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Isa Genzken: Retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA) is a visually cacophonous experience. Located on the second-floor galleries, the show takes up most of the surface space (save for a small room of Alexander Calder’s geometrically shaped mobiles just steps from the elevator). The exhibition greets viewers with massive, brightly painted blue walls that separate to reveal two opposing doorways cut by an interior hallway: the right side is a black wall with white didactic text; the left is a yellow wall inset by a large-scale reproduction of a photograph of the American comedian, pantomime, and 1930s film star Harpo Marx. The cobalt-colored reception area, such as it is, dramatizes the entrance (as if stepping into a funhouse) and playfully hints at the dizzying array of artworks inside. But what gives the spatial organization such an unusual command is the striking presence of thirteen odd mannequins of varying dimensions, festooned in multi-colored costumes, and situated around a dense collection of ersatz objects that surround, drape, or otherwise decorate their roped-off scene—plastic chairs, conch shells, a silver umbrella, scooter, Hula-Hoop, patterned area rugs, and a small harp—mimicking an extravagantly offbeat shop-window display. Indeed, as if the art wares inhabiting the galleries demand protection by these ultra-modern gargoyles.
The mannequins, or Schauspieler (Actors) (2013), represent the latest works by the German sculptor and appear to serve two purposes: one, to demonstrate that despite the museological apogee the artist has no intention of slowing down; and two, to reveal more shifts in her heterogeneous oeuvre—this time an ostensible investigation of the figure, by flesh or fabrication. Their company immediately calls to mind the transfigured mannequin-objects created by Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Joan Míro, Yves Tanguy, and Wolfgang Paalen (among others) at the 1938 Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme in Paris. In that show, as with Genzken, the juxtaposition of uncanny, life-sized human surrogates fitted with incongruous, often erotically charged cultural debris produces an unnerving experience. Indeed, the oscillation between fascination and revulsion (the simultaneous urge to touch is controlled by its inversion) achieved in Genzken’s mannequins could easily characterize Surrealist economies of desire. In another seeming wink to the historical avant-garde, one of the mannequin’s heads is disguised with a white skull, eerily reminiscent of George Grosz’s Dada Death mask performance in Berlin in 1918.
The MCA exhibition is the second stop for a traveling show that presents a sprawling forty-year survey of Genzken’s work and is her first American retrospective. Having premiered at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York (click here for review), the final stop is the Dallas Art Museum, with the curatorial labor shared among a four-person team: Laura Hoptman (MoMA), Sabine Breitwieser (formerly of MoMA, now at Museum der Moderne, Salzburg, Austria), Michael Darling (MCA), and Jeffrey Grove (Dallas). While Genzken has been included in several important exhibitions in the past decade (the New Museum’s 2007 Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century is a key example), it is fitting that MCA would act as host given the fact that the University of Chicago’s Renaissance Society held a mid-career retrospective of her work in 1992. The artist’s return to the city is triumphant, as the show rarely disappoints. Which is to say: each gallery helpfully contains a collection of Genzken’s many turns around postwar art, from Minimalism and Conceptualism, to assemblage and postmodern globalism, with every absorption of new forms multiplying into a showcase of her most spirited accomplishments.
In my case, the temptation initiated by the Harpo Marx photograph overcame any disciplined art-viewing experience, and I decided to tour the retrospective counterintuitively (i.e., commencing with the artist’s more recent work and not, as is customary, with the earliest). In doing so the impulse was to embrace the rowdy temperament of her assembled materials—the gritty, silly stuff of everyday life—and approach each gallery as different mini-installations of her prolific output. The rooms representing works that fall between 1999–2008 effectively imitate Genzken’s way of thinking about the object. The pieces are largely thematic groupings with Fuck the Bauhaus (2000), Kinder Filmen (Children Filming) (2005), Oil XI (2007), and Ground Zero (2008) the strongest among them. They are crafted from rather unheroic materials: found photographs and chromogenic color prints; playbills, artificial flowers, paper, shells, model trees; aluminum light shades, glass, mirrors, silicone, electric fans, Styrofoam; dolls, toy soldiers, suitcases, and hanging, ghostly astronauts, to name a limited sampling. (It is an exercise in futility to attempt to inventory the sheer number of vernacular—some shiny, some degraded—materials she employs.) In these galleries, it is easy to imagine Genzken’s ethnographic unearthing of the most disposable commodity goods—what she once characterized as “the formal language of cheap materials and cheap production”—here refashioned as an artistic endeavor pitting recycled sustainability against planned obsolescence (Isa Genzken, interview with Diedrich Diederichsen, in pressPLAY: Contemporary Artists in Conversation, London: Phaidon, 2005, 223).
But there is a meta-critical commentary here, too. Each sculptural grouping manifests the geopolitical realities of their making. Ground Zero is the most obvious example. In this suite of plinth-based object tableaux that sit atop moving casters, Genzken provides elliptical references to a fantastical post-9/11 New York City—one equipped with portable architecture formed by the crust and clutter of urban detritus. A hospital, a memorial tower, a church, a car park, an Osama fashion store, and a lighting plank: each communicating and commemorating the spaces of trauma, healing, remembrance, banality, capital, and renewal with mere plastic and metal—a cheap nod to the precariousness of life in the age of global terrorism.
