Taktiken des Ego
anlässlich der 27. DUISBURGER AKZENTE zum Thema ICHS
24.5. – 31.08.2003, Wilhelm Lehmbruck Museum Duisburg
Kuratorinnen: Dr. Sabine Maria Schmidt (Konzept) und Cornelia Brüninghaus-Knubel
Teilnehmende Künstlerinnen und Künstler:
Gilles Barbier, Birgit Brenner, John Davies, Tracey Emin, Ludger Gerdes, Mathilde ter Heijne, Martin Liebscher, Mark Manders, Björn Melhus, Aernout Mik, Muntean/Rosenblum, Corinna Schnitt, Lorna Simpson, Ben Vautier und Bill Viola
The Exhibition Posters:
Das menschliche „Ich“ hat unzählige Taktiken und Finten entwickelt, sich selbst zu verwandeln, darzustellen oder aber auch gänzlich zu verleugnen. Dabei definiert sich das „ICH“ als eine sich ständig wandelnde Größe. Der Gedanke, dass das Selbst keiner ganz-heitlichen, feststehenden Einheit zuzurechnen ist, sondern imaginäres Kräftefeld mit offenen Grenzen sein kann, war immer Ausgangspunkt einer langen Tradition künstlerischer Selbstinszenierungen und –behauptungen.
Doch nicht das EGO des Künstlers steht im Mittelpunkt der Ausstellung, sondern das der menschlichen Psyche. Wie viele „Ichs“ finden in ihr Platz oder müssen heute in ihr untergebracht werden? Die Diskurse um Subjekt- und Identitätskonstruktionen der 90er Jahre, der biologischen Reproduzierbarkeit menschlichen Erbgutes und der damit verlorenen traditionellen Vorstellung des individuellen Ichs, schwingen zwar in den künstlerischen Positionen der Ausstellung mit, nähern sich der Thematik aber auf einer viel unmittelbareren psychologischen Ebene.
In einer pointierten Auswahl zeigt die Ausstellung, wie zeitgenössische Künstler auf psychologisch, sozial, emotional und politisch motivierte Transformationen des „ICHS“ reagieren. Die Positionen schlagen dabei Bögen zwischen der Egomanie (Corinna Schnitt, Tracey Emin) und der Selbstverachtung (Mathilde ter Heijne, Tracey Emin), der Identitätsfindung und der Fiktionalisierung des Selbst (Bjørn Melhus, Birgit Brenner), der individuellen (Bill Viola) und sozial (John Davies) bzw. durch Kommunikation kodierten (Lorna Simpson) Selbsterfahrung.
In unserer Zeit erscheint Selbstwahrnehmung häufig nicht mehr nur als Erkenntnisinstrumentarium, sondern zunehmend auch als stereotype psychologische Pflichtübung eines letztlich „standardisierten Individuums“.
Der Künstler Aernout Mik setzt gesellschaftliche und soziale Psychosen in metaphorische Videobilder um. Martin Liebschers inszenierte Fotoarbeiten unendlicher Verdoppelungen verwandeln das Selbstportrait des Individuums in eine selbstbezogene Massengesellschaft. Gilles Barbier führt mit seinen „Realitäts-korrekturen“ ein Auseinander-fallen und Zusammensetzen der eigenen Person vor, was ihm erlaubt, vorrübergehend unterschiedlichste Standorte einzunehmen. Das Künstlerpaar Muntean/Rosenblum sampelt Texte und Bilder und lässt Teenager ironisch und gebrochen über Lifestyle und Lebenssinn reflektieren. In John Davies Duisburger Skulptur stehen sich zwei Figuren unvereinbar in einem psychologischen „In-between“ gegenüber.
In der Welt von Mark Manders kann alles in Bewegung sein, sich aus dem Makrokosmos in eine Mikrostruktur verwandeln. Mit seinem Werkkomplex „Zelfportret als Gebouw“ („Selfportrait as a Building“) wird die sich ständig neu konstruierende und erweiternde Architektur Metapher für den Blick auf sich selbst als den Blick auf jemanden anderen.
