Volume IV – Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner – by Kristian Vistrup Madsen
It is when you invite strangers to dinner that you learn the most about your friends. They ask different questions, bring up different topics. I was invited by Sperling to pair one work by an artist from the gallery with something, art or otherwise, from elsewhere. This became a game of impulse and association; a challenge to find a corresponding object to complement and challenge, to bring out in the first object some sidelined aspect, or latent conflict. It has been interesting to realise how coherent the programme is. Torsten Anderson could have been the partner of Veronika Hilger as well as Ana Navas. Malte Zenses's globe giving a blowjob could easily have met Anna McCarthy’s gross Steakbaby. But also the richness of it: just how many directions you can pull the work in, depending on the partner. I hope the host will not mind these plus one’s. I think they make a good party.
Thomas Geiger & Alex Turgeon
Thomas Geiger’s Some Great Europeans (2019) & Alex Turgeon’s Untitled (2017)
In Some Great Europeans Thomas Geiger invited people he met in India to pose as this or that famous European – Mozart, Ronaldo, Churchill – using a pile of bricks as a pedestal. It is a gesture that brings greatness closer as well as puts greatness into question. Why was it so far away to begin with? What do we need it for, this mirage, this spectre? Of course, the fact that these are European figures is significant in the Indian context, too. The gap that separates the one revered from the one who reveres widens, becomes political. But really what resonates with me in this series of photographs is the intimacy and the humour between the poser and their subject. The freedom offered by parody, a moment in which history, monumentality, becomes yours to interpret – to embody.
Thomas Geiger, Some Great Europeans (Christiano Ronaldo), 2019, C-Print, 45 × 30 cm, Edition of 3
Thomas Geiger, Some Great Europeans (Winston Churchill), 2019, C-Print, 45 × 30 cm, Edition of 3
Thomas Geiger, Some Great Europeans (Mozart), 2019, C-Print, 45 × 30 cm, Edition of 3
To form a pair, I want to introduce Untitled (2017) by the Canadian artist Alex Turgeon. This work, a sheet of almost pitch-black A4, has stuck with me for years precisely for what it says about history and monumentality, but also – and this is where it might bring out some latent aspects of Geiger’s works – loss, desire, beauty. You have to look closely at it to see an etching by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778), a silhouette much like those in Some Great Europeans, a base with a body deemed worthy of remembrance, but here decapitated. Piranesi was among the first to pay serious attention to the ruins of Roman antiquity. His serious attention – a kind of devotion even, a cultivation of melancholy – became an important forerunner to romantic Ruin Lust: a longing for the past that has more to with its being hopelessly, gorgeously out of reach, than any real interest in what it actually was. Turgeon has made a composite of different Piranesi etchings (the originals were never quite accurate either) and added a razor picked out of a Henrik Olesen collage. He then printed it over and over and over again until the motif became nearly invisible, veiled in layers of ink, yet, in a literal, material way, for that reason all the more more substantial.
Though compositionally similar, Geiger’s photographs are characterised by an unstyled, informal immediacy. They are not romantic because they are too real; they pull history off its pedestal and replace it with life. Romanticism is about death, as Turgeon’s picture is about what has been left to ruin, what has been lost. But what they have in common is that they identify the distance humans feel between the world as they see it and the world as told through history, and go some length to conquer that distance for themselves. In Turgeon’s work, the ruin recurs as one answer to the problem of the house being the home of a particular kind of family; a straight, normal family. What happens to the queer person left homeless outside such a structure? Longing becomes their home; certain kinds of lack, decay, and ruin become familiar and beautiful because they have to. Geiger puts his money on humour, but the logic is the same. As in other of his works – Private Monuments, for instance, A Valve for Spontaneous Aggression, or Festival for Minimal action – history comes closer by way of small gestures, traces and remnants, appears suddenly amicable and personal. Monumentality as a matter of choosing how and what to see, and choosing, also, to find pleasure there.
