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"In Fantastic Company":

What makes us human? In the exhibition Blick aufs Ich / The View upon the Ego in the Neues Museum Weserburg in Bremen, artistic portrayals of human beings from the 20th century will be on show until June 15.

Bremen in the spring of 2003: with eighty drawings, paintings, sculptures, and photographs from the collection of the Deutsche Bank, the exhibition Blick aufs Ich documents the ever-changing human image from modernism up to the present day. The broad spectrum of artistic positions introduced in the rooms of the Neues Museum Weserburg Bremen provides an insight into an era that, more than any other before it, has been marked both by collective visions and the struggle for individual self-determination. As one of the thematic exhibitions of Deutsche Bank's collection, Blick aufs Ich concentrates on the artistic reinvention of the human being in the 20th century as well as on the cultural transformations reflected in its various images.

Otto Dix, Großstadt (Entwurf zu Großstadttriptychon), 1926
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2002

Ranging from representatives of German Expressionism, such as Ludwig Ernst Kirchner or Max Beckmann - who called for a return to original, existential values in their formal allegiance to the Primitive - to the cards with superstars' autographs that the American Richard Prince reproduces as cool relics of a media age under the slogan "all the best":

Richard Prince, Courtney Love, Fred Savage, Keanu Reeves (all the best), 2000
© Galerie Jablonka, Köln

the artistic upheavals that Blick aufs Ich marks over the course of a century make the ambiguity embodied in every human likeness clear. No matter how much we try to find and articulate the common in ever newer inventions of ourselves, it appears all the more questionable whether this attempt can ever really bring forth a valid definition of the human.

Chris Ofili, Untitled, 2000
Deutsche Bank Collection
Chris Ofili, Untitled, 2000
Deutsche Bank Collection

Whereas the concentric model of the atom was the symbol of progress for the 20th century, largely determined as it was by mechanization, the symbol of the network has assumed its place in the digital age, in which a clear center can no longer be located. The search for identity-generating values in culture, business, and politics, for an authentic "center" to a human being situated within the society surrounding him is evidently more than ever accompanied by insecurity in view of the effects of globalization.

Although communication and trade have increasingly shifted to the virtual realm, rendering a connection to fixed locations, time zones, and personal encounters more and more superfluous, the concept of individual and cultural identity is undergoing a process of constant change, as well. If David Bowie, in the pop circus of the seventies, resembled a chameleon-like, fictitious figure that was able to slip into another identity with each external transformation, nowadays everyone is called upon to reinvent himself each and every day.

In view of the possibilities of digital, surgical, and genetic manipulation, as well as an inexhaustible flood of media imagery, the human being of the new millennium declares himself to be malleable material.

Franz West, Studie, 1999
©Atelier Franz West, Wien

Katharina Sieverding, Transformer, 1973
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2002

Whereas in the early seventies the staged, androgynous self-portrayals of artists such as Katharina Sieverding or Jürgen Klauke departed subversively from prevailing role models, bio-technological innovations today determine the parameters of social and individual change. It is no longer the subversive experiment that counts, but a longing for bodily perfection and an absolute degree of self-control.

The modern human being somewhere between dream and nightmare: a "chameleon-like being with Sisyphean traits" is what Veit Loers called the artistic human image of the 20th century in his catalogue essay on the exhibition (catalogue here). A view into the collecting history of the Deutsche Bank presents the challenge of juxtaposition - for the formal representation of the human figure is intertwined with references to personal and social existence: "Despite my experience, I am still idiotic enough to believe that human beings continue to exist," said Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler,

Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler,
Selbstportrait (in fantastischer Gesellschaft), 1931
© Förderkreis Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler, Hamburg

the painter from Dresden who, as an inmate of a Saxon sanatorium, was murdered in 1940 in the sanatorium's gas chamber following a compulsory sterilization (an essay on Lohse Wächtler and George Grosz can be found here). In her Self-Portrait (in Fantastic Company) of 1931, the fears and doubts of an era characterized by inner and outer emigration become manifest. Nonetheless, Wächtler's averted gaze is the look of a rebel who radically went far beyond the traditional image of the woman and artist of her time, trading in her protected bourgeois existence for the rough life in Hamburg's red-light district. Following the National Socialist takeover, the artist paid for her rebellion with her life. (More about Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler here and here)

Although entire worlds seem to lie between the end of the Weimar Republic and New York's East Village of the eighties, we encounter a similarly "fantastic company" at close hand in Blick aufs Ich for instance in Nan Goldin's portrait of April in the Windows,

Nan Goldin, April in the window, 1983
© Nan Goldin, New York

taken in 1983 in the back room of a New York club. Goldin's photographs of friends, outsiders, scene denizens, drag queens, and junkies, whom she accompanied with her camera for decades, made her famous all around the world. How difficult this path at times proved to be is something Goldin talks about in an interview she gave to the Harvard Advocate in 1999: at the end of a five-month drug and alcohol withdrawal in a Boston clinic, Goldin was supposed to look for a job; although she had already published her book The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, the clinic did not consider art to be a profession. Thus it came about that the photographer was framing slides in the basement of a university library while her work was being lectured on a floor above.

Tim Stoner, Rebirth, 2001
© The Approach Gallery, London
Sammlung Deutsche Bank

Just as references arise here among the most varied works and biographies, Blick aufs Ich offers, in the truest sense of the word, a stimulus to search out "company."

Encountering the show’s various human likenesses, we may, perhaps, not only stumble over things that seem somewhat foreign to us, but also the horrors of our own clichés and prejudiced models of thinking, as is demonstrated in the watercolors by the young British artist Tim Stoner, which carry ironic and programmatic titles such as Rebirth (2001) or Study for Highlife (2000). The apparently idyllic impression of wealth and civilization is deceptive: a young couple is stepping out of a public swimming pool, a twosomeness barely alluded to by the contours of their silhouettes. The rebirth occurs in the process of making the image anonymous. Devoid of expression, a man busy telephoning looks back at us: the shadow concealing his face to the point of unrecognizability seems like a projective surface for the hopes and fears of the new century.

Tim Stoner, Study for Highlife, 2000
© The Approach Gallery, London
Sammlung Deutsche Bank
Tim Stoner, Birthday Party, 1998
© The Approach Gallery, London
Sammlung Deutsche Bank

Oliver Koerner von Gustorf