ESSAYS Mousse 65
The Emo-Romantic Turn
by Michal Novotný
I would like to speak about a certain Emo-Romantic turn that manifests itself with the accentuation of expression, authenticity, sincerity, and emotionality. As those tendencies have always been present in art, some of the manifestations may be hard to justify as a coherent trend. Justifying them is nonetheless not the aim of this article. Rather, I would like to show, with a series of quick observations and associations, how a certain lyrical intimacy may be resulting from the state of contemporary art and as a reaction to the current problems we’re all facing.
In 2011 Jaakko Pallasvuo opened a solo exhibition called New Sincerity at FUTURE Gallery in Berlin. At the opening, the artist danced erratically to “Drop It Like It’s Hot” (the Snoop Dogg and Pharrell Williams hit song), rubbing vanilla ice cream—previously exhibited on a triangular mirror on the floor—over his face and hair, and spilling the leftovers all over the gallery space. On the shaky mobile phone video documentation of the performance, we see the spectators cheering the artist, whistling and clapping. Alongside other pieces in the exhibition, on the video Screen Test, a female voice reads the text: “… public and private realms collapse to the social and then to all political action… there is an absence of sorrow and ecstasy, of visceral truth…”
The title of the exhibition refers to the title of a (predominantly literary) movement inspired by David Foster Wallace’s essay “E Unibus Pluram,” published in 1993. The essay discusses how the originally subversive, ironic mechanisms of avant-garde and pop have been appropriated by corporate marketing strategists and how the most successful TV ads of that time mock the classical advertising conventions of authority and sincerity, using the modes of parody, irony, and cynicism. One of the dozens of examples given is “Joe Isuzu,” the 1986–90 low-budget ad campaign for the car manufacturer, in which actor David Leisure played a fictional auto dealer who openly lied, with a fake smile, making outrageous claims about the abilities of the offered cars while a “He’s lying” disclaimer flashed onscreen. Foster Wallace writes: “The next real literary ‘rebels’… might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels… who have the childish gall actually to endorse single-entendre values. Who treat old untrendy human troubles and emotions… with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic.… The new rebels might be the ones willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile… accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Credulity.1
Pallasvuo mentioned in his New Sincerity exhibition text that “romantic conceptualism is called forth.”2 The term romantic conceptualism was coined by Jörg Heiser in a 2002 essay in which he tried to identify romantic tendencies within the Conceptual art movement as well as Conceptualism’s similarities with historical Romanticism. The essay was followed by an exhibition that opened in 2007 at Kunsthalle Nuremberg and BAWAG Foundation Vienna, in which Heiser included predecessors to the first generation of American Conceptualism such as Andy Warhol alongside post-Conceptual artists, such as Felix Gonzales-Torres, who used Conceptual mechanisms in identity-based works. In his essay, Heiser writes about I’m too sad to tell you, a 1971 Bas Jan Ader piece: “We expect Conceptual art (especially its linguistic variety) to tell us something, but Ader just shows. This absence of explanation produces a strong paradox: it is as if he is staging, in the same manner as an educational film on anthropology, a basic human behaviour using common facial expressions. But still his crying is moving and his grief seems earnest. It leaves us with the disturbing feeling that we are witnessing an expression of inconsolable sorrow.”3 In a 2011 essay for e-flux, Heiser further develops thoughts on Eastern European and Russian Conceptualism, mainly accentuating the collision between the public and the intimate. “What these artists might have in common is that they test the limits of intimacy by communicating those limits, not in confession but through acts of deviance that say: yes, I have feelings, but what precisely they are I will not reveal.”4
