DAVID ZWIRNER | FEBRUARY 22 – APRIL 12, 2018
There is lots of empty space in Isa Genzken’s art, which is odd given her propensity to create visual mayhem and to coax an overflow of detritus into messy collages that describe all manner of ruination. All used up. Nothing there. The end. The idea of empty or blank space as material, as concept, as experience, has been a constant in her work. This productive vacancy lends itself to the uncertainty we all live with, and it permits various readings about the cultures we live in, while owing allegiance to none. Despite the lack of dedication to a discernable social narrative, she situates her inquiries very consistently at the yawning gap between what was and what’s next. Notably, her impulse is not to theorize the ineffable, but to decorate it.
In the late ’80s, Genzken materialized ideas of empty space in a series of small concrete maquettes that approximate architectural ruins. Collectively, the fragmented sculptures engage the debris fields of damaged and destroyed buildings that stretched across post-war Germany, like the ones she grew up around. These early iterations of prefabricated ruins are related to the architectural follies that once proliferated in Europe to delight the Romantic imagination. It was understood that their appearance overshadowed their purpose—they were designed not to inform, but purely for pleasurable longing.
Genzken’s contemporary follies extend from her early sculptures of bombed-out buildings, to her mute “transmission sculptures.” Begun in the early ’90s, these boxy, concrete forms, implanted with actual antennae, mimic various types of transistor radios and pose suggestively as relics. In an instant they communicate their inability to communicate and playfully propose some grand dysfunction. They amplify the idea of failure—failure to communicate, failure to receive. At the same time, they are darkly humorous. Plug in any disaster narrative, and it works with these punchy pieces. Genzken’s contemporary ruins epitomize emptiness and abandonment in a very literal way, yet notably without being elegiac. Rather, like everything she produces, they might be seen as opportunistically borrowing from the cultural context in service of an aesthetic which values, above all, being unfashionable and wrong.
Descendent from ruined buildings and radio relics, Genzken’s slim, new, vertical cast concrete monoliths, part of her “loudspeakers” series, return us to an ongoing meditation that showcases silence, as memorial art usually does; and yet, they have a kind of bouncy irreverent energy that belies affiliation with loss. Loosely grouped in her current exhibition, the lanky sculptures, patterned with see-through holes (where speakers would be), share space with hinged cast concrete sculptures that approximate frames for otherwise missing windows, doors, mirrors, and screens. These might be seen, metaphorically, as liminal portals or thresholds associated with ideas of psychic transformation or escape; they might also be seen more literally as house parts that introduce the idea of domestic space and, importantly, reference the body.
There’s always mischief in Genzken’s art. Artistically, she gets off on disaster—the tradition of anti-kunst gives cover here—but she also intuitively understands urban style that comes up from the street, the kind that translates stigma into style. This accounts for energy in the work that’s fundamentally generative: it has to be wrong before it can be right. In her current exhibition, as it has been for a decade, it’s her mannequin “actors” who instrumentalize this cultural maneuver and, at the same time, bring the idea of blank or empty space most clearly into focus. After all, they are known as “dummies.” They are the progeny of the figurines who populate her Empire/Vampire series of 2004, and of the three life-size mannequins—outfitted in real NASA astronaut suits—who “powered down” from the ceiling of the German Pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale into a pack of oddly abandoned-looking, and possibly lethal, suitcase sculptures. Like an invading force, once the decked-out mannequins landed, they never left her work.
The “actors” were all over her retrospective at MOMA in 2013. Here, too, they have a tendency to steal the show. Three mannequins emerge, caryatid-style, from polished and decorated aluminum panels, as if stepping out from Orpheus’s mirror. Others are arranged in two freestanding groups. One bunch occupies a cheesy living room set where a couple has stiff sex on a couch while another mannequin, indifferent to the fornicating, is preoccupied with herself in a full-length mirror that’s part of the ensemble. In the other group, scantily clad adults, plus two children, are poised, as if on a walk-about or perhaps a fashion runway. Sprouting up here and there, partially mirrored MDF sculptures that are made to resemble urban high-rise towers contribute to the quality of mise-en-scène and make-believe.
Festooned with clipped-on plastic drapes, made-up with spray paint, and accessorized with branded merchandize,the actors are a theatrical troupe unto themselves. Like a contemporary Family of Saltimbanques, they could be descendant from the circus people and acrobats in Picasso’s Rose Period paintings, who seem to live eternally in a world apart from social convention. As if to riff on the idea of globality, these curious performers are always just passing through town but belong nowhere. The denizens of Genzken’s funky world are, of course, totally fickle when it comes to content. Talk about blank space! In all their self-absorption, they personify emptiness and inaccessibility to the core. One of the mannequins, literally, has a sign taped to its back that reads “empty.”
Aesthetically speaking, the figures are trashed out, never fully clothed, and certainly pariahs when it comes to the rigors of fashion demanded by the art world. But let’s not discount their most outstanding feature: They are so wrong, they’re right; so bad, they’re good. It just depends what style frequency you’re on. For the record, Michael Jackson makes an appearance in a performance photograph collaged to the back of the free-standing mirror in the living room set.
Content is very transactional in Genzken’s work. There is always the possibility of exchange and interaction—which city, which year, which event, which aesthetic tradition. Some see her crew as evidence of the decline of Western Civilization, but that’s only part of the picture. When these characters show up, as they do all the time now, things go provocatively, deliriously, off the deep end. Their vacuity, far from functioning as a narrative of social disorder, is so highly charged, so heavily ornamented and utterly decadent, that they strike a familiar chord that resonates throughout Genzken’s practice. Ideas of decline are often synonymous with celebration.
JAN AVGIKOS is a critic and historian who lives and works in NYC and the Hudson Valley.