Art is of its time, wrote sociologist and philosopher Niklas Luhmann, if it ‘observes the world observing itself and pays attention to distinctions that determine what can and cannot be seen’. Dirk Fleischmann’s works do just that: by dramatizing their own place within society, they render visible and transform economic cycles, renewing our resources of attention.
While still a student at the Städelschule Academy in Frankfurt, Fleischmann set up a retail outlet for chocolate bars (mykiosk, 1998–2002). Now living and working in Seoul, he produces projects that, though very different at first sight, bear the same stamp: a more than passing resemblance to ordinary small businesses, run on a growth-based model, and with a focus on sustainability. Be it the artist’s chicken farm (myfreerangechickeneggproduction, 2002–4), solar power plant on the roof of the Städelschule (mysolarpowerplant, 2004–ongoing), or trailer hire service (mytrailerrental, 1997–2002), over time, all are given the chance to become independent, to lead a life of their own.
The exhibition’s title, ‘Limuranin, Kaesong and Rosario’, drew attention to the actual places where goods are produced before being traded around the globe, locations which would otherwise remain invisible or abstract to the consumer. Limuranin is a remote area of the Philippines where Fleischmann is running a reforestation project (myforestfarm, 2008–ongoing), a work that developed out of his interest in the controversial carbon offsetting market. The show also included limited-edition shirts produced as part of his fashion label project (myfashionindustries, 2007–ongoing). The artist’s shirt collection, ‘Made in the Philippines’ (2008), was manufactured in that country’s largest free trade zone, the Cavite Economic Zone in Rosario, and ‘Made in North Korea’ (2010) in North Korea’s Kaesong Industrial Complex, located on the border with South Korea.
Fleischmann presented documentary video footage that offered a rare insight into the conditions of production in the clothing industry. The shirts could have been no more than an appendix to Naomi Klein’s book No Logo (2000). (The video itself actually includes workers who were interviewed in the anti-globalization bestseller.) But Fleischmann is able to make things visible that would otherwise remain invisible: by labelling the collection as produced in North Korea (as goods produced at Kaesong are usually labelled ‘Made in Korea’ to disguise the fact that they were produced under questionable political conditions in a country otherwise largely sealed off from the outside world); and by appearing in the on-site footage himself, inspecting the work and presenting himself as a fashion designer with a keen interest in quality by taking shirts out of the seamstresses’ hands to check them.
Is Fleischmann running a series of small businesses that use the expanded field of art as a lucrative niche market, with all profits ploughed back into new projects? Or, conversely, is he demonstrating that the functioning of sustainable economic systems is an artistic work-in-progress? Are these ‘real’ businesses or not? Are the recipients art viewers with an understanding of the projects’ aesthetic staging, or are they critical consumers? Fleischmann’s works concisely illustrate that these questions are fundamentally difficult to answer.
Measured against this high level of reflection, the exhibition missed opportunities for staging such questions, for the most part merely illustrating and documenting the projects that triggered them. There were shirts and packing cases, accompanied by billboards with a collection of press clippings, as well as the video footage, which was also made available online. Single images of each of the more than 1,500 trees in the Limuranin reforested area had been individually archived on CDs, and macroscopic photographs of the shimmering surfaces of the disks presented (the CDs themselves were, in turn, stacked to the ceiling to form a tree-like spindle). But Bielefeld itself was the perfect place to see Fleischmann’s work. Since pre-industrial times the city has been one of the main markets of the international linen trade, although most of its production facilities have long been relocated to low-wage countries overseas; the university on the edge of town is where Niklas Luhmann kept his legendary card index, whose contents he used to construct arguably the first all-embracing theory of society since Hegel.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell