Maria Eichhorn’s work can come across like the person at a dinner party who, regardless of the attendant social balancing acts and middle-class nodding, says something in a loud, strong, dry voice; something that has been bugging her. It might seem inappropriate in the moment, but there is nearly always a point to what she says. In her most recent solo exhibition, this was once again the case, but to really drive the issues home, Eichhorn also used the device of rhetorical reiteration: the show consisted entirely of works previously made for unrelated, far-flung occasions and contexts since 2001. Was the show intended to invoke artistic introspection? Or was it simply the case that the works deserved another airing for her hometown audience? Whatever the rationale, an interesting thing happened as a result: the traditional flow of ideas and works from the hothouse of an established commercial gallery to the outside world and its plethora of institutions and biennials was reversed.
Take von 12,37 bis 36,08 = 24,94 von 100% (From 12,37 to 36,08 = 24,94 from 100%, 2007), produced for the Steirischer Herbst festival in Graz, which consists of a bookshop display table in the form of a Venus symbol, and the artist’s thick publication listing all of the festival’s female participants, from the event’s inception in 1968 until 2007. The percentages referred to in the title indicate, respectively, the ratio of women participants in the first and last years, and the average percentage overall. Whatever one may think of gender quotas, the facts give weight to the idea that, even in what’s considered to be one of the most progressive contexts for contemporary art, the most basic feminist goals of equal representation for women have not been achieved. Eichhorn employed women from ‘feminist backgrounds’ to work at her bookshop and they received the proceeds from the sales. In its gallery incarnation, the women weren’t present however, and viewers couldn’t touch the displayed books, although copies could be purchased from the gallery desk. This seemed a strange move, removing the relational aspect and turning the work into a formal, information-orientated piece. The table made of plywood looked good, as did the books lined up with incredible precision like dominos, a marching band or a chorus line. But somehow, coming to the table for a good chat would have also been nice.
Joint Account No. 1711601, Bank of Fukuoka, Yahata Branch 411 (2001) compounded this sense that the works on display had the status of after-the-fact evidence. This project was originally conceived and realized for the duration of the first Yokohama Triennial. Eichhorn arranged for her production budget to be deposited into an open-access bank account, which literally anyone could make deposits into or withdrawals from at will. Of course, you had to know about it, for instance by taking an information sheet displayed in Yokohama. The work, as explained in an extensive dossier accompanying this new exhibition that gives the background to all of the works, was intended to demonstrate ‘the idea of people acting for the common good, with each participant being equally responsible’. In the show, the piece was reduced to a savings account passbook lying in a brick-sized hole cut into the gallery wall, behind glass. Perhaps, by implication, the Utopian moment the work created is also now unreachable.
The best work in the exhibition concerned censorship and the arbitrary exercising of power. Prohibited Imports (2003), the only piece made originally for a gallery setting, consists of a wood-framed glass vitrine filled with books. On top of these volumes lie two copies of Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1992 monograph opened at the same page. One of these twin photographs of Patrice, N.Y.C. (1977), depicting a man’s groin, was defaced with sandpaper by Japanese censors to remove part of the penis. Eichhorn had posted all of the books contained in the vitrine to a Japanese address knowing that they might be subject to censorship. The other books, which included Douglas Crimp’s AIDS: Cultural Analysis / Cultural Activism (1988) and a biography of Jodie Foster – presumably included in the selection not necessarily to court the censor but to make a point about queer intertexuality, and the power of words versus image and a queer intertexuality– were left unscathed. Oddly, the anonymous censor’s careful handiwork has something appealing about it; the mark looks like a white cloud hovering over the image, rather than inscribed on it. It is this that gives the work a strange, personalized extra layer of subtlety.
Eichhorn’s hard-nosed and enduring critique of art institutions, and of financial, legal and administrative frameworks, is testimony to the fact that, even when she repeats herself firmly, the art-world powers that be will still keep inviting her to participate in their events, and that, while she won’t necessarily have an easy time, they definitely need to be exposed to voices like hers.