It’s fitting that Jonathan Meese’s first exhibition in Scotland should take place in a former glue factory, his art employing as it does a logic of continual adhesion and connection, sticking and pasting and piling-on. Even by the existing standards of Meese’s chaotic bricolage, the installation Pump Up the Vampire, Pump Up the Vampire, Pump Up the Vampire, Smell! (2014), had an especially scrappy texture. Achieved during a short residency, there were few traces, among the heaps of junk, over-painted rugs, plastic tents, trolleys and chipboard screens, of the assured painter revealed in his 2003 show The Empire Portraits 1903 at his London gallery, Modern Art.
Also obscure were the particular conceptual and practical strategies which the local curatorial collective YOUNG TEAM had undertaken in the project. Though the press release declared aspirations to a ‘collegiate atmosphere’ one couldn’t tell. Meese seemed to be imprinted over every inch of the installation, from didactic videos to handwritten notes. YOUNG TEAM’s avowed intention to use material only sourced in Glasgow, meanwhile, was also fairly inscrutable: either simply because one city’s junk looks just like another’s, or because certain elements clearly culled from the artist’s resources – engrossing assemblages of vintage film posters, for example – drew attention from the anonymous ones. If it was hard to identify which elements of the installation (if any) sprang from its specific, local context, it was fun to speculate all the same. Didn’t that huge sheet of bubble-wrap draped from the ceiling, sparsely daubed in fluorescents, for example, look like a parody of a certain Glasgow minimalism – like Karla Black on crack?
Writing about Meese invites cliché, since cliché is one of his own concerns. Not only does his work revert to symbols and iconography pre-dyed in association – whether a salute, a military motif, or a teen pin-up – it utilizes cliché’s sentimental power, while simultaneously mocking its rhetoric. I can only comprehend certain elements of this installation as exercises in this kind of double standard: the female shop-window dummy, say, draped with an Iron Cross, smeared with black paint, giant syringe in one hand, face overlaid with multiple animal jawbones. Bearing the words ‘Fräulein Bratwurscht’ (Miss Sausage) on one breast, this figure was both kitschy and horrific – its nihilistic idiocy seeming both to mitigate and reinforce its impact.
If Meese’s Ahoi de Angst (Fear Ahoy, 1998) at the first Berlin Biennale drew on the bedroom of the teenage loner, Vampire…, jammed with pornographic collages, makeshift altars, tributes to E.T. and Parsifal, felt like a shoddy squat, inhabited by a brutal but clueless political cult. Among the darkness and detritus, I half-expected to find a traffic cone stolen as a student prank (if I had, would the environment feel more threatening or less?) to go with the slacker-ish phrase ‘FUZZY MIT DEN LANGEN DINGEN’ (‘fuzzy with the long things’) visible near the entrance. It might accordingly seem strange to expect anything but fuzziness from Meese on the ‘long things’ of philosophy or ideology, but Roberto Ohrt’s catalogue essay nevertheless cogently positions Meese’s work in German political debate: the total right to expression pitched against postwar social ‘responsibilities’ (Ohrt notes a Tübingen court barring an anti fascist charity from displaying its logo, since it included the banned swastika). Yet the ‘Dictatorship of Art’ which Meese invokes as an aspect of his excess appears on shakier ground in Glasgow. Every written occurrence of that phrase apparently matched by a counter-assertion: ‘DIE HERRSCHAFT der Kunst ist kein DING’ (THE LORDSHIP of art is no THING); ‘ART IS NO HOLY GRAIL’; ‘Kunst ist keine religion, aber religion ist kunst’ (‘Art is not religion, but religion is art’).
The artist, then – and this is fully Meese’s gig – cuts a figure both frightening and risible, deeply serious and totally flippant, powerful and meaningless. Meese wants to have it both ways – always. And perhaps he can. Leaving the exhibition, still enthralled, I noticed a multi-part signpost, each part pointing ‘GO / GO / GO’. But where?