Isa Genzken, Sept. 16-Oct. 28, 2006, at Neugerriemschneider, Linienstrasse 155, 10115 Berlin, Germany
I first heard of Isa Genzken in the mid-1990s, while working for an art dealer who had a gallery on Broadway in Lower Manhattan. Late one afternoon, the owner of the gallery next door came to visit, tears in his eyes, his face dripping with olive oil and mozzarella. One of his artists, Isa Genzken, at the time the lover of Gerhard Richter, had been given $10,000 as pocket money, and she had spent absolutely everything in a one-day shopping frenzy.
She had stopped by his gallery to borrow money for a cab ride back to her hotel, and when the dealer commented on her extravagance, she threw her sandwich -- roasted tomatoes and mozzarella -- in his face. It was the beginning of the end of a bumpy collaboration.
Isa Genzken was then part of the bustling Cologne art scene, a creative and decadent society that was both enamored of and sickened by its own sense of entitlement, and one that soon disintegrated. With her eccentric egotism, her androgynous silhouette, basketball cap and flashy sneakers, Genzken was often photographed by Wolfgang Tillmans, and was seen by many as a kind of female counterpart to Martin Kippenberger, another German artist who had the capacity to electrify a room (often a bar).
Genzken was "a walking oxymoron of operatic realism and restrained extravagance," as a critic once described Lucino Visconti, although Genzken wasn’t what you would call restrained.
I last saw her in New York in the wee hours on the dance floor of a Chelsea disco. Later she moved to Berlin, and soon had been banned from clubs and bars for her agitated behavior. I heard she was screaming: "fascist" at customers and I saw her dead drunk sleeping on the demonstration furniture of a design store in the middle of Wittenberger Platz.
Now, Isa Genzken has become a cult figure in Germany, widely collected and represented by top galleries -- and she is representing the country in the prestigious 2007 Venice Biennale. The work, if not the notorious attitude, deserves the exposure. Her experience with psychoactive substances, with club subcultures and other cultures in critical reaction to both highbrow and pop postures, have generated highly imaginative worlds that seem to exist somewhere between the conscious and the unconscious, in a sociopolitical and psychological collision that, finally, creates a new sort of reality.
Genzken’s sculptures are an insolent arrangement of found objects, recycled images and created textures, a reflection of the terrors and longings of their cultural moment. The listing of materials in her 2006 sculpture Hula Hoop, for instance, includes a Barcelona chair, a water pipe, hula hoops, bicycle inner tubes, ribbons and a catalogue for an exhibition devoted to an early Renaissance painting of the death of Saint Thomas of Canterbury.
All of this is a little chaotic and at the same time precisely controlled. A hybrid of "gender trouble," architectonic fiction and emotional extroversion, her works are able to constitute surprisingly complete narratives within the confines of a form. If a three-dimensional shape would represent electronic dance music at his best, it will be probably this one.
XAVIER LABOULBENNE is a writer based in Berlin.