03 October 2013

When We Were Real

Eh. Maybe I was wrong. Or only slightly off. Perhaps it is a subtrend, after all -- the matter of curatorial re-enactment. I say this after reading about an exhibition which recently wound down at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, a 50-year anniversary commemorative "Reproduction" of the 1963 art event Leben mit Pop – eine Demonstration für den kapitalistischen Realismus, as originally organized and staged by four young and as-yet-known artists: Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Konrad Lueg, and Manfred Kuttner.

But in some respects, the Kunsthalle affair wasn’t a literalist attempt at restaging the original event. For one, the reproduction was hosted by an actual museum, whereas the original was staged in a department store. Also, it doesn't strictly focus on the original event so much, but rather on those first few years that Polke, Richter & co. were associated with each other as they developed – each in his own way – the "Capitalist Realism" aesthetic that they'd chosen as their shared artistic banner. And while the artists themselves took active part in the staging of the 1963 event (a la a Fluxus-style “Happening”), I doubt anyone approached the surviving instigators about "getting the band back together," so the Kunsthalle instead mounted a number of large photographs from the occasion that graced the walls throughout. In fact, as a review in the art publication Spike has it, the curators decided to go all-in with the "reproduction" thematic trope:

"Most significantly, the works by Richter, Polke and Lueg – Polke’s Socks (1963), Richter’s Neuschwanstein Castle (1963), for example – were presented only as full-scale, photographic reproductions, mounted unassumingly on corrugated cardboard. This decision to include only reproduced works (excepting the real letters and photographs that were presented in the archival vitrines) somewhat collapsed the formal divisions between work and reception, and more significantly, demonstrated an attempt to strip these canonical paintings of aura."

As far as contemporary art is concerned, we’re still very much living under the influence of Pop; in much the same way that we’re still awash in the thrall of the material culture that inspired the movement’s first generation of artists. So much so, that Pop holds an almost monolithic presence in the cultural imagination. But between the Kunsthalle’s revisitation of Leben mit Pop and the Tate’s tribute to the 1958 This Is Tomorrow exhibition a few years ago, we’re presented with a somewhat ironic conundrum – as each of the original versions of these two exhibitions embodied two different, international responses to postwar material culture. The Independent Group’s This is Tomorrow exhibition was largely celebratory in tone. The Group’s engagement with the emergent culture of the day, via their activities at the London ICA and the resulting exhibition, were a largely noncritical – and at times enthusiastic – exploration of the transformative dynamics of “mass culture” (as well as a generational rebuke against the parochialisms of Herbert Read and his fellow directors at the Institute).*

But the four artists responsible for Leben mit Pop had a different relationship with postwar American popular culture; one which was much more ambivalent. Each wveas young enough to ha come of age in the years following World War II, in a mainland Europe shaped by the Marshall Plan – the U.S. recovery project that aimed to rebuild war-torn Europe and counter Soviet ideological influence by way of promoting its own model of postwar prosperity and democracy abroad. As Europe struggled to extract itself from the rubble and get their own industrial economies in full operation, these years saw a deluge of American products and media, all of it modeled after a middle-class lifestyle as broadcast and imported wholesale from another shore. A love/hate relationship ensued among some Europeans, one characterized by a circumspect regard toward a blinkered culture of consumerism that sometimes rubbed against the grain of traditional native values. Some would eventually begin to refer it as the “coca-colonization” of Europe.

Add to all this that Polke and Richter had both been defectors from regions of East Germany. Having been exposed to postwar European life on both sides of the Wall, the recognized that the true marketplace wasn’t so much about objects and mod cons, but ultimately one of ideas. With the shape of contemporary culture coalescing around the channels through which these ideas were communicated – through the airwaves, films, magazines, showrooms and Expo halls of late Modern society.

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*   Or, as IG co-founder Reyner Banham called it, "the marble shadow of Sir Herbert Read’s Abstract-Left-Freudian aesthetics." It might also be noted that the Group’s focus wasn’t limited to pop culture in the common sense, but extended to science and technology, as well. For this reason, the sometimes utopian optimism that characterized the IG’s discussions and activities have provoked occasional comparisons with the aesthetics of Italian Futurism earlier in the 20th century.

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