For the next few days, MCA Chicago will be hosting a retrospective of the German artist Isa Genzken. I had no previous knowledge of Genzken, and went at the suggestion of my friend Emma Pavlik—an artist in Cleveland, Ohio. My experience of the exhibition initially was by looking at her most recent work first, then seeing the rest in reverse chronological order. I’m not sure which way would work better for the retrospective. It was interesting watching certain gestures or themes revert to smaller forms as time went backwards.
In Genzken’s installation Kinder Filmen (Children Filming) (2005), we look upon the imagined aftermath of a crime scene, where children watched their peers assaulting one another. The wildly bright materials, along with their references to youth, like a Coca-Cola beach umbrella, give the scene an inappropriate brightness. The work is described as using these objects to also indict the state of cheaply made products throughout the world: “Like other works from this period, it relies on mass-produced, found objects that challenge accepted notions of taste, perhaps as a commentary on the cheap, easy, and disposable flow of goods and information available in the present day.” I find it interesting that the write-up would juxtapose “taste” with “cheap goods”, but it does not seem like Genzken is merely having some fun by descending to trash. It seems to me, rather, that Genzken understands that this debris is the world we live in. There is no real distinction between a “high” and “low” taste to the degree museum-goers might imagine there to be. Instead of eschewing the creation of contemporary society as something to be rejected in its entirety, she acknowledges that there is a bit of freedom about these new materials and our ability to produce them. The concept of “taste” is itself specious in our time, especially in a museum because our aesthetic experience has become aligned with the expectations mediated by the commodity form. But, even in the bleak thoughts brought to mind by this medium of detritus and toys, there is still a turning point that can be reached by the viewers. In the 1930s, Theodor Adorno perceived this characteristic in the arising production of kitsch, which we still consider today: “Even the most stupid people have long since ceased to be fooled by the belief that everyone will win the big prize. The positive element of kitsch lies in the fact that it sets free for a moment the glimmering realization that you have wasted your life”.1 By seeing through kitsch as being made not really for us, but rather as things we wish to be for us, we might better understand what must be changed for our aesthetic experience, or life in general, to be as true as it could be.
One of my favorite pieces of the exhibition was the installation, Oil XI (2007), which is described as follows:
Oil XI is the centerpiece of a sixteen-part installation that Genzken first exhibited at the German Pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale. […] The installation and its title evoke the spirit of a world in the grips of the War on Terror, which some would argue was not only aimed at curbing global terrorism but also a militarized effort to maintain control of this natural resource. ¶ […] The installation, with its accumulation of roller-board suitcases, calls to mind a transit station that has suddenly been abandoned, perhaps due to an unseen threat. Three astronauts, identified as NASA employees by the insignia on their uniforms, float overhead as if exploring the ruins of a devastated culture.
The inclusion of several plastic molds of owls implies the scrutiny of ever-watchful security in a place like an airport or other transit stations.
The hovering astronauts, as employees (or soldiers, even), of the U.S. government, add another level of the scope of surveillance techniques in the world, such as the capabilities of satellite imagery. Given the breadth of security measures which includes the might of the U.S. military, one is tempted to jump to the conclusion that perhaps all is lost, that the end of the world is the only way out. Today’s spokesman of cosmology, Neil DeGrasse Tyson has spoken about the unfortunate history of NASA. But just as the exploration of space and the scientific advances made from the development of space-flight came about through military endeavors, there is still a tiny progressive element in the world reflected here. One need only listen to Brian Eno’s album Ambient 1: Music For Airports (1978) to feel the channelled reverberations of hope for airports—sent out decades before Eno—washing ashore now, even if the waves are admittedly humble. There is still something to be said for the ability to fly around the world. There is potential in globalization. Only a fool would turn one’s back on that fact.
I plan on writing more about this retrospective soon, since there was so much to digest.
1 Theodor Adorno, “Commodity Music Analyzed” (1934-40), in Quasi Una Fantasia (London: Verso, 1998), 50.