Since the 1980s, Stephan Dillemuth has investigated the terms under which ‘artists’ exist, do, and do nothing in society. What has emerged is itself a practice that spans manifesto-writing, a historicization of life-reform and bohemian movements; teaching, object-making, painting and a Deleuze-inspired website, alongside collaboratively and self-organised activities. Dillemuth’s art has gained currency for showing how notions of an ‘artistic life’ have wandered out of and in to capitalism’s control and valuation structures, and how the ‘creative lifestyle’ has been co-opted by mainstreaming mechanisms – an adoption for which art is still partly culpable.
‘Retrospective’ is one such term under investigation, and ‘Sound and Smoke: A Revue in Pictures’ pairs recent, occasionally gimmicky works of animatronics, sculptural bodily figuration and installation with mirror and plexi works from the 1980s. It’s a droll, bizarre exercise in memory as self-abjection, reflection and vaporization, with some embarrassment thrown in – take the title of the skeletal, plaster and lamp sculpture Bebop, To Make Shame More Shameful by Making it Public (2017). Outside, an audio work, Birdsong at the Turn of the Century (1998), converts the names of numerous figures from Cologne’s faded art scene into birdsongs. ‘Making it public’, here, is tantamount to seeing it go up in smoke.
Looming silently, sphinx-like, in the main hall, are two oversized, black-and-white clocks displaying times between 3:30 and 4:30 (Viel Spaß mit Zeit, Have Fun with Time, 2017) – according to Dillemuth’s artist friends, the most boring hour of their day. On a stage-like platform, mechanical sculptures rotate on hand-built, rudimentary robotics; on a gridded, mirrored floor, desiccated deer limbs and cow ears are bound with white cog sculptures (Critters&Creatures, 2016-17). A tangle of purple-and-white organs titled The Pleasures of Now (2016) floats above. If you stand at a right angle, they form a body, jutted in space: a three-dimensional anamorphosis adhering the artistic corpus (or body of works) to the artist’s own body.
The ‘cogs’ cast artistic work as mechanised, fungible labour; they also resemble courtly frilled collars. So it makes sense that, in the next room, the 45-part gallery of ‘Schönheiten’ (Beauties, 1985) are painted after King Ludwig I of Bavaria’s ‘gallery of beauties’ in Munich’s Nymphenburg Palace. Ludwig I believed that ‘beauty’ was an ecumenical, classless notion reflecting inward, moral purity, and commissioned portraits of women from all social classes, including a shoemaker’s daughter. Here they allude to the contradictory nature of bohemian artistic lives: a courtly class apart from society, but beholden to the forms of power that sustain them.
What of the old bohemians? In the back room, an acid-house remix of Frankie Knuckles’s ‘Can You Feel It’ (1986) soundtracks a video depicting an opening of yesteryear (Happy Hours, 1988). A spinning goat sculpture incorporates live CCTV footage of both space and viewer (Ziegenkarusell, Goat Carousel, 2012–2017), rendering the retrospective convention of the ‘survey’ into a form of self-surveillance. A wheeled, colour-activated robot – Dillemuth’s head on a plinth, bones protruding – wanders through the exhibition, observing its maker’s early collages. It’s a self-portrait of the artist as an orchestrator of his own automaticity – out of joint and out of shape, curiously observing his lost, or wasted, time.
The value of this show lies in such friction: bohemia’s proximity to institutions of power, and uneasy retrospection at an ‘alternative life’. As in capitalism, the artist is turned into an orchestrator of his own dispossession, zombification and exploitation. The result is a sensitive, uneven oeuvre summoning a life spent investigating and questioning itself. That such an art escapes the strictness of the terms placed upon it by its makers and showers is a testament to its strength. Through the cold, blue eyes of an animatronic puppet, it lives on.
Main image: Stephan Dillemuth, ‘Sound and Smoke – a Revue in Pictures’, 2017, installation view, Künstlerhaus, Halle für Kunst & Medien, Graz