Portrait Tobias Madison
It’s difficult to say what Tobias Madison actually does. The Swiss artist shuttles between refusal and participation, withdrawal and exposure, community spirit and calculated outsourcing. In doing so, he works his way along the edges of found formats: the work, the exhibition, as well as the figure of the “young” artist.
“I am not in the business, I am the business” is Blade Runner’s best line. It is spoken by Rachael when she finally realises she is a replicant. We are now just a few years away from 2019, when the movie is set, and all of us have become the business. As prosumers of masses of information, we are busy replicating and selling our memories, emotions, and fears in order to gain/ sustain visibility within the attention economy, quite possibly on devices branded Nexus (the colony of origin of all the androids in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep). Who are the headless “surfers” of Tobias Madison’s latest series, Dilemma (2015) but us? Made of rows of identical skin-coloured neoprene wetsuits, turned inside out and pinned to the wall, they recall Chris Burden’s menacing installation with L.A.P.D. Uniforms from 1993, although the lines between pros and cons, feds and perps, networking and surveillance have long been blurred and internalised. So the issue becomes how to clog or slow the compulsive, instant social-mediatization of all experiences – art included – the flux of constant discernibility which fades as soon as it surfaces, like the fictionally old pictures held so dear by the replicants of Blade Runner, condemned to a short life span by their own technology.
In discussing the works of Sturtevant, an artist he calls a personal “Über-Hero”, Madison says: “Feedback loops and differential production are no longer interesting phenomena to generate a void, but part of a technology that turns us into decaying subjects, a technology that actually diminishes the space between us.” These remarks are part of a long conversation with American writer Bruce Hainley published in NO; NO; H E P, a monograph which recaps and expands the experience of Madison’s show “NO; NO; H” at Kunsthalle Zurich in early 2013. Not only an elliptic exhibition, reconfigured twice during its run, but an array of multiple time-based “events” across the city, “NO; NO; H” took the formats of a bar, a dance club, film screenings, and guided tours; connecting inside and outside, institution and street cred, critique and production of pleasure. At the time of their conversation, Hainley had just published Under the Sign of [sic], his masterly monograph on Sturtevant, who had occupied Kunsthalle Zurich with her exhibition “Image Over Image” just a month before Madison’s debut. By appropriating one of the strongest critical voices on Sturtevant for his own monograph, Madison keeps on overlaying image over image, exhibition over exhibition, art narrative over art narrative – a copycatting strategy which works as a smart tribute to the late American artist, as well as to her battle against all oversimplifying translation of art into language. If, as art critic Stéphanie Moisdon wrote in Parkett, Sturtevant’s repetitions were “a way to produce difference, to provoke resistance and a critical attitude towards art and its media context”, Madison multiplies the mirror-effect by mixing sabotage and confident self-marketing. He titled his series (started in 2008) of paintings made on “appropriated” (stolen) Radisson hotel flags Yes I Can!, rebooting them in the art-market circuit without erasing their advertising claim.
Madison told me that he likes the word “refusal” much better than “resistance” because it starts with a no.
“No as in Yes, No as a practice/ attitude. No as in not being able to take No as a No,” stated the first of several newsletters he wrote and sent out during “NO; NO; H” – another collateral branch of the exhibition, one that was both functional (in terms of providing information and generating attention) and ambivalent (in terms of rejecting conventional formats of communication). The results are “Temporary Autonomous Zones” (to put it with Hakim Bey) informed by hoarding and jouissance, where the physical presence of the artist and his/her audience generates individual exchanges that are not so easy to record, detect, and digest asap. “Autonomy is something that is always temporary, that has to be continuously invented but with joy please,” Madison says to Hainley. New Jerseyy, the by now almost legendary alternative art space he founded in Basel in 2008 with curator Daniel Baumann, artist Emanuel Rossetti, and graphic designer Dan Solbach, duly closed its doors on December 31st 2013 with a huge farewell party.
In April 2015, Madison returned to Kunsthalle Zurich – now directed by Baumann – to play in Theater der Überforderung [Theatre of Excess], a month-long performance with daily open rehearsals directed by Barbara Weber, which “precipitated” in five premieres. It was a free re-enactment, admittedly based on uncertainty, of the experimental play La Marie-Vison [Mink Marie] by avant-garde Japanese poet, dramatist, photographer, writer, filmmaker, and countercultural hero Shūji Terayama (1935–83). With a title inspired by a French song, the story revolves around the relations between the transvestite prostitute Marie, his teenage son, and his servant. It was originally performed in Tokyo in 1967 by Terayama’s queer theatre troupe, Tenjō Sajiki (whose name is a Japanese translation of Children of Paradise, the 1945 Marcel Carné movie, in which a Parisian theatre is turned into a metaphor for the French Resistance). In Zurich, the company included a mix of actors, artists, and writers. Together with artist Matthew Lutz-Kinoy and stage designer Elia Schwaller, Madison was mostly involved in the creation of the set, an all-white ambient ethereality clouding the stage and embodying the terrain vague of a project where “the theatre, the exhibition, the costumes, the stage set, and the bar might exchange roles”.
