BY Gregory Williams in Reviews | 09 SEP 98
Featured in
Issue 42

Manfred Pernice

BY Gregory Williams in Reviews | 09 SEP 98

In order to keep pace with the ever-expanding network of international biennials and art fairs, artists increasingly have to function as globe-trotting polyglots. While we recognise the impossibility of achieving universal communication, the pressure to produce work that remains comprehensible as it travels from Johannesburg to Kwangju cannot be ignored. German artist Manfred Pernice has adjusted his practice to meet the requirements of participating in this scattered conversation, leading him to form brief, tenuous attachments to disparate locations.

Pernice's first solo show in New York demonstrated his finesse in terms of working in an idiom that lends itself to a nomadic existence. It is fitting that the exhibition concept germinated while he was on an artists' residency programme in Bremerhaven, Germany, as such programmes play a strong role in compelling artists to adapt quickly to new surroundings. Basing his project on some newspaper articles he'd come across during his stay in Bremerhaven, the items on display here traced the migration of his ideas to New York.

Pernice did not devote too much energy to presentation: the room in which he set up camp for the show resembled the provisional state of an artist's studio. Local news dailies from Bremerhaven described the extension of the cruise ship, Windward, through the insertion of a pre-built middle section ­ 'ein Meisterstück des Schiffbaus'. The clippings were loosely mounted on paper and pinned to the walls of one gallery. He annotated the texts and reproductions in his rather illegible handwriting, augmented by sketches derived from details of the ship's alteration. Through the drawings he tried to work out the structure of the portable bathroom units that had been lowered by crane into the body of the vessel.

Apparently intrigued by this feat of engineering, Pernice built his own addition into the short corridor that separates the two exhibition rooms from the gallery office. The crude construction, made of sheets of particle board painted grey and mustard, was a distant relative of the bath units seen in the newspaper photos. Instead of tiles and sinks, however, several small photos and reproductions ­ from past shows at Kern, a ship at sea, a Kippenberger drawing in the apartment of a staff member ­ adorned the walls like a traveller's snapshots. Time was tightly condensed in this passageway, through the intermixing of recent history and current interests.

Pernice's disruption of the gallery architecture ­ to see the attendant, one had either to stand on one's toes or duck down low ­ was as short-lived as his physical presence in New York. His intervention did not carry the sense of permanent and dynamic change involved in the cuttings of Gordon Matta-Clark, with whom Pernice is often compared. Although both artists draw attention to transitional and overlooked spaces, Matta-Clark's projects typically reflect a conscious recognition of the particular characteristics of the site at hand. Pernice's relationship to his short­term surroundings is more like that of an out-of-town guest: he briefly makes his mark by presenting 'souvenirs' from his most recent port of call.

This is not to say that Pernice neglects his host. The second gallery, which contained photos taken on board the Staten Island Ferry, brought the show firmly into the present by providing a local maritime reference. Though the connections were superficial, he had managed to initiate a dialogue between his Bremerhaven and New York projects. Attempting to follow the route of Pernice's peripatetic method, one encountered a highly detached treatment of place. The Kern exhibition, while providing an artworld context in which Pernice could explore notions of a fluctuating type of space, was finally subservient to his deeper interest in the customs that operate in the world beyond the gallery. He seeks out internationally recognised forms of activity (shipping, in this case) and establishes links between distant realms by identifying and highlighting visual correspondences.

This precarious, transitory bond to a site leads to the paradox at the heart of such a practice: the better an artist 'speaks' in these global terms ­ the more adept he becomes at manipulating widely accessible signs ­ the less a part of any given locality he can claim to be. As he accumulates experiences and impressions, Pernice can produce work that insinuates itself into any given environment. The question remains whether each local audience will react co-operatively to his invitation to retrace his footsteps. Although it is possible that the viewer will feel too removed from Pernice's itinerary to comprehend its fleeting ties to far-flung places, perhaps it is just this sense of loose affiliation that defines today's common visual currency.