Le Panoptique

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Artist As Rock Star / Rock Star As Artist

Publié le 1 novembre, 2009 | Pas de commentaires

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When musicians are invited to show in a contemporary art context, their sub-cultural cache is not all they bring to the situation; a two-person exhibit at Galerie Lucile Corty by singer-songwriter David-Ivar Herman Düne and visual artist Marlie Mul generates unexpected (and unintentional) perspectives on the relationship between popular culture and high art.

 David -Ivar Herman Dune aka Yaya at the Gallery Lucile Corty in Paris
Régine Debatty, David -Ivar Herman Dune aka
Yaya at the Gallery Lucile Corty in Paris
, 2008
Certains droits réservés.

There is a picture of Damien Hirst on the cover of the September 15, 2008 issue of Time Magazine. (1) He is dressed up like Bono, making an awkward face, and pulling at his collar like a cut-rate Rodney Dangerfield impersonator. The headline reads: “Artist As Rock Star” (2), and the caption says: “Next week, Damien Hirst expects to sell more than $100 million worth of work at auction. Is this the end of art or the start of something new?” (3).

Around the same time this hyped-up cover caught my eye, I received an invite to an exhibit in Paris at Galerie Lucile Corty for a two-person show by Marlie Mul—–who I knew about in connection to her work with the art collective International Festival—–and David-Ivar Herman Düne, the singer-songwriter behind the band Herman Düne, whose 2006 album Not On Top spent more time on my iTunes than anything else released that year. While it is not unusual for a musician, especially one with any sort of sub-cultural clout, to display work in a contemporary art context, it was the first time I could recall that a songwriter I had spent so much time listening to had shown in an upscale commercial gallery in Paris.

Both the Damien Hirst Time Magazine cover and the David-Ivar Herman Düne Paris exhibit bring us close to some of the most problematic questions surrounding the value, perhaps even the cultural necessity, of perceived authenticity in both music and art. The headline “Artist As Rock Star” suggests that the previous term “art star” insufficiently summarizes Hirst’s $100 million Southeby’s pay day, and that “rock star” brings us closer to the scale and pop culture heft of Hirst’s financial windfall.

And then I am in Paris, at Galerie Lucile Corty, looking at the drawings of David-Ivar Herman Düne. Damien Hirst, like all the other millionaires who have little to do with my daily life, seems a million miles away. My first impression is that Düne’s drawings are better than I expected. Most revolve around the character Blue Big Foot, who is a rather literal and unspectacular representation of his name. There is a large drawing of Big Blue Foot next to a Herman Düne song lyric, followed by a series of extreme close-ups. A close-up of a blue shoulder is underlined with the caption: “my shoulder hurts.” At the centre of the series is a larger close-up of blue fur with a rounded outer edge—perhaps the creature’s belly, but it might also be series of small ocean waves, or even a pattern of relatively pure abstraction.

There is another series of drawings on the opposite wall, like panels in a comic strip, in which Big Blue Foot wanders around in nature. The black and white backgrounds offset the calm happiness of Big Blue Foot. It is a comic strip in which nothing happens; Big Blue Foot tramps aimlessly through the grey world until the final drawing where, still surrounded by peaceful nature, he falls asleep. Clearly, it is not any particular content that makes these drawings compelling, but their style: simple and charming. Big Blue Foot’s facial expression is distinct in each drawing. He is wandering but he is also searching. There is genuine curiosity in how this character takes on the black and white world.

I spend a long time with these drawings, then head upstairs to see the work of Marlie Mul. It is unfair to compare the work of Marlie Mul and David-Ivar Herman Düne. They are from different worlds, have different theoretical frameworks and approaches, and share nothing apart from their dealer, Lucile Corty. However, I am going to attempt a comparison anyways.

Marlie Mul’s work is a series of three sculptural configurations. The first resembles either an architectural maquette of scaffolding for a future-forward Parthenon or the base of a modernist, glass-top table. The second also suggests furniture, a cabinet or plinth, but is abstracted to a degree where it is difficult to find any concrete reference. The third reminds me of two candleholders or vases. All three configurations are made out of Styrofoam but each is painted to suggest some other material: wood, gold or bronze, and plastic. Therefore the material as well is abstracted beyond recognition. Overall, the exhibit gives the impression of very weird, theoretically motivated, furniture.

The artist statement says these objects “play with a sense of order and factors of decoration and ornamentation taking their inspiration from classically known European sculpture and decorative arts.”(4) They reference “social and ideological aspects seen in medieval cathedrals but also Walter Gropius’ inspiration for Bahaus in Weimar.” During her process, the Styrofoam “is cut into small cubes, making it possible to create organic but controlled shapes. By experimenting with different sizes of cubes the artist experiments with proportion and scale,” creating “a fractal object that roughly looks the same at any scale.”(5)

I basically like the work of Marlie Mul: it is intriguing, provoking a desire to learn more about its aims and methods, displaying a complex engagement with its materials and reference points. But my thoughts about the work itself are overshadowed by the ways in which the contrast between the two shows feels like such an intense illustration of the divide between contemporary art and rock ‘n’ roll, almost a caricature of opposing world views. Where David-Ivar’s work is naïve, autobiographical, somewhat narrative and straightforward, Mul’s is difficult to place, playing with structural complexity and multi-layered historical investigations, employing formal strategies that defy any easy narrative reading. The contrast between Düne and Mul re-focuses the way I experience these works. While it is tempting to think that Mul’s high art framework feels old-fashioned in comparison to Dune’s more recent reference points, it is also true that, within his own context, David-Ivar’s influences are equally classical: Robert Crumb, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, The Velvet Underground, Jonathan Richman, etc. In fact, many of Düne’s influences would be contemporary with someone like Donald Judd, the artist Marlie Mul’s work, at least in spirit, most recalls.

