by Laurie Rojas
We look back at Christian Jankowski’s work as his first major curatorial project, Manifesta 11, opens in Zurich.
Christian Jankowski is the art world’s court jester—he is a performer, comedian, artist, and trickster. His work seduces you with its charming wit and strikes hard with dark humor. His art explores social dynamics of popular and serious culture in an accessible way; it sometimes even grants us satisfaction. As a result, critics find themselves hard-pressed to say anything negative about his work, which questions the role of art in society. His works are also likable; that is, if you like being mocked.
Jankowski’s work is often defined as performative and collaborative, but it is more genuinely a carefully crafted art of situations. The difficulty with Jankowski is that his works present two very different tendencies—one that affirms the world as we know it and one that seeks to crush its illusions—and all with a heavy dosage of humor. The self-contradictory character of his work produces a laughter—not a laughter of joy, but a perverse laughter.
Take for example a recent presentation of Jankowski’s karaoke room installation, The Day We Met (2003), at the 2016 ArtCologne fair. During the opening one could walk into the room at the fair stand, where a video piece with the artist as protagonist plays to a Korean song, being sung live by an attendee to the fair. The “music video” showed Jankowski in a drama where he and his lover are going through some difficulties, namely that the parents seem to disapprove of the romantic relationship between this white European and their Korean daughter. The parents offer to pay him off (in good soap drama fashion) and Jankowski dramatically rejects the money. This causes troubles for the romance, but in the end they wind up together, even if not happily ever after. It didn’t seem to matter that we couldn’t understand the lyrics. A few other people in the room enjoyed themselves and applauded when the song ended. I quietly chuckled and walked out. This experience at an art fair is amusing, but leaves one wondering: where is the art? Is the piece a highly orchestrated metaphor for adaptation of art into mass entertainment? Unlikely, since Jankowski videos were distributed on a thousand karaoke machines around the world. It is the product of an artist that seeks to move art outside the art world, into mainstream culture. Instead of showing the limits of both he demonstrates how close they are to each other.
At another art fair presentation, Berlin Art Contemporary (abc) back in 2014, many of the artist’s neon works from his “Visitors” (2010 - ongoing) series were on display in the outdoor area before entering the fair’s halls. These quirky, large neon works are based on notes and doodles that visitors leave on exhibition guestbooks. They say things like “good very very good,” “on point” and “please stop you’re boring me to death.” One of these was also at Lisson Gallery’s booth (with the words “wow!” and a cartoony face doodle) which was paired with his “Review” piece in 2012. The artist asked critics to review this work and then sealed their reviews into bottles. The bottles were placed on the floor at the fair underneath framed photographs of them floating in New York’s East River. The photos documented a “Water Proof Test” to ensure, we can assume, that they were sealed shut; they also individually listed the name of the critic and the publication he or she most often writes for. The catch was that the critical value ascribed to his work was sealed shut, inaccessible. If someone were to open the bottles and disclose their content, the work would be ruined. As such, the distinction between review and artwork is collapsed. The criticism was made irrelevant at the same time that it became what substantiated and validated the work. Here we have both an affirmation and a denial of the relationship between artists and critics. Nobody seems to have found this disturbing.
The artist that exposes the underlying power structures, ideologies, dynamics that affect the presentation, circulation, display and reception of art is a favorite of art critics. The artist has done all the work for them, becoming the critic themselves, while the actual critic praises the artist in return, and has no disagreement with what is being said. Critics accept the grotesque caricature that has been made of them as fact.
This is nowhere more obvious than in Jankowski’s “Discourse News” (2012), where the artist uses art jargon in a regular newscast setting. We needed an artist to turn the focus back onto us to reveal the meaninglessness and incomprehensibility of art speak. “Discourse News” is less about art criticism, however, and more about the adoption of critic’s interpretive language by art press releases and publicity. As criticism becomes less viable as a financed profession, art PR (with the help of over-academicized curators) generates its own discourse to validate the art.
There is a long history of artists trying to invalidate criticism, to remind us of art criticism’s irrelevance. Perhaps what passes for art criticism today should be invalidated. But Jankowski might not mean to invalidate the critic. Jankowski’s provocation goes against the grain of Joseph Kosuth’s idea that “conceptual art annexes the function of the critic and makes a middle man unnecessary” that was so central to conceptual art. By taking on the critic’s role, by being subversive of this legacy of conceptual art, Jankowski’s commentary on art criticism could actually be tasking art critics to be more than pawns of the art market and the culture industry at large. He throws the ball back in our court.