Hat der nachgesagte exzessive Individualismus unserer Gesellschaft zu einem Aussterben des wahren Individuums geführt? Und welche Konsequenzen hat die Selbstbespiegelung für eine gesellschaftliche Verortung? „Wie macht man WIR?“ fragte Ludger Gerdes in einem Entwurf für eine Wandmalerei? Und Ben Vautiers nimmermüde Statements und Protestsprüche insistieren auf der Möglichkeit individueller Behauptung:
„L’art est une question d’Ego – pour changer l’art il faut changer l’Ego.“ (Ben)
Introduction Text of the Catalgoue „TACTICS OF THE EGO“ (2003)
While in the 18th century the “I” was celebrated as the crowning glory of a newly-defined, self-asserted individualism that subsequently had to be repeatedly attained, the term “ego”, which originates from the Latin, tends today to have a negative meaning, linking in pearl necklace fashion a string of bad characteristics: egoism, egomania, egotism, ego trip or egocentricity. Similarly, the expression “tactics” is imputed to mean deception, maneuver, scheme, battle plan and malicious intent, while its synonym “strategy” can also cover and include the meanings foresight, cleverness, skill and an intellect capable of discursive thought. Yet the word tactics „taktiké“ (téchne), which derives from the Greek taktiki, originally meant: “the art of arrangement and formation”. And this definition brings us zestfully back to the context of the exhibition.
In the present sociopolitical debates the specter of the contract between the generations being broken in Germany (Europe) has once again focused the discussion on the basic relationship between the individual and society. In a gradual tendency evident today so-called „individualism“ has taken on increasingly negative overtones. Coining words such as “little egos” implies an attempt to suggest a self-elected, deliberate self-reference which presumably was not freely chosen in the majority of cases. Have people really become more egocentric? Or is it not the case that they aim to find a new self-related sense of value in a society that no longer really needs many of its individuals, including millions of unemployed persons.
In terms of cultural history the meaning of the terms „I“ and „identity“ has likewise undergone a radical transformation. Indeed, Schlegel’s term “Ichs” (the plural of I) which was legion during the German Romantic movement, and which Ludger Gerdes transformed into a monument-like neon letter sculpture, clearly indicates that the human “ego” is not to be viewed as a homogeneous entity but instead as a multitude that defies standardization. Gender, cultural and media studies conducted in recent years have given birth to a concept which substitutes a „multiple“ or „patchwork“ identity for a coherent, personal ego-unit. Though this is not a new idea in the history of philosophy, on a wide variety of levels such as feminism and post-colonialism, it nonetheless indicates that the image of the „I“ has undergone a fundamental transformation against the background of today’s cultural role guidelines.
Through a specific selection of works the exhibition „Tactics of the EGO“ attempts to demonstrate how contemporary artists respond to such issues, and how they create transformations of the “I” motivated by psychological, social, emotional or societal reasons. The selected works stem from a wide variety of contexts, which are also meant to be read. Moreover, the exhibition topic is merely designed to encourage additional interpretations. As such, minor deviations and slight digressions from the subject are intended. The works of the invited artists span a bridge reaching from egomania and self-sacrifice, the attempt to find an authentic identity (Bill Viola) through to the destruction and fictionalization of the ego (Birgit Brenner). Self-perception no longer occurs as an instrument of discovery but also increasingly as the stereotypical compulsory exercise of what Muntean/Rosenblum have termed an ultimately “standardized individual”. Other works provoke questions which create openings for self-reflection and thus enable us to define our societal position. Still others demonstrate the potential field of force inherent in individual self-assertion which deserves to be protected (Ben Vautier, Ludger Gerdes, Aernout Mik).
We have consciously omitted one particular broad topical area: It was not feasible to include the long tradition of the artist’s self-portrait. For centuries this was connected with the belief in the capacity of the artist’s portrait to represent his/her own image (and included the category of mirror images). Egon Schiele and Arnold Schönberg believed the self-portrait to be the „icon of identity“, the true mirror of the soul. The enormous change the term „subject/individual“ has undergone, and critical observations on the media have undermined any confidence in the validity of such an individual portrait and its ability to represent the artist.
Also consciously excluded are the artistic undertakings and attitudes spanning the 1960s to 1980s (e.g. Arnulf Rainer, Diter Roth, Timm Ulrichs, Jürgen Klauke etc.), directed towards continuous deconstruction and undermining of self-projection – since we can quote in this area the excellent historical treatment of this topic by the exhibition „I is something different „.