The exhibition New Sincerity is interesting in the sense that it presents a certain line that remained within post-Internet art but was somehow sidelined, at least within the frame of the key exhibitions of the movement, Speculations on Anonymous Materials, Fridericianum (2013); Art Post-Internet, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (2014); and Berlin Biennale 9, curated by DIS (2016). That is also the time when post-Internet art was promoted by the German institutional and gallery system, and, with some hyperbolic exaggeration, we could say that it became the German national art. At least, never before have I known institutions to open their doors and resources to such young artists. In any case, it is not that emotions wouldn’t be present in those exhibitions—they definitely are—but they are emotions fabricated, subconscious, or even biologically caused, emotions that are depersonalized and thus somehow inherently cynical. The movement, via its overstated “unoriginality,” “de-subjectification,” and “deindividualisation”5 and general accent on technology, is essentially stuck in the ironical, or rather postironical, position that actually refuses the division between sincerity and insincerity and therefore doesn’t allow aiming for honesty, at least in the sense that Foster Wallace means it—which also may have led to the misreading of the general public and the catastrophic reviews of Berlin
This is definitely a simplified explication; the line cannot always be drawn as straight. Pallasvuo himself took part in the Art Post-Internet exhibition, although in the painting section, and was presented as “using fully digital painting methods to explore how, precisely, the age-old discourse of painting has been interpreted via software engineering.”7 Bunny Rogers, whose exploration of 1990s female teen sweetness is certainly a comment on the exploitation of the “Lolita” age but somehow overcomes with ambivalence only the critique of the corporate and patriarchal, was also included, even though her work was contextualized as “elastic identity” in the sense “that she might be able to imagine herself even as something as morose as a deceased cat” and “internet kitsch.”8 There is a whole lot of possible irony in Pallasvuo’s show. Generally we may be living in an era in which sincerity is inevitably parodic, and we definitely can speak about the tension of sincerity and authenticity for Amalia Ulman, who in her seminal Excellence & Perfections from 2013–14 touches precisely on staged and sold intimacy, which, fabricated or not, does arouse. Instagram, in its early stages, may have been only about this public intimacy, those toothbrush-in-mouth mirror images. Anyway, as Pallasvuo said in a 2012 Rhizome interview, “It’s easy to understand how people would perceive my work that way (as ironic), but my approach is quite serious and sombre. I guess it adds to the confusion that I do want to investigate nostalgia, irony and sincerity as themes. It’s a fine line between making works about irony and making works that are ironic. I’m treading that line.”9
The Low Epic (2011) video, which consists in large part of the recording of Pallasvuo’s ice cream performance, starts with a image of a person’s legs balancing on two cubes of vanilla ice cream. A voice-over explains what is happening in an explicatory and symbolic way, and also what happened concerning the technological production of the image. This motif reminded me a lot of Brad Troemel’s The Jogging Tumblr project, sprouting dozens of images, at a certain point mainly about “technology abuse” or the type of “one JPG, one punch line” work that was somehow defined by the vvork.com blog created by Aleksandra Domanovic, Oliver Laric, Christoph Priglinger, and Georg Schnitzer. All those works are also somehow Conceptual in the sense of being a piece of information, a semiotic post-Conceptual object, and this heritage can be traced also in later post-Internet defining exhibitions. As artists Marek Delong and Anna Slama wrote me while I was preparing this article, “Although we were first excited about this kind of art, as it referred to the reality we all live, technology, environmental problems, marketing strategies… we soon realised that it is probably only a way of how to translate those phenomenons into the language of galleries, institutions and art market and this despite the future oriented research by using well proved post-conceptual mechanisms. We understood that under the set of references and art discourse, there is present another, somehow unconscious, basal layer, that often turned out to be crucial for us. So why not to deal with it directly?”
Imagination, Expression, Authenticity
