BY Kito Nedo in Reviews | 10 MAR 16
Featured in
Issue 23

Christian Jankowski

Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin, Germany

BY Kito Nedo in Reviews | 10 MAR 16

Christian Jankowski, Retrospektive, 2016, Installation view photographed by Jens Ziehe, Courtesy: Studio Jankowski, CFA Berlin.

Dienstbesprechung (‘staff meeting’) is the title of a roughly 35-minute video work that Christian Jankowski produced in 2008 on the occasion of his retrospective at the Kunstmuseum Stuttgart. In the style of a ‘making of’-video, the piece recounts the development of his exhibition in Stuttgart  to examine the day-to-day functioning of  a museum. Various responsibilities are  presented to the viewer by means of short  interviews, scenes from the museum’s day-to-day goings-on, and a staged fire alarm that provides a bit of action. The leading role is played by Thomas Kaltschmidt, as the show’s ‘curator’. He’s an upstanding, affable guy with a Saxon accent who – and this is really the highlight of the video – works in real life in the Kunstmuseum’s security operations center. Because for the film, Jankowski redistributed the various roles played by  the real museum employees. So the museum’s director at that time, Marion Ackermann, makes an appearance as a technician, while the curator, Ruth Diehl, oversees the monitors in the security operations centre for the duration of the film.

The artist has not gotten as much attention for a similar practice of role reversal for his first retrospective in Berlin at the gallery Contemporary Fine Arts. Sure, Jankowski is popular in the art world and has a steadily growing gaggle of fans. But this time the curator of the exhibition was crucial for the little bit of hysteria that emerged during the lead-up to the show. Jankowski and his gallery were successful in enlisting actress Nina Hoss, not known to delve into art things, to play the exhibition’s curator.  A head-on portrait of Hoss casting a severe shadow – taken by photographer Franziska Sinn – serves as a kind of leitmotif in an aggressive advertising campaign for which  the image was generously placarded around Berlin. The last time CFA was similarly present was in early 2007 – at the climax  of the Berlin-Mitte art hype – when the exhibition of one Dash Snow, then unknown in Germany, was widely advertised. 

The Hoss-Jankowski exhibition actually became a media event before its opening  – not least because Hoss eagerly gave interviews, coquetting with her new role as art broker. In doing so the curatorial process nevertheless remained strangely underexposed. She didn’t even really know how she became  a curator, the actress revealed in an interview in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.  ‘It all happened pretty fast and really spontaneously. That, l realized in retrospect, has a lot to do with Christian’s work’. Jankowski praised his curator in the weekly newspaper Die Zeit. ‘Having to curate a retrospective alone would have only been half of the art  for me. Nina Hoss brings in her own eye, her  own standards and her own audience. Altogether, plenty of new, unforeseeable energy’. A text message exchange that Hoss and Jankowski, assisted by CFA gallerist Bruno Brunnet, read out in front of an assembled audience on the night of the exhibition opening remained enigmatic. They stood on a  replica of a tourist observation deck made of untreated wood, the kind that once stood along the Berlin Wall. This text message performance was possibly supposed to attest to the intense exchange between artist and curator – or maybe it was supposed to do  the exact opposite?

Christian Jankowski, Retrospektive, 2016, Installation view photographed by Jens Ziehe, Courtesy: Studio Jankowski, CFA Berlin

The Hoss-Jankowski-CFA trio seems to operate an extremely well functioning image-transfer exchange. Symbolic and cultural capital erupt into their respective opposites – and in doing so are blasted all over the gallery. But what does the audience make of it?  The CFA show delivers little evidence of any alternative, possibly arbitrary, view of Jankowski’s work held by the invited actress. Instead of omitting or emphasizing focal points, Hoss, as a curator, seems to strive for maximum utilization of the available space. Above all, her exhibition celebrates the  abundance of Jankowski’s oeuvre, which, starting with early works like the artist’s film of a supermarket bow and arrow hunt, Die Jagd (1992), now spans a period of almost  25 years. Photographic works like the 34 part series Schamkasten (1992/2000) and Poster Sale (2002) are squeezed into the tiniest corridor.

A chronologically ordered lineup of films, presented in a custom-built screening room, including works from 1996 to 2014, seems symptomatic of this. The combined length of these films exceeds the gallery’s daily opening hours. Here, it becomes apparent that Jankowski is an artist who has worked in various, more or less popular television formats over the years. An American televangelist gives an art sermon (The Holy Artwork, 2001); the artist silently creeps around a talk show in Athens (Talk Athens, 2003); Jankowski orchestrates an art shopping channel during the art fair in Cologne (Kunstmarkt, 2008); several news reporters cover his project at the Sydney Biennale  (Tableau Vivant, 2013). It’s like the art is being channelled as if through a heat sensor again and again towards the formally ‘hot medium’ TV. And even in the moment when the moving image ceases to exist, the work  still stays directed at the popularity of tele-vision (and film) – also demonstrated by actress-curator Hoss’s involvement. 

In an astounding number of his works, Jankowski holds his reflexively-operating  art up to television as a mirror, exposing the structural stupidity of a mass medium; but  as a counterpoint, he throws an elitist and self-aggrandizing, hyperbolic art market back on to the mechanisms of fame of precisely that medium. The result is an echo chamber in which two medial systems swing steadily upwards. In its best moments, the result  is fantastical realist satire; in its worst, mean jokes made at the expense of others. Often, there’s plenty of both. 

This exhibition’s blind spot is paradoxically located very close to its most visible point. Because, for one, the skilful adoption of attention-seeking mechanisms is present in the room. You may expect another turn  of the reflexive screw by the artist-turned-curator of the upcoming Manifesta. On the other hand, the hired curator-actress’s treatment of his work seems rather indifferent. But then again shouldn’t curators mainly  be measured by their exhibitions – or perhaps not? Or maybe we should follow the premise of Chris Dercon, who is expected to  take over as director of Berlin’s Volksbühne  in 2017. As Dercon said, ‘“curator” is an expletive’ – at least in Berlin.

Kito Nedo lives in Berlin where he works as contributing editor for frieze and as freelance journalist for several magazines and newspapers. In 2017, he won the ADKV-Art Cologne Award for Art Criticism.