Featured in
Issue 209

Marie Karlberg Parodies the Social Conditions of Art’s Production

The artist’s show at Tramps, New York, asks if we’re too eager for young artists to self-destruct

BY Rainer Diana Hamilton in Reviews | 23 JAN 20

In Marie Karlberg’s The Dinner (all works 2019 unless otherwise stated) – one of seven films included in ‘Illusion and Reality’ – you watch a low-budget parody of a celebratory post-show dinner: the guests sit around a makeshift table, sharing snacks, expressing disdain for an unexpected attendee, and asking clichéd questions about ‘the commodity form’. The art itself, of course, is not represented. The artist, Antoine, repeatedly mentions nearly dying while making ‘the work I put my blood and sweat and tears into’. Friends reassure them that the risk was worth it. The film wryly suggests that we are all too eager for young artists to self-destruct. 

Karlberg invited seven artists and art workers to act out scenes that draw on their own experiences with the social conditions of art’s production. In The Artist Installing, the drama hinges on the impending arrival of a critic before the show is ready; the featured works hang in the room where the film plays – six letter-sized paintings of words like ‘death’ (What Does It Mean to Be Human) or ‘brain gone’ (What Does the Soul Desire), reminiscent of black-light posters. In The Artist in Her Studio, Cajsa von Zeipel plays an artist shaping a Styrofoam replica of her assistant’s butt, driving a knife into the sculpture while its real-life model coos that she’s honoured to be her subject. As the protagonist complains that other artists are appropriating her work, you are reminded of the ass imprints on Karlberg’s We’re All Equal Under the Laws of Exchange 1

Marie Karlberg, ‘Illusion & Reality’, 2019, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and TRAMPS; photograph: Mark Woods

‘Illusion and Reality’ is stubbornly ironic. Take Karlberg’s print of the stencilled word ‘assassin’, its Christopher Wool-inspired enjambment breaking down to ASS/ASS/IN: yes, she is ‘commenting’ on the demand that the woman artist’s body become an art object and questioning where the life of an artist ends and art begins, but she is also making fun of the demand for work that asks these questions. 

On 12 January, Karlberg performed Limited Moves, which is also the title of the ventilated plexiglass box (2016) in which she is trapped. With Perrier, sparkling wine, a champagne glass, hairbrush, make-up, cigarettes and ashtray by her feet, she lip-syncs to a recording of a man’s voice, narrating an invitation to perform or DJ at an upcoming event. She pushes against the walls, like a magician demonstrating the difficulty of escape. For the next hour, Karlberg alternates between mouthing along to the recording and her responses – often asking for clarification about the fee (there is none) – and a series of constrained motions: she applies make-up, sips water only to spit it out through the holes, smokes and exhales, sways, brushes her hair. 

Marie Karlberg, ‘Illusion & Reality’, 2019, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and TRAMPS; photograph: Mark Woods

When one email ends, she smashes her face against the box and slides down. The proper nouns are bleeped out, implying that the galleries’ and curators’ names are profanities. The performance takes place in a room of works, ‘My Reflection as a Pile’, comprising four smaller plexiglass cases containing elements from the artist’s life; these are also ventilated, as if Karlberg’s clothes, ceramic pig and the ashtrays inlaid with her image also need to breathe. Perhaps the performed exhaustion is aimed at the demand for more critique: the final recording in Limited Moves references an earlier piece in which Karlberg ‘reads emails from nasty curators who don’t want to pay you’. This segues into an acknowledgement of their own lack of budget. 

Regardless, Karlberg is ready to perform being ‘put together’ as soon as the soundtrack requires it. Five portraits of the artist, identical but for the placement of her autograph (‘Signature Art’), hang in another room. Her expression is defiant; in one work, ‘Marie Karlberg 2019’ appears over her abdomen, as if reinforcing the defensive posture of her crossed arms. Karlberg’s work complies with requests for the artist’s self-presentation, but it also raises an eyebrow at that desire.   

Main image: Marie Karlberg, 'Illusion & Reality', 2019, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and TRAMPS; photograph: Mark Woods

Rainer Diana Hamilton is the author of God Was Right (2018) and The Awful Truth (2017).