slot machine as her self-portrait. Now she has to look outside art's inner circle, but still toward playthings and shiny objects. A subtitle to Empire/Vampire asks "who kills death," and hopes for immortality appear to rest in toy soldiers and stuffed heroes. The American Room displays a CEO's office with an American eagle and Scrooge McDuck, but also flowers and a clean desk. I mistook the installation for a random assortment of smaller works. Her plans for Ground Zero have room for a disco and "Osama fashion store" alongside a church and a memorial.

For Genzken, a graveyard given over to pleasure is a good sign. It means that death does not have the last word, while consumption must remember the taste of death. A flower can always grow in the sculpture garden, if only an artificial one. Yet her New York is still the site of the luxury goods she knows best, and many of its associations, from umbrellas to disco balls, are known only to her. Her anxious exuberance is something to cherish, but it may not gain much more from its details. For once, installation art has a human scale, even when real events may not.

One hundred years without solitude

Christoph Schlingensief never did get over Hitler, but he sure gave himself enough time. 100 Years Adolf Hitler falls well short of a thousand-year Reich, and indeed it unfolds in that final hour in the bunker. The title refers, straightforwardly enough, to the film's release in 1989, the centenary of Hitler's birth. Yet it reflects an obsession with Germany's most terrible past, and Schlingensief could be blaming the nation or reliving it personally every day. His films all but scream at the viewer, between unrelenting close-ups and barely coherent soundtracks, and so does a retrospective. It provides a short but messy account of a short but messy life.

It begins all over again at least three times, not counting film and video loops. And each time it compresses the German artist's madness into a joke, a protest, and a scream. A corridor introduces him through posters. Born in 1960, he made a name for himself with movies before largely abandoning them for theater and art fairs—including Documenta in 1997, where he bore a sign demanding death for the conservative chancellor, Helmut Kohl. The terror of Hitler's bunker opens a trilogy of German history, with The German Chainsaw Massacre for reunification and Terror 2000: Germany Out of Control for its aftermath. Could that be a dead deer and a mutilated cross just off the corridor, and what orchestral dissonance is playing inside?

Here the past will not let go, not even for an artist too young to remember it. Another start has several films running at once in a single long room. Do not even try to find a beginning or an end. One will recognize the repeated references to the Nazis from Sigmar Polke—and to terrorism from Richter and Genzken. Schlingensief found another influence as well in Werner Fassbinder, and he drew on Fassbinder's actors for some of his cast. The nasty and simplistic puns, however, are entirely his own.

Schlingensief is equally at home with history and horror films, but also with street theater and reality TV. A third start to the show gives a full wing to more detailed documentary evidence. The mix of anarchism and activism has its debts to Joseph Beuys and Actionism, an Austrian parallel to Fluxus. He projected a theater of the homeless, an "open war theater," and a Church of Fear. He declared a political party of the marginalized and invited supporters to overrun a public fountain, in hope that its waters would swamp the German government. Few showed up. "We are Germany," he insisted, all the same.

As curators, Klaus Biesenbach, Anna-Catharina Gebbers, and Susanne Pfeffer (of the Fridericianum, a contemporary arts center in Kassel) take him more seriously than perhaps even he did. They make that wing's center a half-hidden alcove near the very end, for a life that had trouble with straight lines. Inside is the single obvious work of art. Naturally it contains whatever crossed the artist's mind, on a preposterous scale, and naturally it is not going anywhere fast while never sitting still. A house slowly rotates beneath an old chandelier, in near blackness, with feathers and a cat mummy on its roof.

Do climb right up, in the fashionable encounter with a darkened room, but do not even try to sort out parody from sincerity. A film called Please Love Austria clearly satirizes the right. The Battle for Europe as an adaptation of Space Patrol may not. Schlingensief may have hoped to flee Germany's past to some saner cultural present, but he was always in search of a nation, too. He even reached a kind of accommodation, in agreeing to direct Parsifal and The Flying Dutchman, although here Wagner meets the carnival in Rio. Unfortunately, his shift from cult to mainstream status did not last long. He died of cancer in 2010.

BACK to John's arts home page

Isa Genzken ran at The Museum of Modern Art through March 10, 2014, Christoph Schlingensief at MoMA PS1 through September 1 (although portions closed earlier).


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