…in which your host admits that she doesn’t know about art, but she knows what she likes… and she likes free wine.
Welcome to Artipoeus, art you can hear!
During Berlin Art Week last month, I was wandering around– well, let’s be honest. Berlin is too big of a city for flaneurs, and art galleries aren’t clustered together in any one place, as they are in SoHo in New York or Le Marais in Paris. When I go gallery hopping, it also involves train hopping, sidewalk hopping, and high heel hopping, which I don’t recommend if your ankles mean anything to you. I always aim for six galleries, usually only make it to three, and vow for the 50th time to get a bike already. Anyway. Let’s try this again:
During Berlin Art Week, I went to Berlinische Galerie, the museum of modern art located in Berlin’s Mitte. I had no real agenda, and wandered into the museum’s huge industrial main gallery, filled with art lovers and work from the collection, wondering why Berlin galleries don’t provide free booze. It’s the only city I’ve ever been in where you actually have to pay for your cabernet sauvignon at art openings, and sometimes it’s not even that cheap.
Although I hate going to art openings to look at art — because there are usually just too many people and too much noise — I do enjoy going for the social environment and the free drinks. It’s a discovery I made years ago when I lived in New York, when I was a poor punk rocker and, stomping down Prince Street one evening, saw a group of people clustered on the sidewalk, each of them sipping from a white plastic party cup. Never being shy to crash a party, I drifted inside and made what was to become the most important discovery of my life: free wine. And there happened to be some art to look at too.
Over time, along with soaking up vats of free wine, I also soaked up an art education, met some artists and galleristes and curators, and learned that art, is everywhere. Which means, wherever I go, in any major city, there is always an art opening somewhere and free drinks. You can go, drink for free, chat up the locals and maybe see some good art, or at least, see some art. It’s a formula that has served me through three cross-country moves in the US, two international moves on the Continent, and across capital cities in Mexico, the UK, Europe and China. It’s been fool-proof… until I got to Berlin.
In Berlin you pay. Two euros for a beer – and granted the beer is good – 3 euros for a glass of wine, sometimes four, and one euro for a water or soda, which is always Coca cola. It’s like someone has pulled the old switcheroo on me: if I have to pay for my drinks at openings, then that implies that I’m actually going for the art.
So there I was, wandering around the museum — parched! — through one gallery after another until I got to the very back gallery on the main floor. I drifted inside and found myself in… an art opening.
People clustered in twos and threes, chatting with each other or looking at the art on the walls. A punch bowl — some kind of sangria or something — on a low table, surrounded by used plastic cups. It looked like the punch was almost gone and this opening within an opening was almost over. So I made a beeline for the drinks, but when I checked the wine was congealed, the fruit decaying. Not rotting — but decaying the way an lemon or lime does when you leave it in the fridge for too long.
When I looked around again, I realized that… nobody was moving. In fact, upon closer inspection, I realized they aren’t people at all.
In 1963 or so, the American installation pioneer and conceptual art duo, Edward and Nancy Kienholz, came up with the idea to make a pretty sarcastic comment on the art world of their time. The Art Show is an installation set at the opening of a private art gallery. The artists made models of their friends, other art world figures, and even their three children using plaster casts. They dressed them in the models’ normal clothes, put wigs on them, and arranged them around the space, drinks and cigarettes in hand, some chatting, some looking at the art on the wall. It is a completely immersive experience. And it’s a bit unsettling, because it’s stuck in time… but it’s also timeless.
In 2009 Art critic Brian Sewell called Edward Kienholz “the least known, most neglected and forgotten American artist of Jack Kerouac’s Beat Generation of the 1950s, a contemporary of the writers Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Norman Mailer, his visual imagery at least as grim, gritty, sordid and depressing as their literary vocabulary. I guess that makes Nancy Kienholz even less known, since Edward Kienholz decreed all of his work retroactive to the early seventies to be referred to simply as by Kienholz, the collective of himself and his wife.
