Drifting and Digging: Birgit Jensen’s Flugblätter at Clay Street Press Gallery

November 24th, 2019  |  Published in *, November 2019

In Birgit Jensen’s Flugblätter (Flying Letters), nothing settles comfortably into place. The purportedly autonomous artist ruptures into the collective. The collective expands and contracts like a breathing organism, dismissing its own consistency with Whitmanesque abandon. The radically distributed artist takes transformation as its topic, working paradoxically to make temporal processes concrete, all while inhabiting the same flux it represents. The joyful confusion of form and content reverberates throughout the exhibit, even where the reflections on historical and artistic change are anything but cheerful. We might say that the ecstatic juxtapositions of pictures and words dispel the many bleak scenes they conjure. But the formula would be too neat, as various voices within the hivemind treat the space of the gallery, and the whole realm of the visual commodity, as symptom rather than cure.

The setup is straightforward enough: Jensen asks 139 different artists from 41 countries to produce an image and a related short text and then forward them to her by email. The paired works should address “the transformations of our society in recent years—whether philosophical, social, political, economic or ecological.” As Jensen pieces the responses together into vertical banners, she joins contrasting experiences of panic and delight, of reveling in selfhood and rejecting self-absorption. Contributors specify the divisive as well as the centripetal forces of digital culture. They adjust to relentless accelerations in communication, travel, commerce, and obsolescence, yet they insist that the audience take its time. Amid the anxious reflections on speed exists a concern with sustainability, expressing itself by turns as the aestheticization and the mourning of ecological breakdown. Rock, soil, and sand serve as focal objects and artistic media; accumulations of waste spell disaster while also affording instances of found art. Participants struggle to decide whether such art should form a discrete microcosm or relish its entanglement with the world outside the frame. These uncertainties inhere in artist statements and miniature treatises positioned throughout the gallery, suspended by transparent wire so they appear to float. There is magic in the defiance of gravity, but also the nagging sense that, at any moment, everything might fall.

The show’s simultaneous articulation of political determination and precariousness takes concentrated form in Liz Bachhuber’s contribution. Hemerophiole gathers brightly colored rags, saplings, bicycle tubes, and ropes into a steel framework, producing a globe-flask hybrid that hovers like the banners in Jensen’s show. It is a ball of visual intensity but also swelling heat, its contents threatening to boil over. She explains that “over time, phenomena such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch have illuminated our ecological vulnerability.” With that vulnerability in mind, she adopts “an ephemeral way of working,” mostly using trash and readymade materials and recycling them once each installation concludes. Ideally, the recycled supplies become media for other local artists. The temporary character of Bachhuber’s works gives way to an unpredictable flow of resources, overwriting the idea of detritus with that of potential components, exhausted purpose with that of ecofeminist remediation.

An ethic of eco-conscious remediation also governs the work of Shrutti Garg and Ulrike Arnold, the first of whom takes photographic samples of decaying surfaces, the other of whom paints with dirt and debris, treating the wind and rain as collaborators. Garg trains her lens on painted exteriors that deteriorate at varied rates and in different ways, sometimes rippling into small bubbles and flakes, other times breaking into long, ragged strips. Analogies with scattered clusters of environmental crisis, and with more geographically centralized emergencies, demand to be drawn. Other flying letters make versions of those arguments in every room of the gallery. But where they address the health and inhabitance of the Earth, Ulrike Arnold explicitly uses earth as her medium. “Locations where I paint have included salt and sand deserts, volcanoes and prehistoric caves, rock formations and river beds,” she writes. “The painting materials are all provided by nature in situ,” while the colors arise from “minerals, sand, incrustations, glimmer and mud,” all of which create “a wealth of shades of reds, blues, yellows and greens.” She provides a small photograph of a work-in-progress that, were it laid out in the gallery, would measure 7m x 1.9m. She plans to paint both sides of the canvas using pigments from every continent she has visited. Although Arnold acknowledges the political valences of the project, she views them as less important than the aesthetic experience, the encounter with the world’s beauty “in the very stuff it is made of.” Considerations of that beauty, however, cannot be easily disentangled from the climate changes that condition Arnold’s media, and that threaten art and life as we have come to know them.

The imminence of that threat generates weariness and even despair in some contributors, whose responses range from nihilistic clamoring to questioning the efficacy of art as a social institution. Alexander Roob responds to Jensen’s prompt with an image of a clogged toilet, verging on overflow, beneath the heading “A Plutocratic State of Checks and Balances.” In the accompanying text, Roob asserts that “I can not think of anything concerning world and art…there is nothing to report.” Further down, he apologizes for the sordid image: “Sorry for the disgusting, – it’s just a comment on the world.” Florian Kuhlmann’s offering is less bleak but similarly concerned with the emptiness of contemporary culture. He presents a solid black block with bold white script: “Nothing,” it reads, followed by Nike’s worn tag line “Just Do It.” Yet in combination with his written letter, the piece does less to affirm indifference than to resist the commodification of creativity. It directs us to “do nothing” that aspires to the status of art. Relegating that aspiration to the dead twentieth century, Kuhlmann can find no “particular motivation for performing in a social system” where “success” is reduced to marketing “highly-priced speculation objects for the 1%.” The redemptive moment comes when he specifies the alternative: “to act authentically and concretely in the here and now, completely without recourse to any kind of symbolic baggage.” Paradoxically, the attempt to create value that supercedes commerce and metaphor characterizes most every piece in the show. That ethos hardly belongs exclusively to subverted advertisements or fouled toilets, which, however freely they float in the gallery, carry their own symbolic baggage. Roob and Kuhlmann accentuate the contradiction rather than escaping it, lending the show a political-economic reflexivity that complements its ecological unease.

That unease registers as nervous volatility, a general unreadiness for an imminent arrival. Reciprocally, there is apprehension of things passing, whether traditions or species or global orders. The banners sway with the motion of the viewer. The flying letters cannot resist gravity forever. Contributors punctuate the point with pictures of short-term installations, blocks of emptiness, graffiti made entirely of light. But as often as the flying letters address transitory events, the best of them dig toward something constant. We see this burrowing in Suse Wiegand’s plaster casts of mouse holes in her backyard, made shortly after a disconcerting foray into virtual reality. Although the work permits her to take refuge in the earth, it also externalizes hidden interiors, making the subterranean available to public view. At the risk of violating Kuhlmann’s directive against signs, the molding of negative space may be the profoundest image of the show, and the shrewdest statement of the contributors’ collaborative accomplishment.

–Christopher Carter

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