Adrian Ghenie at MNAC

February 2, 2010

In 2009, the renowned German publishing house Hatje Cantz released a beautiful catalogue dedicated to Adrian Ghenie’s artistic production since 2006 to date. It was illustrated with reproductions of his works which are part of more or less major contemporary art private collections (and one, I think, that now belongs to a museum, namely the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles). Back in the sixties, trying to build up an identity for conceptual art, Sol le Witt was claiming, among other things, that an exhibition catalogue of such an art shouldn’t actually be seen as an illustration of the exhibition, but rather vice versa. Now, this seems to be much the case with Ghenie’s show at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Bucharest. But there’s nothing conceptual about it. Almost every exhibition in the art world today has a title. Even retrospectives do. The title is supposed to tell the (potential) viewer something about the content or meaning, about the look or the goal of the show, or about these things altogether. In other words, it is usually expected to circumscribe or at least offer a glimpse of the exhibition’s concept. Ghenie’s exhibition doesn’t have a title; and rightfully so … What was shown in the large space of the museum’s first floor seemed not to have been aimed at building up a real meaning or to provide an attentive insight into the artistic world of one of Romania’s most fascinating artists today, which Ghenie, actually, is. Rather, it looked like the (unconscious?) purpose was to construct a documentary display of his success story. And that’s too bad, because there is, I believe, so much more to this artist that deserves to be revealed to a Romanian public that knows yet too little about his artistic practice and its drives. Moving to an analysis of his art as such, we can easily notice that one of the most discussed aspects so far of his production has been his manner of alluding to history, which may appear and to some extent is, somehow shallow. But the main issue that concerns Adrian Ghenie’s work is not history, as the fact that he so often uses oblique references to historical events and circumstances may encourage one to think. Most of his artistic endeavour is essentially concerned with other items, such as translation and melancholia. If one was to put it Danto’s terms, the first would mostly refer to the type of embodiment and the second to the kind of aboutness specific to his art until now. Thus, the relation between the photographic image and the painted one or, more recently and more meaningful, between film and painting are explicitly thematized issues in several of the paintings exhibited in his show at the National Museum of Contemporary Art. The artist appropriates famous photos (Dada is Dead), photos of famous people (The Collector 2), photos that could have been famous had they ever existed (That Moment) or stills from early comic movies (the series of works related to the pie fights) and integrates them into new compositions. The first results of this procedure are the “studies”, as he calls them, black, white and grey collages of printed images and paint. Unfortunately, not a single one of these studies are on view at the National Museum of Contemporary Art. That, I believe, was a poor curatorial choice, since they would have significantly helped a more insightful understanding of the conceptual and visual dynamics driving Ghenie’s art. They are the most significant pieces that testify his effort of translation, a translation during which the famous turns into banal, the momentous turns into commonplace riddle, the carnivalesque turns into hideous and, true enough, History turns into Discovery Channel history. Still, these works are not merely essays in Richter or Tuymans-like veiling semantics of the source. They do present us with an artistic reflection on our contemporary cultural habits of using images; they are not so much about the loss of the heroic as about the imagistic mechanisms that are deployed to signal that loss. Ghenie’s art is a quite personal output that points at nowadays artists’ ambitions, fears and conundrums. Duchamp is not a random reference for him, as it wasn’t a random option neither for other contemporary artists using his persona in their artworks. The collective artwork / art project realized in 1965 in Paris by Eduardo Arroyo, Gilles Aillaud and Antonio Recalcati, exponents of the Figuration Narrative movement, tilted Live and Let Die or the Tragic End of Marcel Duchamp, is just one poignant example of the hypnotic power Duchamp contemporary artists. The two paintings of Ghenie referring to the inescapable predecessor that were displayed in the Bucharest show are titled Duchamp and Duchamp’s funeral II. Speaking of the later, it may be useful to remember that one of the pictures included in the above mentioned project from 1965 presented a supposed coffin of the dada hero, covered in the stars and stripes of the U.S.A.’s flag. However, those two are clearly among the most convincing works the Romanian artist has produced so far. Duchamp stands for what most of today’s artists crave to be and can be no longer. He is the epitome of the cultural, provocative flaneur turned into revered and paradoxical “master”. He, like his dada fellows, and much more than other vanguard apostles, has managed to gain legitimacy and historical recognition, by means of radical illicitness of his artistic endeavour. After him, everything is potentially legitimate; as a consequence of this, greatness via cultural radicalism is pretty much a closed path for the artists to follow. In other words, for the artist of today Dada Is Dead and he or she is forced to find other approaches to claim significance. By the same token, Ghenie’s art is a quite personal and febrile attempt that points at nowadays painters’ ambitions, fears and conundrums. He engages openly in an oedipal dialog with the masters of the baroque era while at the same time his works reveal a melancholic appropriation of visual props of the modernist painting. Thus, for example, his depictions of the famous comic actors, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, are directly linked to Velasquez’s buffoons and also to the topic of vanitas, one that was so important for the baroque paradigm. On the other hand, his quite frequent use of rectangular abstract surfaces, the geometrical volumes such as the uncanny box-like silhouettes we encounter in some of his images are distinct, yet maybe more subtle references to the classical modernism. Two incongruous and equally glorious traditions are brought together, in a quite compelling painterly rendering; two revered paths towards cultural immortality are nonchalantly blended. But that makes nothing but add to the feeling of melancholia that pervades the works, because the works make one acutely aware of the impossibility of any of this kind of glory under the conditions of our –and the artist’s– contemporary cultural and ideological environment. We –like the artist– gained consciousness and lost confidence. The apparently superficial mix that Adrian Ghenie is preparing on the canvas speaks about how we, as cultural beings, can’t even be genuinely desperate anymore in front of the loss of the cultural heroism. We –together with the artist– can only be savvily nostalgic. Ghenie is not the prodigy kind of an artist. He needs little time to produce paintings, but significantly longer time to refine his concepts, reflection and artistic tools, so maybe one should refrain for now from considering his work in an exaggerated retrospective manner. His best is certainly yet to come. Nevertheless, the honesty of his pride, of his ambition to become part of an art history and of his fear that such an art history could be either impossible or inaccessible to him might be the main advantage this artist in his early thirties has in order to become the great artist he dreams. Maybe it’s just me, but I prefer anytime an artist yearning for greatness to one aching for success.

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