BY Martin Herbert in Features | 12 NOV 15
Featured in
Issue 22

Mint Condition

The currency and collaboration of Kerstin Brätsch

BY Martin Herbert in Features | 12 NOV 15

Kaya V (Kerstin Brätsch / Debo Eilers), installation view, Meyer Kainer, Vienna, 2015

Every starting point feels like the wrong one.I want to talk about KAYA (2010–ongoing), Kerstin Brätsch’s expanded painting/sculpture/performance partnership with artist Debo Eilers. But understanding KAYA and, more generally, Brätsch’s relentless, rest­less collaborating, means unpacking acluster of references: the teenage girl KAYA is named after, drag queens, graffiti artists, the Paris Mint, and the project’s morphing route through various host galleries, exhibition situations and institutions. DAS INSTITUT, a faux ‘import/export’ agency Brätsch setup in 2007 with Adele Röder, is perhaps the best known example of Brätsch’s collaborative ethos, but since completing her MFA at Columbia University in 2007 she has pointedly partnered with many other makers: master marblers and glassmakers, artists hitherand yon. And, in a practice that’s rigorously decentred (her birthdate, for example, shifts with every new show’s CV), all of this serves as a counterpoint to the Hamburg-born, New York-based artist’s solo painting activity, which in itself complicates myths of thesingular creator and autonomous artwork.

Brätsch has sometimes designated her paintings on Mylar (begun in 2008) and big, fragile, unframed sheets of paper, which often feature wavering, free-floating polychrome stripes, as ‘ghosts’ of her earlier ones; setting the starting point further back, they suggest formalist melanges of (mostly) modernist painting styles. Are they, at least, definably abstract? Outwardly, yes, though her lines and shapes frequently arrange themselves into suggestions of bodies, just as the painting-as-body is a trope Brätsch pursues throughout her work. As in thiscase, most aspects of her practice tend to infer their opposite, or beg for a counter-read: I can’t even pen this text on Brätsch’s most recent show at the time of writing, because there are two – a solo, Pele’s Curse, at the Arts Club of Chicago, and the latest extension of KAYA, KAYA V, at Meyer Kainer, Vienna. Toss a coin.

Kerstin Brätsch, Ka Wahine Ai Honua / Witchfinger / The Earth-eating Woman, 2015, enamel, lustre, sliced agates, leadline on baked antique glass, 90 × 60 cm

So, OK: KAYA V, which features plenty of coins (of which more shortly), is the latest result of an alliance that began when Brätsch and the Texas-born Eilers, who studied with her, had a 2010 show at 179 Canal, New York. They decided to include the then 13-year-old Kaya, daughter of one of Eilers’s childhood friends, as a ‘variable’ (as Brätsch describes it in conversation) who would literally grow with the developing project and unpredictably, unavoidably, interfere with it. This show, like much of what has followed, additionally rerouted its potential content by directly responding to its exhibition situation: Margaret Lee’s nonprofit was short of rent so the artists turned their presence into a benefit; Eilers painted underneath a self-built stage while Kaya performed upon it – fiddling with the art, making music. Fuzzy complication transpired. Eilers placed his sculptures in front of Brätsch’s paintings of hovering stripes on plastic, while Brätsch signed what he made. They raised a couple hundred dollars, giving it to Lee. Here already, amid sociability, materiality and alternative financial strategizing, one might discern KAYA’s syncretic critical contours. Like so much of Brätsch’s hydra-headedart, it responds simultaneously to multiplecontemporary depredations: the market (and its sustaining clichés about how artists work), social atomization, virtualizationand disembodiment.

In the intervening years KAYA has continually mutated, feeding on itself, creating a ‘third body’ in more or less literal ways: just prior to the Vienna show, for example, it took the form of KAMP KAYA (2015), a summer camp involving performances, screenings and talks at the Kunsthaus Bregenz. Form­ally, though, the sculptural works have gained some coherence, even a recognizable if hybrid style. By KAYA III, at 47 Canal in 2013, Eilers’s and Brätsch’s work had merged into its current incarnation: ‘body bags’, with her colourful paintings on Mylar – their looping lines splitting the difference between graffiti tags and sampled details from a Fernand Léger painting, collectively anthropomorphic – snipped up, stitched back together and suspended, in vaguely S&M manner, from black straps and steel handles.

DAS INSTITUT (Kerstin Brätsch & Adele Röder), installation view, MOCA, Los Angeles,

The physical works, nevertheless, are only one part of these shows’ formal andfiscal economy. Just prior to the 47 Canal exhibition, the Monnaie de Paris – the ancient mint that has collaborated with, amongothers, Salvador Dalí, Yves Klein, Rob Pruitt and Andy Warhol – invited Brätsch to work with their engravers. She wanted this to be a KAYA collaboration; they refused, wanting her name only. Frustrated, for KAYA III the artists made bootleg, US-printed, Paris Mint-style coins anyway, using them in a luck-and-endurance-based betting game whose winner could choose one of the works on show. Someone won a ‘Body Bag’ workfor $80, and the proceeds from the game, some $900, were given to Kaya, who had now finished school, for her college fund.