For a long time the portrait of the artist was thought to express the artist’s inner world or soul, which came across as particularly sensitive, torn, sensual or visionary. With the passage from the 19th to the 20th century, the individual’s inner world increasingly seemed to enter a crisis. Psychoanalysis was invented as an antidote, and if anyone back then was to describe the emotional state of their own society, „hysteria“ was seen as a widespread ailment. Today, this disintegration of the individual’s inner world together with an all-embracing identity crisis has been joined by a second, major trouble spot; indeed, the entire outer world has become what Rainer Spieler has termed an acute flashpoint. If we wanted to describe the psychic state of our (global) society, „angst“ and „paranoia“ would probably number amongst the most frequent diagnoses. Moreover, paranoia appears to increase in direct proportion to the actual danger facing people afflicted by it
While we as individuals have not really begun to appreciate the implications of man’s ability to reproduce human beings, this failing is all the greater as regards medial and digitally generated multiplications, not to mention the ever greater influence of media on our world. Today, a good century after the invention of „moving“ images, the cinema/movie/TV has become 20th and 21st century reality – in the same way that the „theater“ and the concept of the „world as a stage“ once shaped the Baroque era. If the whole world is a movie theater, this means that any time and place can be captured, conveyed but equally well simulated on film. The expression „I think I’m in the wrong movie“ shows how everyday language reflects the increasing similarity between fiction and physically experienced reality. Furthermore, the media (in particular those that generate images) have also brought a shift in the division of labor. It is no longer artists and authors who create fictionalizations. Instead, they analyze and take apart these fictionalizations, and fight with the determination of guerillas to gain the power and control over our „gaze“.
There are precious few presentation forms today that are not linked in some way or another with the moving image one way or another. This holds for exhibition artist Birgit Brenner whose contribution to the show is a series entitled „Fear of blushing“ relating the fictional biography of a woman, and who seeks to make a film without making a film. It also applies to sculptor Mark Manders, who seeks to fix in real time and present the typically unconscious perceptual, association and thinking processes. His installations of spatial units can be read as interim images in the flow of images reeled off by the brain’s projector.
It has long been the case that the distinction between artist and observer has become minimal; both are simultaneously producers and consumers of a work of art (see the article by Boris Groys). The farther society has moved away from classic forms of production, the more dependent it has become on reproduction technologies which impart knowledge and a perception of the world. This necessitates a large shift in our self-perception and threatens it, as it does our ability to reliably identify what is true and what is not. When the reality conveyed by the media supersedes our own physical experience the individual, the „I“ as the upholder of knowledge and subjective truth is effectively eliminated. In this respect, Sept. 11 was also a global event in that the entire world community could jointly experience this perceptual and media experience. The gradual fictionalization of the world abolishes the opposing categories of documentation and orchestration, appearance and reality. It therefore follows that in this regard classic theater has become outmoded as an art form.
Aernout Mik, whose live performance-cum-video installation „Two Minds“ (displayed this year in the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam) marked a new approach in this context, intertwines in many of his works the various levels of reality and fiction, orchestration and appearance. He always creates installations that specifically exert an influence on their surrounding space, which also transport the images into the space physically experienced by the observer. Typically, the figures his camera observes appear to be caught up in traumatic behaviorism. For the most part they experience seemingly intense emotional conflicts that always remain ambiguous. These emotional outbursts and feelings, which are already taken to the absurd by virtue of their loop-like endless repetition, also seem to derive from another layer of reality than the spatial reality which the actors ought to feel part of. The level of experience is located in a different sphere to that of the emotions. “Softer catwalk in collapsing rooms“, for instance, shows two persons sleepwalking through a house who are not put off their step when the world around them collapses – simultaneously a highly metaphorical description of the present state of world politics.
Unlike Bill Viola who also works with deceleration and an almost mannerist expressionism of facial expression, Mik is concerned with the simultaneous choreography of various temporal perceptions and time structures.
The importance of the „animated image“ for contemporary art production is also reflected in the weight accorded to cinematic works. Ultimately, by using “animated images” artists have created a fertile diversity of new, typically non-linear narrative structures which are having an ever greater impact on painting and sculpture.
Filmmaker and video artist Björn Melhus skillfully embodies all his roles himself, samples text and sound material from old classic movies and pop music, then combines them to form new stories. For these stories he invents totally new, often absurd I figures with iconographic elements borrowed from popular culture. The exhibition shows his latest film “Auto Center Drive” which revolves around the construction and destruction of the ego. The artist has his hero Jimmy enter “Eternal Valley” on his quest for the “Auto Center Drive”, the path of ultimate self-encounter which culminates in the total destruction of all projections. Melhus focuses largely on the identity structures sampled by media models and media stars.
Filmmaker and artist Eija Liisa-Ahtila weaves together various genres in her video projections. Reality, fiction and surreality are placed in relation to each other, a fine texture of words and asks questions about the identity of the individual, the forms of peaceful coexistence (an increasingly difficult enterprise) and man’s position in a world shaped by the media, and infiltrated by fictions and simulations.
Like Martin Liebscher, Gilles Barbier or Mathilde ter Heijne, Björn Melhus is not motivated by narcissistic self-reflection or the wish to present a self-portrait when he places himself in the picture, but is primarily moved by pragmatic, not to mention metaphorical reasons: He can forgo the model in this complex production work, but also with no scruples make modifications to his own likeness.
