Word on the Eurostreet is that the next big thing in art just might be death. This recent brush with fatality started with a news item in the Art Newspaper on Apr. 17, 2008, reporting that the German artist Gregor Schneider -- known for often-spooky architectural manipulations, including rebuilding his house in the German pavilion at the 2001 Venice Biennale -- was planning to stage a performance-art piece in which the Museum Haus Lange in the Rhineland city of Krefeld would exhibit a dying person as an art object. A Düsseldorf-based pathologist named Roswitha Franziska Vandieken was supposed to assist Schneider in finding a subject willing to pass away in public. Schneider was quoted as saying, "I want to display a person dying naturally in the piece or somebody who has just died. My aim is to show the beauty of death."
The news raced through the German press, especially after hitting the widely read tabloid Bild Zeitung, but the story wasn’t quite right. Martin Hentschel, director of Krefeld’s museums, made clear that the institution has nothing to do with Schneider’s plan. "Gregor Schneider hasn’t yet spoken to me, and we’re not available for such a performance," he told Stefan Kobel at artnet.de. Vandieken isn’t involved, either, at least not as a supplier of someone in his or her last hours. "I’ve discussed these issues with Mr. Schneider on a philosophical level. But we never discussed that Mr. Schneider wanted to exhibit a dying person. I also don’t run a clinic. I’m a pathologist," she said.
The flurry of outrage among German cultural critics has included discussions of the allegedly declining quality of Schneider’s work as well as proclamations of a lack of esthetic and social boundaries in 21st-century art. The artist did indeed speak with an Art Newspaper reporter, but claims (and laments) that his comments were taken out of context. Schneider has since received death threats, aggressive emails and someone even suggested that he should kill his mother. In a telephone interview with artnet.de, he had to abruptly hang up because he thought someone might be outside wrecking his car. The lone positive public response came from the Jesuit priest Friedhelm Mennekes in Cologne, who asserted that the way "we deal with death is not healthy, and Gregor Schneider is an artist who works seriously with realities of repression."
On Apr. 27, 2008, the Guardian ran an essay written by Schneider himself that explains the original purpose of the project, and his take on the matter. "For years, I have a dreamed of a room in which people can die in peace. It’s a simple room: flooded with light, with a wooden floor. It is a copy of a room I once saw at the Museum Haus Lange-Haus Esters in Krefeld, Germany. . . . I have recreated this room. . . and at the moment, it is standing right here in my studio."Schneider’s essay clears up what seems to have set off as many alarm bells as the Costa Rican artist Habacuc’s "starving dog" controversy a couple of weeks ago [see "Artnet News," Apr. 17, 2008]. "I am not proposing that I would bring about someone’s death, or stage it. Nor am I suggesting that I would encourage someone who wants to take their own life. All I want to do is offer a room. . . in which they spend their last hours as they wish. I have also considered building a room for giving birth in." And as he said to artnet.de, "The real scandal is how we have to die in reality today."
Further afield with Jan Fabre
In Paris, additional controversy and fewer direct references to sacrifice and death were generated by the Louvre, which invited the energetic Belgian artist Jan Fabre to "intervene" with paintings from the German, Flemish and Dutch schools in the museum’s Richelieu wing. The artist was given carte-blanche to install his own work -- typically sculptural self-portraits, often bizarre, or works using sculptured beetles, bird heads or other creatures, all serving as the artist’s alter-ego -- between and among works by Rubens, van Eyck, Rembrandt, van der Weyden, Metsys and Bosch in 40 vast halls.
Running until July 7, 2008, Fabre’s "Angel of the Metamorphosis" drew more than 8,000 people to the Apr. 11 opening and, according to the press corps, has since attracted a "younger" crowd into the wing. It’s also produced a few scathing editorials in publications like Le Figaro: "The absence of artistic content in so-called contemporary art abolishes the distinction between culture and lack of culture, and flatters the ego of those most ignorant in art and history. But why this mania to bring this farce into classical museums, and in particular the Louvre?"
Okay, okay. The "mania" seems to be a logical progression of the Louvre’s effort to integrate contemporary art into its halls in the past few years, with the Fabre show being by far the most extensive to date. For contemporary-art viewers who’ve seen dialogues between old and new before (or even work including bodily fluids), nothing is particularly shocking, although there’s plenty to ponder.
