Article by Sarah Gretsch in Berlin; Monday, Mar. 11, 2013
From wall calendars to crucified frogs to room service receipts, the Martin Kippenberger exhibit at the Hamburger Bahnhof will not fail to mesmerize. A curator’s nightmare, his work occupies three separate areas of the museum in all forms of artistic mediums. It is not solely the prolific nature of the artist that creates a challenge, but the artist himself. Not only did he make strides in visual art from oil painting to performance to sculpture and graphic design, Kippenberger was also a member of a band, a writer, a wanderer, a nightclub and record label owner. Even the Hamburger Bahnhof admits that the Exhibit is not merely a retrospective of an artist but instead an “approximation of both the private and public persona of the artist”. But what does an approximation actually look like?
The immediate feeling from the first room is that of walking into an eerily empty thrift store with a collection of random objects scattered about: a sculpture of a man, his back turned from us facing the corner, a pre-fabricated furniture piece that looks a bit like a filing cabinet, a signed poster advertising an art exhibition, and a colorful oil painting in an expressionist style. In the next room a printed portrait and a sketch of an entirely different style (yet both from the same year) share space with a watercolor still life reminiscent of high school studio art class (from a decade later). Immediately it is clear that chronology plays a minor role. Appropriate for such an artist as Kippenberger, the show is instead organized by thematic complexes and accompanied by biographical elements. These are so much interweaved into the exhibit that the line between art and life is blurred, emphasizing the notion of Kippenberger’s life as a work of art itself.
The Hamburger Bahnhof directs its visitors through the chaos by displaying the works with a sense of order and direction. Single pieces occupy an entire wall, or at least a large section, allowing the viewer space to ponder the individual significance of single pieces without distraction. The tall ceilings, barren floor, and art-space-conventional white walls force us to observe–– even criticize–– the pieces, as much as we may wonder how. In moments, the space feels eerily quiet, making one wonder if Martin Kipppenberger would have been disappointed that his art does not incite a louder reaction of appall. The space creates a serious atmosphere, in both the institutional aspect and prominence of Hamburger Banhof, and how it chooses to display the works. But should we take it so seriously? With an artist like Kippenberger, this is a serious question. His life and work proposes that we, in moments, really doubt this. Moving from one piece to the next, despite some with a social or political conscious, it can begin to feel like a practical joke. As if Kippenberger wanted to say: take me serious, but not too serious. And so we do. But not only because the atmosphere begs of it, but also because after some time spent with his art, it turns out Martin Kippenberger has quite a lot to say.
Take Untitled (Installation für Claudia Skoda), September 1976 , tucked away from the main exhibition hall in the Atrium next to the Café. Visitors who do not take the time to put the oversized slippers over their shoes and shuffle over the piece–– employing its original purpose as floor and at-home personal catwalk–– are most likely just to take the images at random and react more to the feeling of the piece as a whole, its color, texture, overwhelming scale. But for those who spend a good half an hour perusing the images, the randomness vanishes along with the feeling that you are even looking at an art piece. Instead the pictures convey the sentiment of flipping through a family photo album. Kippenberger creates a number of little dialogues within the larger concept of the piece, grouping photos with similar themes. A still-life image of a bowl of fruit is surrounded by similar food images. Groups of people are shown sitting at tables, on couches in living rooms, while portraits focus on a single facial movement achieved through multiple frames. Kippenberger places these spontaneous scenes with people appearing relaxed and natural, directly next to contrasting posed images, of people almost uncomfortably aware of the photographer’s presence. What once appeared random, what the museum describes as having “no hierarchy of motifs”, actually plays with a number of photographic themes.
The other segregated space holds the collection of white paintings. They are paintings, but could be experienced as more of a performance piece. Though they do not move or speak, they create a certain environment that searches for the words to even describe the feeling, while the text scribbled across the canvases doesn’t help. The soothing white on white is dispelled immediately, as text appears out of the fog, nonsensical, in two languages. Even as the eyes adjust and the canvases begin to take shape, becoming grayer or yellower than the surrounding stark white walls, the text confuses notion of space as it fills the entire plane of the canvas surface. The even more crucial decision, to set the canvases into the wall so they are actually flush with it, has an even stranger effect. The feeling of losing the paintings as they sink into the walls plays against the feeling as though the starkly lit and barely legible text rushes toward you. In blurring this difference between space and canvas, Kippenberger comments not only on the “white-cube” aspect of contemporary galleries but also on how the viewer depends on a certain hanging of canvases in art spaces.
Though somewhat difficult to peg at first–– and I don’t mean men in underwear, nudity, women, and dogs–– traditional artistic themes do exist in Kippenberger’s art. Even a style comes together with the series of works drawn on Hotel Chelsea paper, with a comic-book quality that creates a short moment of personal style for the indecisive artist. Probably the most obviously theme is the reference to or identity of the artist. A number of Picasso moments dot the exhibit as well as a Joseph Beuys imitation of his piece Ja, Ja, Ja, Nee, Nee, Nee , which greets you from the start. This identity of the artist begins with references but morphs into a greater focus on the posthumous artist–– how one is remembered, how Kippenberger will be remembered. He openly verbalized this concern, wanting to be a “good mood” artist. Yet he gives us anything but a good mood in the late works of the 1996 Raft of the Medusa Series . Not only laden with concern for artistic identity in referencing Théodore Géricault and his monumental work, these pieces are truly intriguing portraits of an artist–– tragic, emotional, pathetic, and grotesque.
The Martin Kippenberger exhibit at Hamburger Banhof at first glance appears to be the jumbled collection of an artist without a focus. But if you look closely, one can find many serious moments proving that Martin Kippenberger’s life and work still has a lot to say.
Sarah Gretsch is living in Germany since January 2012. Originally from the United States, where she pursued her Bachelor’s in Art history, she is now continuing her studies in Berlin.