During the opening of an exhibition at the South London Art Gallery we were introduced to Claudia Hart, an artist and writer from New York. “My God! Art in Ruins!” she exclaimed excitedly “we have a friend in common, Tom McGlynn, … I remember Tom always spoke very highly of you.”
“Yes” we replied, “he came over to London for Our Wonderful Culture.”
“I always thought that if you were friends with Tom you couldn’t be bad guys … ” she laughed. “I’ve just been in Berlin and Art in Ruins come up in discussions … people still talk about you … Have you been back since you were there?”
“No, not for five years,” we said.
“God, you need to go back! It has really changed… you transformed the whole debate!”
The road from nowhere to Berlin was relatively short. For the few people in London who knew anything about the European art world at that time, awarding the DAAD residency and stipendium to Art in Ruins; a self-invented project with no institutional support whatsoever, was nothing short of catastrophic.
By the time we arrived in Berlin in 1991, the art critic Wolfgang Max Faust, who had nominated Art in Ruins for this prestigious prize, was completely disillusioned; if not with art itself then with its rampant commodification. He told us that he was in the process of completing his book on Conceptual Art after which he would withdraw completely from the art world. This he did, and after one further controversial publication, he committed suicide.(2)
Throughout our stay we did see a lot of critic and curator Thomas Wulffen who had included us in his D & S Austellung in Hamburg. Together we attempted, without success, to bring our exhibition Recent History to Berlin.
On arrival, we made a small introductory exhibition Propaganda as Readymade at Künstlerhaus Bethanien, a collaboration with the Cultural Wing of the African National Congress, first shown in London.(3) When it was pointed out that the exhibition had “done nothing to change the situation in South Africa” we decided to repeat the exhibition two months later to demonstrate that the intention was to change the situation in Berlin.
During the opening at Bethanien we were accosted by Stephan Geene who invited us to collaborate with minimal club(4) and insisted that we contribute to the magazine A.N.Y.P; which eventually we did on four occasions.
For our initial contribution to we suggested a re-print of The Seduction of Resistant Virgins, our review of an Art & Language exhibition in London, which we had contributed as ‘unofficial consultants’ to the launch of Frieze magazine. When editor and publisher Matthew Slotover managed to elicit a response from Art & Language he published them together in the pilot issue.
With an awareness of the ongoing ‘betrayal’ of conceptual art on our minds, (in particular the re-making of site-specific work from the 60s and 70s for the museum or the market), we had decided to write a conceptual review of Art & Language’s current work. We attempted humorously but somewhat unsuccessfully, to adopt the viewpoint of the ‘over eager but almost uninformed art lover’, who quietly asks the attendant (who more often than not is a slightly more well informed struggling artist on their day job); “What the hell is this work all about …?” and who then repeats a confused version of what was already misunderstood.
Our ironic review ended with a declaration that White Irony was no longer enough … ironically something that would go on to have ominous implications in the context of Berlin, where white irony seemed an inadequate response to the volatile situation in Germany.
Although there was considerable pressure for us to make an exhibition of some sort in the former East we were resistant as we did not want to be seen to profit in any way from the ‘land grab’ which appeared to be taking place. Eventually however, we were seduced by Klaus Biesenbach into contributing to the exhibition 37 Rooms, which took place, as the title suggests in thirty-seven ‘vacant’ spaces in and around KunstWerke in Mitte. Each of these spaces was allotted to a curator, critic or artist group.(5)
We decided to take the opportunity to intervene in what we thought would inevitably be an art touristic event by re-presenting in a former Likör Fabrik our lightbox of the Staatsgalerie and Sellafield museums made for the D & S Austellung. Our Sans Frontières global issue rucksacks were on sale and a second room was covered with My Homeland is not a Suitcase posters.
The opening took place over a gloriously sunny weekend with hundreds of visitors who may have turned up more out of curiosity to see the ‘picturesque dereliction’ inside the buildings than the work presented. In the Likör Fabrik art lovers in T-shirts and shorts were surprised to find themselves confronted by manikin art lovers in T-shirts and shorts looking at a museum and at being cheerfully persuaded by Art in Ruins to purchase a global art backpack. A young critic and curator Simon Sheikh, introduced himself and invited us to repeat the ‘Sans Frontières experience’ in Copenhagen.(6)
Over the way minimal club occupied a room where A.N.Y.P was on sale with the My Homeland is not a Suitcase poster insert, which had also been plastered on numerous walls in the area. A TV crew turned up from ARTE to record the festive event and interviewed Art in Ruins. We talked dramatically of the looming recession and the effects of the art market crash; of the rise in nationalism and xenophobia, and the ongoing attacks on Asylanten and asylum hostels throughout both former East and West Germany.(7)
Unlike for 37 Rooms the opening of our exhibition Conceptual Debt at the DAAD Galerie(8) which followed, was virtually empty. This was not due to the nature of the exhibition – the relationship between aestheticisation and instrumentalisation, and Third World Debt / migration and conceptual art – but as a result of us having changed the time of the private view. We were told that traditionally, exhibition openings at the DAAD Galerie began late so that everyone could take in all the other openings in Berlin and end the evening in (the bar and restaurant below) the gallery.
As people began to arrive at the usual time our opening was already closing. When asked whether we would keep it open we replied “If people don’t pay attention to what’s written on an invitation card, how can we expect them to pay attention to what’s in the gallery?” We then spent the rest of the evening downstairs in the bar discussing the rules of art and an exhibition which (almost) no-one had seen.(9)
Art in Ruins were invited to do a talk at the Hochschule der Künste, where we provocatively introduced ourselves by saying “When we were nominated for the DAAD stipendium everyone thought that we were Art & Language … but we are Art in Ruins! The reason we got the DAAD is because we are cheap … two for the price of one!”
