Few titles offer as many levels of meaning as the one chosen by curators Ellen Blumenstein and Felix Ensslin for their show at the ZKM (Centre for Art and Media). It evokes a philosophical problem and James Bond, the pleasures of sexuality and Jacques Lacan, and the curators’ diagnosis of a current trend towards ‘melancholic introspection’ in society, which is also reflected in contemporary art, the key concepts here being Neo-Romanticism, angst, horror and Neo-Goth.
But one thing at a time. You Only Live Twice was the name given by Ian Fleming to the 12th of his Bond novels. The leitmotiv of the story is a haiku according to which one encounters life twice; at birth and in the face of death. For the Roman poet Lucretius, too, these were the key points in an asymmetry: although many people pose the question of life after death, few are interested in whether or not they existed before they were conceived. According to this view life is a span of time between two eternities, two non-existences – between two deaths. And even this doubly bounded period of space and time includes ‘little deaths’ (as the French sometimes refer to a sexual climax) – ‘between two deaths’ on the orgasmic plateau or in post-coital depression. And sexuality does indeed play a central role in many of the works by a total of 31 artists – as in Sue de Beer’s installation Black Sun (2005), the title of which refers to Julia Kristeva’s eponymous 1989 book, which argues that depression is the refusal to accept the loss of oneness with the mother: a double projection mixes dreamlike fairy-tale scenes with moments in which a teen girl – possibly the key scene in the piece – slips into her mother’s boudoir and puts on her négligé and wig. But the theoretical background to this focus on sexuality is more complex than it may at first appear: Blumenstein and Ensslin take the idea of ‘between two deaths’ above all from Lacan but also refers to Freud, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer and to Friedrich von Schiller, discussing the break in modernity between the ‘real’ self and the ‘symbolic’ self. This break is irreversible, but – and this is the curator's point – this does not inevitably mean complete and total abandonment of the self to predefined structures: the subject has the possibility of refusing the socially and culturally predefined patterns of conformity that accompany ego formation by constantly redefining itself in playful terms. There is life after the ‘death of the subject’.
The art Ensslin and Blumenstein selected confirms this theoretical approach precisely by going beyond it. Ján Mancuška’s Killer without a Cause (2006), for example, tells the story of a man committing suicide and consists of two heavy black 35mm film projectors ‘duelling’ each other so that the projected image from one appears exactly in the small place where the celluloid would be visible in the other – thus a piece not only about isolation and alienation but about their ‘transmission’ in media reality. Although the pictures, objects, films and installations in the Karlsruhe exhibition repeatedly pose the question of the formation of the subject, overall the show is very open in terms of form and content. Two examples: opposite Barnaby Furnas’ orgy of red paint, in which the artist inundated around 40 square metres of canvas (The Other Way (Flood), 2007), hangs the graphic sophistication of Mark Titchner’s stylized text piece And Now What Do You Want? (2007), something like a summation of neo-liberal ideology: ‘Take what you want. Take what you need. There is plenty to go around. Everything is free.’
The exhibition also offers intimate moments – moments leading to pure, unadulterated oppressiveness: Elín Hansdóttir clad a staircase in white-painted planks, but the promise of having climbed something like a stairway to heaven ends in increasing constriction and darkness (Drift, 2007). Marlene McCarty, by contrast, discloses all from the outset: her ballpoint-pen drawings are large and of a precise, cool realism. They show older and younger people standing in water up to their hips and, clearly in silent ecstasy, pressing together. Only gradually does one become aware that their sexual organs are bared, and that, as the title suggests, they seem to be members of a family – Backyard Baptism, 11:22 a.m. The Borden Family with David. Sunday, November 13th, 2005. Warwick Township, Pennsylvania (2006–7). A vague feeling of unease sets in, until an information sheet explains that the artist is referring to the true case of Kara Beth Borden, who was raised in strict sexual abstinence, but at the age of 14 met and was seduced by an 18-year-old, and looked on unmoved as her new boyfriend, who was not accepted by her parents, shot her mother and father dead. Another possibility for self-discovery between two deaths.