What the fuck is ?

Jan Winkelmann

On the northwestern façade the best side, or what Germans call the "chocolate" side of the Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst Leipzig, the unsuspecting passer-by is confronted with a motto presented in white neon letters: "be good, be bad, just be." The well-disposed viewer may recognize this slogan from perfume advertisements, yet whereas there it was an attempt to condense into six words a whole generation's supposed awareness of life, this adaptation of that neo-existentialist view in the form of a neon sign on the façade of a newly opened institution refers to, beyond its original context, the [self-]conception of the gallery.

Sylvie Fleury's piece, installed on a long-term basis and not part of the exhibition, uses the strategy of creating a connection with "extra-artistic" reality, adapting it, recontextualizing it, and thus giving it a changed, new meaning. This strategy is wide-spread in the art of the nineties, especially by artists of the younger generation. Whereas a concept, even if it is an expanded one [a work installed on a long-term basis as an artifact which outlasts time], can still be ascribed to Sylvie Fleury's neon sign, the rejection of traditional concepts is a constantly returning factor in the practice of contemporary art. Neither conventional (painting, sculpture, photography) nor modern (installation, performance, environment) terms of ascription can be used here. Instead, artists create temporary situations which are most easily described as communicative processes. This is not totally new. Since the early nineties artists have once again been preoccupied with avoiding conventional methods of art production. They are less concerned with the production of autonomous works of art than investigating and trying out new strategies of presentation. They fall back on social structures of everyday reality and establish connections to other areas of contemporary art such as fashion, communication and business. This art not only accepts as given constants the merging of art and life, which was proclaimed and strived for in the sixties and seventies, but also regards it as one of the prerequisites for their contextual and aesthetic goals.

After the much-evoked death of the avant garde, artistic practice no longer defines itself today as an antithetical alternative draft to existing social relationships. The vision of a better future was quietly replaced by an awareness for the present, exactly in the sense of "just be" which was already mentioned. Art and everyday life confront each other in an unhierarchal relationship, they penetrate each other without supposedly clear dividing lines. This art is socially transparent, since the artist celebrates his individual understanding of his surrounding world and stages it in the art context.

Exhibitions such as "Traffic" in Bordeaux [1996] have already taken this into account. However, not without also supplying the theoretical backup which is required by conscientious art history. In his essay "Relational Aesthetics," (1) Nicolas Bourriaud called this new art form "the realm of relationships." A theoretical foundation was carefully put together with historical derivations and contemporary boundaries which reunited these sometimes disparate artistic strategies and subliminally proclaimed them as a new "current." As with the phenomenon of Context Art, the conceptual definition has not yet been fully accepted. It is no wonder, since artistic production is far too diverse that one could possibly lump everything together. Nevertheless a noticeable uneasiness is spreading even among those of the older generation. Art as a service the subtitle of an exhibition in Munich in 1995 which promised much but fulfilled nothing is being slowly launched as a new trend by the high priests of art criticism, but is misunderstood for the most part. Recently a journalist, who is otherwise taken perfectly seriously, called this form of art "air bubbles." Or, as happened not long ago, artists like Rirkrit Tiravanija, who for several years has been represented in the most interesting exhibitions and institutions and who is already being dealt with and discussed in university seminars, are still treated as "talented offspring." They couldn't be more wrong. Not only is this offspring already influencing the next offspring, as is obvious everywhere, but it is even more astonishing that this form of art is still misunderstood, as the latest issue of the German magazine ART proves. Using the title "Art as a service," the editor in chief himself tries to describe and to grasp the new trend. "On the contrary, artistic servants are intent on avoiding the creation of objects which are exhibitable, marketable and collectable; the autonomous work of art is thoroughly suspicious in this scene." (2) And to this writer in turn that itself seems suspicious. In spite of a few polemical remarks he attempts to overcome his discomfort and ultimately succeeds in bringing everything back in line with Duchamp: "because art can be whatever is accepted as such in the name of art." As if he were not oversimplifying things just a bit.

