BY James Trainor in Frieze | 04 APR 02
Featured in
Issue 66

Poisoned arrow

Christian Jankowski

BY James Trainor in Frieze | 04 APR 02

Unlike the housewives and pensioners browsing in the aisles, he was armed - with a longbow and a quiver of arrows. The young man seemed determined to obtain his food the old-fashioned way, but instead of hunting stags or wild boar he appeared quite resigned to bringing down less elusive quarry, such as an unsuspecting six-pack of yoghurt, a frozen chicken and a harmless box of washing powder. Prosaically shooting his way from aisle to aisle, the hunter-gatherer proceeded without swagger or bravado, dutifully pushing his shopping trolley to the checkout, where the transaction was completed.

So began the low-key adventures of Christian Jankowski, whose disarmingly gentle and surreptitious approach is based on the idea that art and humour are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Pursued with the slapstick spontaneity and matter-of-fact economy of a prankish home movie, Die Jagd (The Hunt) was actually a performance documented by a friend with a cheap video camera; it was all over in less than a minute, with no preamble or explanation. But it amounted to a calling card, introducing key aspects of Jankowski's subsequent art: a regard for process over finished product; a dependence on the unpredictable participation of others, specifically non-artists and amateurs (he enlists the unwitting shoppers and cashiers) within scripted or improvised situations; a fascination with types of exchange (economic, linguistic, visual) and role reversals (budding young professional artist or dilettantish sportsman?); and, above all, a comfortable ease in making gesture, play and humour vital to his art.

Seeing art as a way of tactfully transforming problematic liabilities into creative assets, Jankowski usually starts with real-life social situations, sometimes planned by him and sometimes brought about by circumstances beyond his control. One such 'circumstance' is being invited to participate in exhibitions. Jankowski's acute awareness of his double-edged predicament as an artist - weighed down by the need to make something on demand out of nothing, but thriving on precisely that challenge - often generates a form of performance anxiety that is alleviated only by a process of collaboration and consultation. When faced, for instance, with the task of coming up with a viable concept for the 48th Venice Biennale, he called up five live cable-TV fortune tellers from the comfort of his hotel room and asked them to predict the worth and potential success of an artistic idea he was developing. Unaware that the idea in progress was precisely that of ringing up the fortune tellers, the glitzy soothsayers unanimously prognosticated originality, critical appeal and fame. Their televised divinations steadily gave shape to a work that - like a self-fulfilling prophecy - was realized through a positive feedback loop of artistic success, born out of creative doubt and uncertainty. Jankowski taped each prediction off the TV in his room and exhibited them unedited under the title Telemistica (1999).

Such productive exchanges with strangers (he has also 'collaborated' closely with an Austrian psychotherapist and a Texas televangelist) need not always assume an overtly biographical or interrogatory structure. Just as often Jankowski allows others to enact scenarios that play with the humorous instability and artificiality of language and communication. In 1997 he found himself in Stockholm, once again in search of an idea, this time for an exhibition at Art Node. There he employed several young, inexperienced Swedish actors to play couples in a series of intimate conversational sketches shot on video. In each short scene, named after a day of the week and staged in sparse surroundings, a different couple would express their mutual love and yearning in a halting, disjointed and at times inscrutable fashion that seemed to parody the mannered cinematic existentialism of an obscure Ingmar Bergman flick. Only gradually does the viewer come to realize that the script these actors are doggedly interpreting is actually a transcript of the daily Internet chats between Jankowski and his girlfriend, separated at the time by the demands of their respective professions. Previously baffling cryptic references to abrupt disconnections, forgotten passwords and the frustrating inability really to 'see' or 'talk' to one another - hitherto construed as vaguely metaphorical and profound - are now revealed as genuinely mundane. The viewer has the sudden giddy sensation of watching words quickly jettison one set of meanings for another.

At one point a computer glitch causes his girlfriend's messages to be repeatedly and randomly resent, an intrusive software error that triggers not only interpersonal misunderstandings but also some woefully impossible acting challenges. Generated directly out of the artist's real sense of isolation, the work becomes a jury-rigged bit of subsidized wish-fulfilment, a physical incarnation of what had become a digital relationship. Appropriately, Jankowski used the Internet to hire his amateur thespians and to purchase their rudimentary props. However, when the sweet virtual nothings of the chat room are faithfully transcribed into concrete texts and recapitulated by others, the original transparency of that specialized language of long-distance, time-lagged intimacy is rendered opaque through actual physical proximity. Just as the act of memory alters and distorts the image of past events with each repeated recollection, so the layers of Jankowski's personal soap opera have more to do with faulty representation than the reconstitution of reality. He and his love have been immortalized, but their words have ceased to belong exclusively to them.

