BY Pablo Larios in Reviews | 08 NOV 13
Featured in
Issue 12

Christian Jankowski

Zentrum für zeitgenössische Kunst – Schloss Ujazdowski

BY Pablo Larios in Reviews | 08 NOV 13

Christian Jankowski, Heavy-weight History, 2013, performance documentation

Satirical works have a way of pre-empting certain critiques that might later be levied against them. They depend on a sense – an illusion, probably – of proximity to the institutions they criticize. This is their foolish intelligence. Witold Gombrowicz’s satirical novel Ferdydurke (1937), about a writer forced to regress to childhood and return to school, was an exaggeration of the Polish literary mainstream’s charges that Gombrowicz’s writing was ‘immature’. There’s some resonance with Heavy-weight History, the vast mid-career retrospective of the pranking man-child of German art, Christian Jankowski. The customary laudatio implied by this form of exhibition need not apply here. After all, Jankowski has made a career of lampooning the art world – a place that, by the weapon of his own invective irony, he’s turned into his own detention – his ball and chain.

Sprawling through the chambers of the Ujazdowski castle, Heavy-weight History included eight major projects for which Jankowski, for over a decade, has gained some renown. Telemistica (1999), shown at the Venice Biennale that year, is a video conversation about Jankowski’s Venice contribution with a television tarot card reader (‘You are a winner. I’m not just telling you this…’). Such bitterly comic works put a vexed, self-hating spin on Institutional Critique, combined with the insistence, common in post-Conceptual legacies, that documentation be the work itself. The results are usually one-liners where idea trumps detail. For The Finest Art on Water (2011), Jankowski put a 68-metre luxury motor yacht, the Jankowski, and a smaller boat, Christian, up for sale at that year’s Frieze Art Fair in London. Along with the accompanying promotional video, shown here, buyers could choose from two prices, a higher one for its designation as art. The artist as luxury manufacturer, dealer as greasy salesman, and buyer as exposed hedonist: we’re forced to repeat the tired line – as if on a blackboard – that art today is a mere commodity, the subject of magic valuation. Conversely, Strip the Auctioneer (2009) showed the belongings worn by a Christie’s auctioneer in Amsterdam and which Jankowski convinced him to auction off: a black leather shoe, a mallet and a blue shirt. For Jankowski, the ‘aura’ of a work is identical to the act of stripping it, like the auctioneer, of that very quality. Exposing the work’s exchange value and inflating it (like with the luxury yacht) are one and the same.

For the video and photographic series, Heavy-weight History (2013), Jankowski commissioned weightlifters to move eight Warsaw monuments off their pedestals before setting them – including Willy Brandt and Ludwik Waryn´ski – down again. Cheekily, the metaphorical ‘weight’ of Poland’s troubled history is anti-heroically deflated by the groans and smiles of athletes. The double bind is typical of Jankowski: a minor, momentary triumph for one group (the weightlifters) concealing a vicious jab elsewhere (at the grounded perpetuity that defines all monuments; Polish pride; the institution of remembrance).

Jankowski’s pranks are funny. But to leave it there would be to repeat the same faith in aesthetic conventions that Jankowski repeatedly claws at. The reason Telemistica is superior to The Finest Art on Water is because Telemistica presents the artist in a state of bumbling insecurity – desperate for certainty amid institutions he cannot control – rather than the easy luxury of fair-sailing meanness. Art is indeed inextricable from the institutions that frame it, since even an escape from ‘institutionality’ begets a new institution. But due to the pat-on-the-back circularity of art viewership, Jankowski requires his audience to be complicit within the structure being critiqued: to be ship buyers and fair-goers. Worse is how, like the classic embittered comrade, Jankowski always critiques the vague structure overhead, but never any actual named agent. This strategy is limited and puerile insofar as its target remains abstract. Call it Oedipus getting old: one can only hate one’s fathers, school-teachers, curators, audience, etc., for so long. These punchlines leave one laughing, but monumentally cold.

Pablo Larios is an editor and writer. He lives in Berlin, Germany.