From May 2016 through June 2017, Stefanie Kleefeld, the director of Halle für Kunst Lüneburg, organized three connected exhibitions in this institution in northern Germany, close to Hamburg. Although the Lüneburg website does not have an English version, the translated press releases and titles of the exhibitions appeared on some blogs. The three exhibition titles were Fantasie (2016), Gebärden und Ausdruck (2016), and Authentizität. Das Authentisch Unauthentische (2017). Kleefeld writes that once she tried to look away from the usual problems of contemporary art, pushing aside art that is “running through references… evoking a critical impetus… a vocabulary schooled in discourse, or in glossy superficiality,”10 she encountered notions such as imagination, expression, and authenticity, which are, however, nowadays “regarded as rather obsolete and reactionary.” She further explains how she decided to explore these notions, always trying to avoid the obsolete notion of arts autonomy. Although intensity may be one of the connecting points, Kleefeld didn’t want her exhibitions to be read as constituting some sort of “intensity as style,” in awareness of the 1993 James Meyers exhibition and text “What happened to the institutional critique?,”11 where he attacked the same year’s Whitney Biennial for making “political” be only a “style.” Meyers writes: “Rather than laud these practices for seeming, in some unspecific way, engagé, rather than say they ‘deal with issues of gender, sexuality, race, class…’ and leave it at that (as in the usual, run of the mill, ‘politically correct’ criticism) we need to describe how these practices function, the readings they produce, how they situate themselves discursively and materially… To paraphrase Brecht: how does the work comprehend its subject matter? How does it shape the new relations?”12
Reading through Kleefeld’s texts, I sometimes had a feeling that there was too much carefulness, as if the concepts, due to their precise binding in institutionalized theory, couldn’t be thought to their potential maximums. For instance, at the first exhibition of the trilogy, Imagination, despite all the ambivalence and openness, there remained a certain aftertaste of imagination still representing the danger of escapism resulting in inwardness—as if Kleefeld somehow always wished for the necessarily transformative notion of art. However, her texts make many interesting points, including one about the idea of expressions. Kleefeld builds on the work of Michel Leiris, the French surrealist writer and ethnographer who was born in 1901. In his essay about ritual theater in Ethiopian Gondar, published in the 1960s, he problematized the relations between true and untrue dimension in regard to expressions. Kleefeld writes: “Although possession ultimately turns out to be a controlled endeavor, the regulation and formalization of being possessed does not mean that it is artificially fabricated in all instances. For the interesting and decisive aspect lies precisely in persons playing a role, but with the belief that they are under the influence of a real power. Being something and performing something is not a contradiction here. Instead, deception and expression are one, so that being possessed must be grasped as a lived and precisely not as a played theater.”13
The majority of the artists included in Kleefeld’s trilogy were around forty years old at that time, including some already historically significant ones—for instance, Jutta Koether and Mike Kelley. This created some interesting three-generational links, although only a few young artists were involved, such as Veit Laurent Kurz, Ben Schumacher, and Stefan Tcherepnin. Ben Schumacher is one of the stars of the post-Internet movement, entering Bortolami Gallery at an early age, his works often categorized under the infrastructural turn, with the interest in exploring the invisible veins and intestines of civilization, when the shiny, perfect surfaces of post-Internet started so suddenly to degrade, and those backstage were often pragmatically called “plumbers.” Schumacher, however, rapidly changed his terminology to something that, mainly in connection with Veit Laurent Kurz, could be called “new vernacularity.” Also, to a certain extent, he withdrew from the spotlight and slowed down the pace of his exhibitions. In the text, resembling an absurd playscript, to the November 2017 exhibition with Kurz, called Almenrausch (from the German Alpenrose) at xyz collective in Tokyo, we can read, “Look son, just look around, look at the buildings. They get built and in the moment they are finished. They already look old. Time is relative. So now look at me. I seem to be an old lady. But I actually have the spirit of 14 years old. Old is the new young.” The exhibition consisted of a rather improvised-looking cardboard set of German-looking timber houses squeezed into the tiny gallery space, with some “KOBAN” graffiti tags on their facades; a series of Kurz’s drawings of somehow utopian square or parklike but also overall half-timbered urban spaces, some with a figure resembling a sorcerer; patchwork sewn jackets on coat hangers resembling the clothes of the sorcerer; and Schumacher’s typically degraded, eroded, parts-missing figurative paintings.