When self-presentation and self-revelation actually take place they mainly serve artists today as a means for dialog with the observer allowing them to project their own emotional state and present social analyses. As such these techniques reflect not least of all social phenomena prevalent above all in the mass media (television, newspapers), in which the (allegedly) public self-observation of an EGO has been a long-running success for years.
Ben Vautier and Tracey Emin have demonstrated – each acting out of different motivation, and in highly divergent ways, how to successfully create a work of art from an “I”. And, what makes these two artistic positions interesting is not merely their radical nature but the fact that they also repeatedly question themselves within their respective work contexts. When Ben Vautier ignores the danger that he will run out of listeners by insisting on his never-ending self-assertions and commentaries, he is always partly motivated by the political desire to defend and protect individual self-assertion. His programmatic point of departure is that art can only be born from the “I”. It follows that in order to alter and develop art the “I” must be altered. Tracey Emin, whose artistic work is fundamentally linked to her own personal existence, is brutally judgmental of herself and her artistic strategy in her video work “The Interview”. In the process, she also presents us with a metaphorical reckoning of sorts with her own, emotionally fragile generation, and its narcissistic self-reflection.
In terms of technique, the media offers two different options: that of capturing an image (using photography) and that of making it disappear. For the observer that also means two essentially different forms of reception, that of seeing distinctly and that of being inundated by a stream of indistinguishable images.
Martin Liebscher’s digitally-manipulated photographs translate the individual’s aforementioned diversity on a purely visual level. Employing the never-ending duplication of a portrait, Liebscher transforms the individual into a self-centered mass society. ”Liebscher’s world”, as the artist calls it seeks to call into question the mathematics behind the individual. The sum of the various demands made of the individual remains visible in his calculation. The fact that Liebscher is keen to hold onto both his name and self-image, can be interpreted as an homage to the idea of the bourgeois individual. Simultaneously, to paraphrase Andreas Spiegl, he is the first who can no longer say who is meant when he is talked about.
In the short film “Schloss Solitude” by Corinna Schnitt a Baroque princess extols praises of her own beauty. Her endlessly repetitive litany “I am something special” has an undermining effect even though a police choir acting as the higher moral authority also provides equally endless affirmation of what she sings. With subtle irony Schnitt employs role play and time lag to also ask here what the “I” actually is which is extolled, and what the special quality is that makes this „I“ stand out.
Schnitt’s video vignette seems to express the highly complicated emotional state of an entire generation, which is guided by an insatiable longing for desire, and above all being desired. It is also the longing for great feelings in an era devoid of great feelings, for brilliant stories in an age that has none. The great stories asked: What is truth? What is guilt? What is love? Given that these meta-narratives were so misused in the 20th century, we now live in an age of denials, when there is a counter-truth inherent in every truth. As such there is a certain logic in the fact that today artists only narrate small stories of an incidental nature, and direct the gaze towards the insignificant, and at times the banal. Yet there is a considerable opportunity in this heterogeneity and multiplicity. Many visitors to the Venice Biennial sensed how much power these stories can trigger off, when they were suddenly confronted with Salla Tykka’s short film „Lasso“. A small scene in which a young girl looks with great longing and tears in her eyes at a young man swinging a lasso. The scene did not take place in America but in an out-of-the-way place in Finland – a matchless symbol for desire conditioned by the media.
While Corinna Schnitt’s beautiful woman keeps up an endless conversation with herself, in “Call Waiting” U.S. filmmaker Lorna Simpson uses a series of chained phone calls to show how on the one hand telecommunications can create intimacy between persons separated by long distances, yet technology (waiting for the ring, faulty connections, calls on another line etc.) can also drive them apart. Simpson’s piece also shows a world of casual erotic connections that are mostly exhausted in the “act” of communication; a world in which people talk non-stop but without saying anything significant.
Egomania may be one tactic the ego uses; self-destruction can be viewed as another. In her exploration of political power and the hierarchy of power in today’s society, Mathilde ter Heijne investigates in her orchestrated suicide tragedies the motives underlying the victim’s role, self-sacrifice through to burning oneself, and includes in her work the fabrication of these images. Like Ahtila, Mik, Brenner she not only makes use of individual psychoses, but also of social psychoses typically occurring in society.
On large-sized acrylic paintings and drawn plates artist duo Muntean/Rosenblum present the spoils of their predatory raids into the iconographies of the Middle Ages, fresco painting of the early Renaissance, pathos formula (Warburg), and lifestyle and youth magazines. They reconfigure poses, clothing, accessories and gestures and in their combinations of text and image present global, non-descript figures which no longer possess any real character. They are particularly harsh in their criticism of individualism so celebrated in youth cults, and which proves to be anything but individualistic precisely when it tries to push through the idea that everyone does exactly the same, likes and buys the same as everyone else.
