In the last two decades, Stephan Bohnenberger has built shoe-box theatres for exhibitions in far-flung places like Bangalore; he has made films in India, Macedonia and Egypt; lived with nomads in the Sinai Desert; and created small bibliophile publications, most recently Hinten sein – Vorne dasein / Derrière l’être – Devant l’être-ici (Behind being – In front: being-here, 2011).
In the past, the artist often used pseudonyms. But for this exhibition Pomme de Terre (Potato), he used his real name to explore a work that is over 20 years old. Since the late 1980s, he has repeatedly laid two French fries over each other to form a cross, turning the most banal object of our fat-drenched consumer society into one of the loftiest symbols of European culture. One of these crosses was even cast in gold and shown as Pommes d’or (Golden fries) in 1990 at Galerie Mosel+Tschechow in Munich. This work reappeared here: atmospherically lit in a room of its own.
In 2005, Pommes d’or started to cause trouble. After parting ways with Mosel+Tschechow, Bohnenberger asked for the work back, but the gallery owners refused to hand it over since they had covered the production costs. The ensuing dispute lasted more than six years and was finally resolved in court, but the case became a question about who decides what is art.
At one point, the judge at the Regional Court in Munich wanted to know what happened to Bohnenberger’s original cross: the two French fries from which the golden version had been cast and which had appeared in the original exhibition. Since the gallery was unable to locate them, another legal debate followed about who was liable for the missing 22-year-old fries. Experts were consulted; reports, written. For the judge, deciding if the gallery had violated its duty to look after the work depended on yet another decision: Were the original fries a work of art? A final ruling came in the spring of 2012, but from the city’s Higher Regional Court, which took a different approach and avoided any definition of art in favour of economics. One witness’s testimony that she would have paid €2500 for the real French fries sufficed to support the artist’s claim of economic loss, so the gallery was ordered to pay damages of €2000. Some journalists found the verdict scandalous and blithely confused the ontological question regarding the fries’ status as art with the judge’s economic line of argument.
Here, Bohnenberger displayed a compilation of television news stories about the case as well as its long paper trail, including photo‑copies of 157 letters (albeit with the names of lawyers and judges redacted). The artist reproduced this legal dossier plus a fresh copy of the cross in an edition of three under the title Pomme de Terre (Potato, 2012). While reviving his golden fries, he appropriated the legal proceedings as a self-reflexive loop to address fundamental issues: What becomes art? Who decides? And, can these issues be resolved in courts? These questions raised another with a circular logic: Can one deduce that a given object is a work of art simply from someone’s willingness to buy the object? If one can make such deductions, there’s no telling what that might mean for art itself.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell