A few days ago i was in Athens and found less time than i had hoped to visit galleries. I nevertheless managed to see a fantastic exhibition at theDESTE Foundation for Contemporary Art.
Established as a nonprofit foundation by art collector Dakis Joannou, DESTE is located in a former socks factory building, in the lovely Nea Ionia suburb, north of Athens.
See? Lovely area, even under the rain:
The old factory has been completely re-vamped. The main entrance to the gallery, designed by the architects of divercity, is particularly spectacular. You enter the building through a wooden crate that evokes the ones used for the transportation of art pieces.
Each year, a show at DESTE focuses on the collection of Dakis Joannou, the industrialist who established the foundation in 1983. New acquisitions are standing side by side with older pieces, making emerge new meanings and relationships between the artworks.
This years' exhibition A Guest + A Host = A Ghost borrows its title from one of Marcel Duchamp's mixed-media works. The play on words was inscribed on candy wrappers that were handed out during an opening in Paris in 1953.
The show is conceived as a series of solo exhibitions by some of today's most popular artists: Pawel Althamer, Maurizio Cattelan, Paul Chan, Nathalie Djurberg, Urs Fischer, Robert Gober, Jeff Koons, Paul McCarthy, Seth Price, Kiki Smith, Kara Walker, Andro Wekua, etc. You might know all the names and you might even like some of them but that won't prevent you from being surprised by the exhibition. It's an exciting show. Both provocative and satisfying.
"Over the past few years, the exhibitions displayed at DESTE have been the result of many people getting together. They are not thematic in the traditional sense. But one could say that the latest exhibition looks like a compilation of solo displays by the specific artists who are represented in the collection by many works. Creations by other artists have been placed within these 'sub-groups,' hence creating parasitic relations between the exhibits," explained curator Massimiliano Gioni.
I'm just going to highlight a couple of works:
One of the most eye-catching pieces on the ground floor is a sinister structure that cuts through the ceiling. Once you walk upstairs, you discover that the cast aluminum structure is actually a grave being dug up. Urs Fischer's overwhelming Untitled (Hole) takes the whole room, leaving only little space to walk around and admire Kara Walker's gouache on paper works.
Now i almost got knocked down the stairs on my way to the first floor. As i raised my head i was unsettled by Maurizio Cattelan's Ave Maria. Translated as Hail Mary, the title refers to the catholic tradition of revering the Virgin Mary. The right-armed salute is nowadays synonymous with right-wing or extremist political movements. The image brought to my mind the little plastic statues of Benito Mussolini one can sometimes find in Italian highway shops and the content face of Gaetano Saya. And then there's the 'legendary' grip that the Catholic church is said to have on the whole country. So, yes, i smiled broadly when i saw Ave Maria then i remembered that Europe is not always that open-minded, democratic, cultivated place that i love so much. Anyway, I'm probably seeing way more politics here in there than i should.
In the adjacent room, Paweł Althamer (people in Milan might remember the inflatable giant that floated above the Parco Sempione) had some stunning dolls, spineless leather-clad mannequins and a self-portrait as an old man.
Cattelan followed in the next room, this time with a self-portrait sticking his head through a hole in the floor (yes, another one). The figure is staring at Paul Chan's charcoal portraits of the members of the U.S. Supreme Court, My Laws Are My Whores that hints at the relationship between sex and law.
The best part for me was on the top floor. A fantastic series of sculptures by Urs Fischer, including a Ghost Chair:
I took pictures for you!
A Guest + A Host = A Ghost - Works from the Dakis Joannou Collection is on view at DESTE Foundation until December 31st 2009. New Museum curator Massimiliano Gioni acted as curatorial advisor with the collaboration of Maurizio Cattelan, Urs Fischer and Cecilia Alemani.
