BY Benjamin Carlson in Reviews | 12 MAR 09
Featured in
Issue 121

Lutz Bacher

Contemporary Art Museum St Louis, USA

BY Benjamin Carlson in Reviews | 12 MAR 09

Lutz Bacher, Spill, 2008, Transparency of found photograph with unknown substance, 59 x 91 inches, As installed at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. Courtesy: the artist and Taxter & Spengemann, New York. Photo: Richard Sprengeler.

Lutz Bacher is described time and again as a Conceptualist, but to do so is to misread her found, often physically distressed, image-texts. By attributing a critical motive to Bacher’s idio-syncratic appropriation of outré pin-ups, cultish science fiction and bawdy jokes, commentators have attempted to rein in the wild ambiguity of her work. Yet Bacher’s caustic gestures are never so naive as simply to illustrate an idea. Rather than explain away this difficulty, we should relate it to Marcel Duchamp’s description of the readymade as a catalytic form in which the viewer ‘can go into any field or any form of imagination and association of ideas he wants, depending on his own reactions’. For her first solo museum exhibition Bacher pressed the point by shuffling together several disparate series of works in a rotating retrospective choreographed to a backdrop of photocopied stills from the films of Guy Debord. Like the coincidental synchronicity of The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (1973), this haze of references required a certain suspension of disbelief to be fully appreciated.

‘Spill’ centred on Bacher’s own yellow brick road, a wooden ramp entitled Reflex Yellow (2008), which alluded formally to St Louis’ main tourist attraction, the Gateway Arch. Along the path, life-size cardboard stand-ins for three Star Trek characters greeted visitors with absurdly plain biographical sketches written at their feet. A nearby wall was covered by Please (2008), a collection of Chinese–English translations for common Beijing taxi-cab requests (‘Please drive me to the Forbidden City’, ‘Please drive me to the Temple of Heaven’, ‘Please drive me to the airport’). These popular imaginings of the exotic rubbed against each other to mundanely other-worldly effect. Fragments of a shattered guitar, remnants of an opening night performance and an abstractly pixelated new video provided further disorienting ambience.

In this cross-pollinated environment older works previously shown in isolated groups prodded provocatively at each other. ‘The man doesn’t have enough sense to pour piss out of a boot with the instructions written on the heel’, Lyndon B. Johnson complains, an alleged jab at John F. Kennedy, in a photo-collage from ‘Jokes’ (1985–8). Nearby, one of the paintings from Bacher’s ‘Playboys’ (1991–3) paired a mannered and ungainly nude by the gentlemen’s magazine illustrator Alberto Vargas with an inane sexual pun: ‘Of course, there are certain kinds of inflation that I don’t mind at all.’ The thinly veiled ugliness of these fragments of mass culture became a strange source of mystery. The sense of unreality was heightened by ‘Bien Hoa’ (2006–7), a set of photographs taken by an American soldier in Vietnam and found by Bacher years later in a Bay Area thrift store. Displayed alongside re-photographed enlargements, each original print was flipped over to reveal the handwritten note scrawled on its back. These private messages, presumably intended for the photographer’s fiancée back home, skirted the obvious to address seemingly irrelevant technical and aesthetic concerns: on the back of an image depicting the remains of a downed helicopter, the photographer wrote, ‘I think this also a good picture.’ The delusional optimism was matched only by ‘Gap’ (2003–6), smiling portraits cropped from advertisements for the much-maligned clothing company. Together these pieces formed one hallucinatory Gesamtkunstwerk, titled Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart (2008), which certainly rivalled the fury of Debord’s own film mash-ups.

Estranging us from the all-too-familiar, the exhibition was less a critique than an exorcism. Like a medium, Bacher channelled the disembodied voices of an American spirit. Inspired by the Anheuser-Busch headquarters in St Louis, she created Club Bud (2008), a site-specific installation of Budweiser and Bud Light named after a temporary nightclub that the company operated in Beijing as part of their Olympic sponsorship. Constructed by stacking cases of the watery brew head-high, the red, white and blue anti-monument conjured images of mental impairment, sexual dysfunction and stubborn belligerence. The work was echoed by Crash (2008), a large-scale mural print of two cracked-up cars installed on the museum’s façade. As in other works, everyday grotesqueries became alien and outlandish. Fittingly, Bacher borrowed the audio from Bruce Nauman’s seminal Get Out of My Mind, Get Out of This Room (1968) as a mantra for the exhibition.