Several months prior, during Art Basel 2017, Kurz curated an exhibition, Zur Rebschänke, at Weiss Falk gallery that included Schumacher and Tcherepnin and also other artists like Miriam Visaczki and Max Brand. Timber frames of painted cardboard this time were life-size, making the gallery resemble a bierstube. The exhibition text, written by one of the artists, Yannic Joray, explains semihistorically and with ambivalence the relations of nineteenth-century appearance of German and British folklorism and the mixture of its presumed authenticity with Romanticism, nationalism, antiquarianism, and literature. Joray ends the text: “It doesn’t help to abandon one hundred and fifty years of folklore because of its historical or figurative ambiguity. Rest assured, scores more are yet to conjure their own horror-versions of horror, while others dither over whether show titles should be in English or German. Zur Rebschänke: a thirst quenching parlour to have a word with fanged folklore.”14
Slow Steps, Slime Trail
Marek Delong and Anna Slama’s project Sugar Hunter’s Feast, which I saw for the first time as a video projected on the dark, dusty wall of functionalist Kino Metropol in Olomouc, in the Czech Republic, during the PAF animated film festival in 2017, brings together the work of six visual artists. In addition to Delong and Slama, the work features Isabella Rodriguez, Bora Akinciturk, Wally Petrushenko, and Leon Eisermann, with text by Keiu Krikman and soundtrack by Nurse Stocking; camera and editing were done by the artists and voice-over narration by Martin Nytra. Delong and Slama animated the artworks, mainly small sculptures, in the sense of animation technique in the movie and also literally, as the sculptures start to move and speak. As the authors mention in the accompanying text, they become “characters, not just representations.”15 Although there is a voice-over leading the viewer through the forest fairy tale, and the artworks/characters are given roles, the pervading tone is much more musical and emotional than narrative, and the language remains in the descriptive dimension, serving to create feelings rather than concepts. The nicely broken voice-over ends in the final onomatopoetic sequence: “Saccharine dreams, unravel the edges—cloaked, but not weighed down, and with just enough skin shed—to fit through and move with ease—flattering through with groveling hands—slow steps, slime trail.” One cannot not think of ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) videos, although the general stylization is also a mixture of animated movies for kids and toddlers and surrealist poetry and still escapes those explications—is simply somehow caressing and enchanting. The authors themselves play in the film, slowly touching the artworks and dancing but not speaking. The project is available on the platform Tzvetnik in its interactive website version, where one can watch the video, read the accompanying text, and also click to enlarge photos of each of the separate works, each stylistically portrayed in the forest setting.
A comparison with the 2013 Jasper Spicero project Open Shape suggests itself. Composed entirely of 3D printed objects by eighteen different artists, including Spicero himself, and divided into three parts, the exhibition mainly existed as photo documentation of the artworks stylized in three different children’s playgrounds in winter, spring, and fall. The selection was presented in its material version at the New York City Frieze Art Fair on May 10, 2013, and thereafter was offered for printing on demand via a 3D printing company website. A techno-optimism purchasing utopia, proposing an artwork as an immaterial code materialized for the price of its production costs, suffered some cracks already at the point where the artists’ names were not present on the e-shop interface. It was probably not to fool the buyers into thinking that they could really buy the Yngve Holen sculpture but only a 3D print of broken-screen iPhone 4. This comparison’s aim was not to criticise Open Shape, rather to show how quickly the discourse changed from the accent on technology to accent on emotions. Spicero himself already in 2014 created “Centers in Pain” multifaceted project, that used never open prison in Portland as a stage set for a video that doesn’t hide its sentimentality and Spicero’s sculptures balancing between hospital furnitures and antropomorphic characters.
While Open Shape was structurally about distribution and purchase, Sugar Hunter’s Feast is about expression and reception. Maybe paradoxically, Open Shape underlined the real existence of the objects as commodities, whose status the virtual presentation served. The objects in Hunter’s Feast, on the other hand, exist much more in the realm of the fairy tale, their capacities conflated here. Their actual physical existence is reduced; they become dead props, souvenirs we may cherish in the memory of the film. While in the case of Open Shape, the project dealt with change of stylization and change of context, Hunter’s Feast changes the discipline. Even though someone may oppose that it is also about the product placement, the result is not about exposure of marketing mechanisms but about creating emotions.
Maybe it is not the most important point: that this approach could change the forever repeated impermeability of contemporary art to the wider public. That the children could really like it. The techno-focused generation of post-Internet art achieved this already, and it may be precisely this that gave them the certainty and assertiveness. As Oliver Laric mentioned in a 2011 interview for Artpulse about the success of his early work 787 Cliparts (2006): “On some days it had more than 30,000 viewers. This was an exciting experience and made me realize that my website is not a space of representation but of primary experiences… It also landed on the front page of YouTube. By now there are over 1,500 comments, a type of feedback that I have never experienced in a gallery context.”16 What the Emo-Romantic turn may change, and I hope for this, is that contemporary art stops being a rat race of Brad Troemel “Aesthletes” who may be subverting and exposing but are finally up to their necks in following the competitive logic of neoliberal white male power games. As Simon Denny said in Blouin Artinfo in October 2014, “I’m a fan of the tech world and it’s a hard world to enter from the outside. There are a lot of values that are similar to art values, I think. Like, innovation is really key.” Maybe the key is inclusion, so that what expression-based art could propose is to open contemporary art to other contemporary arts, which until now haven’t been offered the same resources and attention, and maybe even to finish the destruction of (in any human or, if you wish, post-human sciences) the for so long unacceptable substantialist division between inherently good or bad art, which we, in contemporary art, are still unable to overcome except with the euphemisms of relevant/irrelevant.
