March 30, 2009

Via Lewandowsky's Frozen Limbs Break Easily at LACMA

Via Lewandowsky, Gefrorene Glieder brechen leicht, 1988
Berka (acrylic) on Canvas (on wood) at LACMA
I've been posting on the Art of Two Germanys; here's my first take on the show's narrative, here on Sibylle Bergemann's photography and political art, here on Hans Haacke's conversation at REDCAT, and here on Robert Storr's re-contextualization.

I'd like to go back and walk through the show counterclockwise. There's so much to see, and I feel like the later work gets short shrift from close-consideration-of-art fatigue. In one way, the show is like watching watching the movie Bonnie and Clyde, and leaving the theater five minutes before the end. You know the climactic ending (and the characters don't) yet when you walk out of that last gallery, you're immediate thoughts aren't of the art you've just seen, but the missing historical frame: the fall of the wall and it's repercussions for the two Germanys. Likewise, the opening frame--World War II--is only hinted at, with video of the bombing of Dresden in the exhibition's vestibule.

Gerhard Richter's November (l) and Isa Genzkin's Door (r)
In 2G's final room we see Isa Genzken's 1988 Tür (Door), which will be replaced by 1987's Saal (Room) for the German iterations of the show. Nearby is Gerhard Richter's abstract diptych November, from 1989, one from a set of three works which includes December and January. Looking at these twenty year-old works from the omniscient present, we can attribute foreshadowing by making associations to the Berlin Wall's imminent demise. Genzkin's concrete architectural casts are poured then chipped at, calling to mind the Wall's history of construction then destruction. Richter's mottled grey surface can be seen as a representation of the same, and the work's title and date (November, 1989) evokes the Wall's collapse on November 9th of that year.

The problem with these readings is that they confabulate a context. Genzken had a history of referencing architecture in her sculptures, with formal concerns that could been read along the same lines as Rachel Whiteread. Richter's large trio of canvases affect the bleakness of the months for which their named. Richter's suite was completed for a show that opened in October in The Netherlands. Interestingly in a 1991 interview for the St Louis Museum of Art, Richter misstates that he began the series in October, which can also be seen as a bit of prescient myth-making on the part of the artist.

In reality, we all live our lives with noses pressed against the opaque wall of the historical present.

As part of the Autoperforationists, Via Lewandowsky created the armature for the work that bookends this post, Frozen Limbs Break Easily. In the documentation of their proto-punk performances on view at LACMA, the armature with its basket of cobblestones can be seen in the background. During a panel discussion at LACMA, Via described the process of making the final work on view. It took several years for him to come up with he image on the fist side, an amalgam of old German woodcuts. The Janus figure combined with two sets of legs (one bound) can be seen as a reference to the bifurcated Germany--and the restrictions on expression in the East. In this context, can the spear point on the left of the canvas be read as the occupying forces (both in the East and West) holding the Frankenstein monster they've created at bay?

In 1989 Via was invited to perform in West Berlin. Lewandowski was able to get an exit visa, most likely because the GDR in the 80's was encouraging the more vocal dissenters of communism to leave. All the same, emigration from East to West was no easy task. While the Berlin Wall was in place, close to two hundred people died trying to get across. Lewandowsky could not tell his friends of his plans not to return; he only left with what he needed for the performance and to spend a few days in West Berlin. Because he wanted to bring this work with him, the wood panels that the image was made on were hidden in the construction of the crate to ship the armature--ostensibly to be used for his performance. Afterward Lewandowsky reassembled the work and painted the glove and gauntlet on the other side (pictured below); it was a gesture of "waving good-bye" to his friends in the East he would never see again.

Before the paint could dry, the wall fell, obviating his risky escape. In retrospect it could be said that frozen limbs thaw easily too.

Via Lewandowsky's Frozen Limbs Break Easily (1989 verso)
After the Art of Two Germanys - Cold War Cultures ends April 19th, 2009 at LACMA, the show will visit Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg (GNM) May 23 to Septerber 6, 2009 and Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin (DHM) October 2, 2009 through January 10, 2010. After that, Frozen Limbs Break Easily will return to the remodeled Staatlichen Kunstsammlungen, Dresden.

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