Looking At Us Looking At You: Looking Down on Isa Genzken

Isa Genzken, "Schauspieler II," 2014. Photo: Rainar Iglar.

Isa Genzken is one of the most respected German artists working today, whose brittle sculptures and shiny, glittery collages document a world of trash and surface, fallen women and empty men. She represented Germany at the 2007 Venice Biennale, which, like her MoMA survey touring America right now, introduced Genzken’s work to a larger audience. Her new exhibition at Salzburg’s Museum der Moderne (on until Feb. 22, 2015) is tight, laconic, and, like a karate punch to the diaphragm. It leaves you gasping.

The museum itself is notable, in part for its Brutalist marble elevator shaft-like presence (Friedrich Hoff Zwink architects, 2004) cut into one of Salzburg’s hilltops, an architectural travesty that works because of the twee Mozart & chocolates tourist-town that surrounds it. Also noteworthy is that one floor up from Genzken’s show lies a sprawling exhibition of the Lebanese artist Etel Adnan. It’s not often one finds two different women artists in solo shows in the same museum, and both are strong exhibitions that hold their court. But perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. With a show coming up at Vienna’s Kunsthalle Wien next year (where Nicolaus Schafhausen, who curated Genzken at Venice, is now director), and in spite of all kinds of tabloid-ready drama, Genzken manages to be a great artist who is also the bad girl who out-does all the other bad girls, and the bad boys, too.

Genkzen’s work here is divided between a crowd of badly-dressed mannequins, wall works that are less traditional collages than mood boards for our manic twenty-first century, and a series of photographs on the floor, onto which we are invited to walk. Of the mannequins (Schauspielers II, 2014), some have clothes on, though clunky and oddly-matched (a football helmet, a lifejacket, goggles, shoulder pads, a sweater tied around the neck or a turtleneck pulled up over the chin). They may be half-nude, or with a Bristol-board tube on its head. They may be lying on the floor with invitations to Genzken’s MoMA show strewn over them.

The haphazard costuming suggests that a Wal-Mart was looted in a post-Katrina frenzy, but the mannequins-as-sculptures also add an odd, uncanny feeling to the space. I saw the exhibition in conditions where it was both packed and empty, and was, myself, as I stood motionless looking at the wall art, mistaken for a mannequin by a security guard, who gasped when I moved. I made the same mistake a few minutes later, regarding a standing viewer. So are these mannequins the mirror images of ourselves? Since Genzken likes to use mirrors – as base plates, or those tiny reflectors mounted on fabric – perhaps it’s our clunky consumerism, or emotional baggage, on which the work invites our reflection. But think of the fable of the Chinese philosopher, Zhuangzi, who dreamt he was a butterfly, and, the next day, wondered if he was a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi. Perhaps the mannequins are startled when one of their fellows does not move. “I thought you were alive. But I am relieved that you are not.” And this topsy-turvy reversal is key to the effect of putting mannequins in an art space: they are both on exhibit, as are store window dummies, and yet part of the crowd. (Think of Vanessa Beecroft’s model-as-object installations, and the question becomes more complicit-making).

A series of wall works – four of them titled Briefmarke – are less unsettling, but equally considered. The application of adhesive and mirror foil, tape, paper, photo-prints, and spray paint becomes part of the thinking, with these pictures presenting something that’s as much about their materials – carefully listed with the works’ titles – and their juxtaposition, as their final image. Strips of color set up a formal cacophony with the silvery fragments but, as with the mannequins, it’s the colors themselves that are the most jarring. Everything is hard to look at, is ugly, because of those oranges, bilious greens, or metallics. These are the colors of our prefab world today, the marketing reality of Claire’s and Costco and adverts furtively slid through the mail slot. As with the bodies of the mannequins that unsettle the exhibition space, the colors of contemporary life harsh us out when we have to see them in an art gallery.

Genzken’s art wants us to look down on it – literally, and perhaps metaphorically, too. The pieces on the floor juxtapose large photographs of street scenes – a man kisses his little dog in front of a New York bodega in one picture – to flowers, Old Masters’ reproductions, slogans like “Isa Genzken is the Only Female Fool.” Protected by Plexi-glas, when you look at these works between your feet it’s as if the floor – a sidewalk of spectacle – was now art. The very act of looking down changes perception, however. Our body, our neck, our head, are aligned differently, and it’s easy, confronted with Genzken’s self-mockery, the trashy sublime, the glitter and the glam and the glued-together posters, to not take her seriously. This is the paradox of Genzken’s art: not taking itself seriously, refusing to be “real art,” or feminist art, or even the canonized “low materials” of arte poverta, it accomplishes something more, dare I say, lasting. Genzken’s art throws how we look at art back at us. Don’t look at me, her art says. Don’t you dare.

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