Nathalie Djurberg looks like a porcelain doll. She makes candy-coloured plasticine puppets who have orgies, who torture each other and suffer alien, abusive relationships. Sometimes they have fun but that involves a tiger licking a girl's bottom or a father who will eventually be killed by his own daughter. Djurberg, who won the Silver Lion award for best young artist at the Biennale, was the super star of Venice. I went to see her video installation three times and the room was always jam-packed with people drooling over her animations and taking photos of her monstruous sculpted flowers as if their lives depended on it. Not that i acted any differently.
Experimentet is an installation recreating a Garden of Eden from hell. It's a garden covered with creepy flowers. They are so big they dwarf visitors, their colours and shape are nauseating. Sun never lights up the garden, it's set in a perpetual crepuscule, in the basement of the Padiglione delle Esposizioni (the ex-Padiglione Italia in the Giardini of the biennale.)
A music composed by Hans Berg contributes to the uncomfortable atmosphere. On the screens, 3 merciless and erotic stop-motion animations.
One tells the story of a puppet who battles her own aggressive limbs. The second one features puppets who resort to all sort of brutishness in order to escape a hostile forest environment and the third one follows the sexual foreplay of various puppets, some of them Catholic ecclesiastics. Their sexual and sacrilegious encounters are just pretexts to highlight perverse games of power and submission.
As the catalog of the biennale says: Through these minutely composed sequences of stop-motion animations, Djurberg toys with society's perceptions of right and wrong, exposing our own innate fears of what we do not understand and illustrating the complexity that arises when we are confronted with these emotions.
Related: Nathalie Djurberg solo show at the Fondazione Prada.
Laboral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial in Gijón, North of Spain has opened a very very very good exhibition a few days ago. FEEDFORWARD - The Angel of History addresses the current moment in history where the wreckage of political conflict and economic inequality is piling up, while globalized forces--largely enabled by the "progress" of digital information technologies--inexorably feed us forward. I'll write about it in details in the near future but i'd like to share with you straight away one of the most interesting artworks i've discovered there.
Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad is a transparent map that documents the use of U.S. Armed Forces by means of 22LR caliber bullets. Shooter from the Olympic Society of Shooting in Gijón shot from a distance of 25 meters (the Spanish law wouldn't allow for a closer shot) into the polycarbonate map at the precise location where each incursion has occurred since 1798. According to Congressional Research Service report for Congress, Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-2006, there have been approximately 330 instances "in which the United States has used its armed forces abroad in situations of military conflict or potential conflict or for other than normal peacetime purposes", or more than 1 per year.
In places, the resulting map is a literal wreck due to the number of incidents in certain areas. It is also a map of the expanding sphere of influence of the United States, as its military reach matches its economic scope of activities.
Yes! Hamburg! i didn't see it coming either.
Because i had wrongly assumed in the past that the size of a German city was proportionate to the importance of its airport, i was astonished to read in wikipedia that Hamburg is the second-largest city in Germany (after Berlin). Well, the place might not have Munich's fancy airport but it does have some arresting buildings in construction, an impressive warehouse district, the super popular Fritz drinks and a gallery which inaugurates a series of articles that will focus on some of the most exciting art galleries i got to visit over the course of my life as a happy blogger. I went to heliumcowboy only once. I read they had a show of Boris Hoppek's work, I won't fuck with you tonight, so i took the train from Berlin and on my way back i kept wondering "How come there's no space like that in the German capital?"
I doubt there are many galleries like heliumcowboy anywhere else either. First there's that name. Charming and puzzling. Not even an interview with the gallery director has helped me uncover its origin. Then of course there's the artists the space represents. Since its opening in 2003, heliumcowboy artspace has been showcasing artists 'who are capable of pushing boundaries, are a little underground and whose aesthetic is the forecast of art.' Click through their list of artists and you'll get the point.
Finally, heliumcowboy does openings that go way beyond tepid wine, polite conversations and bags of crisps. Each new exhibition is accompanied by live music, multimedia and performance relating to the the themes of the exhibition.
