In her book on Female Spanish Mystics, Ana Morte Acin makes a very good point about the way women’s ‘flaws’ were manipulated by them in XVII century Spain in order to manage their own lives in a context where survival was the only mandate. Those were times of economic crisis and famine when noble families did not have the funds to provide a dowry which gave women no other option than becoming a nun. In the convents they had to fight for survival in a passive aggressive way. They used to manipulate hunger into a self-imposed fasting that proved the world that they had a special connection with God. Thus, anorexia quickly became a passport to holiness and, in some cases, celebrity and political power.
A few days ago, I reviewed Ana Mendieta’s show which should be linked because of its obsession with self harm and blood with the Spanish mystics. However, in her case (as in Marina Abramovic’s and Tracey Emin’s, to give just three examples) they transform not only their bodies but also art as an institutional practice into spaces were their personal miseries are transformed into some sort of expressive practices.
In my opinion, ‘former’ alcoholic Iza Genzken’s retrospective at MOMA goes in the same direction of the way ‘deranged’ women negotiate their identity by upstaging their ‘addictions’ (‘attention’ in Abramovic’s case, ‘sex’ in Emin’s case, ‘self harm’ in Mendieta’s case) into fuel for their creative practices. Usually, they position themselves in opposition to a canonic modernist movement. In Genzken’s case, she opposes the ‘unmonumental’ to, for example, Rodin’s monumentality.
The term Unmonumental was coined in a New Museum show that linked Iza Genzken’s ‘sculptures’ to a constructive process functioning somehow in reverse. The reason for this is that her work employs vernacular materials, pop cultural allusion and seemingly slapdash procedures to mock while also exploiting -the passive- aggressive obduracy of classical minimalism. In other words, Genzken uses the visual language of minimalism but arranges it in a modernist fashion only to inject into it a poetic flight that in my opinion, asks too much for the viewer.
She deploys a post-minimalist visual language in a way that the viewer is either confused or excessively informed.For example, we are supposed to know that the use of umbrellas in her work might be linked to a childhood visit to her grandfather in prison where she saw an open umbrella. Needless to say that her grandfather was Karl Genzken, a doctor and committed Nazi, head of the medical office of the S.S and the person who oversaw experiments on concentration camp inmates. He was convicted of crimes against humanity at Nuremberg and died in 1957, three years after being released from prison.
So Genzken appears to be a typical product of her generation in Germany. She embodies the contradictions of a murderous society and she channeled that through violence both visual and alcoholic. The problem is when that disfunctionality becomes romanticised by the ‘conceptualist’ new artistic education system. In fact, Genzken is a very early product of the new artistic education system. For example, she took the entrance exam to the University of Fine Arts, in Hamburg, for which she was handed a sheet of paper, drawing tools and scissors to show what she could do. She crumpled the paper and threw it on the table. Her temerity either impressed or didn’t dissuade the admissions committee which accepted her. In a way, the art world functions in an analogous way through bullying and psychotic disfunctionnality and Genzken, I am sorry to say it, is the perfect example of that.
In other words, her artistic life seems to go on two paths: the institutional and the self destructive and both get intertwined when she starts getting romantically involved with the institution. As a matter of fact, she married Benjamin H.D.Buchloh, who soon became a leading art historian and critic, encouraged her to apply to the Dusseldorf Art Academy, where his friend Gerhard Richter was teaching. There she absorbed influences of American minimalist and conceptual art, in particular the phenomenological aesthetics of Bruce Naumann. She had an epiphany about the nature of space, she has said, while performing an exercise conceived by Naumann: lie on the floor for half an hour and imagine sinking into it. She was also inspired by Russian constructivism, especially the graphics and the architectural schemes of El Lissitsky. In 1982 she ditched Buchloch and married Richter. At that point she was an alcoholic but, according to her, even at that time she did not lose focus on her art. I think the reason of this is that they both go together in her case.
At MOMA Genzken’s work has the progression of the work of an addict.Her first mature works are made with the help of a physics student, using a computer program and a craftsman, they are paeans to precision, as is Gensken’s one ready made sculpture, from 1982, which is a touchstone in the show: a handsome multiband radio. Fascinated by high tech audio gear, Genzken said that ‘sculpture must be at least as modern’. Later, she rendered radios in concrete with metal antennae. In other words, her work is sleek and polished, almost too controlled and contrived.
Through the 80s, she fashioned plaster and concrete sculptures resembling the walls and the recesses of ruined buildings, surely invoking memories of bomb devastation in Hamburg and Berlin. The pieces are little more than two or three feet high, but in the show, mounted at eye level on welded steel tables, they loom. According to Peter Schjeldahl (art critic for The New Yorker) ‘they are some of the most melancholic things I have ever seen. And yet, after prolonged viewing, every crack, dent and crumbling texture seems specific and intended, as if destruction could be inflicted with finesse. The same sense of exactitude in disorder attends Genzken’s shift in the nineties, to wild looking assemblages’. How does Schjeldahl goes from ‘ruined and devastated’ to ‘exact’? It is a this point that the institution starts working for her and the viewer is left aside.
Until 2005, when David Zwirner started representing her, her most substantial New York show was ‘Fuck the Bauhaus’ (New Buildings for New York) at an artist run space, AC Project room in 2000. That exhibition most of which has been reconfigured at MOMA, consisted of architectural models made of refuse -including pizza boes and oyster shells- and of coloured sheets of Plexiglas, swatches of fabric and toy cars. Spiced by gossip about the artist’s fecklessness, which, on an earlier visit to the city has caused her to be ousted from a series of hotels starting at the Waldorf and ending in a youth hotel, the show is legendary but for all the wrong reasons. At this point, she is behaving like a Spanish mystic by upstaging her own addiction and vandalism into a creative force. I wonder which place has Richter in this equation?
Genzken’s inspirations since the 80s have swung between the techno-music scene in Berlin -as with dangling clusters of kitchen utensils, splashed with pink spray paint, entitled ‘Gay Babies’ (1997) and traumatic world events. War comes and goes as a theem, most explicitly in ‘Empire/Vampire, Who Kills Death (2003)’, a group of chaotic assemblages -toy soldiers, photographs, household objects, fabrics, foil, mirrors, splurges of paint- made in response both to 9/11, which she witnessed firsthand, on a visit to NY and to the Iraq war. Unusually, for Genzken, it feels out of artistic control. I suspect a conflict between her antiwar sentiment and her long identification with the energies of American culture but these contradictions are always appearing and the art critics seem to excuse her before starting the analysis. ‘The American Room’ (2003-04) is a concoction of things trying to be ‘poetic’. An executive desk, topped by a sculpture of Scroofe McDuck is flanked with American eagles, artificial flowers, varios bric-a-brac, and other signs of prideful complacency.
In ‘Ground Zero’ (2008), a fanciful non-entry in a contest for proposed building designs for the site. Jerry-built structures of shiny, cheap materials, on wheeled plinths – a memorial tower, a church, a hospital, a disco, a car park, and a fashion store, with a twisted metal tower of glowing light fixtures thrown in -suggest wreckage sprung to life. Schjeldahl says that this is ‘optimistic against all odds’. I think they are all out of their minds and need to put their shit together because like this, it looks really untidy. Just a thought.