 Damien Hirst is a Sick Puppy (2)
Jeff Berman, Damien Hirst is a Sick Puppy (2), 2005
Certains droits réservés.

This comparison gets us closer to some of the questions surrounding authenticity that are raised by the high art / rock ‘n’ roll divide. Because it is difficult for me to imagine, during the sixties, someone like Bob Dylan showing his drawings in the same gallery as Donald Judd, though I am certain similar things occurred frequently. I suspect this lack of imagination on my part has something to do with our times. A sixties spirit of freedom and experimentation in which one can easily imagine Judd showing alongside Dylan is no longer the context in which Judd is shown today. He is blue chip now: museums and market. And in such a context, juxtapositions of this nature give a rather different feeling, the feeling that musicians want something from the art world (money) and the art world wants something from musicians (“street cred”, connection to life outside of the art world).

When I arrive back on the main floor I learn that there is more to be seen downstairs, where I find myself looking at another wall of David-Ivar drawings. These ones are more in keeping with my original expectations: small comics that would not feel out of place in a fanzine. Two images, in particular, cast a sharper light on questions of music and art.

In one, Big Blue Foot exclaims, “NOT FUNNY,” and goes on to say:

I have never thought and I hope I will NEVER think that it could be funny in any way, to be ambiguous, or provocative…especially when it comes to historical crimes, mass murders or racism…. I am particularly annoyed and hurt by people not being careful about World War II

And in another Big Blue Foot says, “I’M SORRY,” and continues, “What does it really take to apologize? There is no other way.”

I started writing this article with the assumption that the contemporary art scene accepts, even encourages, the participation of musicians like David-Ivar Herman Düne in hopes of catching a little bit of spill-off from the street-level authenticity of rock ‘n’ roll. I had thought the fact that no one really believes in such authenticity any more was (more or less) beside the point, since even if you are skeptical about authenticity’s underlying structures (publicity aimed at youth, for example), the feeling that something might be ‘authentic’ continues to have some kick, to give energy. And all of this might still be true.

But looking at the drawings in the basement of Galerie Lucille Corty, I suddenly felt that, in this case at least, David-Ivar was bringing something else to the table, an incredible earnestness and sincerity it is difficult to imagine arising organically within the business-as-usual formalism and irony of so much contemporary art. Such emotional earnestness could easily get you laughed out of art school, is almost impossible to contextualize with a quote from Deleuze or Foucault, yet coming from a musician (since sentiment is always permitted in, and is perhaps even the main point of, pop music) it can enter art through the back door.

It is easy to be critical of, and also extremely easy to satirize, contemporary art and the culture that surrounds it. I do not want to do this. It is in fact too easy. I very much believe in art – as a social phenomena, as a cultural value – and am disappointed that so many exhibitions leave me with a gnawing feeling of emptiness. I am wondering what is missing from much art, even from art that on other levels we might consider strong. I notice that the music I listen to rarely leaves me with a similar empty feeling and wonder why this is.

Both Mul and Düne are sincere in their practices. (We can be more skeptical about Damien Hirst’s intentions.) And yet David-Ivar’s work, in a visual art context, appears to possess an excess of sincerity, a down-to-earth earnestness we don’t expect to see when we walk into an upscale gallery. He is sincere not only about the work he is making and showing but also, in his songs, about what it feels like to fall in love and, in some of his drawings, about the things in life that excite and upset him. Contemporary artists like Bas Jan Ader, Sophie Calle, and Tracy Emin also allow this kind of sincerity into their work. But unlike them, Düne focuses less on personal pain and more on his frequent feelings of calmness, excitement and happiness.

My point is not that Düne is a great artist who should be emulated, but rather that, coming from a different context with different experiences and values (and, compared to most contemporary artists, under-educated), he brings something unexpected into the gallery. This is what we might hope for when artists cross over the dividing line between their respective art forms. Aspects that are plentiful in pop music are rare in visual art, and vice versa: for example, instances of criticality in popular music are also few and far between. In writing this article, I fear that I too could be accused of being naïve, of not taking into full account the force of the market in these dynamics, of praising artistic qualities that are subjective and, in a political sense, not necessarily progressive. However, a feeling of emptiness is not what one should expect when going to look at art. And sentiment and earnestness remain some of the strongest ways to let in the flood of emotional reality that, in both our lives and work, has the power to keep such emptiness at bay.


(1) This text was written before the crash. Obviously the art market has changed considerably in the intervening period.
(2) Time Magazine cover, September 15, 2008.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Marlie Mul artist statement, Galerie Lucile Corty, September 12, 2008.
(5) Ibid.

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