artist / participant
Official opening: Thursday, February 5, at 7.30 pm
The museum brings together 300 works, including wallpapers, ‘paint machines’, digital animations, drawings and photographic collages
MACBA presents the first retrospective devoted to Thomas Bayrle’s subversions of Pop Art
Not only Mao before the masses, but also dozens of housewives armed with brooms, scores of Gillette razors and hundreds of Mon Chéri chocolates. In a play on perceptions in which nothing (or everything) is what it seems, in the midst of a profusion of food tins, cleaning products, cars, reinforced concrete buildings andmotorways that populate the works of Thomas Bayrle (Berlin, 1937). Under the title Thomas Bayrle. I’ve a Feeling We’re Not in Kansas Anymore , the Contemporary Art Museum of Barcelona (MACBA) presents the first retrospective devoted to this artist’s artist. His work is a precursor of nanotechnology, urban ecology and the digital revolution, and he is considered a leading representative, along with Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter, of the Pop Art movement in Germany where his exhibitions were scorned for years. Instead, Bayrle carved out for himself a career as a teacher of artists, “beyond the river of influences”, at the Städelschule in Frankfurt.
Though acclaimed as one of the voices of Pop Art in Germany, the truth is that Bayrle’s ironic, repetitive, almost grotesque visual displays ultimately subvert the paradigms of the Pop movement. His works are practically psychedelic maps constructed from mosaics of images and hallucinatory to a point far beyond pop’s hypnotic and surface effects. A trick—a strategy, in reality—with a clear purpose: to denounce the excesses of mass culture.
In what is almost a contamination of the space, four original wallpaper applications turn the ramp, the tower and the white walls of the MACBA building into a feast of colours and forms, whilst 300 “paint machines”, 16 mm film collages, digital animations, graphic works, cardboard sculptures, watercolours, drawings and photographic collages take the visitor on an artistic journey that spans more than forty years. This is not the typical retrospective: it begins where it ends, or ends where it begins. “You let things fall, from one hierarchy to another, and then you put them together again. The world is not a fixed image. It is always necessary to blow up the universe of things, or to reduce it to a grain of sand or into molecule clouds in order to reconstruct it in the imagination”, warns Bayrle.
Bored with life in her native Kansas, Dorothy Gale leaves her home behind her to enter the fantastic land of Oz, whose inhabitants include witches, a tin man without a heart, a talkative scarecrow and a cowardly lion. “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”, she confides in Toto, her dog, having been carried away by a tornado to come down to Earth, at last, in a land “over the rainbow”. Dorothy is the main character in The Wizard of Oz, one of the most popular fables of the United States, is based ona children’s novel written by L. Frank Baum in 1900 and translated into practically all languages. Under the title I’ve a Feeling We’re Not in Kansas Anymore , the Contemporary Art Museum of Barcelona not only presents, for the first time, a large collection of Thomas Bayrle’s works, but also highlights the artist’s ability to take us to a different place in his work, a place far from what has become familiar, where we can consider how humans and the technology they invented can create or destroy the meaning of things.
Thought is Bayrle’s ultimate goal, whether as artist or as teacher. His work dallies with an aesthetic—that of Pop Art—but only as a resource that enables him to shape that first impulse towards objectives that go far beyond, and even subvert, any given aesthetics or style. Humanism, politics, science, consumerism, work and pleasure have figured prominently as subject matters throughout Bayrle’s artistic career, and at the same time as he invites us on a journey “over the rainbow” in search of new meaning, he urges us to “enter into crisis”. That is, to question reality in order to discover other horizons on all the fronts of human knowledge, and to explore the role of the individual and how he or she belongs to the group. Bayrle’s work revolves around key contemporary debates, such as globalisation, religion and technology ; hence his constant references to Mao, social revolution, sexual liberation, etc.
The exhibition opens and closes, like a concentric circle, with works from the 1960s and ‘70s, some very rarely seen, as they are scattered amongst numerous private collections. Even before entering the exhibition rooms themselves, visitors will note that something has changed in the museum’s architecture: a huge, fragile wood and cardboard structure standing more than four metres in height welcomes spectators at the MACBA entrance. Its title, SARS Formation (2005), alludes to the virus associated with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), whose first outbreak occurred in China in 2002, quickly spreading all over the world. However, SARS Formation is also a huge model of motorways whose snaking network of lanes intertwines over and over again in a metaphor of a society which, whilst working ceaselessly, is constantly renewed. When we reach the ramp, we are confronted by Bayrle’s wallpaper Kartoffelzähler (‘Potato Counters’, 1967), with its clear reference to the introduction of potato growing in China.
