08 Mar –
18 Apr 2021
08 Mar –
18 Apr 2021
KOW Joint Ventures
Day for Night (1992/2021)
26 Mar –
18 Apr 2021
There is much that is changing—and some things that have ceased to change. When Oswald Oberhuber, who presumably prized openness above all else, died little over a year ago, his life and his work came to an end. But our meditation on his oeuvre continues. Oswald Oberhuber’s work is based on something that is considered to be of the utmost relevance today; over the decades, however, it has been clad in such widely varied concepts and metaphors that some of what has long been known and said, or done, is unrecognizable in the contemporary discourse’s trending concerns.
What would that be? Oberhuber’s maxim—and the guiding idea of his practice—was the embrace of a simple principle: the principle of “permanent change.” Today’s younger generations may no longer see it as a major breakthrough when an artist seizes the freedom to follow no plan, to submit to no stylistic regime, to keep trying something else; perhaps even not to insinuate that she or he, or it, has a dependable grasp, at a given moment, on what she or he or it is doing, or is. But we should be honest: the reality is different. “Quality is measured by the quantity of the uniform output being piled up,” Oberhuber wrote in 1982. In 2021, that is arguably still the general rule in the art world, although fortunately enough there are exceptions.
Still, these are superficialities. Having been bullied by the Nazis in his native Tyrol as a teenager, what Oberhuber wanted at heart was this: never again to obey a rule that exerted force and was enforced by violence, that made no sense, that could not be part of his own personal decision. “Permanent change” meant the right to the kind of anarchy that sees no reason and no occasion to follow people and ideas and institutions that were not after his own mind and heart. There is no need to call it resistance. Self-will will do.
True, over the decades, Oswald Oberhuber himself became an institution, an artist who was one of a kind and a powerful player in the Austrian culture and education sector who was hardly without his detractors. As rector of the University of Applied Arts, he inspired numerous students; his contrarian sallies onto the political scene raised eyebrows. Historians, meanwhile, hailed him as one of the originators of cultural postwar modernism in Vienna and far beyond, and he won plaudits commensurate with his achievements; in 1973, he represented Austria at the Venice Biennale.
But to come back to where we began: what can Oswald Oberhuber, who would have celebrated his ninetieth birthday this year, teach us today? What can we do with his principle of “permanent change”? “Everything can change when we set our hand to it!” he wrote, and he meant business. Who, if not we? When, if not now? How, if not this way? Without a canon or anyone bossing anyone around; but with the humility of the feasible in the given circumstances. For although his ambition to give himself a voice that would be heard was unmistakable, it was also manifest that the means to that end would have to be basic, requiring no major resources and no reliance on economies or institutions.
“Permanent change,” that means, in a word, praxis. A doing in time. And times change. Conditions, media, politics, the artist himself: nothing remains what it was, and why should it. That might just be what makes Oberhuber’s work relevant today: that he did something at each juncture, and always in a way that seemed right to him at that juncture. And tomorrow might call for different solutions, to be devised by different means. Why indeed commit to anything? Why effectively gum up the future with decisions that look compelling only right now? No, if we would keep the future open, we have no choice but to adopt permanent change as the principle of what we do, too—and translate that principle into practice.
One final note: like everything that becomes history, Oswald Oberhuber’s oeuvre is the child of its times—in this case, of the span from the 1950s to the late 2010s. And beneath the enormous mobility and flexibility of his practice, it obviously evinces the complexion of an era; there are trademark features, a methodology to his work, even, arguably, a style, despite (or because of) the anarchistic versatility of his forms. And so Oberhuber’s oeuvre stands as an exemplary and quite personal model of an attitude and a praxis that really do espouse freedom as the highest good, no matter how and where.
KOW Joint Ventures
Day for Night (1992/2021)
presented by Modern Art, London
I had these ideas about modern West Germany. It was silent. It was empty. The figures were small, or they were art students lined up in front of colored squares of paper. Whatever I saw in the work of Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth and Thomas Ruff was somewhat perfect, organized, static, airless. And frozen in time that looked like the 70’s. West Germany itself, a word I might see on a watch face or an Olympic memorial to the Israeli wrestlers killed by Palestinians in Munich. Somehow, I was there and not there. Dead, memorialized, alive and dead again.