In a sense Jankowski is simply acting out a common daydream, the desire to play casting director of a film version of one's own life, selecting appropriate actors as stand-ins for friends, family and colleagues. In The Matrix Effect (2000), produced for the Wadsworth Athenaeum's 'Matrix' exhibition programme, Jankowski hijacked this basic fantasy and inverted it, staging a fictional 25th anniversary reunion of past 'Matrix' participants and casting children to play the parts of real-life art world figures. Mischievously replacing art stars with complete unknowns and substituting underage amateurs from one field for grown-up professionals in another, the incongruous scenario none the less has a factual basis, since the 'script' was taken from interviews between curator Andrea Miller-Keller and ten artists, including Sol LeWitt, John Baldessari and Adrian Piper. Aping the formulaic visuals of art education films, the video is
narrated by a perky ten-year-old version of Miller-Keller, who meets and greets various half-pint surrogates in a conversational tour of the museum's galleries. The deliberately stilted presentation is countered by the cheerful and comically awkward quality of the acting. While some kids forget their lines, giggle uncertainly or blithely mispronounce words ('critics' becomes 'critters'), such fumbles merely open up new levels of meaning and augment a candid emotional freshness that runs against the grain of our expectations. The mini Glenn Ligon, for example, may not actually understand everything he is saying (he trips over nasty tongue-twisters such as 'site-specificity' buried within a potential minefield of artspeak), but the wide-eyed enthusiasm of his delivery is enough to convince even the most jaded viewer of the simple joys still possible in thinking and talking about art.

This is the art world as envisioned by a precocious elementary school drama club or by Peanuts; neither cloyingly cute nor ironically glib, it reintroduces an element of capricious, unalloyed happiness into a milieu that rarely expects such innocent pleasures. Like the filmmaker Wes Anderson, whose view of the world of grown-up success is also simultaneously naive and knowing, Jankowski relishes truth via amateurism, and the possibilities of revelation through a process of redemptive failure. His brand of institutional critique neatly sidesteps cynicism, playfully unravelling the unconsciously 'scripted' discourses of artists and curators who, like any professionals, are judged by how well they play their roles.

Jankowski has been on both sides of such role switching, having had the rare opportunity to see his own life as an artist absorbed and reinterpreted as a major motion picture. In 1997 Lars Kraume approached him about making a film featuring a character based on his earliest work, The Hunt. The resulting romantic comedy, Viktor Vogel: Commercial Man (2001), about a young female video artist whose hotshot adman boyfriend steals her ideas and jazzes them up for his vapidly hip car commercials, purported to expose the exploitation of art by the mass entertainment industry. Recognizing that he himself was to be commercially exploited, Jankowski agreed, on one condition: that he was allowed to make his own short film within Kraume's, using the same people involved in Kraume's production.

During the filming Jankowski would occasionally stop the flow of scripted action and ask different characters questions about art: 'what value does art have?', 'what is the role of humour in art?' and so on. The actors reacted in their own words, their unscripted and unrehearsed answers seamlessly edited into the actual scene being filmed. These five scenes, joined together as short vignettes, became Jankowski's counter-production, Rosa (2001). The intervention proved illuminating because, when pressed, the actors (as fellow artists trying to survive within the cultural market place) offered views on the importance of art and its relationship to life that were frequently more idiosyncratic, sophisticated and nuanced than those expressed in the film by the characters they played. The film's clichéd portrayal of the role of the artist, exemplified by its MTV-like re-enactment of Jankowski's original supermarket hunt (the artist/hunter becomes a spunky, fun-loving nymph) and again by the ludicrously sexed-up version of the same event in the fake TV advert within the movie (leatherette fashion model/huntress with multi-pronged aluminium bow), only serves to help Jankowski make his point.

The double helix of mutual expropriation recalls a game once played by the novelist Paul Auster and the Conceptual artist Sophie Calle, who, surprised to discover herself and her work fictionalized in Auster's novel Leviathan (1992), went on to produce new works in character as her literary double, and even went as far as to ask the author to write more scenarios for her to enact in real life. For Jankowski such breezily open-ended, transformative exchanges continue to be the means justifying his ends. With a lightness of touch not to be mistaken for a slightness of purpose, his understated aim may be simply to redistribute more fairly the burdens and benefits of making art.

James Trainor was US editor of frieze between 2004–07