I asked Jörg Heikhaus, the gallery director (click this way if you read german), to tell us what makes heliumcowboy such a unique and fantastic art space:
The 'about' page of the gallery defines heliumcowboy as a "hybrid cross of traditional gallery and urban exhibition lounge". I hope you will excuse my ignorance but what is an urban exhibition lounge exactly? Which role does it fulfill?
We are a traditional gallery in terms of our understanding towards the representation of artists - supporting them in any way possible, establishing them in the art world and subsequently on the market. In this context, "traditional" means that we understand and respect the processes, the knowledge- and business-demands of the industry we're a part of. The "urban exhibition lounge" sounds a bit dusty after doing this already for 6 years, but it still stands for the way we present us and our artists whenever we do shows or fairs or any other kind of exhibitions: our guests shall feel comfortable in an environment we create jointly with the artists for a young, urban generation. But you are right, after 6 years of proving our point we could shorten this whole sentence to one word: gallery.
Jörg Heikhaus, the founder of heliumcowboy is (along with many other talents) a graffiti artist himself. How does his practice inform/influence the selection of artists who exhibit at HC?
It's just history, the background we come from. I have no time to do art myself any longer, and the last time I stood at a wall is almost 20 years ago. So it is a "was", amongst many different things I did over the years. But because Graffiti has become a vital part of contemporary art, my past is helpful: I can fully appreciate what is happening on the streets today and how it has developed in the past years. For me, a deep understanding of the culture, ideally mixed with own experiences in Graffiti, are a prerequisite for working with Urban Art from a gallery perspective.
Many of the artists represented by heliumcowboy could lazily be described as 'street artist'. Do you think that this expression "street artist" does justice to the artworks the gallery exhibits and sells?
Many of our artists "could be lazily described as ..." doing what they are best at and what we think is extraordinary and exciting about these individuals. Only few have actual roots in street art. What they all share though is a new approach to what is contemporary art, and street art and the accompanying cultural and social effects are a part of it. We started to label this as "New Urban Contemporary". We feel that one sums it up best.
Did the recent obsession with all things Banksy have any effect on the gallery and the artists associated with it? Have these emerging artists become more appetizing for the art market? Did you get more attention from the more 'traditional' contemporary art press as well?
Urban art, Graffiti, Street art - the amazement started to cease once the markets crumbled. And traditional press is always just interested in big names, and we can't really offer celebrity hype. There are only few places reserved in the glamour section for the Banksy's of today, but there are enough deck chairs in the sun for the best, most unique and hardest working artists. We try to make sure that our artists get all support necessary to focus on their work. And besides establishing new voices in art we also know that successful communication and promotion is not a pure privilege of the "traditional" art media any longer.
How important is it for heliumcowboy to have a booth at the Basel art fair?
To be seen outside of Hamburg, to get to know international collectors and curators, to establish a world-wide reputation - fairs are a vital part of that. Basel, despite it's small town feeling (compared to the 2 other, most important art fair locations, Miami and New York), is like a magnet for the nomadic art enthusiast. Having a booth at a premium art fair in Basel like VOLTA or SCOPE is key to being successful in Europe.
heliumcowboy artspace exhibits mostly emerging artists. Isn't that a bit risky for a middle-size city like Hamburg? Isn't the Hamburg public more used to traditional art and less likely to follow your more adventurous selection?
That's exactly why we do art fairs and exhibitions abroad. Hamburg is a good city to be headquartered with the gallery, but the contemporary art market focuses much more on exciting cities like New York, London, Berlin, etc. Also, we mainly work with international artists, this means we bring something to the city that helps improve Hamburg's reputation and is something people from here don't see that often, unless they travel.
As long as we get the visibility we need on a world-wide scale, we couldn't be happier than being in Hamburg - it's a fine city, with a vibrant art scene, good people and the best football club in the world (St. Pauli of course). There is no such thing as Hype, which is helpful if you want to develop something sustainable and of high quality. The only drawbacks are the many traditional art buyers (give 'em a painting of a ship in the harbour any time) and the lack of support from the public authorities. For the senate, contemporary art is never as important as the next musical.
heliumcowboy's website is in english. Does that constitute a clue of the international clients and audience the gallery hopes to attract?