Edward Kienholz, and later with his wife and partner Nancy, was one of the most controversial artists in the US during his lifetime. Kienholz was a fierce social critic, and used his art to expose the pretension and absurdity in everything from sexual attitudes to religion to, and as in this case, the art world. Kienholz made his first and most notorious impact on contemporary art with his 1966 assemblage installation called Back Seat Dodge, a truncated Dodge sedan with the back door propped open, allowing viewers to witness a couple — a plaster couple — engaged in sex on the back seat. The scene was meant to evoke a popular make-out spot in Los Angeles at the time, and force the viewer to confront their own tendency as voyeure. The installation was banned, Kienholz became famous, and he went on from there, marrying and divorcing four times before he met Nancy Reddin, an already established photographer. The two married, and their collaborations became even more critical of the hypocricies they saw around them.
It is at the very least gritty, but I wouldn’t call it sordid or depressing, just… real. There is a gallows humour to the work, as well as poignancy, nostalgia and even a certain tenderness. It’s about as complicated as the human experience itself.
In the Art Show, figures are covered in a kind of shellac, but not finely. It appears as though it’s just been dumped over their heads, their hair matted and now two dimensional, giant drops coagulating on the skin, the clothes. It’s pretty gross. The extremities are interesting – the hands tend to be a bit more awkward, not neatly executed, no defined fingers and veins, but rather more club-like, as though they are all suffering from some form of art gout. But this is also a rare foreshadowing, as if Kienholz molded the hands to reach old age before the rest of the body gets there — which is, actually, how living bodies age too. In this way, the hands sort of reach into the future, the bodies slowly catching up, melting slightly as they go.
Their heads are rounded, a bit over-sized, wigs glued to the scalps. Many of them wear eyeglasses for some reason. But the most arresting and brilliant thing about all of them is that they have no eyes, no noses, no distinctive facial features, except for… a car vent. Their eyes, nose and mouth — seat of three of our basic senses, sight, smell and taste, the things that help us navigate and keep balance in the world — are replaced by the vents of cars. Hot air vents, air conditioning vents, all different models — these are all individuals after all. Embedded in the chest of each figure is a clear acrylic box with a button on top. The box lights up when you press it, gears set to motion, and hot air blows through the vent along with … artspeak.
THIS IS THE BEST THING EVER
If you have ever read an article in Art Forum, or exhibit literature written by an art institution, or even just an artist’s statement, you will notice a long string of overly punctuated, three- and four-syllable words, obscure references to art movements, or dead artists or, worse, dead philosophers, or EVEN WORSE, living philosophers. Ugh, academics! Don’t get me wrong, I like academics — I have friends who are academics and I like them very much: they are very good cooks and they throw excellent dinner parties. I just don’t like the way they speak.
Anyway you often find a long string of three-dollar words, obscure references, unnecessary punctuation… and a shortage of necessary verbs. Like, any verb. The kind a bunch of ideas and descriptions tend to swing around in an actual sentence. I don’t know what art snobs have against verbs – I personally like them very much <–there I just used one now, and again! Maybe they’re a crutch. Like sentences with verbs are like playing tether ball in the school yard, instead of shooting 18 holes of golf at the country club. Golf takes a long time, by the way, although … ?? better sport maybe? Of course, the fewer swings you take to reach the hole the better your score, but so very few people ever play under par.
A lot of them try though. And are certainly willing to pay the high country club fees to have access to that course. I don’t know how this devolved into a golf analogy. But if you think about it, it makes about as much sense as anyone at an art opening.
The figures are in natural poses, some with both hands on their hips, some with hands in pockets. The three Kienholz children are seated on the floor, they’ve obviously slid to the ground out of boredom in the way kids do. And even the kids have car vents for facial features (which must have felt strange, as parents, to create). They recite in unison some forced art world claptrap.
Kienholz apparently had some pretty conservative friends. The men’s clothes are not that dated. There are no extra-wide lapels or crazy shirts, even the trouser legs aren’t that wide. The only giveaway is the amount of corduroy they all wear — why was corduroy so popular in the ’70s? And why did it become less popular, relegated only to academics and yodelers?