The Monnaie de Paris, meanwhile, their arms twisted, agreed to let Brätsch and Eilers use their coin design officially for KAYA V. The artists placed the resultant currency inside body-bag works hung on the walls, and scattered it among horizontal painting/sculptures – bed-like structures layered with Brätsch-painted plastic and, behind them, parts of a half-dismembered resin cast of Kaya made before she turned 18, perfect youth preserved. They also made large-scale, 3D-printed, galvanized replicas of the coins– creating a ‘tumour’ from the currency, as Brätsch puts it, a dangerous thing inside an allegorical larger body – and invited two people to scrawl reviews of the show upon them. The show, part of Vienna’s annual ‘curated by_vienna’ season, was officially curated by Brätsch’s brother, a graffiti artist called N. O. Madski, who also sprayed sil­very tags on the walls. The result was a stem-twisting hybrid of the commodified and ungraspable: witness, too, KAYA’s decision, when they made KAYA IV for the Fridericianum Kassel’s 2013 exhibition Speculations on Anonymous Materials, to gift a work to the Fridericianum, which does not yet have acollection, and bury it in the hallowed ground in front of the institution, site of Joseph Beuys’s 1982 7,000 Oaks at Documenta 7 andmore. (The shovels used, as per KAYA’s logic of dissemination, reappeared as blackened sculptures, nodding to Marcel Broodthaers, in KAYA V.) All of this demonstrates KAYA’s, and Brätsch’s, ability to find pockets of freedom in the product-driven circulatory system of the art world (and IRL sociability within the digital context). As does the dual economy that allows their works to be sold for virtu­ally nothing when they see fit.

Kerstin Brätsch, Unstable Talismanic Rendering 24 (with gratitude to master marbler Dirk Lange), 2014, ink and solvent on paper, 2.8 × 1.8 m

Again, though, this is only one strand of Brätsch’s multiform practice, which centres on painting and began in 2006 with the Psychic series of large works on paper, ambivalently channelling mystical abstraction and seeded with inchoate faces and figures. See, for example, Untitled 2 (2006), in which a goofy yet ominous proto-Minion character, blackened but with a glowing red core, nevertheless sits far enough from figuration that associations feel strongly projective. Almost immediately after making them Brätsch complicated her own solo position by cofounding DAS INSTITUT with Röder, with whom she’d studied in Berlin, andfor which – alongside shelving units, digitally knitted trouser suits etc. – paintings would be made by Brätsch based on designs worked up on a computer by Röder. Soon after this, Brätsch began making so-called ‘ghost’ works on floppy sheets of Mylar, explicitly situating her abstracted marks as revenants of imagery from previous works on paper, again kicking against the autonomous (and luxury) art object even when working on her own.

Brätsch has rarely seen a classification she didn’t want to destabilize. Accordingly, after DAS INSTITUT came a questioning of where ‘painting’ itself reaches a categorical limit. After becoming interested in conflations of painting, glass and light via a 2011 DAS INSTITUT collaboration with United Brothers – Ei and Tomoo Arakawa, the latter of whom runs a tanning salon in Fukushima – she began working with Zurich master glassmaker Urs Rickenbach. In works from 2012, paint strokes were laboriously ‘translated’ into glowing glass, playing persuasively with occult signifiers while making clear that playing was, indeed, going on. In 2014 works entitled Unstable Talismanic Renderings – made with master German paper marbler Dirk Lange – Brätsch expanded marbling to huge scales, compositions based on the chancy drop of ink from a great height: ‘I want to break apart the brush stroke… I am drawn to the occult power of the misunderstood,’ the catalogue text read. It sounded like Brätsch’s voice; it was, in fact, ventriloquized by artist Allison Katz (with whom Brätsch has also collaborated in the performance group It’s Our Pleasure to Serve You).

Having it both ways (or more ways than that) is central to Brätsch’s practice, whichis as much a process of reflexive undoing as of doing. A pragmatic rationale might suggest itself: that since artists are now encouraged to pump out content, nothing might bemore desirable than perpetual collaboration, a process of creating sparks and volatility.

Brätsch’s work achieves as much; and yet this feels like a side effect to a larger agenda, which is to remain forever uncontained and reversible – to expose in advance an artwork’s exchange value, yet to continue circulating (sometimes at rock-bottom prices, sometimes for free, sometimes expensively); in short, to be authored and not, of the system and against it. For one cannot evade sym­bolic capture if one espouses a fixed position,even if that position is contrarian. The artist who remains at least semi-free, Brätsch suggests, must make her entire practice a kaleidoscopic contradiction. As such, thecritique in her work glimmers just as cor­po­reality does – the body, here, being both expansive and breakable – or, like a ghost, your hand might pass right through. How to analyze it without creating a situation inwhich you are understood and thus delimited and hence controlled? Give it away: to a teenager, your brother, the contingent swirl of ink, the toss of a coin, a friend. And in giving it away, take control.

Martin Herbert is a critic based in Berlin, Germany.