On 29 October 1976 Marcel Odenbach wrapped himself in a 22-metre length of paper, a collage of drawings, texts and sketches that covered the 23-year-old from his nose to his ankles. Black and white photographs of the event show him looking like an advertising pillar with a head and feet – a dilettante version of Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet (1922) – before tearing apart his cocoon of drawings. The tatters left over by this performance, entitled Liberation from My Thoughts (1976), were picked up at the Space gallery in Wiesbaden by a collector. Thirty years later, in restored form, they are the point of departure for a show entitled ‘Caught while Escaping: Plans, 1975–1983’. The show consists mainly of the video artist’s early sketches and plans, most of which were previously unknown, as Odenbach is primarily known as one of the youngest pioneers of the 1970s’ video scene in the German-speaking world.
As an architecture student in Aachen from 1974 until 1979 (planning a PhD under the art historian Hans Holländer on travellers’ and explorers’ images of foreign countries), Odenbach ordered his thoughts with precocious artistic confidence in the form of drawings. The long strip of paper contains some of these drawings, which constitute proposals for performances, notes reminiscent of journals or letters, and pictorial elements. But they are more than just illustrations or outlines: pink lobsters and green snakes crawl over the pages, black felt-tip arrows point from one idea to the next, and there are decorations and ornaments accented by tin foil and shimmering gold leaf. Odenbach wrapped himself not in neatly designed packaging but in an endlessly flowing collage mixing awkward self-portraits and quotations from Marcel Proust in its swirls.
The show in Bremen, curated by Wulf Herzogenrath, himself a pioneer of video art, places the emphasis on Odenbach’s earliest project sketches: first outlines of performances such as MO’s fear of other people’s ideas (1976) or I think I’ve become lost unto myself because the clichés nearly destroyed me (1976–77): ‘The video camera films me from the front for around 30 minutes. I pull on a black mask to symbolize my anonymity.’ With their neat handwriting, precise outlines and freely chosen motifs, these works on paper are astonishingly unconstrained in their (hypothetical) handling of video and television technology, which three decades ago was still unwieldy and far from mature. Stacking television sets and positioning cameras with great aplomb, Odenbach’s diagrams measured camera angles, planned cuts and dictated film sequences. But only after selling 50 drawings to a Cologne collector could he buy a set of video equipment, and from 1977 on he was able to work at gallerist Ingrid Oppenheim’s studio. Consequently, many of the earlier ideas in the notebooks remained unrealized. For those familiar with Odenbach’s oeuvre, the show provides an opportunity to fill in the gaps.
These early works also demonstrate that, beside his interest in political issues such as AIDS, poverty, war and persecution, Odenbach’s work has always reflected media critique, in some cases very literally. One piece from 1976–7 is titled and television (in the conventional sense) brought us the ultimate in alienated communication – here, even criticism is simply consumed! (passive consumer attitude). In this work four drawings show a storyboard of a sofa scene almost compressed by passivity, a smoker sunk deep in the upholstery, a beer bottle on the floor, the figure set front-on to a television and a video camera.
A single large-scale video installation, Oh, how good no-one knows (1999), points to the development this young graphic artist underwent over the following decades. Apart from this, the works on paper are hung close together as a visual continuation of the long strip of Liberation from My Thoughts. Where the rows of works on paper are punctuated by monitors on plinths, the videos appear more as objects protruding from the flow than as realizations of the plans: for example, The Great Misunderstanding (1977), a performance at Art Basel, where Odenbach set up a small stage with a television on which the audience could watch a video image of itself. The artist tries a few conjuring tricks – and it’s just as well that he can play back the laughs and applause from a tape, as most of the simple tricks go wrong. He doesn’t actually present very many of them – but those he does are delivered with perfect grace and the poise of a magician.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell