BY Ian Hunt in Reviews | 07 JUN 04
Featured in
Issue 84

Martin Kippenberger

BY Ian Hunt in Reviews | 07 JUN 04

It is a great advantage, when considering how to present a body of work such as Martin Kippenberger's, to ask where the ideas are. The curators of this retrospective, 'Nach Kippenberger' (After Kippenberger), straightforwardly and chronologically presented though it was, began by drawing attention to the consistency with which the artist returned to architecture: not as motif or theme but as what Eva Meyer-Hermann refers to as a 'method'. An architectural plan has the potential to become a three-dimensional reality, and this becomes a metaphor for the process of thought and production. Kippenberger's recourse to architecture, where human wishes and drives meet forceful social agreements and limits, also shows him checking his own provocative self-presentation as a personality/private enterprise, which was the first aspect of his work you noticed here. There was also an evident concern for construction with regard to meaning as much as technique.

Among the earliest works encountered were a group of sculptures employing wooden pallets (courtesy of the German state railway Deutsche Bundesbahn), stacked and shaped into the most rudimentary structures and given names such as Design for Administration Building for Rest Centre for Mothers in Gütersloh (1985). There's nothing to mediate between title and material but the power of thought, which is simultaneously revealed as stupid: thinking stubs its toes on the rough material. But the fantasy of celebrating the maternal is acclaimed by this notional architecture as something other than just wishful thinking. Fantasy emerged again in one of the show's major achievements, the presentation of Deep Throat, a complex installation made for a disused Viennese underground station in 1991. Underground, surplus space meant for public use but now locked, and a title borrowed from the film featuring Linda Lovelace, by then well into her second career as feminist: this was the kind of psychic architecture Kippenberger was interested in exploring.

Buildings, for a period in the mid-1980s when discussion with Albert Oehlen seems to have been an important influence, also featured in Kippenberger's paintings such as Monument for People Who Leave Me in Peace (1984), topped by a Communist star. These works were made in that excitingly hasty style which confused many bystanders, outside Germany at any rate, into misreading the kind of self-assertion Kippenberger practised through post-Punk days by wearing suits and his involvement in the Cologne/New York gallery axis. More intriguingly, a painting such as Profit Peaks (1985) takes three-dimensional diagrams for economic models and renders them as a mountain landscape. It doesn't explain to viewers their place in the newly mutating economic climate, but compared with the myths and burdens of history being explored by other painters in Germany it has a breezy air of Neue Sachlichkeit. Kippenberger's art was not immune to the absurdities of its time but it was capable of more than naively reflecting them or satirizing from a safe distance. Bertolt Brecht liked boxing, Charlie Chaplin, Marxism and audiences that smoked; Kippenberger (who had wanted to be an actor) liked Ford Capris and hotel stationery, painted himself as an overweight boxer and ran a significant Berlin night-club. Both Brecht and Kippenberger need to be considered as socializing the production and reception of art, albeit in very different times.

Ultimately architecture of a kind emerged in Kippenberger's imaginary metro network, known only by its entrances. But there's a messier theme of 'home' too, which the perennially nomadic artist was able to examine with surprising delicacy. The early pallet sculpture honouring mothers is answered by the kindergarten spirit of a later installation, Don't Wake Daddy (1994), derived from a card game whose pleasures apparently lie in 'satisfying minor desires under the threat of punishment'. Ten sound sources (a kicked dog bowl, a stereo etc.) were carved as wooden plaques by a Tyrolean woodcarver and brightly painted. In front of each was a small fenced-off area, referencing allotments (in German Schrebergarten, named after the father of Freud's patient, Schreber). It's like walking, not just into unavoidable referentiality but into a space where art is too respectfully observing decorum, keeping out of your way. Kippenberger's work often has the effect of an acted-out 'Sssshhh!' loudly drawing attention to the prevailing assumption of silence.

But about that unavoidable referentiality: while much art, then and now, trades on mystery, Kippenberger made flagrant use of references and in-jokes. These dramatize the viewer's ability to cross from outsider to insider status, and draw attention to the whole social process of collaboration in making art and in interpreting it. Although always in the presence of well-judged sensual and communicative excess, you went round this show perforce consulting the excellent catalogue to get the now historical gossip about what you were looking at. Kippenberger's strategy here upsets the bourgeois illusion that we are all meant effortlessly to know what art is about. Though somehow, despite the fact that the jokes are funny, he couldn't quite knock the figure of the artist into place. So devoted to jokes at his own expense was he that the viewer is permitted some doubt about their relative weight in our image of him - a puzzle that remains for the current generation of artists who flocked to see this show.