I have consciously avoided, in this article, a focus on constituting the Emo-Romantic via artists’ names and works. As much as Kleefeld, I struggle with defining it as a style with features and key names. However, as an attitude, it may be to some extent thought of as intentional deviation and withdrawal from the “rules of the system,” and attitude that goes hand in hand with the return of the subjective but simultaneously hides your own identity accentuates community and avoids self-promotion. As recording and postproduction means are more and more accessible, and as space is more and more inaccessible, especially in large cities, where the density of different kinds of capital is high, pop-up style exhibition allows one to overcome not only rent but also the hierarchy of existing spaces. As artworks are massively documented but installed only temporarily, and often stored nowhere, their shape often resembles the provisionality of props, where the photographic or otherwise stylized appeal becomes primary to the “real life” one, or the light and space conditions of the white cube. A focus on small networks of friends and local communities, with often interdisciplinary crossings, allows for help and cofinancing as much as for collaboration (needless to say) when connecting different kinds of events. It is no surprise, consequently, that the morphology of many artists who could be associated with the Emo-Romantic draws on iconography associated with different kinds of classical or more recent subcultures and counter-cultures.
 David Foster Wallace, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” Review of Contemporary Fiction 13, no. 2 (Summer 1993): 192–93.
 “New Sincerity,” Future Gallery, http://thefuturegallery.org/index.php?/ongoing/new-sincerity/.
 Jörg Heiser, “Emotional Rescue,” Frieze, November 11, 2002, https://frieze.com/article/emotional-rescue.
 Jörg Heiser, “Moscow, Romantic, Conceptualism, and After,” e-flux (November 2011), https://www.e-flux.com/journal/29/68122/moscow-romantic-conceptualism-and-after/.
 “Speculations on Anonymous Materials,” Fridericianum, http://www.fridericianum.org/exhibitions/speculations-on-anonymous-materials.
 See Jason Farago, “Welcome to the LOLhouse: How Berlin’s Biennale Became a Slick, Sarcastic Joke,” Guardian, June 13, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/jun/13/berlin-biennale-exhibition-review-new-york-fashion-collective-dis-art.
 See the Art Post-Internet exhibition brochure, available at http://ucca.org.cn/en/exhibition/art-post-internet/.
 Art Post-Internet exhibition brochure.
 Louis Doulas, “Artist Profile: Jaakko Pallasvuo,” Rhizome, March 22, 2012, http://rhizome.org/editorial/2012/mar/22/artist-profile-jaakko-pallasvuo/.
 “Group Show at Halle für Kunst Lüneburg,” Contemporary Art Daily, July 17, 2017, http://www.contemporaryartdaily.com/2017/07/group-show-at-halle-fur-kunst-luneburg/.
 James Meyer, “What Happened to the Institutional Critique?,” Bortolami Gallery, https://bortolamigallery.com/site/wp content/uploads/2015/04/JamesMeyer_WhatHappenedtotheInstitutionalCritique.pdf.
 Meyer, 6.
 “Group Show at Halle für Kunst Lüneburg.”
 “Zur Rebschänke,” Weiss Falk, http://www.weissfalk.com/exhibitions/14-6-31-7-2017-zur-rebschanke-organized-and-invited-by-veit-laurent-kurz/.
 Sugar Hunter’s Feast, http://tzvetnik.online/sugar-hunters-feast/.
 Domenico Quaranta, “The Real Thing/Interview with Oliver Laric,” http://artpulsemagazine.com/the-real-thing-interview-with-oliver-laric.
Michal Novotný is director of Centre for contemporary art FUTURA in Prague, external curator at PLATO Ostrava. He teaches at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague. Recent curatorial research projects and residencies include Delfina Foundation, London (2016); Stroom Den Haag, Haag (2015); Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans (2014); Contemporary Art Museum, Rijeka (2014); Villa Arson, Nice (2013). In 2018 he curated Orient, large exhibition survey into once called Eastern European art taking place in Kim?, Riga, BOZAR, Brussels and Bunkier Sztuki, Krakow. Other recent exhibitions include The Life and Death of the 1980s at Syntax, Lisbon (2017) and Deux Sens du Decoratif, CAC Passerelle, Brest (2018)
Originally published on Mousse 65