Oh JA Oh Ja


Lying absolutely stark naked in the Kassel Kunstverein, on a bench in a futuristic-looking solarium, with its streamlined design and the ring of midnight-blue light around it making it look like a Star Wars spaceship that’s strayed a bit too close to the sun and is now highly energized and continuing its wanderings through the vastness of this milky way and others too, I get the hunch that once again, or once more, I’m playing a crucial leading role in a Westerwinter work. Not that I’ve got anything to beef about, because this is actually being done with my consent – I am, in other words, in full control of my faculties, intellectual and physical alike. This has definitely not always been so. Or let’s say „not altogether so.“ First time around, I devoted a large chunk of my psychic capacities, at least, and some of my physical powers, too. For her contribution to the almost invisible exhibition, as suggested by its title: “fast nichts/almost invisible,” which I organized in 1994 in an old transformer station at Singen on the shores of Lake Constance, Westerwinter had ordained for herself and for me the sampling of a bottle of Jack Daniels. Not for a split second had I imagined the dimensions that this project would assume, but once I’d said “Yes,” I had no other choice but to go along with it to the bitter end. Westerwinter never let me out of her sight throughout the opening. From her shiny red leather handbag, at regular but frequent intervals, she plucked a bottle of Whiskey of the aforementioned brand, inviting me each time she did so to take a swig, before in turn sampling it with a no less generous gulp. You will have guessed the fatal consequences of that evening, for me and for the artist herself. Next day, Westerwinter confessed to me, after respectively swallowing umpteen pills to ward off hangovers and headaches, that she had never before invested so much of herself in a work. I agreed wholeheartedly.

But why am I telling you all this in such detail? There’s no doubt that this work numbers among Westerwinter’s most significant pieces. Two important strategies in her work, hitherto independent of one another, are here associated for the very first time. On the one hand, there is the instrumentalization, already broached in the “I love...“ works, of those who make decisions in the art world, i.e. exhibition curators, collectors and gallery owners. Without acting in concert, these decision-makers become both part of the work and the artist’s tool. Her declaration of love is not just the disinterested avowal of a sentimental bound, but it openly offers, as spectacle, its strategic functionalization in proliferation. The second “component“ resides in the performative aspect, in the potential integration of the onlooker as active and decisive subject. The “Namensaquarelle,” which, in the interval, have turned into a set of autonomous works, may here be regarded as forerunners. The traditional subject of the commissioned portrait is aligned with the taste of the day, in a classical technical style. “Name gemäß Auftrag – Farbe nach Wunsch“ (“Name on commission – Colours by choice“). This slogan includes for the commissioner two possible ways of influencing the content and form of the work. After choosing from the 110 colours on offer, all he has to do is make a decision about the person represented. In my case the WINKELMANN shines out in white Helvetica italic letters in a sea of monochrome Delft-blue which developed its own life, eluding the artist’s influence, in the painting process. The colour surrounding it lends the proper name the aura of a publicity spot. This performative strategy was expanded in the work “4 Möglichkeiten involviert” (1996) (4 Possibilities Involved) in the one-woman show at the Otto Schweins Gallery in Cologne. Visitors to the gallery could choose from four propositions: piping hot tea, a warm jacket, a good joke, or a swig of Vodka. Each one of these options is a proven way of stepping up the visitor’s body temperature, but in every instance in a barely perceptible way. These immediate and direct effects of art on the onlooker are recurrent and highly diversified moments in Westerwinter’s works. They play on expectational types of behaviour which are often indistinct in respect of contemporary art. “You want art to give you something, well, you’re getting it here!“, explains Westerwinter to the solarium user. Even to someone who doesn’t feel like asking questions, she offers something to take away, if only this dash of artificial suntan. The person may not have understood a thing, but at least he’s got a tan! Love passes by way of the stomach and art must penetrate beneath the epidermis. If you want to get to the mind, you must first pass through the body. The effects of the solarium and of the “four-ways-of-getting-warm“ are actually alike; if they are perceptible, they are only very slightly so in both cases. Their lasting quality is almost nil, but their presence is immediately perceptible in the split second.