In the richly illustrated exhibition catalogue, Hoptman writes that the “conflation of the sculptural and the photographic on the basis of a shared realism forms one of the pillars of Genzken’s assemblage aesthetic” (133). At MCA, this insight provides a key entry point into the number of galleries that feature pictures and works on paper, including the book I Love New York, Crazy City (1995–96). In this photocollage (a facsimile copy of which can be thumbed through by interested viewers), Genzken’s illuminates decades worth of time in the city and the ways in which building facades, monuments, public sculptural projects, trash, newspaper headlines, magazines ads, found and personal photographs, hotel fax receipts, radio cassette operating instructions, scribbled phone numbers, paper masks, etc., offer visual layers, almost palimpsests, of the mind’s capacity to absorb the daily barrage of images and information that defines postmodern life. In other words, rather than highlight the potentially revelatory nature of urban flânerie (imagine the artist strolling down Sixth Avenue and taking in all of the sights and sounds, stumbling upon a garden path), Genzken provides the bits and ephemera that might automatically be diverted to mental trash bins. The ceaseless, overwhelming tide of life under advanced capitalism provides no shade, no rest for the eye, no point at which one can fully organize and process the noise of daily existence. Genzken’s photocollage, and related works, carefully pick out these objects and experiences and hold them up for the viewer’s examination. The provocation, in fact, was to “make a guidebook for New York—not a normal one, but something for people who wanted to experience New York differently for a change: a lot crazier, more special, more multifaceted and beautiful” (pressPLAY, 228). Indeed, the artist offers a travelogue that pictures a city cut across space and time.
Temporal movement is a key trope in Genzken’s oeuvre. To move backward in time through the exhibition is to permit a visual cleanse; the reward for the eye’s vertiginous labor of taking in all of the jarring, at times grating, assembled works of the last two decades is the smooth, floor-based, constructed works of the 1970s and 1980s. The galleries where this pleasurable viewing happens best feature the artist’s Minimalism-inspired sculptures of lacquered wood, including the elegant Ellipsoids (1976–82). First begun during her time as a student at Düsseldorf Academy, the elongated forms with their skins of colored paint, incised crevices, and hollow openings seem to grow organically out of the wood, at times recalling nautical forms (slender boats, skinny surfboards) while also evoking modern totem poles, or monumental writing instruments laid down or stood up for closer inspection. The viewer can visually connect the series with Minimalism’s reduced vocabulary, and there are reminders of the historical avant-garde once again, especially works such as Rot-schwarz-gelbes Ellipsoid “S. L. Popova” (Red- Black-Yellow Ellipsoid “S. L. Popova”) (1981) and its titular reference to Lyubov Popova and Russian constructivism. The handcrafted, interlocking molds of the Ellipsoids necessitated collaboration with an engineer friend who helped Genzken calculate the intricate mathematical formulas via computer programming, but they were ultimately time-consuming and expensive to produce. While eschewing the “primary structures” favored by Donald Judd and Carl Andre, Genzken’s sculptural forms appear less like maximalist interventions of generic space and more like finely tuned dimensions and measurements of the variety of spaces (and their contents) that the body inhabits.
If I have been emphasizing architectures of the body, of urbanity, of sculptural arrangements as medium, it is because the collected works on view explicitly take architecture as a subject. But the institutional frame in which Genzken’s artworks are situated is of import as well. At times the narrowing of the galleries at MCA made viewing the works a challenge; some spaces felt more stifling and compressed than others. In many cases (especially the work from the 1990s to the present) this narrowing of exhibition space is conditioned by the assembled objects one is asked to contend with and to consider—clustered objects that, in their shiny reflective surfaces, speak to the ubiquity of conspicuous consumption and our complicity in various industries of commodified-culture—but it also appears to be the effect of curious curatorial choices that seems to prize dense comprehensiveness over conceptual clarity. These are minor quibbles, however, in a show that ultimately reveals that Genzken’s work is indeed chaotic but not at all haphazard. In fact, the underlying logic of the disparate works is meticulousness, obsessiveness, and control.
But back to the mannequins: their presence echoes the animated bodies in so much of Genzken’s work—from films and photographs, to floor-based, wall-based, and architecturally inflected sculptures—each attesting to basic human posture and repose. For the artist, the body in urban environs is a contested site on which to project tragedy, desire, failure, and memory. Here only one of the mannequins is without clothes, white paint dripping down the pale body, wiry gray wig perilously placed upon the head with sunglasses covering the eyes, black gloves protecting the hands, and black ink marks drawn onto the body in a surgical manner—perhaps an ever-watchful avatar of the artist herself.
Nicole L. Woods
Assistant Professor, Department of Art, Art History, and Design, University of Notre Dame
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