Alex Turgeon, Untitled, 2017, Xerox print on paper, 29.7 × 21.0 cm, courtesy the artist and Ashley Berlin, photo: Jan Kolsky
Andrew Gilbert & Rasmus Myrup
Andrew Gilbert’s British Infantry Advance on Jerusalem, 4th of July, 1879 (2015) & Rasmus Myrup’s Salon de Refuses (2020)
I first saw Andrew Gilbert’s British Infantry Advance on Jerusalem, 4th of July, 1879 (2015) in the exhibition Artist & Empire at Tate Britain. The exhibition served both as an acknowledgement of the institution’s own complicity with Britain’s colonial past, and as part of the kind of PC makeover undertaken by all major museums in the last years. But what it attempted was also to produce a framework within which to show works from the Tate’s collection, which had for a long time been deemed too difficult, or even embarrassing to present to the public: Triumphant history paintings of British military successes; Queen Victoria handing a copy of the bible to an African leader in response to the question: what makes your empire so great? It was in this context that Gilbert’s troupe of fairly ridiculous-looking warlords – one has a pineapple on his head, all wear sexy high-heeled boots – were able to present another picture of the legacy of colonialism. Not unlike in Thomas Geiger’s work discussed above, let an element of parody tip the monument off its pedestal.
Andrew Gilbert, British Infantry Advance on Jerusalem, 4th of July, 1879, 2015, mixed media, 338 × 440 × 212 cm, courtesy the artist and TATE Britain, photo: TATE Britain
Upon revisiting this artwork, the first parallel that came to mind was Francisco Goya’s The Third of May 1808 (1814). This was mostly because it too includes in its title a specific date, but also for its unprecedented use of abstraction or the distortion of figures to express something that barely bears expression: the horror of war. Gilbert also employs a kind of distorted figuration, but in order to emphasise, not horror, but the absurdity of military pageantry, the sheer kitsch of colonial pomp. In that, it is also not just about authority and its debasement, but so much about theatricality, fancy, fantasy. It is in aid of these aspects of the work that I thought of Rasmus Myrup’s assemblage of sculptures Salon des Refusés (2020)as the more appropriate partner for Gilbert.
Myrup’s work premiered as part of a group show titled Witch Hunt at Copenhagen’s Kunsthal Charlottenborg in 2020. Like Artist & Empire, its motivation was partly political: to give space to the histories and people that have previously been deemed unnatural or mystical, disqualified from public life either for being ridiculous or dangerous, or both. With Salon des Refusés Myrup arranged the kind of ‘safe space’ known from queer nightlife for the band of outcasts from Scandinavian folklore he had rendered as human-sized figures out of natural materials like straw, moss and branches and dressed in trendy urban outfits. Limgrim, who, legend has it, dug out the Limfjord in northern Denmark, is a plastic toy excavator sat on his mother’s lap, her head and arms comprised of snail shells. Myrup mixes such time-honoured folkloristic figures with those of more modern times: The faggot, naturally, is made out of tinder sticks and the dyke out of concrete. One remembers, suddenly, how those words are also the names of things, and how, in turn, much of our language is based on metaphors sprung from myths and legends. Myrup gives himself license to play with that language, both visually and semiotically reinterpreting the stories that make up our collective consciousness.
History holds such a great sway over us, and what we allow ourselves to imagine is possible. But seen together, Gilbert and Myrup’s works exhibit a sense of freedom from that bind in suggesting that history might perform as we need it to; that, at least for once, or in glimpses, it might bend to our whims, be as funny or sexy or cool as we want it to be.
Rasmus Myrup, Salon des Refusés, 2020, Installation with clothes and natural materials at Kunsthal Charlottenborg, photo: David Stjernholm
Rasmus Myrup, Limgrim's Mother and Limgrim, 2020, Snail shells, Pantyhose, gloves, jacket with embriodered patches, shirt, sweater, pants, boots, wooden structure and Toy excavator, cat collar with bell, photo: David Stjernholm
The Dyke [Betonlebben], 2020, Concrete, silk sand bags, sand, mannequin, phone, dress, shirt, ring / The Faggot [Bøssen], 2020, Firewood, faggot of pine sticks, pants, shirt, t-shirt, watch, wooden structure / Völva [Vølven], 2020, Wound rowan wood, honeysuckle, repurposed fur, jacket, wound wool, wooden structure, sandals, glass, photo: David Stjernholm
Veronika Hilger & Galli
Veronika Hilger’s Untitled (2018) & Galli’s Untitled (Keilbild) (1988)
Veronika Hilger’s untitled painting from 2018 shows one shape balancing upon another; a moment of complete stillness. These rock-like shapes could not possibly stand in this way, yet within Hilger’s painterly universe, we do not worry. Because one has the feeling that her pictures are often of sculptures or paintings – I cannot help but see in her motifs a Barbara Hepworth, a Sonja Ferlov Mancoba, a Helen Frankenthaler – they are at once figurative and abstract, flat and internally expansive. This allows concepts such as gravity to be or not be in effect without warranting some explanation like surrealism, or soliciting an emotion, like stress or fear. But it also makes of her work an apparently calm space, non-violent, which asks to be disturbed.
