Critic’s Guide: Dusseldorf & Cologne

A round-up of the best recently opened shows in the neighbouring Rhineland cities

BY Pablo Larios in Critic's Guides | 09 SEP 16

It’s a continual surprise how, in Germany, you can trek into most regions, emerge from a cow’s field or village pedestrian zone and see exhibition-making of the highest standard. Perhaps nowhere is this concentration of contemporary art greater than in the Rhineland, which includes Bonn, Cologne, Dusseldorf and others, and which is also a train ride away from major artistic hubs in Belgium, France and the Netherlands. (The former West German capital of Bonn, makes for a grim, recessed walk from the Hauptbahnhof, but at the Bonner Kunstverein there’s an excellent collection of works, now on view of Wim T. Schipper.)

It’s a 20-minute train ride between Dusseldorf and Cologne, and like many cities in this proximity, the two have cultivated an age-old rivalry that is taken with apparent seriousness by the locals, but with humoured ignorance by the outsiders. Here are my picks from this year’s DC Open, the start of season gallery weekend in Dusseldorf and Cologne.

Lutz Braun, Subjekt, acrylic on screen, 1.9 x 2.2 cm. Courtesy: Nagel Draxler, Cologne; photograph: Simon Vogel

Lutz Braun
Nagel Draxler, Cologne
2 September – 30 September

If you tend to think in trends and movements, figurative painting is said to be ‘back’ right now – but it’s probably safer to look at things outside of micro-trends, and I imagine there are many painters who silently and defiantly insist that ‘figuration’ never went away. For the dark (and funny) exhibition ‘Rat Park’ at Nagel Draxler, Cologne, Lutz Braun includes humorous, cartoonish, and frantically informal paintings depicting unnatural, ghoulish and zany scenes – electronic parts intruding upon natural idylls, and a couch cushion with a ying-yang painted on it.

Tony Conrad, Beholden to Victory, 1980/2007, Super-8 transferred to digital. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Buchholz, Cologne/Berlin/New York

Tony Conrad
Galerie Buchholz, Cologne
2 September – 22 October

‘Hi, I’m Tony Conrad, the author of Beholden to Victory, which you are about to see.’ So says a piece of paper at Galerie Buchholz in Cologne, where, as promised, Conrad’s little-known 1980 Super-8 video was presented, accompanied by an exquisite array of notes, archival documents (in which the above phrase appears) and detailed plans for the film.

While posing as a slightly campy war film, the video demonstrates Conrad’s long-term engagements with structural film and postwar aleatory experimentations in music and media. (Conrad sadly passed away this past April at 76). The colour film randomized scenes of which were presented across two rooms in a Super-8 projection and a monitor, features Conrad’s friends David Antin, Mike Kelley, Sheldon Nodelman and Tony Oursler, fooling around, dressed as soldiers in the trenches, at times doing nothing at all. Beholden to Victory is Conrad’s attempt to engage the audience as a form of ‘authority’: the spectator as a kind of 'officer', provoked or critical. Scenes were played randomly (programmed by computer), in a configuration devised by Conrad in 2007 in order (according to Conrad) to flaunt the inherent authoritative control, or role-play of authority, of the audience.

George Rippon, ‘Ich bin Hund’, 2016, installation view, Markus Lüttgen, Cologne

George Rippon
Markus Lüttgen, Cologne
2 September – 15 October

In 1940, the poet Dylan Thomas issued a series of stories titled Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog. I’m not sure whether Brussels-based artist George Rippon was indirectly referencing this work (or George W. Bush’s of dog portraiture, or Michel Houellebecqs’ admiration for his) for ‘Ich bin Hund’ (I am Dog) at Markus Lüttgen, Cologne, but he might have been. The Brussels-based artist presents a moody, almost cantakerous installation (in Lüttgen’s new space, and Galerie Buchholz’s former one) including watercolours, pencil drawings and sculptures – in which the artist depicts images of dogs from nearly every perspective. It’s a (seemingly male) stab at a kind of abjection that has gained currency of late, and while it could have been edited tighter, displayed a self-effacing humour.

Elfie Semotan, Untitled, 2011, archival pigment print, 47 x 61 cm. Courtesy: Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne © the artist 

Elfie Semotan
Gisela Capitain, Cologne
3 September – 22 October

Austrian photographer Elfie Semotan came to prominence for her fashion shoots, ads and portraiture – publishing in magazines such as Vogue, Esquire, Interview and The New Yorker. Now living between Austria and New York, her presentation of photographs (all Untitled, 2016) at Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne, focus on everyday objects in domestic settings – light spilling onto floors and house plants – and shop environments, with Whole Foods paper bags, books and tchochkes. Essentially a collection of still lifes, the motif of light through windows onto everyday, domestic objects of varying and various fabrics and textures, recurs nicely throughout.