The show presents about 30 Fabre works, and opens with a nearly life-size self-portrait sculpture of the artist butting his nose against a medieval painting, with blood pooling at his feet. I Let Myself Drain, as it is called, is about Fabre -- who’s also a theater and performance artist, set designer, "editeur," activist and more -- feeling "defeated by the talent of his predecessors."
Other works, some dating to the late 1970s, include drawings in the artist’s own blood or semen, his famous blue-ink Bic drawings, sacrificial lamb sculptures in 24-carat gold displayed in vitrines on beds of ground human bones, monk’s outerwear rendered in sliced human bone, or work made of iridescent scarabs or insect wings. A slab of sculptural "meat" hanging from the ceiling, which echoes a similar slab in a Rembrandt van Rijn painting across the room, is all bugs.
The eerie human eyes peering from owl heads in Messengers of Death, Decapitated apparently refer to the animals’ appearance in Bosch’s work and represent madness and wisdom. And in Peter-Paul Rubens’ vast Maria de’ Medici room, Fabre has installed 400 Belgian-granite gravestones upon which a huge silicon earthworm with Fabre’s face breathes and speaks. Fabre seems obsessed with vanity, reincarnation, death and a dark brand of spiritualism; he explains the bone monks’ robes as representative of a spiritual body, a kind of exoskeleton. "The future person would have an outer shell. Then, the person can’t bleed anymore."
On Apr. 22, Fabre’s performative bent was featured in the museum’s Daru gallery, a wonderful space filled with carved sarcophagi and antiquities like the Winged Victory of Samothrace. For four hours, the artist disguised himself with beards, wigs, eyeglasses and lab coats, shouted cryptic messages like "Art kept me out of jail!" (the performance’s title), gave haircuts and raced through the hall with indefatigable energy, always closely followed by an in-character camera crew whose live feeds ran on three screens on the building’s facade.
However appealing the idea of not bleeding might be, and however contagious Fabre’s quirky energy is, one can’t help but wonder where all this is going. The relation of Fabre’s objects (and the ego they represent) to the classical works in the Louvre is uncertain, ambiguous, arbitrary. Why did the Louvre choose Fabre? A conversation with a Louvre press officer suggested that on reason was to boost traffic in the Richelieu wing, which generally gets fewer visitors than the packed halls containing the Mona Lisa and such. A little confrontation, a little provocation and the people will come.
All’s fair in Berlin?
Back in Berlin, rumors began to fly in mid-April that a new fair was starting up in the city, brought to life by Michael Neff, who served as director of the now defunct Frankfurt Art Fair and is the current organizer of increasingly successful Gallery Weekend Berlin (which runs May 2-4, 2008, and includes 34 of the city’s upper-crust galleries).
Planned for Sept. 4-7, 2008, the new "fair" is a project called "Art Berlin Contemporary" -- or "abc" -- and promises 50-odd galleries in the old postal railway station in Berlin’s Gleisdreieck. But the news is both premature and slightly erroneous: it apparently leaked from an interview that Neff did with the German arts magazine Monopol. "The conversation was supposed to be printed two weeks later," explains Neff. "And the ‘abc’ is a show experiment, not a fair," he says.
"The word ‘fair’ is forbidden," agrees Swedish dealer Claes Nordenhake, one of the driving forces behind the event as well as the originator of a multi-gallery building that opened on the Kreuzberg-Mitte border in late September last year.
At the same time, pressure is rising on Art Forum Berlin, whose 13th edition opens on Oct. 30, 2008, a good month later than its usual slot. The troubled fair -- in a city with dozens of top contemporary galleries, only a few actually participate -- is trying to develop a new concept, with one idea being to abandon the classic fair format for a "curated" show featuring Berlin’s finest dealers.
Such a plan would likely divide Berlin’s already divided gallery scene, writes artnet.de’s Kobel. Art Forum Berlin artistic director Sabrina van der Ley doesn’t see much difference between "fair" and "show experiment." The board initiated a discussion with Neff and his partners and signaled a readiness to present a unified front in 2009 at the latest, but the Gallery Weekend people apparently rejected the offer to cooperate. The jabs continue. . . and never say die.
KIMBERLY BRADLEY is a translator and writer working in New York and Berlin.