Out to Lunch with Isa Genzken

Isa Genzken and Simon Denny in Conversation


On the day that her most recent exhibitions, both titled Wind, opened at Galerie Daniel Buchholz and Galerie Neugerriemschneider, both in Berlin, Isa Genzken met with Simon Denny, a young artist from New Zealand, at the Paris Bar restaurant in Kantstrasse for lunch; then they visited Galerie Daniel Buchholz around the corner to walk through Genzken’s show together. What follows is the conversation that took place.




ISA GENZKEN: Nice to be here with you. You know, I have been here very often, and the first time was a long time ago. It was a different place then, but somehow there was always something to it. Did you see they hung my painting here?

SIMON DENNY: Oh, this black one there?

IG: Yes, I did that in the early 1990s. People never really liked them so much back then; they thought they looked more like photographs. Actually, I was doing them when I was still married to Gerhard Richter, and it was somehow in relation to what he was doing, you know, these kind of side-to-side gestural abstracts—done like this [gestures as if pulling a squeegee over a surface from one side to the other], like paintings of the 1950s. Mine were called “Basic Research,” they were rubbings of oil paint on canvas—frottages of the floor of my studio. I did quite a few of these. Richter put one up in his studio for some time. But he found it too hard, and then took it out after a while.

SD: I saw these works first in magazines and books and also couldn’t figure out what they actually were, but I was always quite drawn to them. This point where photos, sculpture, and painting overlap has always interested me. It was something that in Auckland, among my friends, was always talked about—especially from the idea that we were experiencing a lot of work purely through reproductions, and that was one of the first things clearly visible to me within what you were doing. I also see your hi-fi equipment advertisement pieces in relation to this conversation—as an example of how one could, for instance, use appropriated photography as a means for framing certain sculptural issues. I was always amazed how early you were doing these—already in the 1970s, if I remember correctly. Actually, the first time I had the chance to see your work in the flesh was only recently. It was in 2007, at the Venice Biennale. Before then I only knew it from reproductions. That was the first time I came to Europe for an extended period, and it was right at the beginning of my visit. I was staying in Venice, and as some kind of a job, I was once even helping out at the German Pavilion for a day. So therefore I spent quite some time in your installation. I am glad I was able to do that, because as a viewer I always found it rewarding with your work. It takes a while to see.

IG: The pavilion was really important to me. It was very difficult.

SD: I can imagine, such a loaded space.

IG: Yes of course! But Nicolaus [Schafhausen, curator of the German Pavilion], made it so easy to do. I don’t know how he did it, but I always felt very comfortable with him doing that pavilion. He is one of my favorite people in the art world making shows right now.

SD: I really appreciated the way that the building, with all its connotations, was in a way completely repackaged with the installation. The way that all the surfaces were treated, including the floor—the whole structure somehow disappeared and became apparent at the same time—and with such detail. These kind of cast Della Robbia reliefs that you integrated into the facade, for example, under this extensive scaffolding you built around the exterior. That was such an effective foil to the forcefulness of the building—but also a quiet gesture at the same time. I just saw your shows at Galerie Daniel Buchholz and Neugerriemschneider today, and think they are pretty amazing. I particularly appreciate that they are so different in their format and their relation to the different spaces.

IG: Yes, they are so different, and actually it was a lot of work to make those two shows—I have never done two shows simultaneously before. I worked on them for a whole year. It was very hard, because I was trying to get this balance between minimalism and something else beyond that—in dialogue with minimalism, but with content. That was always the thing with minimalism, there was no content allowed, of course, but only the thing in the space. That was what Sol LeWitt was always about, and Carl Andre—it was all about avoiding content. I was always interested in this, right from the beginning, especially with my “Ellipsoids.” They look like minimalism, but in the end there is a lot going on there.

SD: Yes, for me the process of the computer rendering for these pieces that I once read about is already so much extra information. Quite a process, I imagine.

IG: Oh yes! For sure. Each one of those took at least three months. I was starting those when I was still at the Düsseldorf Academy. There was a very nice man in the workshop there who was very helpful in the process of making them. And they were extremely complicated—to get the shape right and everything. I mean, one could get them sent to a factory and have them produced according to computer drawings, but somehow I didn’t want to do this at the time—and I did not have the money, anyway. Once I tried to have one fabricated in that way, but when it came back there was nothing there somehow. It was not like the ones made in the workshop.

SD: That is a surprise. I always thought of these as being totally industrially produced. It is then significant to me that you had them produced in a workshop setting, and when you tried a more industrial fabrication approach, the result was not what you wanted. That seems also somehow a reversal of the logic of that minimal territory that you mentioned.

IG: What did you think of my two exhibitions?

