Isa Genzken’s Strange Contraptions for Transformation

Installation view, “Isa Genzken: Retrospective” (© 2014 The Museum of Modern Art, New York, photo by Jonathan Muzikar)

On New Year’s Day I saw Leviathan, the new documentary by Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, at the Museum of Modern Art. The opening scene of the film was startling: a glittering black screen, then bolts of bright colors: red, orange, yellow and blue. It took some time for my eyes to register what it was seeing: yellow and orange rain slickers, crimson red plastic buckets, and the blue, green, and pink ropes of fish nets.

Much of the film works this way: the camera catching, seemingly by chance, colors, shapes, and textures without providing visual or verbal context, rendering them unrecognizable. In one scene, for example, seagulls fly on the left side of the screen while the right side is a black glittering abyss. As a result, we see the world the way a baby might first see the world.

Isa Genzken, “Spielautomat (Slot Machine)” (1999–2000), slot machine, paper, chromogenic color prints, and tape 63 x 25 9/16 x 19 11/16 in (160 x 65 x 50 cm) (Private Collection, Berlin) (courtesy Galerie Buchholz, Cologne/Berlin) (© Isa Genzken)

In a scene in Isa Genzken’s film, Die Kleine Bushaltestelle (The Little Bus Stop), Genzken, along with the artist Kai Althoff, plays a baby swathed in what appears to be a tablecloth or curtain. The two lie in a crib and watch as various everyday objects appear suddenly before them. They scream and cry. When removed from context, everyday objects can be frightening.  But they can also be exhilarating.

A question in circulation regarding Isa Genzken’s current retrospective at MoMA is: “How does her artwork work?” There must be a myriad of answers to this question but my sense is that the reason we feel great pleasure when gazing at Genzken’s sculptures is because they, or rather she, gives us the experience of seeing the world as if for the first time. She returns us to our infant selves. When we gaze upon an object we both do and do not recognize (bits of plastic, duct tape, children’s toys, and so on) removed from context we are filled with a sense of the uncanny. Genzken’s work does just this for us. We are changed as a result.

The artist in her studio, 1982 (image courtesy the artist and Galerie Buchholz, Cologne / Berlin)

Does this same power change the artist? I couldn’t help but wonder this as I walked through the exhibit.  Throughout the show are images of Genzken: two large poster-size images in the entryway, smaller photographs of herself in bars in her scrapbook, “I Love New York City, Crazy City.” There are also photos of Genzken pasted or set upon several of her machine-like sculptures. As if the sculptures were contraptions for transformation, I was reminded of Lourdes or other sacred sights where visitors set photos of loved ones on the alter in hopes that the transformative powers might somehow heal or transform them.

My favorite piece in the show is “Spielautomat (Slot Machine),” a slot machine coated in photographs of New York City, Leonardo Di Caprio, an airplane, and an image ripped from a fashion magazine of a model in the act of making up her face. The images, though, that struck me most were on one side of the sculpture. One image is of Genzken; her short hair slicked back. The photo is a portrait, we see her in profile. She gazes forward at a photograph of Andy Warhol. In the photograph, Warhol’s hair is slicked back, like hers, but his eyes are closed. He is her double. In his arms he is holding what appears to be a machine-like contraption, a double of one of her machine-like sculptures. Warhol, of course, was the king of transformation. Not only did he change himself, he transformed the men and women who came to him.

But Genzken’s powers are more like a poet’s. In an interview with Nicholaus Schafhausen, Genzken said, “I want to animate the viewers, hold a mirror up to them.” This is her power, to make work that transforms the viewer. By combining disparate objects, removed from their original context, her sculptures shock us back into life. They don’t change us into something else, they return to our selves.

Isa Genzken: Retrospective continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 W 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through March 10. 

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