In an age where art’s status as a commodity is more pronounced than ever before, artists often become pulled into a vicious cycle where they simultaneously signify both exploited labour power and the perpetration of market capitalism. Speaking to the conditions of labour and capitalism keeping it all afloat, the current exhibition ‘Transaktionen’ at Haus am Lützowplatz provides a number of different takes on the subject of art world capitalism, but by no means enforces a singular standpoint.
Art that benefits from the labour input of participants from non-artistic backgrounds can generally be expected to be tied to questions of ethics. Increasingly within what has been deemed the ‘social turn’ in contemporary art, artists tend to be judged more on how the participating subjects are treated during artistic production than on the product itself. These criteria are in circulation when I encounter a large figurative sculpture constructed from chocolate, dominating the centre of Haus am Lützowplatz. The work is Renzo Martens’ ‘The Art Collector’ (2015), the result of a sculpture workshop set up at a Congolese plantation. Proceeds from the project contribute towards funding a cultural centre on the edge of the plantations. The piece itself emits a sweet, almost sickly, scent. One can almost hear the heroic connotations that come with bold, socially-engaged art chiming throughout the show. But we must not forget that the artwork poses a flattery to each artist’s name; at the end of the day, the works are attributed to them. And with the realisation of multiple works in ‘Transaktionen’ being reliant on the cooperation of non-artistic communities, the prosperity of individual gain begins to rear its head.
In the post-conceptual age, we have seen a decrease in the worth placed on the visual. Aestheticism is by no means dead, proven just by looking at the work of artists such as Santiago Sierra, whose career has depended on producing harrowing imagery. The artist’s infamous work ‘250 cm Line Tattooed On 6 Paid People, Havana, Cuba,’ 1999 is on exhibited in ‘Transaktionen’. Sierra’s distressing presentation of the desperation imposed by harsh social conditions still packs a punch, yet I’d argue there are multiple works within the show that get across ethical messages with less deliberately sensational gestures. This is particularly the case within ‘Pulheim gräbt’ (2009/2010) by Michael Sailstorfer. He invited residents of the city of Pulheim to dig up €10,000 worth of gold, which he had buried on a brooked urban plot and sown over with yellow mustard on the free surface. The artist’s inflicting of manual labour upon his participants instigates a reflection on the artist’s authority as a facilitator, and throws up questions of whether the exchange is entirely equal. The presence of gold here directly brings us back to economic disparity, yet in other works the artist’s exploitative side is channelled with more directness. The work of Canadian artist Julian Schwebel consists of him renting out his room in the exhibition space to photographer Jonas St. Michael for a considerable sum. This project merges the distilled aesthetic of conceptual art with a depressing and very common reality: the transactional relationships that artists foster with institutions often result in their putting in more than they receive.
This comparison of the exhibiting artists in ‘Transaktionen’ in a game of social one-upmanship may seem unnecessary. Yet in a show that revolves around the issue of valuing artworks based on artistic labour, art world status and monetary exchange, I find myself automatically comparing this bunch to one another. Perhaps this is the only outcome when much of the work on show explores the comparative nature of value. In his work ‘The Finest Art on Water’ (2011), Christian Jankowski faces us with Western society’s dependence upon material ownership as an imperative to fashioning our identity, how it sets us apart from others. Jankowski’s video advertises a luxury yacht, which apparently fetches more as an art piece than as a functioning object. The use of the status of art becomes an ever-more desirable coating for designating products at a higher value.
However dark the undertones of Jankowski’s humorous poking at the greed of wealthy elites may seem, it does not come close to the dark comedy of Pilvi Takala‘s ‘The Trainee’ (2008). Within this filmed performance, the Finnish artist aims to disrupt social codes through subtle actions. While working for a month at an auditing firm, she spends a full day riding in an office lift much to the bemusement of the office staff. Later, their expressions turn to suspicion and Takala is deemed to be mentally-ill via email correspondence. Within this work, timely efficiency is declared as paramount to success and Takala’s performance poses a threat to her co-workers’ struggle up the financial ladder.
What is striking about the show in its entirety is the level of vulnerability these artists exhibit. They seem to surrender any doubts that they themselves may not be a product of the system; much of the work feels like an admittance of the tenuous dual identity that artists possess, of both submission and authority within capitalism. What makes this show different from many others is the unsheltered acknowledgement that they, the artists and the gallery itself, are slaves to the lures of the capitalist art market. Even the gallery itself seems to be throwing its hands up defencelessly; in particular, the presence of the giant Freimeister Kollektiv stall in the centre of the room appears to declare that the art in the room cannot exist in a vacuum, but must be considered cultivated within broader movements of product placement and commercialism. These artists have all been inevitably sucked into the system, yet the exhibition has a positive indication that many will maintain the distanced perspective that allows them to reflect critically on it.