For years now, heliumcowboy artspace is an internationally recognised gallery. We have almost 60.000 unique visits every month at heliumcowboy.com. Only 15-20 % are from Germany. Most of our artists are not German. The majority of our sales are to international clients. Since 2006, we attend three major art fairs in Miami, New York and Basel every year - but not one in Germany. Our newsletter is bi-lingual, but because our website is more like a magazine with new posts every other day it would be impossible to translate with the staff we have.
More generally how's the contemporary culture like in Hamburg? Does it work like some kind of satellite of trendy Berlin or does it have its own taste, drive and dynamics?
As I said - there is no Hype in Hamburg. It is calm and unagitated. But it definitely has it's own dynamics and flavours, and this created a unique, large cultural scene, be it in music or arts. Once you've tasted it, you won't be needing Berlin any more ...
But seriously: you can't compare these cities. Both are totally different. There seems to be more sugar in Berlin, that's why so many people move there ...
Can you explain us the name? heliumcowboy?
Over a couple of beers, because that's how it came up... however, I like the image of the hard-working, earth-bound cowboy in contrast to helium, an inert gas, that (at least as the result of a physical chain reaction) makes the stars shine ...
Thanks Jörg (and Nadine who helped me set up the interview!)
Don't worry 'bout a thing (Being Alex Diamond) runs until November 13 at heliumcowboy in Hamburg, Germany.
I've been to Oslo twice over the past few weeks. That was quite enough to enchant me.
Last June one of Oslo's most well known public artworks, Edens Hage (The Garden of Eden) by Arne Lindaas, was removed from the walls of the Hammersborg tunnel in the center of Oslo. It was decided that the artwork, painted in 1972, could not stand pollution, graffiti and the passing of time any longer. Besides, a renovation of the tunnel was due. It has not been decided whether Edens Hage will reappear on the wall one day.
Young artist Hans E. Thorsen paid homage to the iconic public artwork by inviting the public to help him recreate the mystical figures of Edens Hage on the white walls of the 0047 gallery. The artist drew the outlines of the figures and gallery visitors were handed black paint and brushes to fill in the silhouettes.
With this project, Thorsen wishes to explore how the reconstruction of another artists work can be worked into ones own production and how the public artwork will transform inside the white cube, with its many corners and structures. Edens Hage - Inspired by Arne Lindaas, is a tribute to the original artwork and looks at the collective affection towards a public artwork.
Besides, the wall painting raises an issue much discussed in architects, artists and restorers circles: Is it better to recreate a building or artwork exactly as it used to be before its destruction or decay or should we instead choose to pay homage to the work in a more creative way?
Ever since i found about his tattoos on the pin-ups and luchadores appearing in vintage Mexican magazines, i was in love Dr Lakra. The tattoo artist lives in Mexico. A couple of weeks ago i was in Mexico too and there was a solo show of Dr Lakra at the kurimanzutto gallery. I felt like the happiest person in the world. Now, in retrospect, i feel that i'd been happier had i not forgotten in a taxi my lovely camera with all the images i had taken at the exhibition.
The Kurimanzutto exhibition shows a few framed ink on paper from the Health & Efficiency series. A few years ago, the artist was strolling around the Sunday market on Brick Lane in London. He bought for a few pounds a stack of nudist magazines. He brought the lot home and adorned the illustrations with gothic creatures, horny skeletons, penises on legs, SM accessories and of course the ladies get covered with tattoo and semen in the process. Planet mag has some images.
The rest of the exhibition, however, is drawn directly over the gallery walls.
The characters, stylistic references, scenes, close-ups, expressions and texts of Dr Lakra's huge drawing come from all kinds of sources. There are female African figures, Japanese characters, scientific, medical and anthropological illustrations of the nineteenth century, 'porn' photo-novels, images in record covers, film scenes, publicity found in vintage magazines, and graffiti-.
More images of his work at the Gallery Kate MacGary.