Veronika Hilger, Untitled, 2018, Oil on canvas, 80 × 60 cm, courtesy the artist and Kunsthalle Bielefeld, photo: Sebastian Kissel
In this pursuit, I thought about Galli, a painter of the 1980s Neo-expressionist wave. A work such as Untitled (Keilbild) (1988) is like watching one of Hilger’s compositions ignite, see red. Two figures, like frogs or stones, (I want to say Pokémon, but doubt Galli shares this reference) fight for their lives. A leg is also a set of sharp teeth or crab’s claw, a body a canon ball. In Galli’s work physicality itself is a weapon, and to be alive is to be in a constant state of collision with other bodies, objects and scenes. The name of her game is blood and disintegration, a brutal trading of limbs. To know that Galli is a very small person, who, if only when it comes to body mass, does not take up much space in the world, allows us to understand her sensitivity towards physicality on slightly different terms. One’s view on chaos and unrest depends entirely on perspective.
Hilger’s work read allegorically through Galli’s appears more intense, its beauty and sometimes-tranquility more like shock or anxious anticipation. Objects do not merely touch, but pierce; the figure in Untitled does not rest upon the other, it is carried by it, like the world on Atlas’s back, with great strain.
Galli, Untitled (Keilbild), 1988, Emulsion, chalk & tempera on nettle, 77 × 67 cm, Courtesy of brunand brunand & Galli, Copyright the artist & brunand brunand, Berlin, photo: Mark Mattingly, 2018
Anna McCarthy & Dry Cleaning
Anna McCarthy’s Drink Cold, Piss Warm (2016) & Dry Cleaning’s Scratchcard Lanyard (2020)
Anna McCarthy’s Drink Cold, Piss Warm is a long mellow music video, a poem that goes on and on, enveloping the listener in cheeky aphorisms and false truths. Its stream of incongruous images – cartoons, palm tress, bellies – achieves the effect of looking at the waves, drunk on cheap sparkling wine. You have perhaps a few fucks left to give, but not many. ‘Cold nights, hot morns, foodporn’, says the voice-over in creaking deranged Mary Poppins cadence. As ever in McCarthy’s work, political concerns around droughts and forest fires, xenophobia and violence find their best outlet in a half-melancholic, deadpan sneer. Somehow you just keep on watching.
Anna McCarthy, Drink Cold, Piss Warm (film), 2016, SD-Video, 25 min, 3 + 2 AP
British English sounds so particular in continental Europe, at once strange, and familiar, elevated and completely silly. It reminds you how weird the UK actually is, what an island, so particular. I lived there for a long time and developed really sour feelings for it. It was only recently when I came across the South London band Dry Cleaning that I remembered what used to be fun about it, too. In Scratchcard Lanyard, Dry Cleaning write a portrait of a someone we all know, at least I do, and I suspect Anna McCarthy does as well: ‘I think of myself as a hearty banana / With that waxy surface / And small delicate flowers / A woman in aviators firing a bazooka’ – she’s hilarious, but already in the next moment, less cocky: ‘It’ll be okay, I just need to be weird and hide for a bit/ And eat an old sandwich from my bag.’ It is not so much about what is said but what is not, or what we might tease out from among the inanities: something like the actual substance of the everyday, of life. Ridiculousness, disappointment, fear.
The world is absurd and tragic – how it constantly stumbles and collapses, falls apart while everyone just stands there, filming it with their phones – but in both McCarthy and Dry Cleaning the world finds its equal. They sample the readymade fragments of our post-post culture into a patchwork that allows the stitches to show. ‘Happy Hour’s over’, squeaks McCarthy, ‘Sun’s Out, Guns Out.’ She’s right and insane. And Dry Cleaning: ‘You seem really together / You’ve got a new coat/ New hair / Well, I’ll tell you one thing / You’ve got it coming / One day, you’re gonna get it.’ Let’s hope so.