But enough contradiction. ONTOM does not seek to investigate any trend. The exhibition is to be understood neither as forward-looking nor is it to be misunderstood as trend-setting. Rather it could be seen, together with the exhibition [Collection 98], as a programmatic prelude to the activities of the gallery. After the decision had been made to give an impression of the present framework of the permanent collection on the upper floor, the question was raised as to how one could meaningfully respond to it. One basic idea was that the exhibition on the ground floor should on the one hand be linked to the presentation of the collection, but that on the other hand it should also be distinguished from it. Considered chronologically, it continues apart from a few overlappings into the recent present, by focusing on current positions of younger artists. The lasting stock is confronted by something that manifests itself in the here and now and does not leave any material traces behind. Almost nothing will be left over.

Although the opposite is usually true of group shows, ONTOM has no subject. It offers many things, but by no means everything. Works by 13 artists who are hardly to be subsumed under one concept of theoretical discourse or content are to be seen, heard and tasted. Even so, if you cannot do without a small common denominator, the one thing that all the works presented have in common is that none of them has been formed by an artist (thus representing the exact opposite of the artifacts which were shown in [Collection 98]). Either they are objects of everyday life which experience a semantic reassessment due to their presentation, or communicative situations are offered with which the audience sometimes multiple viewers, sometimes fewer may enter an active dialogue. The viewer's direct and immediate participation contradicts the classical, contemplative tour as we know it from museums and galleries (and as it is also experienced on the upper floor). The exhibition does not offer a reserved aesthetic selection, in which one can get involved or not, according to one's mood. The solitary visitor or the group becomes a temporary component of the work which without him as the active subject "functions" only partially, or often not at all. It is calculated that in one case or another, questions will be asked about how exhibitions and institutions work.

The idea of the work of art's complete dematerialization has continually developed since Conceptual Art of the sixties. The renunciation of the execution of the work by the artist himself was revolutionary. The idea was understood to be the actual work, and an instruction of action the concept served its realization. It was unimportant who actually carried it out. But an important aspect of Conceptual Art was always capturing visual "results." The connection to the conventional system of visual-reproductive art was preserved. This is not the case with Adib Fricke who was invited to create the title of the exhibition. For several years he has been inventing so-called "protonyms" and "units composed of words." The firm that he founded in 1994, called "The Word Company," is responsible for the trade and marketing of his protonyms. He considers these word creations to be products which he consistently markets, distributes and sells as real consumer goods.

Exhibition titles are usually used as headings. They give hints about the concept and/or the themes which the exhibition was based on. Shortened to a catch-phrase, they frequently serve as a motto or offer information on a verbal level sometimes associatively about the exposition's expected content. Licensing Fricke's neologism as an exhibition title and using it as such opposes this norm and cancels the function of the title. The protonym, which per se has no content because it has no reference, will for a limited period of time become semantically loaded by its use as an exhibition title. After the expiration of the license and due to a possible purchase by a third party, it can experience a reinterpretation of content. In any case the word is redefined in content, but it will always carry with it its history as the title of an exhibition in Leipzig. The work can not really be called an "exhibition piece" since its presence is only medial. This means it will used and distributed on invitations and posters [as a signature in the pre-set form of an ellipse with the abbreviation TWC, and thus related to indications of copyright or trademark] or also orally.

Also not to be seen in the exhibition, completely dematerialized yet at the same time present everywhere, is Simone Westerwinter's work "never say never." On entering the visitor is met with the pleasant aroma of coffee, which initially is not necessarily perceived as being part of the exhibition. It could well be that the obligatory museum café is located very close to the ticket desk. But there is neither a café nor coffee. The aroma offers a real (olfactory) experience, yet in the end it remains unreal, not least because it is synthetically manufactured. It is not chemical mace, but is considerably more subtle. A liquid aroma spread by atomizers undermines any existing (unpleasant) molecules of scent and replaces them with a pre-determined, ready-made aroma (which according to the manufacturer is harmless to humans and animals). Duchamp was enthralled by the intensely fragrant aroma of coffee (in 1938 coffee was roasted in the famous Surrealist show "Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme" in Paris). He considered this most realistic and everyday element in the exhibition to be especially surreal because for him it additionally reinforced the artificiality of the atmosphere within the exhibition. "Never say never" remains just as ambivalent. Initially perceived as a positive kind of stimulant, the aroma becomes almost unpleasant due to its overpowering nature. The favorite eye-opener and conversation-starter (entirely in the sense of the stylization known everywhere, the aroma of "treat yourself to a perfect world" coffee) is only that when it is enjoyed in moderation. Taken in too large doses it makes you nervous, promotes stress and can even be dangerous to your health.

