Art in Context by John Beeson

Since the late 1980s, Rainer Ganahl has frequently exhibited his work in solo and group shows around the world; he has been included in biennials from Moscow to Shanghai, has shown in the Arsenale in Venice and as a representative in the Austrian Pavilion, and recently has opened a series of solo exhibitions in museums around Europe. He speaks with John Beeson about context, form, and the benefits of biking.

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Ganahl is having proper tea with Karl Holmsqvist, Berlin 2010. Ink on paper and photograph (21 × 29.7cm (A4) each). Courtesy of Alex Zachary, New York and the artist.

After studying philosophy and history for five years did Rainer Ganahl came to art—as he says—more or less by accident. These years, which he considers to be the most significant of his formative years, have continued to define his relation to art as well as his conception of what it means to be an artist. Since the late 1980s, Ganahl has frequently exhibited his work in solo and group shows around the world; he has been included in biennials from Moscow to Shanghai, has shown in the Arsenale in Venice and as a representative in the Austrian Pavilion, and recently has opened a series of solo exhibitions in museums around Europe. Ganahl was born in the city of Bludenz, in Austria, and has been living in New York City now for over 20 years.

Last month, Ganahl opened the exhibition Tea Party at Werkstadt Graz in Austria. Inspired by the boutique-like environment in the gallery, Ganahl conceived of the space as a tea house with a reading-club atmosphere. During the first week of the exhibition, the artist presented a series of readings—as he has done sine the early 1990s, having been inspired by a photo of graffiti in Paris in 1968 which read, “Lundi Marx, Mardi Mao” (Monday Marx, Tuesday Mao), indicating the quick change in ideology at the time. The list of authors included in his schedule of readings reads somewhat like a syllabus for a graduate course in radical political thought—Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong, Alfred Jarry, Tristan Tzara, and The Financial Times—and represents the theoretical backbone of Ganahl’s current artistic production. The physical works that were exhibited included a series of ink drawings combined with photographs documenting a recent group of performances. The series, titled Tea Party. Proper tea is theft??—after Marx’s colonialist-minded paraphrasing of the famous statement by Proudhon: “Property is theft.”—exemplifies the swirling universe of at-times absurd, ironic, and often referential subject matter that comprises this vein of Ganahl’s work.

John Beeson In her review of your recent exhibition Language of Emigration & Pictures of Emigration at Alex Zachary, Roberta Smith referred to you as a “veteran Conceptual artist.” Are you a Conceptual artist? And, more broadly, how does your work relate to its art historical context?

Rainer Ganahl Let’s say that being considered a “Conceptual artist” is less annoying than being called a “video artist” or a “media artist”—a label I really object to, although people in Germany seem to like it. Having studied with Peter Weibel [at the HAK-Vienna] and Nam June Paik [at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf], I was associated with these labels often; hence, I learned to enjoy being called a “Conceptual artist.” But, do I identify with it? When compared with straightforward painters, I might rather look like a Conceptual artist, since ideas are the driving force behind what I do. But, when compared to some historical figures of classical Conceptual art, I am not always on their wavelength.

To answer the second part of your question, I would say that I don’t really care so much about the historical lineage of classical Conceptual art. I feel no obligation to guard a tradition—quite the opposite. If some of today’s (young) artists stay hard the course of ‘70s Conceptual art practices, in most cases I find it very annoying. What was done in the ‘60s and ‘70s was relevant to the cultural, technological, social, scientific, political, and media environment of those specific times. Though, needless to say, some people, such as collectors and dealers, love it when things resemble or are nostalgic of previously successful periods and styles.

I try to relate to my world and my current situation and instead engage with modernist figures that predate even Marcel Duchamp and are not necessarily limited to the visual arts. I do so, for example, by thinking of Alfred Jarry, Vladimir Lenin, or Fritz Haber as unrecognized Dadaists. Compared to the apparently limited set of artistic choices made by Conceptual artists of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s—although great exceptions do exist—my choices are eclectic at best. I am not afraid to do whatever comes to my mind, whatever I find suitable for the situation and context, whatever I can produce or afford to have made. I am not afraid to use old and anachronistic media should I discover a contextual or poetic reason for them.

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DADALENIN, 2007. Bronze, porcelain. Courtesy of Alex Zachary, New York and the artist.

JB You are currently a professor at the ABK-Stuttgart, and several series of your works take pedagogy, intellectual history, or simply informational exchange as their subjects. Nevertheless, this is normally done in a relatively personalized way, in a way that avoids the abstraction of information to the point of being dry or dense. Can this be considered as a functional difference between a conceptual dimension of your method—assuming that there is one—and the methods of historical Conceptualists?