As such it is not the artist’s psyche that is the topic of debate but rather it is the theaters of the human psyche itself on which the exhibition focuses attention.
We believe the theoretical, economic and social transformations described above and addressed in the works on display to be highly characteristic of the attitude towards life of those born in the 1960s – a transitional generation whose experiences differed radically from those of their parents. What is conspicuous about this generation which never had to experience traumata, actual shortages, or do without material things is – you are tempted to express it in negative terms – an excessive feeling of emotional deprivation that also involved a predilection for self-observation and self-centeredness. But this is less a symptom of egoism, and more of a narcissistic disorder, which seems to account for a great deal of this generation’s motivating force and energy. After all, this generation of perfectionists, workaholics and fashion mothers juggling job, husband and children has a lot to offer.
Today, the psyche is expected to be able to either prove itself or invent itself again daily. The endless scope of possibilities, versions of correctness, truths, emotional states – they all render decision-making and searching for purpose a tortuous task. The heterogeneous nature of life-plans and schedules makes it increasingly difficult to give a solid basis to human relationships and forms of community. The enormous weight of expectations related to work, personal, social or societal matters can hardly be sustained by the individual any longer, and this then gives rise to anxiety and paranoia. It is not then a generation of egoists but rather a generation whose members suffer most on account of their egos.
The narcissist – as defined by Schmidbauer in the present volume – is prepared to sacrifice a lot, to work hard, and give a lot provided this allows him to fulfill certain ideal concepts. And today these concepts also attack the individual like the proverbial locusts: the most important ideal concept though it is seldom voiced openly despite being highly virulent in all areas is that of the ideal consumer. „I shop, therefore I am,“ announces a poster by Barbara Kruger dated 1997. Boris Groys has also stimulated the discussion by penning several essays on the topic. The business cycle no longer hinges on production and creation; consumption is the decisive factor today – which is why art and consumption have become so similar. It is explained to consumers on an almost daily basis that there is no lack of products, and that consequently, not production but consumption has to be increased. Consumption has apparently become a civil duty. While those born after the war learned to tighten their belts and save before buying something, today’s motto is: Buy now, pay later. Accordingly, buying becomes a moral duty – if we are to believe Groys. Anyone who drops out of this cycle is considered a bad individual whose behavior damages the community.
And buying is made as easy as possible for the individual. One of the strategies is the plugging of the „multiple identity“ since adopting different roles also means consuming in each of these different roles, and gives rise to branding whereby products are assigned certain roles. This principle becomes problematic when the sheer mass of roles, masks and self-presentation leaves no space for a distinct, tangible identity prepared to also assume responsibility for these roles??.
Is art a last refuge for an “I-ness”? “Tactics of the EGO” is not an intellectual exhibition. Taking as a starting point the impact of the artistic contributions it seeks to open up new spheres of experience and action, which provide inspiration for one’s own personal positioning, and consequently the show also poses questions about each individual’s position in society. The exhibition is a call in favor of a more authentic EGO, and against the standardization of the individual.
Sabine Maria Schmidt
 „I“ and „Ego“ are deliberately used as synonyms here and not in the psychoanalytical sense. For a discussion of the terminology as used by psychoanalysis see the article in the present volume by Wolfgang Schmidbauer.
 An extensive definition of “personal identity” is offered in: Metzler Lexikon der Literatur- and Kulturtheorie, ed. Ansgar Nünning, (Stuttgart & Weimar, 2001), p. 267.
 Martina Weinhart: “Unbekannt verzogen. Die Selbstdarstellung in der zeitgenössischen Kunst,” in: the catalog artist/Selbst/Bild, (2002), p. 53
 Peter Bürger: Das Verschwinden des Subjekts. Eine Geschichte der Subjektivität von Montaigne bis Barthes, (Frankfurt/Main, 1998).
 See the exhibition catalog: Ich ist etwas Anderes. Kunst am Ende des 20. Jahrhunderts, (Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, 2000)
 See the recent exhibition: „Painting Pictures. Malerei und Medien im digitalen Zeitalter“, (Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Wolfsburg, 2003)
 An excellent outline of the topic from the point of view of cultural history was afforded by the exhibition „Shopping. 100 Jahre Kunst and Konsum“, (Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, 2002-3).
 See, among others, Boris Groys: “Der Künstler als Konsument,” in. cat. Shopping, op. cit., p. 55 ff