In the early Eighties a phenomenon unfolded in Cologne, Germany, that has art bigwigs scratching their noggins to this day: The industrial burg on the Rhine, 90 percent of which had been flattened by Allied bombing raids during World War II, exploded as the most consequential contemporary art capital outside New York.
For a curator, trying to organize a show reflecting the unique conditions that transformed the German city into a cutting-edge art hive might spark nightmares of writing a check that gets stamped "Insufficient Funds." But "Make Your Own Life: Artists in and out of Cologne," on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA), ducks bankruptcy by cracking a window onto the city's hothouse alternative scene rather than attempting the daunting task of providing a broad historical view.
The exhibit, curated by Bennett Simpson, brings together more than 25 European and American artists and groups who uncork a whiff of Cologne's mythic vivarium of the late Eighties and early Nineties — a period when art, music, literature, and criticism engaged in a heady cross-pollination.
Make Your Own Life: Artists in and out of Cologne
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It was a time when artists flocked to the city, galleries and alternative spaces mushroomed in their wake, and art bars became the ground of contention. Fierce debates raged over pecking order and conceptual differences between opposing factions in a tumultuous scene where establishment scoffs thrived.
The show takes its name from lightning-rod provocateur Martin Kippenberger, a painter prone to polemics and a notorious lush who blew out his liver and died in 1997. Among the first to rebel against Neo-Expressionism's chokehold in Cologne, he exhorted artists to "make your own life" the focus of their work.
As if to drive his point home, one of the largest pieces in the show is Kippenberger's Input-Output, a series of 67 crayon and pencil drawings on his bar tabs from a hotel in Bahia, Brazil. He crudely scrawled the floor plans of spaces in which he once lived on receipts that reflect several months of hard drinking. The artist favored caipirinhas, Cuba libres, and bloody marys.
Across from the drawings, American artist Andrea Fraser's Art Must Hang, named for another Kippenberger quip, offers a stinging feminist counterpoint to his unruly piece. The DVD projection shows a performance in which Fraser duplicates a boozy toast Kippenberger once gave during another artist's opening. She lampoons the lush's homophobic jokes, unbridled rudeness, and practiced macho excess.
Another work depicting women breaking through the wall of Cologne's stultifying machismo is Hans-Jörg Mayer's black-and-white photograph The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. It depicts artists Cosima von Bonin, Michaela Eichwald, Charlene von Heyl, and Jutta Koether, as well as Isabelle Graw, editor of the journal Texte zur Kunst, mugging as gun-toting militants.
One of the chintzier works here is Make Your Own Life, by Merlin Carpenter, whom the curator gave $4000 to create a piece for the show. The British artist blew the wad on a whirlwind shopping spree. Consisting of empty bags from Yves Saint Laurent, Burberry, and Gucci, his opus reeks of a flaccid poke at the art market. Perhaps to balance the status brands preciously piled on the floor, he tossed a flat plastic bag from Relapse Records into the mix.
Some of Cologne's most influential spaces are evoked by installations representing galleries and alternative venues.
For the show, Stephan Dillemuth and Nils Norman created Freisenwall 120 Ruined, which captures the vibe of the artist-run space open from 1990 to 1994 and known for its funky programming. Its cofounders, Dillemuth and Norman, erected a ramshackle structure to which they attached the works of 12 artists involved with the gallery. An untitled text and drawing piece by Vivian Slee reads, "And it was such a happy place and I didn't want to leave." Iskender Yediler's plaster roast chicken, painted silver and dangling from wire, sways inches from the ground.
One of Cologne's key players, Cosima von Bonin, known for her many fruitful collaborations during the period, weighs in with The Merry Pilgrimage, a 14-minute video shot as a provincial morality tale. The piece pokes fun at the scene surrounding Galerie Christian Nagel and its volatile stable, including some of the artists in the show.
Stephen Prina's Galerie Max Hetzler, situated at the museum's entrance, offers a photographic index of every show at Cologne's leading commercial gallery between 1988 and 1990. The photos depict many of the German artists associated with the gallery but also reflect the influx of American artists into the city that in most cases gave them their first European exposure.
Conversely Colin de Land's New York-based American Fine Arts, which gave many Cologne artists a shot on this side of the pond in the Nineties, is spoofed in Christian Phillip Müller's A Sense of Friendliness, Mellowness, Permanence. Front and center in the exhibit, the work comprises a cordless phone, a pair of Manhattan phone books, and a restaurant's headwaiter podium nestling a specially printed menu. Spectators are invited to glance at the AFA menu of art once offered at the gallery. Specials include work from de Land's stable, such as a yummy Mark Dion cigar box loaded with a magnifying glass, batteries, pins, matches, firecrackers, and razorblades — for a mere $600. The other half of Muller's piece features a heavy felt curtain, to the left of the podium, that is impenetrable to the public — a biting metaphor for the palpably exclusive nature of Simpson's stew.
It telegraphs much of the dense work that exhibit visitors often find difficult to navigate without gallery notes or breadcrumbs dropped by a docent. (But if you ask for a guide at the front desk, MoCA will happily oblige.)
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Some of the works lingered in the mind long after the museum's doors closed for the night. Among them was Runway for Interactive DJ Event, a nearly hour-long video by Los Angeles whack job Mike Kelley, a frequent visitor to Cologne. In it he plays the role of a cultural spin doctor strutting a catwalk in his skivvies and playing with doll's clothes. As Dead or Alive's "You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)" blares, Kelley derides a tiny outfit as "unaesthetic" and impossible to "reconcile with high culture." He likens it to what a "fat hick girl would wear while clogging in the back of a pickup truck in a Wisconsin trailer park."
Nearby, visitors can hang out in a cozy lounge and play records and CDs by art bands like Red Krayola, Workshop, and Electrophilia, with which many of the exhibition's artists collaborated in Cologne's vast experimental music scene.
Simpson's stab at distilling the Cologne miracle might be marred by its sometimes narrow, insider's veneer, but it does convey a sense of the boho Shangri-la's heyday, its lasting influence, and the role it continues to play as a subject of relentless debate.