Scratchcard Lanyard, Dry Cleaning, 2020, Official Video
Ana Navas & Torsten Andersson
Ana Navas’ Etui (2014) & Torsten Andersson’s Ljuskrona av trä (1980–89)
If in Hilger’s work it was possible for me to glimpse the outlines of modern sculptures and paintings, in Ana Navas's the canon is bent in neon, cut out in cardboard, turned into a kind of farce. Etui is the careful wrapping up of a bronze sculpture reminiscent of Brancusi’s. There is more than a little irony to this performance, which plays on our hysterical reverence for the masters of the past, and the paradoxical anxiety within art institutions around the conservation of what often began as radical or transgressive gestures. We might see Navas’s work in the context of the current reconsideration of modernist art history in the light of postcolonial and feminist theory. But Etui is no grave political intervention, but rather a theatre in which we can make of such Euro- and daddy-centric delusions what we will – perhaps first of all laugh about them.
Ana Navas, Etui, 2014, bronze sculpture, fake leather, fabric, 150 × 19 cm (sculpture), 150 × 220 cm (textile)
Installation view, 2014, courtesy the artist and Cobra Museum Amstelveen
Ana Navas, Etui, 2014, bronze sculpture, fake leather, fabric, 150 × 19 cm (sculpture), 150 × 220 cm (textile)
This active production of self-consciousness as to an art work’s relationship to its medium and to art history reminds me of the late Swedish painter Torsten Andersson (1926-2009). He started working at a time – the late 60s – when the legitimacy of traditional modes of art production like sculpture and painting was being seriously questioned. Ljuskrona av trä [Chandelier of Wood] (1980–89) depicts a lumpy canvas with a red form captioned LJUSKRONA/TRÄ (chandelier/wood) painted on it, leaning on a dark-blue cube. The background is white, and the two artworks shown in the painting never existed. Such was Andersson’s answer to the seeming impossibility of figuration within modernism, painting after conceptualism: imaginary objects in imaginary space, figurative depictions of abstract shapes.
What I like about Andersson’s fictitious artworks is that they are shown not as they really would have been—stringent and economical—but as wonky and idiosyncratic, with all the personality and temperament lodged in a brush stroke. Much like Navas, Andersson shows us minimalist sculptures as charmingly insecure, and modern art in a rare, unalienated state. But there’s something tortured in these works, too. Andersson was hard on them, literally not taking care to protect the works, and destroying many as part of a brutal selection process. No intricate etuis there. It is as if he took the self-consciousness installed in the wake of modernism as a kind of punishment, a prison. When I reviewed an exhibition of his a few years ago, I likened his ethos to that of a tough-love parent who risks suffocating the child with all their ideas about what should or shouldn’t be possible to do in a painting. Navas, 58 years Andersson’s junior, has no reason to practice such strict pedagogy. Her works embody a freedom with relation to the canon that artists such as Andersson had to fight for, and project some humour and warmth back onto the outcomes of his conceptual struggle. Chill, says Navas, you’re allowed to play.
Torsten Andersson, Ljuskrona av trä [Chandelier of Wood], 1980–1989, Oil on canvas, 150 × 130 cm, Courtesy the artist and Galerie Nordenhake Berlin/Stockholm/Mexico
Anna Vogel & Adolph Menzel
Anna Vogel’s Ignifer X ( 2014/18) & Adolph Menzel’s Kircheninneres (Barocker Altar) (1852/1855)
I’ve long had a postcard of Anna Vogel’s Ignifer X on my wall. It shows a cloud mid-way through explosion (as if clouds could explode, like balls of paint) over a forest, dense with fog. The seamlessness with which this manipulated blast of cloud has been placed upon the photograph of the landscape somehow extends beyond the motif. As it hangs on my wall, I have the sense that a similar seamlessness exists in the picture’s relationship to its surroundings. Less a picture, actually, than a hole.
Anna Vogel, Ignifer X, 2018, pigment print, framed in abura, artglass, 35 × 50 cm, Edition of 5
Hole is also what I think about Adolph Menzel’s painting of a baroque altar, one of my favourite works in Berlin’s Alte Nationalgalerie. Dark figures crouch in the foreground, kneeling on the floor of the church or leaning on a banister. The alter itself is a a towering mass of brown through which it is just possible to glean the glimmers of candles, (as if marble and gold could disintegrate in such a way, like smoke, another blast of cloud). It is a picture of reverence, sure, for god and for the church. But a reverence tinged with mystery and confusion, suspicion, even. Must it impose as well as impress? Must one be trepidatious in awe, a stranger to oneself in belief? As in the Goya painting, Menzel uses abstraction to communicate this highly ambivalent, murky feeling, barely utterable, barely distinguishable from the existential treble that underlies all of one’s life, anyway. Another church interior of Menzel’s, which is in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, in its unfinished state, shows the alter as a precise blue print not yet filled in. Strangely it has the same effect as the brown cloud in Berlin: that something about this object, this setting, is impossible, out of reach.