For his upcoming show at the Kestnergesellschaft in Hannover, Madison turns again to Terayama to work on the subject of the enfant terrible – a trite label for the artist as a youthful, unorthodox, and rebellious genius, as well as a symbol of the freedom of young adulthood. Writing about “wild children” in his book T.A.Z., Bey remarked: “To embrace disorder both as wellspring of style & voluptuous storehouse, a fundamental of our alien & occult civilization, our conspiratorial esthetic, our lunatic espionage – this is the action (let’s face it) either of an artist of some sort, or of a ten- or thirteen-yearold.” In January, Madison will start shooting (with Tomo Arakawa as cameraman) a remake of Terayama’s 1971 short film Emperor Tomato Ketchup, in which kids revolt against parents and sexual repression, take over the government, and become cruel oppressors and abusers of adults. “Why children? Because the child is the ultimate antiauthoritative Other, a figure that cannot be used as a projection,” Madison says. “I have rearranged the script so that every kid has multiple roles and plays different folk creatures, as in fairy tales. It should be a dance film. It’s an experiment.”
Madison can also work on his own. Literally solo. He opened his first show at Francesca Pia in Zurich earlier this year by singing, a cappella, the song Plastic Palace People by Scott Walker (“Don’t pull the string/Don’t bring me down/Don’t make me land”), and then reading the exhibition’s press release. On the walls around him were a number of works from a 2015 series, Untitled, in wood, polyurethane, epoxy resin, and Betadine – a disinfectant containing iodine, commonly used for healing wounds. They look like blacked-out windows, counterbalancing transparency with opaqueness, and paying a further homage to Sturtevant’s after-Duchampian Fresh Widow. No way of looking out or beyond face value, under the artist’s skin. The song, full of pathos, was a way of disrupting the usual flow of sterilised communication in order to appeal to the public’s emotions, cut the artist-hype, as well as boost it with an injection of deadpan cool. Solo means alone, of course, and Madison played well with the buttons of affect. It reminded me of Andy Kaufman on the Letterman show in 1980, when the stand-up comedian confessed to the failure of his career, overexposed his fragility, and ended up begging audience members for spare coins, with a bucket, until Letterman’s crew intervened.
Madison said: “It’s a hard and complex song to sing, technically. I wanted to deflate expectations – the big gallery opening, people coming to see whether you fail or succeed – but also to create a fragile and sensitive atmosphere and to kill the mood.” The choice of Scott Walker was another statement, because “right when counterculture was becoming more common and mainstream, Walker turned radically conservative and stylised himself as an outsider.” It should be equally possible to stylise oneself as an insider, I guess. I was delighted to see Madison featured as a model for Brioni’s menswear campaign FW2015. Fully Glamoramatic, spot on: “Out is in. In is out … If you need this defined for you, maybe you’re in the wrong world,” to quote dear old Bret Easton Ellis.
Tobias Madison, born 1985 in Basel, lives in Zurich and Los Angeles. Exhibitions: Kestnergesellschaft, Hannover (solo) (2016); KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Welcome to the Jungle, Berlin; Troedsson Villa, Kitchen Show, Pot au Fou, Nikko, Japan; Galerie Francesca Pia, Zurich (solo) (2015); Freedman Fitz patrick, Deficiency Depletion, Los Angeles (solo); Carnegie International, Pittsburgh; Fridericianum, Speculations on Anonymous Materials, Kassel; The Power Station, Drip Event (with Emanuel Rossetti & Stefan Tcherepnin) Dallas; The Green Gallery, TalkTalkTalk (with Kaspar Müller), Milwaukee; Kunsthalle Zurich, NO; NO; H, Zurich (solo) (2013). Represented by: Galerie Francesca Pia, Zurich; Freedman Fitzpatrick, Los Angeles; The Modern Institute, Glasgow.
Barbara Casavecchia is a writer and lives in Milan.
This text was published in the print issue SPIKE ART QUARTERLY N° 46 which can be ordered in our online shop.