Can an artist dictate the terms of social collaboration, or does he remain a recording device for situations he himself initiates? The Berlin-based artist Christian Jankowski asks this question repeatedly. In his practice the Duchampian notion of the transformative power of the artist (the ennoblement of an everyday item to an artwork) is read performatively. Jankowski’s taste for the absurd turns him into a puppet master, pulling the strings of his unwitting collaborators. In Telemistica (1999), his contribution for the 1999 Venice Biennale, he asked five television soothsayers whether his contribution to the festival would be a success. They answered in the affirmative, and indeed, Telemistica thrust him into greater spotlight.
Jankowski’s practice is located somewhere between video, installation and ready-made, but in all, the performative aspect dominates. His artworks are participatory, but rather than leaving these unscripted and arbitrary, as with, for instance Valie Export’s Tapp-und-Tast-Kino, the participants are cast into very definite roles. By casting the finished recordings as artworks, Jankowski exposes the absurdity of the life/art boundary showing that for him, art can never be autonomous.
Born in 1968 in leafy Göttingen, Jankowski twice failed to gain acceptance to the Kunsthochschule in Hamburg. Rather than concede defeat, he attended as a “Schwarzhörer” (illegal attendee). Fellow students included mischief-makers John Bock (a gallery stablemate) and Jonathan Meese. Eschewing the theory-heavy discourse and practice taught at the university, Jankowski early on discovered the subversive power of performance, once chasing through a supermarket and shooting his weekly food requirements (Die Jagd, 1992). The taciturn expression on the cashier’s face serves as counterpoint to the absurdity of the action.
At the London Frieze art fair, and its sister, Sunday, Jankowski dominated the proceedings. This time, as befits the art fair environs, rather than choosing art gallery attendants or tele-evangelists as his participants, he shone the spotlight on collectors. His piece The Finest Art on Water intended to challenge the collector by participating in the transformation of a luxury yacht from aquatic device to ready-made through payment of an art supplement. Drawing on Franz West’s participatory sculptures, he suggests that any action onboard the boat can also have performative elements. As with any piece, the collector is investing in the artist’s future: only time will tell if that investment bears fruit. And that, says Jankowski, is his responsibility.
At Sunday, this notion was extended in two pieces: Review, and artefacts from his 2010 performance at Berlin’s Akademie der Künste “Kunst und Krise” (Art and Crisis). In Review, Jankowski invited leading art critics to write a review of the piece being exhibited. These included Frieze Germany editor Jörg Heiser, Lars Bang Larsen, Roberta Smith of the New York Times and Jerry Saltz. The review is inserted (unread) in a bottle of the critic’s choosing, sealed and sold. Jörg Heiser chose a Gordon’s Gin bottle as a reference to Gilbert and George’s 1972 video piece, Gordon’s Makes us Drunk, in which the artists proceed to drink copious amounts of Gordon’s while videoing the results. The collector here has a choice: activate the piece through opening the bottle and reading the review (which should be quite interesting, given the calibre of the critics), creating a “performance moment” but destroying the piece, or leaving it as artefact. At that moment, Jankowski says, the person will realise he has just destroyed an artwork.
The piece Art and Crisis forms a counterpoint to the luxury boat. One of Berlin’s august art institutions, the Akademie der Künste asked Jankowski to stage on a performance about the crisis in the art and financial worlds. The artist decided to stage a benefit auction, but with a twist: instead of asking fellow artists to donate works, he wrote to Berlin’s tax-payer financed institutions including the German Parliament, the Police and the Fire-Brigade, who each donated everyday objects: type-writers, fire-helmets and in one case, a confiscated Steiff teddy. An art auction was held in the Academy, and once each piece was sold, he signed a certificate, declaring the object as Jankowski readymade, changing the value.
While the yacht may have slid a little too smoothly into the usual tropes about art as a luxury consumable (it is hard to see how a luxury sea-going vessel can inform a challenge, for while paying $125 000 more to have this object as a ready-made, this, for the intended audience probably isn’t an inordinate amount of money), the artist continues to amuse and intrigue, from having the TV-designer Gordon Whistance of Changing Rooms fame make over the somewhat tired-looking Pump House Gallery in London, to letting members of the Vatican cast the ideal Jesus. (“Casting Jesus“, Lisson Gallery, London, UK). Jankowski is at his best when acting a shadowy puppet master, underscoring the absurd incongruities of our notions of artistry.
See more of Christian Jankowski’s work:
Sala de Arte Público Siqueiros
“Cry me an Ocean” – Christian Jankowski
Opening Reception: Feb. 8, 2012
Jeni Fulton is a writer focussing in and on the international Berlin art scene. She is currently working on her PhD thesis in contemporary art theory. Having taken her MA in Philosophy at the University of Cambridge, she now lives and works in Berlin.