I went to Germany in 1989. And again, for 20 summers. During the third summer I started taking photographs. I was convinced the German landscape held some truth other than the one I had seen in the large-scale imports I saw at 303 Gallery and Marian Goodman Gallery. Schwäbisch Gmünd was soft and pastoral. And the local boys seemed soft and pastoral. I would have never made photos in New York. Nan Goldin, Jack Pierson and Larry Clark already made them. But in Germany, I could take a figure of my imagination and place them in the landscape memorialized by the Düsseldorf School. And I could as they say now- queer the space. So I shot my girlfriend’s nephew Horst and a fusion of myself and him, of a young girl and of a young boy of a woman who looked like a boy. I wanted to make him suffer for his luxury… as if he knew he had this luxury which I can never know. Ultimately, it’s a simple proposition. An image of queerness in an open airfield, rather than a club or a closet or a tenement New York apartment or West Side street corner. One image is called After Cindy Sherman because of how I wished I could use myself to talk about myself. But to do that I would have to find my image bearable and I did not. I saw Germany as a very romantic place and I attacked it and was seduced by it every year. I took the one category in August Sander’s work that the Düsseldorf kids didn’t touch : the Nazi’s. I thought to myself, wow, they really left those soldiers out. Don’t they realize that’s the guts and the ghosts worth tearing apart? I began to enjoy the fact that my story about Germany, my Antlitz Der Zeit, was completely ignored. Too romantic, too gay but not authored by a gay male, too Jewish but not Jewish enough, too personal.
Now I look at Horst and I think about my own body naked on the cover of Frieze magazine and dancing in a ballet I’m making. And posing with Jordan Wolfson in Fantastic Man. The same face the same hair. Over 30 years difference. Suddenly acceptable. Perhaps because the queer figure has more presence agency representation. I still find Horst, with his Levis’s and sweat socks, the tropes of Christopher Street and his teenage girl make up somewhat radical. Because he looks like a living paper doll. Dressed and pasted into a landscape to disrupt the pristine crisis of a German photograph, transmounted, with a wide white border, expansive and somewhat toeing the line.
Forced Love by Irene Kanga portrays a man raping a woman. Kanga has been working with CATPC since 2014 and has sought to render visible the violence imposed on women – including herself – on the plantation. She links her personal experiences to an historic event: the rape of a Pende woman by a Belgian colonial agent in 1931, in the midst of one of many campaigns to forcibly round up men to become palm cutters for the Lever Brothers plantation in Lusanga (formerly known as Leverville).
During such a round-up, able-bodied men hid in the forest to avoid recruitment. In their absence, Kafutchi, one of the wives of chief Matema Kelenge was forced against an enclosure and raped by colonial agents. According to the historian Charles Sikitele Gize, this rape was one of the key events that led to the decapitation and dismemberment of colonial agent Maximilien Balot, and to the great Pende revolt of 1931, one of the last open rebellions before independence. Fought with bows and arrows against the machine guns of the colonial state, an untold number of Pende lost their lives, including much of the political and religious elite.
In Congo and elsewhere, plantations have generated massive profits, which in turn have funded the building of European and American museums. Art thus provided an opportunity for shareholders to distance themselves from the violence of the plantation system. Today, plantations in the global south are still closely linked to art production. Rain forests are cut down and subjected to monoculture, causing climate change and increasing inequality. The value extracted from these plantations is still partially invested in museums in cities such as New York, Dakar or Brussels, generating beauty and wealth in the surrounding economies. Even if these museums propagate inclusivity and diversity, few of these benefits return to the plantation.
CATPC’s sculptures from river clay are digitally scanned using state of the art 3D technology, exported and reproduced in Amsterdam (the world’s biggest cocola port) in chocolate enriched with palm fat. CATPC’s first solo exhibition in New York City, highlighting these sculptures, led to much controversy and was hailed by the New York Times as ‘best art of 2017’. As journalist Jason Farago wrote: ‘This was the most challenging show of the year, and proudly “problematic,” but that was the point: You need to be fearless, and run right into the swamp of possible misunderstanding, to have any hope of making a difference’ (New York Times, 6 Dec 2017). Joanna Fiduccia went further: ‘Plantations were not just operations; they were ideologies, justifying the treatment of resources, people, and their sculptural “fetishes” alike as raw material that must subsequently be refined into first-world luxuries. A plantation workers’ art collective is transgressive because it establishes intimacy with material that has been historically denied to them: not chocolate, but sculpture’ (Even Magazine).
Through participating in the global art market, profitably producing and selling critically engaged art, CATPC buys back land. In collaboration with Dutch artist Renzo Martens, who launched a ‘reverse gentrification program’ in 2012, CATPC has opened an OMA-designed museum on their own land, near the plantation town Lusanga. Dubbed the White Cube, it operates like art museums do elsewhere: it functions as a vehicle for diversity and inclusivity, as well as for capital, visibility and legitimacy, in this case to start another type of plantation. With the sales of their sculptures, CATPC has so far acquired 85 ha, where its members develop a sustainable alternative to the destructive system of monoculture: a new, inclusive, worker-owned post plantation.
On a visit to CATPC’s studio in Lusanga in 2016, the former Congolese minister of Culture and Tourism, Elvis Mutira Wa Bashara, stated: “Plantations have financed European museums. This means that inequality is prolonged through these museums. Working class Congolese are not represented in art exhibitions in New York, London or Berlin. There is a wealth of artistic vision that lives in the population. Today, the adversity that lives in the plantation expresses itself through art.”
Text by Zoe Gray for Wiels Centre d‘Art Contemporain