"Make Your Own Life: Artists in & out of Cologne"; Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia

Article excerpt

FOCUSING ON ARTISTIC productions and provocations in Cologne from roughly the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, "Make Your Own Life" is an introduction to an important and fertile moment in (mainly) German contemporary art, and it is not an easy show. In attempting to track the connections within and among the overlapping circles of artists, gallerists, musicians, and writers of that near-mythical time and place, curator Bennett Simpson has mounted an exhibition that exemplifies the difficulties of framing the complex social relations central to many crucial art-historical developments. Simpson acknowledges the impact of the imperatives of the present on our understanding of the past when he writes in the catalogue that the show "has been predicated on a belief that historical reception is ongoing and contradictory, a product of desires that are political and intellectual as well as libidinal and economic." To the extent that "Cologne" was in fact produced by the desires of the artists who participated in it, the critics who documented and mythologized it, and the curator who aims to reconstruct it, it exists today only as a Rashomon-like memory. The individual actors and their acts, however, are very real, and it is the conflict between myth and actuality that the show endeavors to negotiate.

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Critic Diedrich Diederichsen, in the exhibition catalogue, cites a historical dividing line between a "pre-critical and a critical moment" in Cologne--that is, between the bad-boy, in-your-face approach of Martin Kippenberger, Albert Oehlen, and other artists associated with Galerie Max Hetzler, and a more cerebral version of institutional critique practiced by a coterie that took shape slightly later around Galerie Christian Nagel. Many of the twenty-eight artists in "Make Your Own Life" showed their work at one of these two galleries: Stephen Prina, Mike Kelley, Christopher Williams, and Christopher Wool, as well as Kippenberger and Oehlen, exhibited with Hetzler; Andrea Fraser, Cosima von Bonin, Michael Krebber, and Christian Philipp Muller worked with Nagel. There are also four artists--Merlin Carpenter, Stephen Dillemuth, Josef Strau, and Nils Norman--associated with the short-lived alternative venue Friesenwall 120, which was a communal social space as much as a site for exhibiting works. The dividing lines among these groups are of course not clear-cut, given, for instance, the alignment of critical projects such as Williams's and Prina's with Max Hetzler, or Kippenberger's continued influence, through his former assistants Krebber and Carpenter, on the group around Nagel. (And by foregrounding the stables of other gallerists, like Daniel Buchholz, Rafael Jablonka, Esther Schipper, or Tanja Grunert--all of whom were operating and significant at the time--one could easily have constructed a very different picture of the city.) Nevertheless, the particular Cologne that emerges here is a place where, as Simpson puts it, "artists confronted and transformed the forms of identification and instrumentalization that make so much contemporary art a smooth operation of consumable goods." And so Simpson's choices posit Cologne circa 1990 as "a site where artists submitted themselves to a process of critical self-construction ... exploring the decisions and assumptions entailed by the words 'artist' and 'art work.'"

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In other words, "Make Your Own Life" is not really, or not primarily, a show about artistic production; it is, rather, a show about artists performing the act of production, here before an audience comprising a specifically social and communal context. Simpson extends this particular model of artistic production as a form of self-performance into the present, by including a number of younger practitioners--such as Lucy McKenzie, Blake Rayne, Bernadette Corporation, and Gareth James and Roe Ethridge--whose work resonates with that of the Cologne artists. …