Essay: After Work
Pieter Bruegel the older, The Land of Cockaigne, 1567
Oil on wood, 52 x 78 cm
Martin Kippenberger’s idea of an art that reflects its social conditions has evolved into an art world that integrates everything. What happens when the work dissolves into its context and the form of the work becomes a form of life?
“When you say ART, then everything possible belongs to it. In a gallery that is also the floor, the architecture, the colour of the walls. Everything is as important as the painting on the walls”, explained Martin Kippenberger in conversation with Jutta Koether in the early 1990s. At the time, it was apparently still necessary to explain this. Today, it is no longer so easy to understand what it was like when works of art still met with a world they could point to, before the relationship was reversed and the work became the world’s proxy. In his essay “Painting Beside Itself”, David Joselit asks, along with Kippenberger, how a work of art can visualize the context in which it circulates. Today we might put the question the other way around: How could a work of art not bear witness to its context?
To illustrate his point, Kippenberger offered an analogy to the club SO36 in Kreuzberg, Berlin, which he helped shape in the late 70s: “What was the crucial point in that place? The challenge of the dark space. People didn’t just want to hear good music or see an interesting event. Actually, the most important thing for everybody was to cross through the dark space, through the tunnel, to the point where they could see the light, no matter what was on stage!” What Kippenberger calls the “the theory of eating-yourself-through-the-pudding” can easily be applied to the art world today: You have to be there, whatever you might think of the works exhibited. Whereas participation in the art world was once characterized by negotiating positions, today it is primarily about working on one’s own Da-Sein.
What began around 1969 with “Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form” became widely established in the 90s: The effort to overcome the object, and with it the commodity form of the artwork, transformed the exhibition from an assembly of individual objects to an experiential space that itself adopted the form of the work. When, following the social experiments of relational aesthetics (the meals, DJ sets, and reading nooks in the gallery space), works in a more classical sense began moving back into exhibitions again around 2000, they found themselves facing completely transformed conditions. Now they were elements among others in an experiential continuum that stretched between the opening, the dinner with the artist, the artist talk, and the after party, and then continued at the art fairs. It became increasingly difficult to determine which element accompanied which. The aura of the individual work had gone over into the art world as a whole. Was it still about works of art or rather about establishing experiential forms, islands and archipelagos within the existential condition of being on display that was demanded by social networks from the mid-2000s onward?
If one looks at the programmes and allure of galleries such as Reena Spaulings in New York or Mathew and Isabella Bortolozzi in Berlin, it seems that over the past ten years or so the form of the work has also increasingly been transferred to galleries. They no longer just show works of art but form units with them that carry a larger promise. The classic gallery programme still referred to universal ideas of the public sphere and of history: Out there is the world, here are the positions. In younger galleries, however, artistic positions are increasingly part of the formation of specific forms of life that are fulfilled through presence and participation, and are no longer bound to any external entity. Here, it is happening. You build your own life and set its rules and intuitively agree to a precarious idea of advancement. In this, the experiential form of the gallery starts to resemble the experiential form that was so central to the collective negotiation of forms of life in previous decades: the (music) club. To Kippenberger’s list of all things possible in art, we can thus now add: the people present.
Accordingly, the works exhibited address the universal idea of a public sphere and of history less and less, focusing instead on micropublics that are founded in situ. The form of the work as a form of public space is transferred into a form of life. Collectors (who are also often friends) can buy their way in, acquiring objects that can’t be exchanged for anything outside of their own circulation. For this reason, such objects make less and less reference to (art) history in the museum, acting, instead, as informants about a form of life. They are relicts of past experiences, and it is from this, and not from some overarching discourse, that they derive their relevance. They are souvenirs that we don’t want to throw away.
Joselit’s idea of transitive painting that accounts for the conditions of its production presumes that there is an outside, an overarching language. Yet art objects increasingly speak their own dialects; they do not refer to the conditions of their production, they exist within them. The work continues to be the central reference point for all of the art world’s practices. But is it more than a free-floating variable that can be filled arbitrarily? What is the function of the individual object? Is it still in a position to produce difference? Or is it a chip that is worthless outside of its casino, more meme than work? Don’t the objects in exhibitions and art fairs increasingly seem like backdrops for Beckett plays – the reenactment of an order that is no longer in place?
Kolja Reichert is a writer, Christian Kobald is a curator. Both are editors of Spike and live in Berlin.