SD: I enjoyed them very much. I was already attracted to the title Wind, and then, when I saw how you implemented this idea of putting wind into a sculpture—or this is at least how I read it—the combination of objects and their implications made sense to me. And then of course in relation to this, the suggestion of how to read the Michael Jackson figure. That all seemed quite clear. It’s always difficult to link a series of positions without being too forceful, and this balance is one I appreciate in both exhibitions.

IG: There was a lot of revision that went into the sculptures. It might look like I just walked into the gallery and they went up—just like that—but it was not that way. It was really a long process to get the things to look the way they do, to have that balance especially in relation to what I already said about minimalism, and to also have this light touch to them.

SD: So you produced all the new work in your studio here in Charlottenburg?

IG: Yes, here, around the corner.

SD: And it took a full week to install. Was the installation process as difficult as the making process?

IG: Oh no, that part is always quick.

SD: Like a day?

IG: No, half a day—really that part is always simple. I mean, once the work has been made in the studio, positioning it is not really such a big thing. An artist should know what the work is, and then be able to do that next part very easily. I am opposed to this process where artists sit in the gallery and are like, “Oh, should it be this way or that way?” No! If you know the work, it should be clear. An artist should be able to demonstrate that in a gallery. Another difficult thing that I experience is when after such a year of activity I have to empty my studio—completely. And I have found that this part only gets harder. You might think it gets easier, but I find it just gets harder.




IG: You know that I don’t give interviews much? There were just a few—with Lawrence Weiner, with Danny MacDonald that I published in the I Love New York, Crazy City book—do you know this one? And also the 2005 interview with Wolfgang Tillmans for Artforum—that was one I particularly enjoyed. I was always a bit scared to do an interview, especially with Lawrence Weiner. I mean, he is just so articulate—he can really speak about the work so well! And did you see this interview I did with Kai Althoff, “Why I Don’t Do Interviews”?


SD: Yes, I did see that one. I did not understand everything in it, but I think I got the point. I like the idea that you screen it twice, one time after the other. When I thought about what we would do in this interview, I figured it would be good to do two parts, one a general conversation and the other a more specific look at the exhibition. But I sort of go into conflict with myself in trying to discuss your work because, well, one doesn’t want to just simply unpack it piece by piece—that for me seems to hinder its impact. To say that the language of it has to do with the very physical qualities of what is in these sculptures is of course obvious, but I think with this starting point one’s expectations for viewing the exhibition should be rooted in a kind of primarily sensory experience—and then with that base expectation, the overarching structure of the subject matter can sort of guide a viewer within that. The fact that it is framed with the wind idea provides a basic territory that one can read into, an opening suggestion. Then from that starting point, there is this procession connecting Michael Jackson with other figures in art history. This is achieved, in part, by highlighting some basic links between (very generally) movement as an idea and more specific gestures. This is done with a fluid set of materials. It seems silly to go around asking about various details in it, but perhaps we could try. Maybe we could start with the invitation card?

IG: We can do that. The show is called Wind. I tried here to make work that looks like wind, and it is the most difficult thing to do. I was thinking of Leonardo da Vinci—as he was, for instance, always wanting to fly. And then, this hand of Michael Jackson is like “ffffffff, I’m leaving” [makes gesture with her hand and mouth in the mirror in the hallway of the gallery, mimicking the action that Jackson is depicted making on the invitation card]. Not in a sad way, but—in a way a little bit sad, too. And then I said “Isa Genzken,” because I always liked him so much. For instance, I would always have jackets like this one. This is my favorite kind of style, and so I said “ffff” [blowing gesture]. “Now I’m coming.”

SD: So is it like as he goes, you come, in this gesture?

IG: Yes. It’s like, “Don’t be afraid, don’t be sad, you know. I’m here.”

SD: Wow, okay. Now I am remembering an image I saw of you after your opening at the Ludwig recently where you wore sunglasses—and one could definitely see this style connection that you mention here in the way you dressed. This is a pretty nice photo, actually. Anyway, the title of this first work here in the show mentions Jasper Johns.

IG: It is dedicated to Jasper Johns—I named it Homage à Jasper Johns. As he basically did these flags, I mean, he is so famous because of flags, and I was thinking of a flag, too, and so I did this. I was thinking of him because he’s so incredibly famous and I’m not. [both laugh]

SD: To say that it is built up of all this reflective material is obvious, but what is remarkable is that there is this certain pose to it—it looks as if it is thrown up on the wall. Not to say it is casual, but it seems like it found that form on impact with the wall.

IG: Can you see wind here?

SD: Yes, as I say, I can see a movement in the way that the thing is structured.

IG: I tell you, wind is the most difficult thing to put into an object. Here it’s a bit more in this next sculpture.

