artists & participants
Opening: Friday, June 1, 2007, 8.00 p.m.
“Mythos” is the second exhibition of a two-part series dedicated to two fundamental sources of artistic practice – the object and the myth. Like the first exhibition “Re-Object,” “Mythos” also brings together one major historical position and three contemporary artists. With “Re-Object,” it was Marcel Duchamp whose selected works provided the thematic basis for the artistic strategies of Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, and Gerhard Merz, whereas with the exhibition “Mythos,” which features work statements by Matthew Barney, Douglas Gordon, and Cy Twombly, Joseph Beuys will be assuming this role.
The idea of the myth extends the world of a rationally comprehensible reality into the supernatural and superhuman realm. Packed into this idea are wishes, premonitions, and destinies. Beuys has created a work in which, through the transformation of materials, forces, and energies, mythical experiences are elevated again to the status of the main source of artistic creation and of life altogether.
The exhibition “Mythos” allots each artist one floor of the KUB, letting him present large-scale work series. Each of the four shows is like a solo exhibition and has the character of a concisely formulated work statement. The crux of the works shown at the Kunsthaus Bregenz is the death theme. Joseph Beuys’s work “Straßenbahnhaltestelle” (Tramstop), which the artist originally created as an installation for the main room of the German pavilion at the Venice Biennial in 1976, unfolds as a mythical image of memory, suffering, and recognition.
Running through Douglas Gordon’s work is an underlying mythic-tragic mood of the personal dichotomy of man in the face of his other, dark self. Gordon’s new work created especially for the exhibition, which features a reworked human skull, becomes a symbol of the dichotomy in the face of death at the border between immortal art and the transience of human existence.
All elements in Matthew Barney’s work, such as drawings, films, and objects, interact together like great sculptural systems. Their coded narrative fundamental structure is based on the interweaving of different mythical sources of various cultures. His large-scale sculpture “Cetacea” (2005), which is being shown for the first time in Europe, is no exception. With a sweeping gesture, Cy Twombly has brought mythology, literature, and history together in his work in the poetic flow of the scriptural painted act. In his art, the idea of passage, the image of the ship and of the journey as a transforming transition between life and death all play a central role. This context also surfaces in the famous cycle of paintings “Lepanto,” which Twombly created as his contribution for the Venice Biennial in 2001.
Joseph Beuys (1921–1986) is one of the most influential artists of the late twentieth century. His artistic design of a comprehensive amalgamation of work and persona, which promised to fuse matter and spirit by unifying all existential conditions, already polarized society during his lifetime. His slogan “Everyone is an artist” became the central idea of his work. By this, Beuys meant the combination of artistic programmed content and educational or political proselytizing that would produce the two-way relations between art and life.
This was also the basis of the manifold activities of this charismatic persona as teacher, therapist, evolutionary, and political activist dedicating himself to ritualistic public performances, object-relics, found pieces, and spatial and site-specific environments. Vital to him were malleable materials, such as fat, felt, iron, soil, honey, and blood, to which he attributed life- and meaninggiving qualities, as well as transforming powers and energies like warmth and coldness. Beuys’s concept of “social sculpture” was the broadest interpretation of the message of a general concept of art so often repeated in the 1960s and 1970s. It was supposed to help the sick Western world, as Beuys saw it, reorient itself and thus forge the way for a new democratic and social form of living. “Myth, ritual, and shamanism together with the mythical substance of the unity of the senses and the spirit formed the basis of the Beuysian performances or ‘actions’ to ‘heal’ society’s ‘wounds’.” (Uwe M. Schneede) In this sense, the installations he left behind after his death, which include the core work shown in this exhibition “Straßenbahnhaltestelle,” must therefore also be interpreted as “static actions” (Dieter Koepplin) or “sculptural paintings” (Hans van der Grinten). Thus they become visual and thought impulses, symbols of the new sought-after form of living. The installation “Straßenbahnhaltestelle – ein Monument für die Zukunft” (Tramstop – A Monument for the Future) is one of Joseph Beuys’s most important works. Completed in 1976 for the German pavilion at the 27th Venice Biennial, it turns the reconstruction of an early childhood recollection of a historical monument into a mythical image of memory, suffering, and recognition. The version shown here, which belongs to the Kröller-Müller Museum, consists of the discarded elements of the sculptural action presented in the main room of the pavilion (four mortar barrels, a culverin with head, mount, crank). For this Joseph Beuys had an iron cast made of a mid-seventeenth-century monument. The original is a peace symbol located in his hometown Kleve near a stop where he had waited many times for the tram as a schoolboy. In addition to these pieces there was also a section of tram rail and, protruding from the barrel of the culverin, a human head, its face contorted in pain, which together produced a striking “sculptural painting” of memory, warning, and promise. The installation also included a 21-meter-deep borehole extending down to the bottom of the lagoon, thus tying together the private monument with the history of Venice and the history of the pavilion.
