The rampant self

Franz West fought his whole life with the question of how he could achieve something by doing nothing.

Franz West, Heimo Zobernig, Herbert Brandl, Otto Zitko, Untitled, 1988.

How to make non-making truly productive? How to discover the art “behind” art, make the audience relax and utilize art, or better yet, forget that art exists? These questions pursued Franz West (d. 2012), the enfant terrible of Austrian art, throughout his life. He succeeded in answering them with a frivolous and carnivalesque art that, like Rabelais, viewed culture as a single metabolic organ, where what comes out of the body is as important as what goes in. It is no accident that many of West’s papier-mâché sculptures are made of old telephone books and seem like waste products – or the ruins of a psychotic kindergarten art in which the difference between the body’s inside and outside has long ceased to exist.

At Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, Christine Macel, curator of the 2017 Venice Biennale, has put together an exhibition with no less than 200 works by West – the artist of artists – who rejected both the pathos of Viennese Actionism and the product aesthetics of Pop art, in the end making his own tradition beyond traditions: a jovial, participatory, Arte Povera-like art. His legacy can be said to include Mike Kelley, Sarah Lucas, and Fischli & Weiss, as well as relational aesthetics and recent object-oriented art, which approximates West’s vibrant, meteor-like sculptures.

Franz West, Plakatentwurf, 2008.

Yet, in contrast to today’s object-oriented art, West constantly pondered the place of humans in the world through artworks that provoke fundamental questions about the use and meaning of art. When is art purposeful? Is it when we look at it, use it, or forget it? It is in all of these phases, I would say, especially in the latter. For if West succeeded at anything, it was dissolving the difference between art and design. People who visit museums to look at his art ultimately tend to give up and begin using his furniture sculptures to more comfortable ends.

In the entrance hall, I am greeted by an army of steel divans covered by oriental rugs and filled with reclining visitors meditating over their smartphones. It is an overcast day, the atmosphere heavy. Seeing these divans – first exhibited at Documenta 11, to create a theater without a stage – is like encountering a fossil from times past. It would have been fantastic, I thought, if a group of psychoanalysts could walk around them and capture their dreams and desires, or even find new methods of communication between people. But then I realize that my vision soon would take on Orwellian proportions. Do I want to live in a society whose institutions try to colonize the subconscious, if only for a short while? No.

I step into the first gallery that begins with a quote from West: “I always thought that the ideal is to do nothing, and still be able to make a living out of it.” Alongside it is a photograph of the young West, lying on his belly in a classic Bartleby I-would-prefer-not-to pose, which today feels worn out by recent years’ interest in de-activism as an aesthetic strategy. Then comes a series of drawings titled Mutterkunst, showing a hi-hat and men in eyeglasses, that West made as teenager and dedicated to his mother, a high bourgeois Jewish woman who was worried that her son lacked the ambition to make something of himself. Here, too, are “image-objects,” monochrome paintings, or rather, plates into which West has inserted different kinds of objects. On a white plate, which ideally should be placed on the floor, can be seen a pair of tucked-in orange sandals that invite the viewer to step into them and become one with the painting in a “micro action.” The body becomes an accessory to the artwork, or indeed, an accessory to the rampant self.

Franz West, Plural, 1995.

West’s mother worked as a dentist, which offers a possible explanation for his fascination for molds, and indeed, the whole ‘oral culture’ that his mother introduced him to as he visited her place of work and played with her instruments. Indeed, the formless, or what Bataille called l’informe, became an early obsession that led to the cult work Paßstücke (1978–1994), adjustable sculptures that the viewer can wear or dance around with to, as one critic put it in the 1970s, “develop their neurosis.” These instruction pieces, comprising white cast lumps with rough steel poles, look like tumors or sailing vessels stuck into brain tissue, and are placed against the walls of the gallery. Some look uncanny, a celebration of the unending hideousness of existence, a necessary eye wash.

On the walls hang documentation of early performances by West and his friends with these mobile sculptures. At times it looks truly strange, as when a man has a hose-formed spiral on his head, or walks down the street with a bath ring-like sculpture around his waist, and one sees the surprised passersby turn around.

Franz West, The First Paßstücke, 1978–1994.

West called these Paßstücke “portable prostheses.” And if humans are God’s prosthetic, as Freud had it, what is art if not the prosthesis of humanity? Passe refers both to prostitution and adjustment, I read in one of the exhibition texts, but I also come to think of la passe, Lacan’s term for the passage from analysand to psychoanalyst. Yet, what are West’s passages? The one from normality to madness, or the benevolent viewer’s submission before the supremacy of the performative artwork? A museum guard encourages me to use the artworks and points me to a changing booth, “if I would like to be alone with them.” I’ve never enjoyed Stalinist participation, but I find this take-part-if-you-wish-to-we-don’t-care-either-way art at least as demanding, and proceed on in the gallery with a Bartlebyan defiance, since the space of the city is where these objects would have real meaning, not here.

In the next gallery, I encounter a large cardboard piece with a glued-on spiral bas relief printed in gold leaf, like pornographic collage paintings that mock the sadomasochistic body exorcisms of Viennese Actionism. Yet, here are also more subtle paintings. Between a Roy Lichtenstein-like painting and a painting representing a man who, dressed in a tuxedo and wrapped in a white shawl, looks like a swan, a runaway ostrich in a pink landscape. And sophisticated furniture sculptures such as Psyche (1987), made for a twosome to sit together and disappear into a triple-mirror reflection. A symbol of love’s reciprocal narcissism?

Labstücke (1986), made from emptied wine bottles incorporated into vibrant papier-mâché sculptures, is reminiscent of West’s inclination for partying and falling asleep at surreal locations, such as a table at his own exhibition opening (an event he retrospectively referred to as an “unintentional performance”). West’s reeling, slightly intoxicated aesthetic appears as a perfect reproduction of subconscious language formations and cultural neurosis. At times, they fall short. But at other times, they are captured delightfully by sculptures such as Deutscher Humor (1987), a broom stuck in a nebulous mass with two holes, which alludes to customary Austrian mockery of the stuffy German who walks around with a stick up his ass.

Installation view from the Franz West-retrospective at Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.

One of the more perplexing works in the exhibition is Lemurenköpfe (2001), a pair of large, white, expressionless human heads in papier-mâché that appear as if a school child had tried to reproduce the mystical Moai statues on Easter Island. They stare straight into the air and feel completely misplaced in the white gallery, neither ugly nor appealing in their ugliness, neither vulgar nor appalling. Their close proximity, the strong lighting, the pedestal, all the exhibition mechanisms indicating that this is art, amplify the uncanny feeling. The title refers to the spirits of the dead in Roman mythology, to the passage between life and death, perhaps also between waking and dreaming – the subcurrents of consciousness and unconsciousness. Indeed, West once exhibited them together with a text referring to the Heraclitus dictum “everything flows.” The one who constantly tries to step into the same river will always fail. West loved failing, to repeat his failures and recapture himself. Any work too beautiful or perfect he would immediately destroy. He loved going his own way, but also to collaborate with those who were, like him, tearing down structures to create new ones.

The exhibition reminds us that West indeed succeeded at creating his own stream, but at the price of finally losing vitality. In the end, when resistance becomes commonplace, and the double destructive gesture has been repeated and recaptured too many times, nothing is at stake anymore. In one of the exhibited interviews, the artist says: “Criticality is dead, so why bother to hit the corpse?” If much of his art appears to function as an opiate for the masses, that tries to ward off our cultural discontentment through a passive-aggressive reproduction of the order of things, then it is at least an opiate that seems to truly lament its own lost radicality.

Installation view from the Franz West-retrospective at Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.