Vogel’s Ignifer shares in this impulse to strip down or cover up in order to speak to something we do not yet know what is, and perhaps never will. Her works are not about religion (as I don’t think Menzel’s really were either) but about nature and the elements, the infrastructures that mediate our relationships to those things. An explosion of cloud over a forest, much like an alter going up in smoke, describes an intelligent sense of uncertainty and doubt as to the texture of the world and our place in it.
Adolph Menzel, Altar in einer Barockkirche (unfinished), ca. 1880/90, Oil over preliminary drawing in blue pencil on oak wood, 50 × 61 cm, Copyright: bpk / Nationalgalerie, SMB, photo: Klaus Göken
Adolph Menzel, Kircheninneres (Barocker Altar), ca. 1852/1855, Oil on canvas, 70.5 × 60 cm, Copyright: bpk / Nationalgalerie, SMB photo: Andres Kilger
Malte Zenses & Leonilson
Malte Zenses’ Untitled (2021) & Leonilson’s Leo can’t change the world (1991)
Malte Zenses’s work, you realise at the latest upon encountering the many digital collages from the last year, is not so entirely flippant, so tongue-in-cheek as it might appear at first glance. I’ve picked out a mostly white specimen with light pink and blue specks over a drawing of a hand holding a cigarette. It reminds me of Andy Warhol’s drawings of Truman Capote’s hand, his unrequited obsession with the aloof writer at once ludicrous and tender. Scribbled underneath, it reads: ‘Heulkrampf beim Dinner mit Ursula und Rudolf’. Heulkrampf – what a word. Bawling, howling like an infant in Ohnmacht, unable to speak. What, one wonders, is the relation between the hand and the howling? It would not be the first time cigarettes had served as a measure of sadness. From the number of new collages, it seems their production must have been a near-daily practice during the last, strange year. Another one says: ‘Überlebe’.
Malte Zenses, Untitled, 2021, digital collage
Leonilson was also the type of artist whose output reads almost like a diary. Or perhaps the kind of human being who could not help but turn every mark he made on the world into an art work. His many tiny drawings, often set in the middle of a much larger piece of paper, seem as if extracted directly, purely from his life; thoughts pulled out of one’s head like hairs with a pair of tweezers. Leo can’t change the world is an utterance that appears in several of his works. In a drawing from 1989, it captions a picture of two table lamps and one chandelier. What about this scene cannot be changed? That there is one lamp and another? That Leo can’t have them? In 1991, the words are stitched onto a large, light, nearly translucent piece of white fabric. Here the subject is emptiness, fragility, beauty. The artist died in 1993 from AIDS related illness. It is difficult to read his work – the exquisite sensitivity of the drawings, the apparent earnestness of these daily extracts of life – outside of the knowledge of his untimely death as a kind of devastating countdown. If, in the case of Zenses, severity often alludes him, for Leonilson, tragedy has tended to weigh down what might have been more light-hearted, in fact performative, or even flippant gestures.
It is funny to read accounts of what Leonilson was like from his friends. One says he was always reading, always having sex. The other that he only ever wrote poems about sex, never had it, and was rarely able to finish a book. Did Malte Zenses dissolve into a sea of tears while at dinner with Ursula and Rudolf? Did Leo really want to change the world, or was he enchanted by the poetic tininess of himself in the scheme of things? In both practices, there is earnestness as well as something else: fanciful stylisation; the development of a persona, both funny and defeated, exposed and entirely unaccountable. The, to me, boundless appeal of Leonilson’s work stems from a deep concern and emotional intensity that never tips over into righteousness, moralism or sentimentality. When Zenses asked friends to respond to the impending, in fact, ongoing, ecological apocalypse, there was also genuine concern – each day as one that must be survived – but not of a kind adversed to the answer given by one of the artist’s interlocutors: Fuck it!
Leonilson (1957 Fortaleza–1993 São Paulo), Leo não pode mudar o mundo / Leo can´t change the world, 1991, Embroidery / thread and canvas on voile, Unframed 140,5 × 141 cm, Acrylic frame 154 × 154 × 6 cm Courtesy Private Collection, São Paulo
Cover Image: Anna McCarthy, Turning Tables, ca. 200 × 120 cm, dispersion paint, mobile phones, glas, foil, coins, bread, pan, plastic fork, rope, candles on wood, 2013