China occupies a leading place in Bayrle’s work. An example is the “paint machine” ─a kinetic painting─ Mao und die Gymnasiasten (‘Mao and the Gymnasts’, 1965), produced before Warhol, Polke or Richter became interested in the Chairman. In the picture we see hundreds of tiny gymnasts behind a portrait of Mao, raising their arms over a sports stadium and up into the skies, or bending at the waist to touch their toes, covering the field alternately with green and red. For Bayrle, Mao’s China and Erhard’s German Federal Republic were not so different. “Visually, the Communist mass parades, the gigantic dimensions of those ‘living pageants’, had much in common with the huge masses that milled around shopping malls in the capitalist countries”, Bayrle pointed out, and in his work, unscrupulously transcending the ideological differences between them, marketing and Maoism become confused or interchangeable as two different faces of mass culture.
It was around 1966 that Bayrle got his hands on the first copies of China in Photographs, and he was instantly fascinated by these magazines whose pages were profusely illustrated with brightly coloured images in the style of the purest pop. “They were not only intelligent and grotesque, but they also contrasted with boring German magazines in which China was barely mentioned”, he explains. The magazines strongly influenced his work, as can be seen in much of this exhibition.
Besides Mao und die Gymnasiasten, the show also features several other “machines”, as Bayrle likes to call the object paintings he began to create in the mid-60s. These are mechanical boxes, toys painted in oil and equipped with strings that enable the characters to move on what is almost a fairground stage. In Ajax (1966), for example, dozens of housewives hold brooms and cleaning products in their hands and raise their skirts, and in Super Colgate (1965)a prototypical dentist gazes at us as the audience clean their teeth in a puppet theatre crowned by a pair of lips that sport the most perfect teeth. The piece is a critique of “the national obsession with cleanliness” that broke out in the post-war era “as if in an attempt to wipe out a recent, uncomfortable past”, and of the “artificial super-luxury food” that abounded at the time, like a ploy to “compensate for all that war famine”.
Call me Jim (1976) is another key work in this exhibition. “Call me Jim” is what the then director of Volkswagen said to his American counterparts in the 1950s during the company’s first negotiations in the USA. Cuttingly ironic, Bayrle reflects the tense fascination that America exercised over Germany in those days. Call me Jim is accompanied by several other photographic collages on wood, produced in the late‘70s and early‘80s. Here Bayrle depicts different random landscapes that confuse the spectator, such as Yamagucci. The series is also composed by such works as Japaner (Japanese) and Inder (Indians), populated by huge crowds of people whose identity is, despite the titles, impossible to determine. Another series of photographic collages is Carlos (1977), formed by four portraits of Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, for some is a famous left-wing activist and for others the most-wanted terrorist of all time, who was forced to live clandestinely, adopting countless disguises in order to survive and continue with his activities.
Imbued with the most innocent pop style, and outstanding amongst Bayrle’s graphic work is the silkscreen Glückslee (1969). In the foreground a huge tin of condensed milk, of a brand that is eponymous with the title, is composed by myriad units of the self-same object and surrounded by as many miniature images of it. . Tiger übt (‘Tiger Rehearses’), showing a group of soldiers in formation, dates to the same year. Playing with perspective Bayrle invites us to view the scene from above, enabling us to see a tiger that is, without doubt, a reference to militarism and the Vietnam War. Another group of works which occupy an important place both in Bayrle’s development and in this exhibition, alludes to to the wave of sexual liberation that shook the 1960s, and in which public representations sexuality becomes merged to the point of confusion with the purest intimacy.
The show also includes drawings, watercolours, two 16 mm films in which the shots are altered by the superposition of images, and digital films from the 1980s to the present, in which the artist uses the computer to generate his distorted images. Two other spaces are covered by Bayrle’s wallpapers: the floor of the MACBA tower is occupied by M-Formation (1971-2008), featuring an enormous pair of legs open to reveal the female sex, formed by the same tiny images; and the walls are lined by Jacke wie Hose (‘Jacket As Well As Trousers’ 1970), an endless, vertical sequence of the same man and the same women taking each other’s clothes off, over and over again. Finally, the external walls of the exhibition rooms are decorated by a photographic collage densely inhabited by rectangular buildings in black and white: Rapport, Stadt-Tapete (‘Report, City Tapestry’, 1997-2008).