RG This might be a lovely difference to which I subscribe, but we shouldn’t forget those historical positions that are romantic or are based on idiosyncratic lifestyles and personal interests. I am thinking specifically of Alighiero Boetti, Bas Jan Ader, Douglas Huebler, or Vito Acconi, who were as much classical Conceptual artists as they were hopeless romantics. The problem with comparisons arises with the lumping together of all these heterogenic approaches that crystallized under the historical banner of Conceptual art.

Simply put, new approaches in art are less to be explained from within art than from the dramatic rotations of the world in which art is situated. I would even go as far as to say that the trend towards the conceptualization of the arts in the late ’60s was an expression of the conceptualization of society and its technologies that had already occurred. We shouldn’t forget—to name just one example—that it was the introduction of 474 Boeing jetliners that created an international art scene, with its traveling protagonists. Only when you can choose from an international menu of artists and venues are curators needed and can big international group shows take off.

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Installation view of Holzwege. Ein Passionsspiel at Hospitalhof Stuttgart, Germany, April-May 2010. Courtesy of Alex Zachary, New York and the artist.

JB Especially with you recent exhibition Holzwege. Ein Passionsspiel at Hospitalhof Stuttgart, you situate your work in contexts that inform and are informed by the works exhibited. Some works in that show commented on the identity of their specific context. To what extent were works conceived for this specific location? How does this dialogue reflect your artistic inspiration?

RG Nearly all works of mine are based on some context, be it even just my personal life. I like that the word itself already says it all: ‘con’ (with) and ‘text’—together, wildly translated as “with text.” Given my text-based education as a theoretician and historian, I have almost no choice but to engage with my contexts. In the case of Hospitalhof, we are looking at a complex that is nearly half a millennium old and has served as a playground for knights, a monastery, a hospital, a prison, an SS torture and detention center, and, since WWII, again as a church and education center with the inclusion of an exhibition platform.

For that exhibition, I decided to work with wooden sculptural relief, a traditional medium for church interiors. Given the site’s various functions, I chose a set of themes that overlapped with aspects of my work and interests. To give a few examples: in reference to its function as a church, I invoked the famous quote by Karl Marx: “Religion is the opium of the people” [also translated as “Religion is the opiate of the masses”]. Another work, a portrait of Theodor Adorno, a Jewish philosopher who became the main integration figure of post-war intellectual life in Germany and Austria, stood for the artistic and educational functions of Hospitalhof. Then again, the sinister and horrific function of the Büchsenschmiere (can lubricant)—as Hospitalhof was cynically called during the Nazi period—I saw best addressed with a work depicting used Zyklon-B poison cans at Auschwitz.

Several subjects in the exhibition related to each other in the following way: Zyklon-B was invented in 1918 by Fritz Haber, a German-Jewish Nobel Prize winner, who also invented and weaponized mustard gas for the German-Austrian side during WWI. Chemical weapons and gas masks became a very significant new marker for WWI, which, in the works, I compared to with the cultural activities occurring at the same time at Cabaret Voltaire in neutral Zurich. Dada and chemical warfare were innovations that transgressed laws and conventions to the point of uncontrollable escalation.

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Fritz Haber, 2007. Ink on paper. Courtesy of Alex Zachary, New York and the artist.

JB Can you say something more about the existence of motifs in your work—which have recently included Dadaism, Communism, Alfred Jarry, and bicycles?

RG As I pointed out earlier, all that historical stuff enters as text through context. By playing texts against each other, I am able to reread history against its own institutionalized order and reopen it for new questionings and new arrangements. I became interested in Alfred Jarry because Jarry’s “King Ubu,” a play that stages the usurpation of total power by a subordinate who killed the entire royal family, was read at Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. At the time, Lenin, himself, lived in the same small street where Cabaret Voltaire held its most celebrated events. Lenin was most likely a frequent participant in the activities of Cabaret Voltaire. Very shortly after “King Ubu” was presented, Lenin gave the order to have the entire Romanov family killed. The coincidence of Dadaism and Lenin inspired an open-ended body of work that I callDADALENINDADALENIN has become for me a tragic-comic category that I try to project not only onto history but also onto the present.

Communism is “Alfred Jarry’s absurd theater plus DADALENIN” in the way that Lenin proclaimed, “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the entire country.” Communism and DADALENIN are broken hopes mounted on bicycles while colliding with a tramway, as Lenin did in Geneva, because of which he almost lost an eye. Alfred Jarry was one of the most radical bicyclists and doping advocates of all time (see: Perpetual Motion Food). Bicycles are modernist machines that enable the true and literal auto-mobilization of the masses. Bicycles are also an answer to our energy and obesity problems, a remedy for urban sprawl and planning impasses. Bicycles are the finest driving machines and can always be used for art making. Bicycles also cure headaches and heartaches and render social networking sites unnecessary.