We went on to construct a deliberate ‘misreading’ of some artists’ work which interested us to demonstrate our conviction that there can be no such thing as a ‘correct reading’, and that all cultural production occurs within a social and political context.
A short time later a number of students produced a magazine called 241, which was a magnificent display of poisonous white irony. Unlike Frieze however, this magazine ran to only one issue.
Before leaving Berlin, we went back to KunstWerke in Mitte for a final meeting with director Klaus Biesenbach. As we sat facing each other over cups of coffee he gazed into space and spoke gloomily of the looming recession and the effects of the art market crash, and the disappointment of many that galleries were now unlikely to move to Berlin in the near future. Then of the dramatic rise in nationalism and xenophobia and the ongoing attacks on Asylanten and asylum hostels throughout both former East and West Germany … and the conflict unleashed about art and political activism – ‘Kunst nach Rostock’.
He looked down and said “Art in Ruins’ arrival cast a dark cloud over Berlin … but everything you said came true.”
Riding the storm of controversy generated around our activities, Stephan Geene worked feverishly and almost single-handedly to produce a map of the changed landscape. This formed the basis of the discursive event “trap” held at KunstWerke some months after our departure from Berlin. The recent history of white irony; the importation of American art and critique; cynicism and the issue of “political correctness” were documented along with the various ‘traps’ involved in (a locally-based) art activism.(10)
Almost twenty years later a conference Art and the Social held at the Tate Gallery examining Exhibition Histories acknowledged “trap” as a seminal event. Ironically, Stephan Geene did not participate in the conference and Art in Ruins were left out.(11)
(1) “I still have a suitcase in Berlin” Marlene Dietrich
(2) “Faust, Wolfgang Max. (1993). Dies alles gibt es also. Stuttgart. edition cantz
(3) For the catalogue of the exhibition we appropriated and reprinted the final ANC solidarity merchandise brochure. With the assistance of ANC activist Denis Goldberg we used not only the original printers but also the actual printing plates.
(4) Die Minderung bei Gesteigertem Wert with Maria Eichhorn, Marius Babius, Penelope Georgiou, Patricia London Ante Paris, minimal club at BBK Galerie in Munich 1992.
(5) 37 Räume, KunstWerke, Berlin 1992 with Marius Babius, Wolfgang Max Faust, Peter Funken, Thomas Wulffen, Frank Wagner, Brigitte Sonnenschein, et al, and minimal club, Piotr Nathan, Aura Rosenberg, Felix Gonzales Torres, et al.
(6) Sans Frontieres Globe, Copenhagen. 1993. Catalogue Compartments including Peter Fend, BANK, Name Diffusion, et al.
(7) “The view that one can be a German only if one’s ancestors were German is widely held and, until 1999, was reflected in the country’s citizenship law. Hence, the large influx of foreigners, many of them people of colour, gave rise to a wave of xenophobia aimed at preserving the ethnic homogeneity of the German state…. In August 1992, East European refugees were the target of a three-day quasi-pogrom in the city of Rostock in the former East Germany.” Lewy, Gunter. (2000) Persecution of the Gypsies. Oxford University Press. Numerous attacks also occurred in cities across reunified Germany. Eventually the names of these cities were compiled in a much celebrated artwork The Aethetics of Resistance by fellow DAAD guest artist, Alfredo Jaar.
(8) The site of notable conceptual exhibitions instigated by Rene Block and the DAAD Künstlerprogramm
(9) Twenty-five years after Conceptual Debt at the DAAD Galerie Berlin and the publication as a poster of My Homeland is not a Suitcase, Documenta 14 in Kassel hopes to “incite a riot” in response to the issues of debt and migration. See Editors’ Letter Quinn Latimer, Adam Szymczyk. South as a State of Mind Issue #6 [documenta 14 #1]
For more on Illegitimate Debt, and in particular the cancellation of Germany’s war reparations debt in 1953 in stark contrast to Germany’s recent attitude towards Greek debt, see Campaign for the Cancellation of Illegitimate Debt
See also: Greece: A Country for Sale by Eleni Portalieu
and Jubilee Debt Campaign
(10) “trap” 1993 and the ‘Rostock years’ of 1991-2 are identified by the current co-editor of Frieze magazine as the era of the disappearance of white irony being gradually superseded by Post-Irony which “at its best is the ironic act of frustrating the sort of art consumers who want art to confirm for them that they stand above things.” Jorg Heiser. (2010). Seriously Now: From Polemical Irony to Post-Ironic Networking. in catalogue to Neues Rheinland: die postironisches Generation. Berlin. Distanz Verlag.
Heiser, Jorg. (2006). Between Glamour and Ruin: Low-key Attitudes, High class Expectations in Berlin in the 1990s. in Constructing New Berlin: Contemporary Art. Bass Museum of Art and Phoenix Art Museum. Munich. Prestel.
Fricke, Harald. (1994). Schlüpferstürmer. Konkret. No. 8. August 1994. p. 42. Hamburg.
(11) See Exhibitions of the nineties in perspective: Former West: Art and the Social at Metropolis M (accessed 19 July 2016)
“Both projects (‘Democracy’ and ‘trap’) considered the physical exhibition only as a part of what took place next to talks, conferences and workshops; both claiming that context is needed to make a point. ‘Without context’, Renate Lorenz (BüroBert) says, ‘the idea of social change is neutralised … Lorenz on the other hand didn’t remember the project Trap in full detail whereas most of the documentation got lost, which gave her the opportunity to project her current interest on the historic event” … and as a result both the content and the context of ‘trap’ were neutralised.