The head poking out of the barrel like a baby being pressed out of the birth canal can be seen as a metaphor of humanity which, according to Beuys, is the victim of social abuse. Thus the act of processing historical events, both private and collective, is turned into the symbolic incentive for the planning of a better future.
Joseph Beuys always regarded Marcel Duchamp – the symbolic father of the first exhibition “Re-Object” – with ambivalence. Unlike Duchamp, Beuys developed his work not by analyzing art, but from the topos of childhood memories and key experiences in which sensory and extrasensory impressions converge into visions. With his action “das Schweigen von Marcel Duchamp wird überbewertet” (Marcel Duchamp’s silence is overrated) (1964), Beuys expressed his lack of respect for Duchamp’s artistic stance. Joseph Beuys criticized the silence Duchamp had shrouded himself in since 1923 because, unlike himself, Duchamp had, despite the ready-made idea, failed to free art from its museological dogma or, in other words, had not reached the conclusion that art and life are one and the same.
Born in 1967, the American artist Matthew Barney has been working on the creation of a mythical world fed by different cultures for over 15 years. Several-part cycles like the “Cremaster” and “Drawing Restraint” series constitute closed aesthetic systems of drawings, films, photographs, and sculptures. The point of departure of his artistic work lies in his performances, which all follow the basic rule that form can only take shape or mutate if forced to overcome resistance. This principle can be traced back to Barney’s athletic past. The athlete gains strength and endurance by continuously pushing himself to the limit. This has become the symbol of creative forces for Matthew Barney, who interprets human nature with its mental drives and physical thresholds as an infinitely pliable material in the brand-new modern myth of creation he has created. In the five-part “Cremaster” cycle (1994–2002), a 400-minute-long film and overall artwork composed of bizarre shots full of vivid intensity, Matthew Barney depicts extreme physical experiences and the human body’s transformational ability. It presents a parallel world of seductive objects, epically staged mass scenes, constantly overlapping storylines in visually striking settings like skyscrapers, caves, salt lakes, baths, and stadiums that transform themselves into mythological places of the body and sexuality. With his new epic film “Drawing Restraint 9,” Matthew Barney picks up where he left off in his early work from the 1980s. The complex epic film that was two years in the making portrays the love story of two visitors from the West on the Japanese whaler “Nisshin Maru.” The couple is played by Matthew Barney and his wife, the Icelandic pop singer Björk. Two closely interlocked stories unfold simultaneously. While on deck hot Vaseline is being poured in the shape of his artistic trademark, a so-called “Field Emblem,” to form a huge sculpture and is hardening slowly in time to the rhythm of the waves, the two main characters dressed in traditional Japanese costumes meet at a tea ceremony. They fall in love, the hot Vaseline floods the tea room, and the two lovers are transformed into whale-like creatures in a dramatic action. The transformation of human beings into animal bodies is closely related to Japanese culture. In the Shinto religion, whales were regarded as ancestors and at the same time used as food. The object of one’s respect is absorbed and incorporated into oneself – an idea that might be valid for all of Matthew Barney’s work, in which processes always come full circle back to themselves.
“Cetacea” (2005), the sculpture being shown in the exhibition, was made in connection with “Drawing Restraint 9.” It was cast in a special, Vaseline-like synthetic material in Barney’s studio under conditions similar to those in the film. Its original form is based on the artist’s “Field Emblem,” an ellipse bisected by a horizontal line. The motif crops up throughout his oeuvre and serves as a visual shorthand sign for his complex symbolic language. In “Drawing Restraint 9,” as the soft material oozes out onto the deck of the ship, it stands for the amalgamation of animal and human and at the same time for death, destruction, and rebirth.
Matthew Barney sees “Cetacea” not simply as set design material, but as a hybrid three-dimensional incarnation of the characters and settings. “Cetacea” exists autonomously, independently of the film. And though the films themselves are like “object narratives” (Barney), “Cetacea” becomes, in conjunction with “Ambergris,” the second work shown in the exhibition, a provocative mix of biology, architecture, and the action of a both borrowed and private mythology.
