in Frieze | 06 MAY 99
Featured in
Issue 46

Culture Club

Gerwald Rockenschaub

in Frieze | 06 MAY 99

For at least three years the German-speaking art world has been discussing the connection between club culture and contemporary art. The concrete manifestations of this phenomenon range from engaging a Techno DJ to provide sounds for an opening, to a Techno musician and an artist being one and the same person, or club and gallery being one and the same place. The most interesting aspect of this situation is the dominance - hardly questioned any longer - of electronic music based on Techno in its widest sense. Artists used to form rock bands and defined this mode of expression either as a component part or complementary aspect of their fine art practice. This tradition has extended from the 60s to the beginning of the present decade, but it now seems to have broken down. The way in which electronic music is produced, and the fact that it aims at action on the dance floor, mean that it can no longer be used as a means of expressing individual sensibility in the same way as rock. Fine artists' general involvement with Techno can therefore be read as a generational shift, caused by doubts about representation as offered by conventional artistic resources. It is no coincidence that works by artists for whom Techno is important (such as Stefan Altenburger, Carsten Nicolai or Daniel Pflumm) relate to formal and theoretical achievements of Minimal and Conceptual art. Gerwald Rockenschaub occupies a special place in this group because of his age (he was born in 1952), which hardly predisposes him to adopt the mantle of Techno culture.

European Techno has developed an apparently perfect infrastructure, with very shallow steps between production, distribution and reception. The network is tight because there are so many labels, sales outlets, magazines, record shops and clubs, ensuring the material existence of a large, socially coherent group. Compared to the art business, where selection processes operate everywhere, from getting into the right art school to the having a review in the right magazine, the informality of Techno culture must seem absolutely ideal. It is almost inevitable that, as this new network has emerged, certain themes and elements have been adapted by artists who are socially linked to it. Frequently this has seen artists taking over new spaces of their own: as soon as the idea of the club as an independently initiated public arena (independent of sponsors in particular) made its impact on the Techno scene, fringe galleries run with a similar attitude, just as mobile and temporary, started to spring up in living-rooms and warehouses.

This idea is apparently echoed in Rockenschaub's recent work, not least because of the practical experience he has gained in the past 12 years from DJing and running a club - he co-runs the Audioroom in Vienna. Yet any sense of euphoria for the possibilities of art in the context of club culture is driven out, replaced by a fundamental doubt. Rockenschaub's art takes place in the spaces traditionally intended for it. His one-room installations establish themselves with a mixture of self-confident occupation and ephemeral presence. His use of freely suspended sheets of transparent PVC film or inflatable barriers made of translucent plastic are examples of this, and his handling of the institutional character of gallery spaces removes the illusion once and for all that art can leap out of its context and claim the successes achieved in other cultural spheres.

Last year in the Vera Munro gallery in Hamburg, Rockenschaub covered the floor of a room with large, inflatable, pop-colourful plastic cushions (Aufblasbare Objekte, Inflatable Objects, 1998). You stood in the doorway and were given a warm welcome, a club vibe, but you had to stay outside - there was no room left for the viewer. His one-room installation shown at Hauser & Wirth in Zurich (Ohne Titel, Untitled, 1998) produced precisely the reverse effect: This time you could go into the space and walk around among the inflatable PVC cubes. But their size and the cold, grey, artificial material didn't exactly make you feel welcome. At Rockenschaub's exhibition at Berlin's Galerie Mehdi Chouakri in Winter 1998 he placed a three metre high perspex right angle, framed in polished stainless steel, directly behind the door. The centrally placed red stripes, a visual mark Rockenschaub has used before, became a practical necessity after a FedEx courier collided with the work while it was being set up - people don't like making detours, especially when they are carrying things. Making your way around Rockenschaub's transparent angular structure (Zwei Acryglasscheiben mit roten Sichtstreifen, Two Sheets of Acrylic Glass with Red Marker Stripes, 1998), you ended up in an otherwise empty space. The obstacle that made the detour necessary turned out to be the actual exhibit. As a kind of windshield and room divider, the work was integrated into the space of the gallery, but it is just as impossible to reduce it to site-specificity as to the critical gesture that the gallery space has had to endure since O'Doherty's notion of the white cube became a well-worn subject for critics and artists alike.

This ambivalence is expressed in various ways in Rockenschaub's installations. The space in the Mehdi Chouakri gallery, in which the perspex structure was placed has a window on the street side. So you don't necessarily have to go into the gallery to form an impression of the exhibition, you can get an idea of it as you walk past. Rockenschaub accepts this 'openness' because his perspex wall, whose principal visual characteristic is transparency, doubles up the window. But he also counters the ostensible openness of the gallery by displacing the entrance. The unrestricted view into the gallery suggests a low threshold of separation of the people standing outside from the art that is currently being shown there; but at the same time, as the gaze from outside crosses the different levels of glass, the transparency stresses rather than diminishes the difference between 'mere' observer and 'proper' visitor.

Rockenschaub's three one-man shows in Autumn/Winter 1998, in Hamburg, Zurich and Berlin, before the retrospective mounted by the Hamburger Kunstverein in Spring 1999 - three singles, then the album - form an approach that takes its cue from pop-cultural production and promotion cycles. One can sense that Rockenschaub might find it hard not to smile knowing that he can make the machinery work for him. But such control is the product of experience deriving from an artistic career that goes well back into the 80s. His early small-format paintings, once labelled Neo-Geo, which today it would be great to see alongside Daniel Pflumm's logo remixes, were directed against the virulent neo-Expressionist art of the Neue Wilde in the early 80s. Even though Rockenschaub doesn't have such an obvious opponent anymore, he has continued to work from this impetus. This is apparent in his chill formal repertoire as much as in his love of Techno. Throughout the different permutations that Rockenschaub's art has gone through over the years, persistent characteristics remain: a formal language related to Minimal Art and a certain coolness of gesture. Together they can be seen as a protest against artistic approaches that believe it is possible to express individuality and emotional states.