Alex Wissel and Jan Bonny, Rheingold, 2016, film still. Courtesy: Ginerva Gambino, Cologne; © Bonny/Wissel 2016

Alex Wissel, ‘Rheingold’
Ginerva Gambino, Cologne
2 Sep to 8 Oct

At Ginerva Gambino Alex Wissel’s presentation ‘Rheingold’ took the art history of the Rhineland as its point of departure. Wissel is a recent graduate of Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, a stronghold for young artists who continue to mine the region’s art history: from Joseph Beuys to Dusseldorf resident Marcel Broodthaers up through the current, international class of Christopher Williams, or that of Rosemarie Trockel, from which Wissel matriculated. The exhibition comprises works on canvas and – in collaboration with Jan Bonny, and viewable upon request – ten scenes from a video, all exploring the interrelation of neoliberal tendencies toward project making, networking and self-branding and contemporary art. Wissel’s paintings are packed with conspicuous references to Dusseldorf and its art, in a deadpan and literal manner, weaving a network of artist-brand after artist-brand. Wissel and Bonny’s new video project Rheingold fictionally re-creates the real life of Helge Achenbach, an art consultant and real estate developer from the city. Achenbach founded Campo Bahia, a luxury ‘training camp’ (holding works by Andreas Gursky, among others) for the German national football team. The (real) Campo Bahia hosted the team for the 2014 Rio de Janeiro games, which they won. And (the real) Achenbach made shady deals involving hundreds of millions of dollars worth of art to German corporations, and upon returning to Germany from Brazil was jailed for fraud.

Wissel’s exhibition text reads: ‘But aren’t we all a bit Achenbach?’ The show resonates during a time of doubt surrounding German politico-economic clout, brought into question by such things as the Volkswagen scandal last year, as well as a general interest in ties between creative labour, a precariat class and an increasingly neoliberalized city-scape.

Jef Geys, ‘San Michele’, 2009, exhibition poster. Courtesy: Galerie Max Mayer, Dusseldorf

Jef Geys, ‘San Michele’
Galerie Max Mayer, Dusseldorf
2 September – 22 October

It’s only a short car ride from Belgium to Dusseldorf. According to the exhibition text by Martin Germann in a handsome news bulletin, for this exhibition of Belgian Jef Geys at Max Mayer, Dusseldorf, ‘an essential part of the artistic revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s took place between Antwerp and Düsseldorf, back and forth on the motorway, in the process of creating new formats in exhibition centres, galleries and apartments.’ Shown at Max Mayer is a sensitive, spare exhibition of 12 two-dimensional works by Geys, who has worked quietly from his local Flemish town, becoming a key figure of the Conceptual movements of the last century, while producing Kempens Informatieblad, a gazette he publishes and prints to accompany his shows. The works (including many first shown in the 2009 Venice Biennale) serve as inventories and representations of local weeds, persons, and sites of burial. Each panel contains a pressed, specific weed sourced from a cemetery in Isola di San Michele, a photograph of the earth from which it was collected, and a photograph of the gravestone – and hence the person who is abstractly, arbitrarily evermore tied to it.

New Noveta, Një Mori, 2016, performance documentation, Good Forever, Dusseldorf

New Noveta, Një Mori
Good Forever, Dusseldorf
2 – 4 September

The first time I entered Good Forever’s space on Ackerstrasse it was called Off Vendome, and there was an installation by Ian Cheng featuring a live squid. Since project spaces are handed down like friends’ apartments, and Off Vendome is now in New York, it is now a space dedicated mainly to performance and run by artists Tobias Hohn, Moritz Krauth and Stanton Taylor. Strangely, the squid was here again. On Friday, New Noveta presented an intensive, invasive performance work Një Mori, involving fish and squid ink, and repeated an intervention, on Sunday, with David Aird (Vindicatrix). I’m told it will be among the last of Good Forever’s programme, but it brought a smile to my face to see the energy of informal projects here. Long live Rhineland project spaces – be good forever.

Main image: Elfie Semotan, Untitled, 2007, archival pigment print, 61 x 47 cm. Courtesy: Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne © the artist

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