But the women’s clothes as well — they’re not that bad. One wears a cool dress — but she’s from Paris, so: unsurprising. The rest wear pants suits. In a letter to the gallery discussing the development and cost of the installation, framed and on display, Edward Kienholz says he’s going to set the Art Show in 1963, so he can use mini skirts on “some of the lovelies”. Sexism, like art, is timeless.
The furniture in the room is also from the time period, but as that has come around as being cool again, it looks instead timeless. Because the figures are life-sized — and one of the best jokes about the whole piece — when a live visitor stands or sits next to any of the figures, at least from behind you can’t tell which is which. The whole installation forces you to participate but at the same time places you in a strange position: you interact with the figures, but you can’t communicate.
It’s art that’s meant to last. The casts took a long time, the voice boxes are built sturdy and severe, the technology wasn’t there back then like it is now. The concept — all of it, took a lot of planning and discovering the materials to use. Imagine – there was no Google to look stuff up. It is neither vague nor ephemeral: the point it’s making is clear, and the installation is not going to dissipate with the slightest breeze or fade to invisible under strong light. These figures already have had a lifespan of around 42 years.
And yet, they do decay. They are decaying. One female figure seated on a bench has a little dog at her feet — it looks like it’s a taxidermied dog, and the dog’s coat looks like it’s thinning and dusty from time. Standing in front of one of these figures and pressing their talk button, the warm air coming out of the vent in their face is musty and gross, and you can imagine the slowly rotting interior of that hollow cast. The air is as stale as their words. This also makes them human in a way – they’re dying from the inside out, like we all are. But more than that, we often repeat the same stuff for generations way beyond it’s expiration date, so the ideas, the words, the attitudes become stale, a little offensive, you have to force yourself to stand there and listen to it and, because they are casts and not living things, to stand there and shut up because they can’t hear you even if you do respond… like certain politicians.
Unlike politicians, my favorite thing about these figures are the vents in their faces. They’re strange, alien and even a little bit violent, but — and here is where I find the true sophistication of the piece — they each have preserved the little plastic dial that opens or closes the vents. I didn’t try them, to see if they still worked, but the fact that they’re there — that Kienholz installed the entire vent with that option — that choice — is really brilliant. Because in a car, it’s the passenger who has control: the passenger — or passive listener, in this case — can open or close the vent at will, can stop the flow of air. In real life we can just walk away, but I like the option on offer, here. It’s the viewer’s choice to continue or cut off the hot musty flow of artspeak.
The original installation was intended to include a rotation of actual artworks on the walls, so the Art Lovers, as the figures are called, are the only permanent part of the piece. The ;art on the walls that the Berlinische Galerie has on display are actually photos and technical drawings of the actual plaster cast making process, the real life model for each of the art lovers pictured by the Kienholz interpretation of themselves. On top of the photos and blue prints, Kienholz have assembled various detritus – a boxing glove, a headlamp, a stop watch, turning basic photographic documentation of their process into a type of Dadaist collage and assemblage itself. Some are quite beautiful, some… not so much. They are uneven, but so is the creative process. And, as I have often seen between glasses of wine, so is art itself.
People at art openings, usually dressed in whatever shape of black is native to that city – tailored for Paris, flowing for Copenhagen, expensive for New York, and boxy for Berlin, in a style I like to refer to as Muji meets The Matrix, are a curious bunch. They mix and mingle, sip their free or purchased drinks and, glance at the art and,talk and talk, three-dollar words tumbling out of their mouths like too much popcorn.
To me, this was always the price of free booze at these things, the artspeak, the hot air, the pretension of intelligentsia to justify a second or third glass of boxed wine. It never once occurred to me, that the art opening itself is a performative event, and we are all its players. Which isn’t such a bad price to pay after all, to become even for an hour on a Berlin Friday night, a piece of beautiful, living art. Although, that might just be the booze goggles talking…
The Art Show is on view until February 20th, 2017 at Berlinische Galerie, located at Alte Jakobstrasse 124-127 in Berlin.
Brought to you by Susie Kahlich from Artipoeus