SD: For me, the first level of engagement you have here are these ways of opening up the wall through the different levels of transparency in the object. And the color and space that this object commands do have this impact on the room. The recognizable imagery—for example these photographic parts, where you know what is depicted as they are icons—is clearly mediated through these different surfaces.

IG: Yes, this one is David by Michelangelo, and it was always David and Michael Jackson. David is what he always wanted to be like, of course—all these cosmetic operations. He wanted to be the most beautiful man in the world, like David.

SD: There is also a nicely artificial intimacy to this. In the next piece, Michael Jackson comes in more directly, with the imagery—in the first two pieces there is no imagery of him. Here you have these different posters of him, which make up most of the surface of this piece. Is this a set of posters?

IG: No, I made them. Rather, I had them made—I went to a printer and they made them for me. They are from one particular photo shoot from 1987 by Annie Leibovitz, and I had them printed at this size. It’s all about his movements for me, as his dancing is the best thing in the world.

SD: Right. I was reminded of just how good the dancing actually is when I saw this recent film of his rehearsals for this last tour that never happened. The dancing and movement was quite clearly a key to the delivery of the whole package. His movements were so complex—not only the fact that there was all sorts of very dynamic running around and jumping going on, but just even the way that his arm would move from above his shoulder to his waist, for example—a simple movement like this would involve a five-step mini-choreography, made up of very small movements. Aside from this, are there other aspects of Michael Jackson you are attracted to?

IG: It’s the whole package, the whole thing—the way he talks, the way he moves, the way he does things. It’s the whole that is attractive to me.

SD: There is a total gesture there? A complete action, somehow?

IG: Yes, complete—really. But of course this piece is only able to deal with a small part of him. I mean, what can I do? But he’s this incredible fugue, anyhow. It’s the admiration I have for him—total admiration!

SD: So also here is this homage aspect to it, like in the Johns flag work, but of course in a different way?

IG: Exactly! Totally different. I mean, Jasper Johns I’m not so into in the end. But Michael Jackson I absolutely love.

SD: That’s a different kind of game, right?

IG: Totally.

SD: Okay, and as we move into the longer room here—well, actually, the arrangement makes it feel like one longer room—we have these four columns, if one can describe them like that. As a viewer, your first impression of these things is that they stand in a neat row—but then as you look more closely, there is this movement in how they are arranged, slightly askew. Again, here is this problem where I am wanting to discuss this material, but not to make it too one-to-one. Just to describe a few more elements, there are figures sitting atop these columns, like here we have a religious-looking Mr. Burns Simpsons figurine with a Godzilla robot eating his head and an expensive-looking solarized pair of red sunglasses—Oakleys or something. And in front here you have—well, what would you call this?

IG: It’s two soft toys sitting inside a bronzed torso—but I am not exactly sure what it means. And on top of this one, you have these two heads. They could be the parents of Michael Jackson.

SD: And they are looking down on the whole room? And would you say that they are severe, because the parents, as I read, were kind of tough, right?

IG: Awful! They have been awful and they look awful, don’t you think?

SD: Yes—they look ominous, of course, but also somehow alluring to me.

IG: I think they don’t look nice.

SD: And then all the CD material is on this one also?

IG: It’s all the CD things of Michael—in honor.

SD: Earlier we were also talking about this fabric that you had specially produced, is that this one?

IG: No, not this one—these fabrics are more common, but this one at the front here, on the first column, is really special. Look at these waves, waving. There is a very sculptural quality to this fabric.

SD: The two sculptures in front here clearly have this colorful, patterned, sheer fabric motif, with their different layers and drapery, almost like in classical sculpture. On the second one you even mounted this motif of the Grünewald Madonna—with this extreme drapery. And the back pair have this kind of darker, more plastic material; and through that, are they also flatter?

IG: Yes, and this darker plastic material, you have to know, is for cars, for the windows.

SD: It makes them darker.

IG: Yes. It’s very tough material—it looks so thin, but you cannot break it.

SD: Oh, this tinted windows stuff where you can see out but you can’t see in, right?

IG: Yes, exactly.

SD: And you put that in the front of these back sculptures. On these you installed two different but very distinct images of Michael Jackson dancing from the same Leibovitz series. To me it seems as if the way the black foil is applied differently on both sculptures and the way the images are attached to the black foil with these metal clips—this physically resembles the movement represented in the photographs. The sculptures sort of turn into tall figures standing in the room, nearly touching the ceiling. And the viewer is forced to see the objects that you placed on top from a distance. One sort of looks up to the objects on top. They’re out of reach, right?

IG: Yes, I like to look up. All my life. I don’t like to look down. I look up to the sky. And the thing with Michael Jackson is that it is all far away—there is this distance to the whole. He is completely unattainable. Completely.


Originally published on Mousse 22 (February-March 2010)


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