Obsessive repetitions of tiny images that form the same image, in gigantic dimensions, on the canvas. Micro and macro. Cell and body. Pixel and image. In Bayrle’s work it is difficult to decide whether the “superform” (a term he has coined himself) represents its units or simply absorbs and instrumentalises them; whether the whole system behaves differently or, perhaps, in the same way, as the sum of its parts. His is a poetics of individualisation in which his canvases recreate these epidemics in a play of osmosis with the spectator. His works merely describe, and it is up to the viewer to imbue them with one meaning or another.
Bayrle lives and works in Frankfurt - the periphery, as he likes to say. “I am a localist and during the Cold War, Frankfurt—unlike boring Berlin—was important as a communications and information centre. It was a journalistic, literary, jazz city… but it produced hardly any fine art. I felt like art’s lone ranger here because, compared to Cologne, Düsseldorf, etc, there was nothing. There was a group of concrete poets, formed by the likes of Franz Mon, Bazon Brock, Charlotte Poseneske and Peter Roehr.” It was during these years that Bayrle founded, with Bernhard Jäger, the Gulliver Press, a small company devoted to publishing artist’s books, lithographs, posters and portfolios, as well as working with writers who actively participated at Frankfurt Book Fair, many of them engaged in concrete poetry. Once again, repetitions and “superforms”.
The “irrational nature of the excessive and obsessive growth” of mass culture is a leitmotiv that runs through much of Bayrle’s work. Despite the influences of concrete poetry, conceptual art and Pop Art, he has always rejected dogma. “When it comes to movements and schools, I’m not sure where I fit in”, he says. Although has always been linked to pop art and despite the fact that his work provides a dense testimony to the history of Pop’s reception in Germany, Bayrle cannot be defined as a Pop artist. It is simply that it is through his connections to the movement that he finds his own language. Rather than mass production, Bayrle is interested in the individual and the individual’s relation to the mass, and in the breaking open of all hierarchies.
Bayrle’s work could be called an attempt at musical annotation. “I was able to change many contradictory things through rhythm”, is how he sums it up. An apprentice at a textile factory from 1956 to 1958, the artist remembers how “In those days, I didn’t realise how valuable the experience would later be as a metaphor of my work”. The “rhythm and blues” of the huge machines, eight hours a day, and the “shuddering of tractors, the whirring 16-cylinder engines of the huge trucks and the frenetic beating of the metal grips on the leather belts” left a deep mark on him. “My conscious intelligence faded away and, after a while, my sensory perception and my memory began to link the factory’s hell to the repetitive chants of monks... The finished product—the fabric—represented the totality, a whole: a society or a collective. A single thread represented something like individuality. That is where I got the idea that the “social” fabric is made up of individuals who are woven together but cannot move”. Later on, between 1968 and 1972, Bayrle worked as a graphic designer for large companies such as Ferrero chocolate and Pierre Cardin. He remembers a visit to the Mon Chéri factory from those times: “All those chocolates that spewed out of the machines. I was amazed, excited, horrified, all at once, and decided to explore that absurdity”.
To mark the opening of the exhibition Thomas Bayrle. I’ve a Feeling We’re Not in Kansas Any More, the artists Sergej Jensen and Stefan Müller will give a 30-minute performance forming part of the retrospective itself. Both Jensen and Müller are former pupils of the German artist, and this performance seeks to render homage to Thomas Bayrle’s outstanding work as a teacher for 30 years at the Städelschule in Frankfurt, during which he influenced an entire generation of young artists. In the piece, Jensen and Müller link sight to hearing, turning sound into an instrument capable of modulating space. Radio Web MACBA (RWM) will broadcast a special programme devoted to the performance, including an interview and an audio work created especially for the occasion.
Organised and produced by: Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Barcelona (MACBA). Travelling to: Wiels, Contemporary Art Center of Brussels.
Thomas Bayrle. I’ve a Feeling We’re Not in Kansas Any More
Kurator: Chus Martinez