In Jens Haaning's work "Foreigners Free" the handicap of letting foreigners into the exhibition for free has social consequences. It is an extension of the thought of the dematerialized work, which however can still be considered an autonomous work, to the institutional context. The concise notice at the ticket desk is presented inconspicuously, yet it raises questions about the institution's political conception of itself. In many respects the action remains ambivalent: hospitality, alms, slogans or a declaration of internationalism and global thinking. At any rate this work is highly political in light of xenophobia and hate of foreigners, especially in Germany's eastern states and has an unforeseen link to reality, in view of the extreme right-wing party DVU's gains in the recent state parliamentary elections in Saxony-Anhalt.

A central aspect of this exhibition is the participation of the viewer. The audience abandons its role of the observing outsider and the interested onlooker and actually steps into the middle of the work. He becomes a collaborator, since the work is only "brought to life" by him. Art in the twentieth century was dependent on the participation of a viewer in many phases. In the works of Minimal Art the presence of the viewer in relation to the presence of the work was reflected on for the first time. The awareness of the audience's role was one of the essential theoretical achievements of Minimal Art. Two types of participation are revealed in ONTOM. In one case the viewer becomes a component of the work, he constitutes the work, that is, only the participation of an active viewer completes the work. In the other case, the action of the viewer is merely organizing, i.e. the work's structure is so open that active participation is indeed desired and obvious, but yet not absolutely necessary.

Jens Haaning's project, "Office for Exchange of Citizenship," could be placed in the "second category." The office acts as a mediator, advisor and initiator. It is based on the idea that two citizens of different nationalities who are both interested in the other's citizenship should be given the opportunity to mutually swap. It is a service offer in service of international understanding. As a pilot attempt, this offer of advice and assistance is not subject to the pressure of actually being feasible. If the efforts of the artist and the lawyers supporting and advising him are successful, is still to be seen. But from the onset it is by no means impossible, since there is no law that explicitly forbids the exchange of citizenship, although there is also no law that permits it or provides for it. Haaning operates in a "gray area" of law which with this project is to be sounded out and explored in content.

Whereas in Haaning's office the direct initiative of the individual is not absolutely necessary, but merely represents an offer, without the participation of a third party the continuous process that is necessary for the "success" of the project "Sunday's Air" by Plamen Dejanov and Swetlana Heger is not at all conceivable. Dejanov & Heger operate less in the social-political sphere than in the economic sector. The space-creating plexiglass construction stands on its own as an aesthetic-puristic sculpture, but simultaneously serves as an infrastructure for four presentation stands, each nine cubic meters large, which can be rented by the week and used for different purposes. Whether a financial institution covers the walls with posters and has its brochures ready for you to pick up, or a fashion designer makes the most of the opportunity to present her creations in the context of an exhibition, or the restless industrialist who in this way introduces his newest product or business idea to a wide audience, with their rental offers Dejanov & Heger produce a basis for repeated creation of capital. An organic circulation of service, finance and goods guarantees maximum financial "profit" which is immediately reinvested in a collection of works by both artist colleagues and design rarities of the sixties and seventies, and thus continues to keep the circulation going. Panta rhei, everything flows. Their own work consists of the preparation of a both aesthetic and equally economic structure. Far from an interest in making money for themselves, both artists are less concerned with the accumulation of values than with the creation of a complex, closed system of the most simple economic processes, which rely on the participation and the action of the viewer. Even thought they adapt structures from commerce and put them in the service of their own work, in order to profit from it, they do not subject themselves to their constraints.

