by Vidur SethiFeb 15, 2022
Isa Genzken is arguably one of the most important and influential contemporary artists. Few others, in Germany or elsewhere, can't look back as Genzken at three Documenta participations and five inclusions at the Venice Art Biennale, where she also represented Germany in 2007. Urban landscapes, and especially the city of Berlin, play a central role in Genzken’s work. Not only has the German capital been her chosen home for decades, but the city’s ugly beauty and self-devouring spirit are reflected in both Genzken’s oeuvre and her way of life. Other metropolises have already celebrated Genzken with expansive surveys, especially her beloved New York City, whose vibrancy and chaos but also the post 9/11 devastation are at the core of so many of her most important artworks. Take for example, her skyscraper-like sculptures, which featured prominently in her retrospective at the MoMA in 2013.
Now, on the occasion of Genzken’s upcoming 75th birthday in November, Berlin‘s Neue Nationalgalerie is dedicating its entire street-level space to a chronological survey of 75 artworks from all of Genzken’s major work groups, simply titled 75. According to Klaus Biesenbach, who was appointed director of the Neue Nationalgalerie in September 2021, one of the first things on his agenda when he took the reins was to do whatever it took to make sure this show would happen. (The fact that one of Genzken’s most dedicated collectors, Erika Hoffmann, is based in Berlin, as are two of her German galleries, surely made things easier to organise despite the relatively short preparation time.) Biesenbach added that it had always been Genzken’s dream to show her work in the museum’s iconic modernist glass structure, designed by Mies van der Rohe. In the year of her 75th birthday, amid whispers of the German artist’s declining health, this wish has at long last been granted.
Together with curator Lisa Botti, Biesenbach has opted to stage the 75 artworks in a grid-like timeline, the floor pattern thus resembling an overcrowded chessboard. This arrangement allows viewers to move freely around the sculptures and assemblages, view them from all directions and angles, discover connections, perspectives, and—a signature of Genzken’s—awkwardly placed details within her already detailed pieces. These translate less as jest and rather as the artist’s amazing faculty to foreground potential over ruin.
Viewers will surely—as I found myself doing as I realised I have already seen everything but couldn’t yet bring myself to leave—just wander about in this strange and magical cityscape, engrossed in Genzken’s observation about the everyday life stuff, of being a part of a hyper-connected post-globalisation consumer society; of being, as it were, very much “on the grid.”
Since no partitions have been set up inside the space, one sees everything all at once, including the buildings around the museum. Berlin’s mishmash architecture, its short-sighted urban planning, its cultural treasures and many scars all seep into the space through the glass, creating formal and associative connections between the artworks and messy life outside the museum’s controlled environment. “If you consider the tension between the inside and outside, between the monumental and the intimate (in her work) or the fact that she often says ‘everyone needs a window of some sort’—and the Mies van der Rohe building is exactly that, one huge window—it becomes a congenial exhibition dealing with modernism, architecture, but also with bodies,” says Biesenbach.
One can’t talk of Genzken’s work without speaking of the bodies and scale. The human body and its proportions are always present in Genzken’s work, as are her thoughts on the built environment and the ways in which it impacts one’s perception and, as a result, their ambitions and desires. The earliest works in 75 are from a body of work she created in the late 1970s which is centred on monumental yet seemingly weightless wooden floor sculptures that only touch the ground at one point, all titled Ellipsoid (plus the colours they are painted in), or at two points, titled Hyperbolo. These endlessly elegant pieces reflect her interest in antiquity and Greek and Roman sculptures, which also distributed the weight of muscular marble bodies between two points, often leading to the classic pose in which one leg is placed slightly in front of the other.
The exhibition segues from the sleek Hyperbolos and Ellipsoids to a crowd of chunky, bulky concrete blocks each affixed with a metal antenna, some more bent than others. These works from the late 1980s are called Weltempfänger, titled after the German word for short-wave radio receiver. The term’s literal translation would be “world receiver”, as short waves can be transmitted across the globe. At the exhibition’s opening, both curators spoke of the artist herself as a so-called “world receiver” whose ultra-sensitive antennas aptly pick up, linger on, and amplify the sounds, or rather noise, that we mostly choose to ignore. Trash and the vestiges of pop culture soon became the stuff from which her works are made of: pizza boxes, last-season’s fast fashion, a picture of a young Leonardo DiCaprio torn from a magazine, plastic sunglasses, children’s mannequins, as well as men’s and women’s, old newspapers, and spooky baby dolls are only some of the materials and readymades that repeatedly show up in her works since the early 2000s.
Genzken stayed true to this visual and material language, influencing younger generations of artists for more than a quarter of a century. She has emancipated herself from the orthodoxy of modernism early on, possibly defining the most eloquent artistic language of our time along the way. This break is best manifested in her 2000 series F*** the Bauhaus, which features three-dimensional collages made of cheap plastic materials hoisted on self-made plinths. They look like maquettes for the most architecturally virtuous city of the doom-filled future, but one in which the built environment is less oppressive in its blandness and allows for strange and open spaces of play to exist. In 2002, Genzken presented the sculpture art series New Buildings for Berlin at Documenta 11. The “buildings” are but colourful small glass plates leaning against each other on plinths. With some of the city’s new buildings coming into view through the museum’s glass walls, all rendered in a style Berliners disgruntledly dubbed as “Investors’ architecture”, Genzken’s works feel like a stoic, knowing attempt to open our eyes to what our city would soon become.
Outside the museum, the artist has installed an eight-meter-high steel sculpture titled Pink Rose. It is a monumental gesture, a naively decorative object, an Instagram-friendly thing of realistic beauty, a female artist’s ultimate flex, a kitschy thorn in the eye of architecture purists, an offering to a lover.