Things are quite different in the JA-Tattoos or Yes-Tattoos. Westerwinter relies here on the possibility of broaching a work with long-term consequences. In the form of a work-in-progress, this action has already been undertaken in many other places with just as much success. The visitor has a chance to accept a free-of-charge JA-Tattoo, which will be done on the spot and straightaway by a professional tattoo artist. There’s nothing that extraordinary about this, you’ll say, in this times when every other body is decorated all over, and even in the most incongruous parts, with tattoos and shiny metal. Before the body cult underwent its hedonistic boom in the wave of rave and techno culture, tattoos, as signs of individuality and non-conformism, were only to a few people’s taste. But the artist is now offering you a uniform and prefabricated tattoo, bearing a clear and joyous message. JA/Yes. And to boot, it is yours forever and a day, without costing you a thing. Furthermore, you can test things first with the advertising flyers for the “JA-Tattoo-Studio”, transfers like those that magazines for young people and chewing-gum distributors used to offer, before deciding where to have your tattoo done, on your arm, neck or backside, whichever best suits Westerwinter’s “optimism optimizer“. Just say Yes to JA. You won’t regret it, for a brief moment the pain of the pricks guarantees you the real experience of your ego. With my JA near my right ankle, I get the impression that I’ve once more gone beyond the above-mentioned “personal investment.“ This JA that won’t wash off..., for the rest of my life, clings to my skin like a seal. The thought that a countless horde of other people are wearing it, albeit not all in the same place, but at least in the same form, is at once comforting and irksome. Whereas in the professional ethics of tattoo artists all tattoos are regarded as works of art, and keep the cachet of a unique one-off. But it is precisely this ambivalence that hallmarks many of Westerwinter’s works. In addition to the fact that they seem to want to be applied first and foremost on the surface. Like the “Silikonlappen zur Herstellung von möglicherweise Verdammte Drecksau“ (”Silicon-duster for the production of potential Bloody Bitch“). Who’s the bitch? And why? How come the artist has labelled a whole series of her works with this kind of abuse? All the more so because, by this inflationist use, she seems once again to be relieving it of its edge. We should not forget that Westerwinter is a sculptress above all else, and that, as such, she handles material, be it – as in the example of the silicon-duster – by casting making identical reproductions of already existing surfaces, by the adornment of a living surface marked as if by a label of the JA logo, or by all-over embellishment, in the sense of an artificial suntan. This latter is, in the end, nothing other than a standardized form of superficial finishing, as it appears, too, in the works with lozenge motifs (“Karo-Muster-Arbeiten“) in the “Erziehung statt Dekoration“ series (“Education rather than Decoration“). In a way, Westerwinter thus unmasks the ubiquitous aspiration to embellishment by standardization. And here it makes no odds whether we are dealing with a refined body tan, a nonconformist tattoo, or a middle-class trend to do with the commonplace comfort suggested by a red lozenge pattern. So we can also understand the countless policemen during the opening of her one-woman show at the Kassel Kunstverein, who, with their uniformed presence, did not come across merely as a multiple, standardized decorative element, but at the same time raised the issue of the whys and wherefores of this presence. It just so happens that this issue refers once more to the art consumer, who, in every artistic action, senses a premeditated gesture. Quite right, say I! But intentionally headed in another direction, for here, once again, it was a matter of challenging and hampering expectational behaviour – or behaviour prompted by insecurity, perhaps, to put it more succinctly. For who would not lose their cool in the presence of such a lot of guardians of law and order, officially assigned and appointed.

Westerwinter’s fragrant works are undoubtedly less visible, but not less present. Like “nie nie sagen“ (“never say never“), as part of the “ONTOM” show in the Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst Leipzig in May 1998, for example. From the entrance itself, a pleasant waft of coffee welcomed the visitor, who did not instantly link it with the exhibition. It was actually possible to imagine the inevitable “Museum Cafeteria“ close by the cash-desk. But in the show there was no Café to sit down in, and no coffee to drink. The aroma was offered like a pure olfactory experience, and in the end it was unreal, not least because it was synthetically produced. No chemical gas launcher, no, something essentially more subtle: the smells released by dispensers do away with any possible (mal)odorous molecules there may be, and replace them by this concocted perfume (inoffensive for human beings and animals, according to the manufacturer). The intensely spicy aroma of coffee had already fired Duchamp with enthusiasm. In the famous “Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme“ held in 1938 in Paris, coffee grains were roasted over a stove. He experienced that moment, which was the most real and the most familiarly humdrum of the exhibition, as especially surreal, because, for him, it bolstered the artificial character of the surrounding ambience of the show. “Nie nie sagen“ is included in a similar ambivalence. Because of its penetrating intensity, the at first positively stimulating smell soon becomes almost nasty. The positive properties of the famous stimulant, which has the virtue of encouraging communication (following the very widespread simplistic idea which associates salutary aroma and wholesome world), are only dispensed when it is consumed with moderation. In excess, coffee makes the nerves jangle, reinforces stress and can have harmful effects on the health.  Likewise here: a slight influence on the onlooker’s psyche may have unpleasant side-effects, akin to the minor irritations already described, if too much is consumed: possible skin burn, as with too much vodka sampling. In these works, the seesaw between good and evil, in the sense of the capsizing of constructive qualities which turn into destructive effects, is thus envisaged from the beginning. Nothing that had the appearance of good has ever been altogether good. In this sense, Westerwinter offloads on to the onlooker not only responsibility for what he/she is doing, which is in any event their lot, but above all responsibility for his/her physical and mental investment in the works themselves. Don’t start thinking about any pedagogic attitude on the part of the artist, for here, in the first instance, there is no question of getting the onlooker to become aware of his duty as recipient. Rather, Westerwinter’s works contain the acceptance of failure within them, the way any individual decision implies a potential flop. But isn’t this precisely what makes life so thrilling?

(Translation from French: Simon Pleasance)

published in: Documents sur l'art, No. 12, October 1999

© 1999 Jan Winkelmann

German Version