Formally Adam Page's EXECUTIVE BOX may seem very similar. On Sachsenplatz a VIP room is put at the disposal of those interested. The advertisement for the box reads: "Ideal for business or pleasure for appointments, business, entertainment, as a private space or meeting place." The use of the space is free and limited to one hour. For ad hoc needs it offers the necessary context on a public square in the city center. The location was chosen consciously. Sachsenplatz, an example of a square designed by real socialism, is a catastrophe of city planning. A "desert" in the city center which comes to life only for short moments on market day and during local celebrations. Page enlivens this wasteland for six weeks in addition and creates with his offer a temporary surface for retreat in the urban space of the metropolis. A new infrastructure, in the form of a container furnished for different needs, visually occupies the site in an inconspicuous and in a transferred sense demonstrative way. The box can be understood as a "full-sized model" which confronts the grand design of city planning with the progressive ideas of the artist, whose temporary use of variable container systems is exemplary for the municipality.

Almost just as inconspicuously, Tilo Schulz engages himself in the circulation of the secondary service. Less than Dejanov & Heger with regard to their own "thing," but in the service of the exhibition, whose promotion and mediation he extends to an area which is not covered by the activities of the institution. Schulz gave the artists taking part in the exhibition the task of sending him a statement on the work shown in ONTOM. They serve as motifs for polo shirts which are to be worn by gallery employees during working hours. In addition Schulz initiated a flyer distribution promotion, designed to spread information on the gallery in direct "man/woman to man/woman contact" in the center of Leipzig, without grave losses. Schulz's project understands the Gallery of Contemporary Art Leipzig as a product which can/should be advertised in a way similar to, for example, the introduction of the new Mercedes A-class or the distribution of trial samples of cigarettes. Besides he brings together the different artistic positions again on the medium of the designed shirts and uses this interface between the areas of fashion, merchandising and art, which are related to each other anyway, as an instrument of conveying content.

Whereas Tilo Schulz amplifies the fringe areas of institutional responsibilities, Benita Immanuel-Grosser's activities return to the heart of the gallery. Once a week the basics of classical yoga will be taught at different locations, changing from week to week, in the exhibition rooms. The project occupies the space of the audience, in the midst of the other works. The viewer becomes an actor and thus part of the process which offers new possibilities of perception, both mental and physical, for the duration of the "lessons." The further he distances himself from the role of the viewer with the help of the "Twelve Basic Postures of Yoga" and the "Restraint of the Spirit" opens a new level of perception, the larger the discrepancy becomes between the viewer as a part of the defined room surrounding him and the severing of the spirit from the limits of the body. In this state, a change of the personal and external perception is achieved by concentrating on the inner center and the control of the body, which in turn makes possible a new experience of the room and the exhibition taking place within it.

The readiness to get involved in a work with possibly long-term consequences is a prerequisite of Simone Westerwinter's work-in-progress "JA." Visitors have the opportunity to decide in favor of a free JA-tattoo and have it applied then and there by a professional tattooist. You think this is nothing special? Seeing that by now every second body is decorated with tattoos and shining metal. Tattoos used to be the thing of a few, an expression of individuality and nonconformity, before the body cult of techno and rave culture produced its hedonistic blooms. Now the artist supplies a uniform and ready-made tattoo with the cheerful and ambiguous message: YES. And the best thing about it is that it lasts forever and doesn't cost a penny. Or you can try out an adhesive tattoo first, the kind we are acquainted with from children's magazines and gumball machines, before deciding if the forearm, the neck or the bottom is the best place for Westerwinter's optimism-optimizer. Just say yes to JA. You won't be disappointed, the pain of the pricks guarantee at least for a short moment the real experience of your self.

