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Isa Genzken: Art on a Common Level


It was only made public very recently: Isa Genzken will be representing Germany at the 52nd Venice Biennale of 2007, in the Deutsche Bank-sponsored German Pavilion. Over the past thirty years, the artist, who lives in Berlin, has produced a highly versatile body of work. Yet Genzken is entirely situated in the Modernist tradition. Brigitte Werneburg on one of today’s most important German artists.



Fuck the Bauhaus, No.4, 2000
Courtesy Galerie Daniel Buchholz, Köln

Humor, seduction, love, and surprise: in a conversation with Diedrich Diederichsen in a monograph recently published by Phaidon Press, this is where Isa Genzken envisions the future of modern art. Why is it so conspicuous that she isn’t talking about contemporary art? In using the adjective "modern," she removes art somewhat from the constraints of the here and now, from the exhibition and auction establishment, and locates it in the context of the incomplete Modernist project.



New Building for Berlin, 2004
Courtesy Galerie Daniel Buchholz, Köln

At the same time, in introducing notions of humor, seduction, love, and surprise, she is propagating ideas that seem inconsistent with Modernism’s aims. According to a Post-modern sensibility, the history of modern art belongs in the context of the larger narratives – hence it’s all about the whole, about art’s social responsibilities and about aesthetic action as a weapon in the fight for a better future; about the innovations both in production technology and artistic form, which aim for the renewal and change of society itself – an aim that from today’s perspective possesses an old-fashioned charm and is little suited to the demands of the future.



New Building for Berlin, 2004
Courtesy Galerie Daniel Buchholz, Köln

If they should be made fertile again for the future, then the fields of Modernism have to be plowed once more. Indeed, Isa Genzken locates herself in the Modernist tradition when she expresses a criticism of ideologies, when she uses the concepts humor, seduction, love, and surprise like plows to break open the ground that has been trampled down all too compactly by masculine energy and masculine severity.

This is an approach that differs radically from that of Hans Haacke, who is but one of her precedents in the German Pavilion of the Venice Biennale. In 1993, Hans Haacke destroyed the floor of the German Pavilion in a highly symbolic way in order to expose Modernism’s darker depths regarding the compromises it made with fascism – even though this abyss didn’t turn out to be very deep, framed as it was by the Hitler portrait and the German mark emblem. Modern art can only have a future when it files away its boastful gestures and all the easy recipes for art and society’s liberation; when it departs from the esotericism of purity. In her db artmag interview with Oliver Koerner von Gustorf, Isa Genzken quite rightly criticizes Hans Haacke. And it’s also entirely correct that she defends herself against the expectation that she is supposed to deliver some huge sensation with her work for the German Pavilion. Because the previous game with Post-modern distance was a disappointment.



Empire / Vampire, Who Kills Death, 22-part series, 2003
Courtesy Galerie Daniel Buchholz, Köln


For Isa Genzken, what characterizes the Biennale work she most admires is that it’s profound instead of loud: Joseph Beuys’ Strassenbahnhaltestelle from 1976. She wants to approach the Pavilion from the outside: circumspect, distanced, without conquering the interior right away. When you consider Isa Genzken’s work to gain an idea of her approach, a consistent and reliable motif emerges, the fact that her work always occurs on the same level as the viewer. Nowhere in her art can a gesture of overwhelming the viewer be found, as little as an overhasty accommodation. Isa Genzken’s wish to encounter a public interested in art on a common level carries like an Ariadne thread through an oeuvre rich in both scope and surprise that encompasses sculpture, photography, film, video, works on paper and canvas, collages, and books.



Empire / Vampire, Who Kills Death, 22-part series, 2003
Courtesy Galerie Daniel Buchholz, Köln

Her wish is not a matter of metaphors. Whether you consider her plaster works of 1984, the red cement architectures she began making in 1986, or the series she started in 2003 titled Empire/Vampire, Who Kills Death: Isa Genzken always places her sculptures on pedestals, which she elevates to the viewer’s height. Even her Window works, her column sculptures, her photographic works – for instance of the stereo systems (1979), which she augmented with her World Receiver of cement (1987-92) – but above all her works with mirrors and reflective surfaces: all of them depend on the viewer’s upright posture when he or she establishes contact with the work.



Weltempfänger, 1992
Courtesy Galerie Daniel Buchholz, Köln

Hence, Isa Genzken’s invitation to become involved with her works and their complex forms does not shy away from addressing the viewer in a gesture of communicative, artistic reason. It is an entirely surprising gesture; a seductive, loving, and above all sustainable gesture, because it is in no way extrinsic to the work.



Deutsche Bank Proposal, 2000
Installation view: AC Project Room, New York 2000
Courtesy Neugerriemschneider, Berlin

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