BY Andreas Schlaegel in Profiles | 23 MAY 12
Featured in
Issue 5

Half-Pipe, Half Painting

Skating on a turn-of-the-century ramp made by the late Michel Majerus

BY Andreas Schlaegel in Profiles | 23 MAY 12

Michel Majerus, if we are dead, so it is, 2000, 3×10×42 m, Installation view Schlossplatz Stuttgart, 2012

It’s been ten years since Michel Majerus died in a plane crash at age 35. A retrospective to mark the anniversary travelled this spring from Kunstmuseum Stuttgart to CAPC Musée d’art contemporain in Bordeaux. The show – featuring huge murals and installations inspired by popular culture circa 2000 – recalls an unspoken promise in the artist’s work: to reclaim Pop art from the poster shop of history for the present.

In Stuttgart, the exhibition emphasized the artist’s links to the city by including works made during and immediately after his studies at the local art academy. One of Majerus’s best-known works – the skate ramp sculpture if we are dead, so it is (2000) originally made for the Kölnischer Kunstverein – was installed in front of the Kunstmuseum on the Schlossplatz square adjoining the pedestrian shopping zone. Most passers-by carried shopping bags emblazoned with the logos, pictures and names of familiar brands similar to those that Majerus had spread over the half-pipe. The passers-by created an impromptu dialogue with the work’s motifs (a crumpled beige plastic bag, a comic skull, another bag with the logo of a large DIY store) and its words, phrases and slogans (‘newcomer’, ‘unstable’, or ‘the new reference’, but also ‘freeing painting from the theme of expression’), which all adopt the logic of advertising slogans. Most of the skaters using the ramp wore branded gear adorned with pithy slogans like ‘keep it real’.

In this setting between a shopping paradise, youth culture and a museum, Majerus’s work – with its affinity to advertising, brand culture and, ultimately, painting – found its ideal location. To reclaim Pop art for the present, Majerus added a new strategy which diverted from the traditional historical method of turning popular cultural artefacts into the classic media of painting and sculpture. With the half-pipe, he turned the world of brands into both painting and popular culture: neither an artefact nor a commodity to be purchased and taken home in a shopping bag, but a collective experience. What better way to reawaken Pop from reverential art historical references than to let skaters roll over what is basically a giant curved canvas?

The half-pipe was also set up in the CAPC, where it fitted exactly between the rows of pillars in the institute’s cathedral-like former warehouse spaces. Bordeaux counts among Europe’s skateboard centres and has had an active scene since the early 1980s which has always been in touch with America and has produced international stars including Bastien Salabanzi. Over the past decade, this scene has been massively promoted as part of a major city marketing campaign, most visibly with a skate- park that opened in 2006 with a surface of more than 2,500 square metres. In fine weather, this prominently located facility on the promenade along the banks of the Garonne and not far from CAPC is a place to meet and to socialize. During the exhibition’s opening weekend, the skatepark hosted the regional skateboard championships. By offering free entry, the CAPC tried to lure skaters, and thus a young audience, into the exhibition. But anyone wishing to get to the half-pipe had to pass through the entire show.

This blatantly pedagogical measure was perhaps motivated by the fact that Majerus is barely known in France. Yet the didacticism may be one reason why reactions in Bordeaux were not as unanimously positive as they were in Stuttgart. One listener called into a radio programme to complain about the presumptuousness of this artist who knew nothing about skating; he claimed that Majerus had just been trying to exploit the sport and its lifestyle for his own ends. The CAPC Facebook page, which documented the ramp’s installation, featured not only praise but also scorn and criticism. There were technical comments – for example, the ramp’s sides are too low for certain tricks – but reading between the lines one could detect a concern, perhaps even fear, over being harnessed to and exploited by high-brow culture.

The mixed reaction may be a good sign. Ten years after Majerus’s death, a younger audience can approach his oeuvre pragmatically, without excessive reverence. The historical context in which his works were made and which long shaped their reception – 1990s Berlin, techno, ecstasy, the Love Parade – is now part of the distant past. The 90s appear as a closed historical period and the decade’s markings are useful at best as props or dated period elements. If Majerus’s work can communicate across generations, even after the artist’s death, this dialogue is not only due to the appeal of skating as a sporting trend and an individualist attitude, or to its use for city marketing. The exchange also reflects a world that has become pure surface: on the desktop of a computer plastered with harmless funny pictures and screen savers; in the user interface of social media platforms that facilitate the exchange of gossip, news and pictures of cats; in the form of all the other places where surfaces mask structures. As long as this surface keeps expanding into every last nook and cranny – keeps getting filled with an ever-changing blend of arbitrary content – Majerus’s work will continue to be relevant. Whether you’re on the ramp in Stuttgart or Bordeaux, the artist is there in your head, skating with you you. For real.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Andreas Schlaegel is an artist and writer living in Berlin.