The Staging of Reality
Contemporary art practice as it is represented in ONTOM is characterized less by a transcendence of reality than by the adaptation of reality. Things which already exist and are produced by society have generally speaking an advantage over subjective arbitrariness and invention, as is found in traditional art. This form of adaptation characterizes a strategy in which objects, forms of action and practices of communication from everyday life are understood as a sort of aid. These can be used to create works and situations which not only refer back to phenomena and themes of "extra-artistic" reality, but also use their "language." It is not a matter of the use of everyday objects which, once they have been used artistically, were transferred into artistic reality and stayed there for good, as was the case with Fluxus artists. After the exhibition, the everyday objects will be returned to their original context and will have no meaning that goes beyond their actual function.

Dan Peterman's temporary sculpture is to be understood in exactly this sense. His work focuses on the circulation of raw materials, particularly recyclable articles. In its reduced form, his temporary sculpture made of garbage pails reminds of the minimalist vocabulary, even though its shape is derived from the function of the pail and thus takes itself as its theme. 640 pails a square of eight by eight bins, each one containing ten pails stacked inside of each other which for the length of the exhibition constitute a work and thereafter will once again serve their original function, make clear in simple as well as spatial terms the hierarchical relationship of art and everyday life that is equally valid for all projects of the exhibition. Even when produced from reused plastic waste, they serve stacked up as containers for themselves, they are material and container simultaneously. In addition to themselves as subject and as models of circulation, they refer to the social reality of the practically "endless" process of transformation of material to object to function and back to material again.

Jes Brinch and Henrik Plenge Jakobsen's installation "Guru" is less directly bound to social reality and more easily understood as pictorial. Their collaboration is limited to one single work group which is best explained as the result of the most varied kinds of destruction. Whether a burnt-out nursery school, a museum café cut up into small pieces or a completely devastated office, the unsuspecting viewer is confronted with the unleashed potential of violence and destruction. Brinch & Plenge Jakobsen toy calculatingly with the viewers' feelings and reactions by bringing them out of their shell with a maximally calculated shock effect. The confrontation with well-known but shocking images from reality TV nevertheless takes on a very special quality without the protective screen, especially in the context of an exhibition, which is usually equated with unclouded aesthetic art enjoyment. The allegedly real reveals itself simultaneously as a staged situation (or do you consider a decomposed skeleton lying in a fresh pool of blood to be especially realistic?). Yet the implications of content go beyond the moment of shock. Symbolically the staged new age environment can be understood as a metaphor for the end of social-changing, utopian plans and salvation-bringing views of the world. Whether slogans of love, peace and unity, or the fist raised spiritedly for the socialist cause, in failing all are equal. But in the end the moralizing wave of the finger is absent, since the end is open. It could just as well be that the "guru" was not assassinated, but that he departed willingly or even naturally from this life.

In contrast to that, Vanessa Beecroft's naked models create their own closed, silent world, totally freed of its connection to material reality. They act in real space which simultaneously generates itself into a stage due to the presence of the spectator. Their unprotected nakedness is ambivalent. On the one hand, as voyeuristic objects of lust they are put at the mercy of the viewer's gaze. But on the other hand, their self-confident manner and the offensive display of their own beauty, grace and elegance might even annoy the spectator. In both cases the situation constructs an apparently insurmountable psychological distance to the viewer. Both in his real space as well as within the staged reality created by the girls on their own stage, they are freed from any trace of communicative involvement, enclosed in the social vacuum of indifference. Imprisoned in its role, the atmosphere changes between patiently endured boredom and staged apathy. The slowly changing image if it changes at all allows references to emerge, not only to monumental Greek sculpture with its aesthetic canon of forms [which is augmented by the slightly artificial body color]. But above all this work refers to Helmut Newton's photograph "They're coming" which set the standard for the aesthetics of nude photography in the eighties.

A theatrical staging of a totally different kind is offered by Rirkrit Tiravanija. Inspired by the history of the gallery, a house built at the beginning of this century for a well-to-do family, he returns it to the site of its own self. For the duration of the exhibition, the former dining room is partially recreated with interior furnishings in its original location. Not only is the spatial situation recreated, but also a plot which in a similar form already took place in this context. A wedding party sits at the table (the wedding celebrations of all six daughters of the villa's builder took place in this house) and partakes of a festive menu. The scene seems like a play in which the stage is located in the space of the audience. Yet neither a text is recited nor is a play performed. They eat, drink and engage in cultured table conversation. Two levels which are linked with one another are made vivid: eating as an expression of cultural identity and dining as a catalyser of communication. The bratwurst man who is also present in the room, with his imaginatively constructed portable sausage grill-vendor's tray, connects real space with the theatrical, hermetic dinner party. Both situations exist parallel to one another in the same space-time structure, but although both are equally social scenes, they nevertheless remain separate. There is no intersection. The artist appears not as author, but as initiator. He creates the structural condition for a situation which is captured and shaped by the actions of the actors and spectators, who are equally also actors of another scene. By falling back on an historical episode of the house's history, the artist revitalizes the tradition of the site also in a broader sense of the cultural tradition of the city at the beginning of this century.

Sam Samore's "Forest of Schizophrenic Love Stories" presents a similar process of latching on to the history of the site. Staged to the same extent, he created an artificial forest inside the house which invites the visitor to linger on account of the beautiful view of the neighboring Johanna Park. A voice recites fairy tales, or to be more specific, six love stories can be heard, some of which take place in the forest. The situation reveals an unusual horizon of experience to the viewer. One finds oneself on a real stage, on a site where the action could take place. The imagination and the suggestive power of the place remain in the area of the unreal, but no tree spirits are in the branches, none of the tree stumps begins to talk. Very soon one hears familiar stories, since the plots are based on already existing fairy tales, yet the supposedly known reveals itself very quickly as deception, and different narrative elements are interwoven and/or complexly mixed with other tales. The good practically never wins, you wait in vain for the happy end that releases you relieved back in reality. Samore stages fiction and deception with the help of cultural folk heritage at its best. His method has less to do with a strategy of ready-mades than with sampling and remixing known in the music and club culture. In the fairy tales Samore handles all areas of interpersonal relationships. In mythical form, social, biological and psychological limitedness are linked to contemporary reality.

Eric Schumacher and Andrea Clavadetscher's project presents itself in a similarly romanticized way. During the opening a model airplane flies over the heads of the visitors and writes the title of the  exhibition in the sky. Although visible for miles around, the word is for the most part understandable only to the vernissage guests. The writer in the sky translates the ephemeral and transitory moment of the exhibition in a sensory way: before the last letter has been written, the first has already disappeared. To continue the metaphor: both artists fly in a similar way between the different areas of cultural production. They create installations, make music, organize exhibitions and sometimes even cook for artists during the installation of an exhibition. With minimal artistic intervention they react to sites and situations, combining the interior with the exterior, the artificial with nature. The result is in many cases unpredictable and remains in a charming way incalculable, not seldomly until just before the end. So the final appearance of the image which they are drawing on the fields around the villa with a chalk wagon, like those used to mark football fields, will be determined just a few hours before the opening.

Against the background of the positions shown in the exhibition and the projects sketched here, questions about the institution and about the concept of the exhibition necessarily become virulent regarding aspects of content which have just been mentioned. If as here the valid rules of the game are shifted in favor of an opening towards the exterior and towards an increased participation of the viewer, then one might ask where the border to actual reality lies and if the concept of the exhibition really still applies here. The answer is simple: the frame of reference is decisive in this form of art. A painting is also a painting outside of a museum. However the aroma of coffee is not necessarily art outside the gallery. This means that the works presented in ONTOM are dependent on the institutional context in which they are presented, or to be more precise, the context is constitutional for its essence as art. It is less about calling the institution itself into question than about an extension of the possibilities of the museum. To be sure, new limits are not demanded, but they will arise inevitably.

(1) See Nicolas Bourriaud: An Introduction to Relational Aesthetics, in: Traffic (cat.) Bordeaux 1996.
(2) Alfred Nemeczek: Kunst als Dienstleistung, in: ART. Das Kunstmagazin, Nr. 5/1998, p. 26-37.

(Translation: Tas Skorupa)

published in: ONTOM, cat. Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst Leipzig 1998

© 1998 Jan Winkelmann

German version