JB In a reciprocal way, is the scope of your work determined by the social, political, historical, and various other contexts that surround your subjects of interest? Do you freely combine motifs and themes, or do you limit yourself to what is logically related?

RG The reality is that most things we do in life, we do without much thought—they are intuitive and need not be analyzed for every conscious or unconscious decision-making twist. As it relates to my work, the idea for DADALENIN came out of a five-minute conversation in which I learned some basic facts about Cabaret Voltaire—specifically that Lenin had lived just across the street—following an invitation that I had received to do a project there. Then again, the show Tea Party came together during a 30-minute visit by the curator of that exhibition. The Hospitalhof exhibition was conceived in a couple of minutes after seeing a student hammering away on a plaster relief in the stone workshop, which I had walked through by accident.

I think I am a very beauty-driven man and have barely ever opted for choices that I don’t also like aesthetically, emotionally, or otherwise. Needless to say, what beauty is for one person may be trash for another, and vice-versa. A set of jewelry pieces that I made recently, which are conceived as portable mini-sculptures, are not well understood by some of my supporters, from what I can tell. I seem to have become “incalculable” and harder to anticipate for those who want me in this or that corner depending on their standing. But I don’t really care at all—I’ll do what I like. Now, for example, I’ll just go to sleep in the middle of the day—and not for art’s sake.

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DADALENIN, 2010. Bronze. Courtesy of Alex Zachary, New York and the artist.

JB You travel, live, teach, and exhibit internationally. Is there such a thing as an international context for your work? Although you have a broad and keen understanding of art and history internationally, are there inherent difficulties in relating to your work for uninformed or less well-traveled viewers?

RG I do think that every work has a social and intellectual context that fits to it. I also believe that people who are informed by similar sources, similar educational backgrounds, and similar experiences are most likely to identity with my work. My case is in no way different from others, although the stages of my cultural and intellectual socialization are quite diverse, since I studied a variety of subjects in a variety of places, in a variety of languages, and in a variety of cultures.

Usually, I don’t intend for my work to be incomprehensible. I try to communicate and make art in order to reach people who share a relationship to my contexts. Now, you may ask, what happens to people whose contexts don’t overlap much with mine when they come in contact with my artworks? I don’t know. But, it goes without saying that people who have read books by Edward Said see the photos that I took in Said’s class at Columbia University [part of the ongoing series Seminars/Lectures, begun in 1995] in a different light than people who have never read his name. In the end, though, my work loses out, which explains why it is not easy to be sold or collected.

JB What is your interest in the formal nature of your work? Is your formal interest subordinate to other interests? Is this representative of a larger political-artistic belief?

RG Somehow I don’t think in these terms—form here, content there. The formal aspects are very, very important, but they are somehow determinate or given by context, by references, by the needs of the work, or by the producer of the work. When I work with painters or sculptors that I solicit on Craigslist, the respondents are mostly art students, and, depending on the result, I either recognize the product as a work of mine or I don’t. I once had a nice guy who was supposed to paint letter by letter, but instead of doing so he just finished the text off with a simple stroke. In the end, even that lazy gesture worked very well.

I also appreciate traditional, craftsman-like renderings of subjects, if it helps to translate one media into another. This was the case with the wooden reliefs. But, the majority of my works— photographs or performances—are made following an Occam’s razor and a form-follows-function, straightforward, snapshot-like approach to doing things. Only in regards toDADALENIN and Alfred Jarry’s avant-garde decadence and absurd nonchalance do I also permit modes of productions that had barely ever caught my interest before.

Whether this attitude is representative of a larger belief I don’t know, but I clearly have seen other people doing it as well—namely Jeff Koons, who was big when I was an art student, and many YBA artists, who also order absurd things to be made in absurd materials. These modes of production are less an expression of a political-artistic belief than of a galloping extension of conceptualism becoming mannerist. Artists today do whatever best fits their purposes, whatever these purposes are. With a quasi-dialectical twist, I’d like to offer an explanation for this hysterical “media-frenzy” [the production of many different works, many of which are in a different media] which definitely applies to me: the less an artist possesses traditional skills, the less he or she is bound by a specific medium, which allows him or her to choose from the entire spectrum of artistic and non-artistic options and styles.

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John Beeson, a critic and curator from New York City, is currently living in Germany. His interests include art of the ’70s, experimental printmaking, and contemporary art.

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