Dold Projects – run by Martin Dold and advised by artists Taslima Ahmed, Manuel Gnam and Benjamin Saurer – has, with its last couple of shows, morphed from a space for Ahmed, Gnam and Saurer to exhibit their own works into an interrogation of creative freedom within artist-led culture in the digital age. Located in the small town of Sankt Georgen in the Black Forest, its audience is, I suspect, largely virtual rather than physical. A recent show by Dan Mitchell and John Russell titled Black Forest Magic seemed to recapitulate a sense that Dold Projects’s unconventional location, to a significant degree, contextualizes their programming. Eager to visit this space, I was curious to answer the question: Why run a gallery in – respectfully – the middle of nowhere?
O! Eichhörnchen du bist so schön aber warum bisst du mich? (Oh! Little squirrel you are so pretty but why do you bite me?) by collaborative duo Jos de Gruyter & Harald Thys with fellow Belgian artist Stefan Vercammen demonstrated certain contextual freedoms granted by exhibition-making on the periphery. Not least because the works on display dealt perversely and darkly humorously with ‘German identity’, and the interlinking of sexual sublimation and repression, natural sentimentalism and pornographic kitsch.
In De Gruyter & Thys’s stop-motion film Triumph des Willens (2015), a crudely constructed figure with a matted, hair-covered polystyrene head sits in a non-descript room manically jerking off to an intermittent soundtrack of propagandist Horst Wessel songs, which insinuates military parades or scenes from Triumph of the Will were taking place outside. Several other characters enter and exit to peer out of a window; a figure’s awkward gesticulations could be mistaken for Nazi salutes. Perhaps this is the artists’ farcical take on Wilhelm Reich’s suggestion that Nazism was connected to sexual repression. In the film, will indeed triumphs, albeit by upending epic propaganda with an adolescent mentality. While Triumph des Willens may tend toward the mischievous and juvenile, the artists are clearly conscious of what they were exhibiting, both in terms of psychologically fraught content and geographical context (the Black Forest was notoriously an area of retreat for the Third Reich).
Vercammen’s works on the other hand provided a sordid hard edge to the duo’s cartoonish contrariness. Amongst the bulk of Vercammen’s eye- and floor-level hang were digitally redrawn prints and photo-realistic paintings of sadomasochistic and close-up sexual imagery appropriated from low resolution originals taken from the internet, made incidentally during a period of time when the artist himself was living in rural isolation. A series of small paintings, for example, depict objects inserted into vaginas, such as an action man, a Coca-Cola can and a doll. Whether from caution or contradiction, the organizers decided to cover up the large storefront window and door.
While it’s refreshing to see a show that questions values of taste, I wondered whether showing such work on the outskirts of the perceived art world (save for the nearby Grässlin Collection) was a way to sidestep accountability. Maybe it’s more a question of Dold Projects itself. While it offers an interesting alternative, or counter-model to generic ideas of the ‘off-space’ it also, in a sense, holds up a dark mirror to the routine of exhibition-making in galleries, from the susceptibility of what is shown and accepted to how they represent themselves in what can otherwise be high-stakes business. Yet again, while the subject matter in O! Eichhörnchen du bist so schön aber warum bisst du mich? is certainly worth further examination, it could be that the gallery situation in which De Gruyter & Thys and Vercammen executed such work only made their provocation too easily realizable.