The critic, however, is not the only art world character under scrutiny in Jankowski’s work; dealers, artists and curators are also subjected to parody and critique. In a way Jankowski’s works make a lot more sense when they are being shown in a commercial context. Several of his works thematize the luxury status of art works and the art market through parody or irony. The artist is aware of his own role and is not going to skirt it. Strip the Auctioneer—which does just that during a live auction in May 2009—explores the tension between art’s value and its economic (exchange) value in a burlesque theater where the auctioneer bids his clothing off all the way down to the hammer. The results lead to sculpture, photographs and a video. Whereas The Finest Art on Water at 2011 Frieze art fair brings in a bit of irony. Jankowski had a salesman try to sell a mega yacht and a speedboat (which was on display at the fair booth), but the catch was that there were two prices. You could buy the speedboat as a normal luxury item, or you could pay a lot more for it and buy it as an art work. The value of the former would decrease over time, while the value of the latter would increase over time. In a single grand gesture, the artist raised fundamental contradictions between value and exchange value as it is experienced in art. The distinction between a luxury commodity and an art commodity appears to be arbitrary, the only significant difference is the value we—humans—grant the art work.
Jankowski’s subversive tactics, however, are harmless to the status quo. Even with such a bold statement, the work is not really able to be subversive, and may indicate that no art can ever truly be subversive.
Even his recent solo exhibition at Contemporary Fine Arts, a veteran commercial art gallery in Berlin, was a saucily titled “retrospective.” It was more of a mid-career presentation of the curator of the Manifesta Biennial, which opens in Zurich this month. The show caused a bit of a stir because it was curated by a novice, the famous German actress Nina Hoss (who plays a German secret service agent in the TV series Homeland). The sensationalism around this decision was no doubt intended, but also belongs to Jankowski’s routine experiments with role reversals. (He once organized an exhibition at a German museum, where he made the security guard, the curator, and other staff change their roles as part of the exhibition.) During a press event before the opening night Jankowski confessed that the experience of passing on the responsibility to Hoss, an inexperienced curator, was liberating and had showed him how “the activity of curators can be overrated.” Jankowski’s choices often seem to have a therapeutic element. He seems to be constantly questioning what it means to be an artist, constantly reflecting on the role of art in society. It is as if Jankowski has stormed the house of art, finding it in ruins. He’s had to turn the critical act into an act of self-preservation (something all critics can recognize in themselves).
Beside the works made since 1992, which were shown in two white cube rooms, Hoss selected 10 hours of Jankowski’s films to showcase in a black box theater. The exhibition prioritized an overview of Jankowski as a filmmaker, with the role of humor and subversion dominating this selection. The glibly clever film Telemistica (1999) a 22-minute-long film, shows five Italian TV fortune tellers answering Jankowski’s questions for his 1999 Venice Biennale presentation. In the video we hear Jankowski speaking in Italian, with subtitles on the screen, while we watch the fortune tellers “live” on TV. Jankowski asks the fortune tellers the following questions: Is this idea a good idea? Will I manage to make the work with little money and in the allotted time? Will it look good and be presented well? Will the public like the work? And finally, will I be happy with my work? The questions were, unsurprisingly, answered positively and we were amused by the comical situation. Jankowski made a self-referential work, whose final product is based on the discussion with fortune tellers. We know better than to believe in what is being said—the fortune tellers’ “reading” of the cards—but we still go along with the game. The artist did in fact go on to become “a success” after all. But is he happy? Did the promise of happiness actually ever come?
The film begs the questions: What makes artworks good, and what makes an idea good? The answer, today, is that somebody says the artwork is good. The art world (market) creates its own self-fulfilling prophecy. It is in the interest of the “fortune teller” to give positive feedback, to encourage the artist in his pursuit of his passion, to tell him he is going to succeed. It is in the interest of the artist to be told his artwork is good, that the public will like it, and that he will succeed. And doesn’t everybody want to hear an abstract authority say: you will succeed? Why do we laugh at this situation, why do we laugh at the self-serving gesture?