Since the early nineties, the Scottish artist Douglas Gordon, born in Glasgow in 1966, has created a complex work using different media such as film, photography, text, and installation. Above all, his film projects have made him internationally famous. Despite the diversity of his work, a constant artistic principle runs through it: the interest in “how perception builds up and how it collapses. We take it for granted, fully aware of how fragile it is.” (Gordon)
Typical for his work is the film “24-Hour Psycho,” in which, as with many of his other projects, he reworked existing film material through minimal intervention. Gordon reduced the speed of the Hitchcock thriller “Psycho” and stretched it to last 24 hours, while he used the film music from “Vertigo” in a different context. This manipulation of the film material aims at manipulating the viewer and his feelings. Used like ready-mades, the filmic works are turned into physical and mental resonating cavities through the deconstruction of their aesthetic structures and their presentation as largearea installations in which the myths of the medium and personal memories merge to form feelings that are difficult to control.
Gordon is constantly exploring inner dramas triggered by interlinked mental and physical forces. “Play Dead Real Time” (2003) is about a trained elephant that collapses on the artist’s command, falls down as if dead, and cumbersomely tries to get up again. Douglas Gordon projects these filmed scenes simultaneously onto two gigantic free-standing projection surfaces. Parallel to this we see a small monitor showing an uninterrupted close-up of the elephant’s eye. Gordon draws the viewer into the confused feeling of ambiguity about the dichotomy between consciousness and body. The theme of the split personality, the simultaneity and drifting apart of good and evil, truth and invention, left and right, dark and light, God and the devil, and ultimately the reflection of one’s self as one’s own double runs through his work as a dominant recurring concept. This was also the theme of his largescale installation for the KUB in 2002.
The new installation for the exhibition “Mythos” once again addresses the conflicting, indissoluble relationship between death and life, the myth of the work of art that survives all human life. Inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s work and his idea of the ready-made, Douglas Gordon transforms an object of death into a symbol of hope and failure. At the center is a human skull perforated by forty star-shaped holes. It turns the exhibition space into a sepulchral chamber. The forty stars stand for the artist’s age and thus for the knowledge about the transience of human existence that is preserved in mythical permanence by the artwork.
Cy Twombly, born in Lexington/Virginia in 1928, is a major contemporary artist and is considered the most important representative of the lyricalmusical course of American Abstract Expressionism. In a sweeping gesture, Twombly brings mythological, literary, musical, and historical impulses together in his work in the poetic flow of the scriptural painted act. Even if classical mythology constitutes a central aspect of his work, Twombly’s painting mainly lives from the immediacy, openness, and fragile intimacy of its personal signature. His comment on this: “I see myself as a Romantic Symbolist. There is nothing concrete about my painting. I show things in flux: that is my response to the Greek enthusiasm for metamorphosis. The Greeks loved Nature and their religion was based on the changing of the seasons.” (Edmund White, “Vanity Fair,” p. 265).
Since his early travels in Italy and Africa in the 1950s, Twombly’s drawing, painting, and sculptural work has been inspired by the mixing and overlapping of different Mediterranean cultures. From his first monumental painting “The Age of Alexander,” completed in Rome in 1959, to the triptych “Iliam (One Morning Ten Years Later)” (1964), to the large-scale ten-part series of paintings “Fifty Days at Iliam” (1979), or the sculpture “Thermopylae”, Twombly has always focused on the great myths and legends of the history of Greece and Asia Minor and their battles. “Lepanto,” the work cycle presented at the exhibition, is the (for the time being) culmination and in a certain sense the crowning work in his lifelong study of the bloody history of the Mediterranean. “Lepanto” was completed in 2001 for the 49th Venice Biennial, incidentally the same place that Joseph Beuys had presented his “Straßenbahnhaltestelle” 25 years earlier, and is part of the Udo and Anette Brandhorst collection today. For the painter, the theme of the twelve-part cycle was an opportunity to fuse the specific features of the place and its great maritime past with his own lifelong artistic interest. Although the works were painted in Lexington, Virginia, they breathe the light and spatial experience of his studio in Italy on the coast between Rome and Naples. Twombly’s studio window opens out on a bay in which today U.S. Navy ships are anchored where in bygone days there were Roman galleys. While previous paintings were characterized by muted colors, the painting cycle “Lepanto” confronts the viewer with powerful chromatic chords and a rich palette of yellow, red, turquoise and aquamarine hues, which vividly correspond to the drama of the historical events. In its twelve panels, “Lepanto” tells the story of one of history’s most decisive and bloody naval battles, which took place in the Corinthian Gulf in 1571 when a coalition of Spanish, Venetian, and papal fleets defeated the Ottoman forces. In an almost filmic manner of pans and close-ups, Twombly captures the essence of the bloody struggle for victory that lasted more than an entire day, taking the historical-narrative and ancient-mythic theme out of the traditional historical period painting setting and placing it in a picturesque panorama infused with the abstractly expressive tension between beauty and death.
Exhibition concept and curator: Eckhard Schneider
Joseph Beuys, Matthew Barney, Douglas Gordon, Cy Twombly
Kurator: Eckhard Schneider