Jankowski might have merely intended to explore his ambivalence about participating in the Venice Biennale, to show his self-doubt to his audience while exposing the twisted desire fulfilled by television fortune tellers. But he begins to scratch at the surface of the problems raised by the mass appeal of television programming and the influence esoteric knowledge has on its audience (even when the audience knows better). At the same time, he taps into the idea that art is another component of the culture industry, which he explores much more directly in other works.
Over the years Jankowski continued to assimilate mediums of popular culture. In Crying for the March of Humanity, (2012) a 26-minute-long video, he recreates an episode of a Mexican telenovela by replacing all the dialogue with crying. Jankowski takes the title from the world’s largest mural, “La Marcha de la Humanidad en la Tierra y hacia el Cosmos” ("The March of Humanity on Earth and Toward the Cosmos") (1965-1971), by the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siquieros. The scenes and the acting are as believable as telenovelas can be, but the primary reaction to this absurd theater is again laughter, a cold indifferent laughter. We might find it humorous to see so many men crying, sobbing really—which we rarely see on television anyways. There is gratification in the experience of watching these people cry, suffer amidst banal activities; it is comical. It matters little whether the conflicts are merely a sham; the goal is not empathy, their tragic condition is there for our viewing pleasure, and we are allowed to indulge in it whether the conflict is resolvable or not. The interesting thing here is this ambivalence, which straddles the line between accommodation and critique. But why is so much crying causing such apathetic gratification? We are indulging in sadism.
It’s hard to tell if Jankowski is being dead serious or seriously funny. On the one hand the reference to Siquiero’s work seems to beg a comparison, and yet the struggle “of humanity towards the cosmos” as depicted in the mural is far from being embodied in the “narrative” of the film. So, is the comparison to be read negatively, to highlight the degree to which humanity has abandoned its great historical vision in favor of immediately satisfying mass entertainment? Is the message of the film a critique of the appeal of mass entertainment, of how the petty misery of these characters has helped suppress the underlying reasons for humanity’s suffering? No. Jankowski just wants to blur the boundary between popular culture and serious art. He is concerned that art does not have a mass social basis or appeal.
And yet Jankowski is raising intellectual problems through assimilating mass media, which tends to avoid said problems in favor of producing the highest possible impact on its audience. Mass media tends to both stress and be driven by the effect on the viewer—sensuous stimuli, entertainment and sensationalism—at the expense of meaningfulness. But because Jankowski is making “art” we project a great deal of meaningfulness back into his work. The question is why Jankowski continues to use mass media as a vehicle for his art. It is because it is accessible and we find comfort in the recognizable.
We laugh at Jankowski’s films because we recognize ourselves in them, and because we consider ourselves clever for recognizing the absurdity of the art world and the culture industry—both of which are indistinguishable in most of Jankowski’s work. But involved in this laughter is the recognition of regression in viewing (experiencing) television and possibly art. Our pathologies appear rather institutionalized, desensitized, and to a great extent socialized, rationalized. We are drawn in to a tacit acceptance of absurdity, of our general tragic, inescapable, miserable condition; the irrational is accepted into the rational world.
Like the medieval court jester, Jankowski can mock the status quo without penalty, but also without consequence. Jankowski keeps trying to grapple with the problematic relationship art has to society even though he cannot offer a solution. He can no more change the status of art as a commodity to be consumed by the art market via his wry commentary than aspiring art critics change the fact that all critique is going to be immediately subordinated to the art market. The assimilation of art into the culture industry is recognized and dealt with by many artists in the post-war period: there is Warhol’s approach, Beuys’ approach, Koons’ approach, and Hans Haacke’s approach. Critics can take a lesson from these artists-as-critics. Art is compromised, it lacks consequence, that’s an inescapable fact. That hasn’t stopped artists, nor should it stop critics who fear being inconsequential, to challenge that conformism. Art in modern times, under late capitalism, is a contradictory symptom of this society, it is necessary and undermined, it is developed as it is constrained, it is “avant-garde” (critically and historically conscious), and it is immediately absorbed into the culture industry. These are the inescapable problems of art and they are not resolvable by art alone. Jankowski’s work allows us to recognize this.