Who’s Werner? (exhibition overview), Kunstverein, Amsterdam, 2019, photo Chun-Han Chiang

Credit lines: Who’s Werner? at Kunstverein Amsterdam

Issue no5
okt-nov 2020
Wat is Nederland

The groupshow Who’s Werner? at Kunstverein traces the collaborative genealogy of works of art. Who is recognized as author – and who not? Graphic designers, assistants, lovers, side jobs and many other crucial yet invisible partners are given the limelight.

I’m one of those distained people that always starts a book at the end, the very end. Immediately, I thumb my way through the pages, intently heading towards the ‘Acknowledgements’ section of the colophon. When I was younger a teacher taught me the way in which to use a bibliography to do research: go to the references, look them up, look up their references, and keeping doing so until, eventually, you get to the root of the cause. In this quest for the essence of the argument, it is no surprise she was fond of minimalism. But there is something in this, something that the acknowledgements section similarly has: a commitment to the development of a genealogy. This is not necessarily to be thought of in dangerous structural terms like bloodlines, which propagate a linearity of descent (and therefore ownership), but instead, in this case, in destabilising the centricity of the solo author. Who’s Werner?, currently on view at Kunstverein Amsterdam, intends to do just that. Through the simple act of treating the acknowledgements section of catalogues, exhibition pamphlets, monographs or other printed matter as a serious location from which to begin an extensive years-long institutional research, Kunstverein’s new director Yana Foqué uncovered numerous intimacies of attribution. Upon doing so, she decided to exhibit prominent artists – those such as John Baldessari, Lucy Skaer and Céline Condorelli – alongside their usually undetected, though deeply invaluable, counterparts – such as Norman Laich (Baldessari’s assistant), Simon Harlow (Skaer’s manufacturer) and James Langdon (Condorelli’s graphic designer).

The result is an exhibition that doesn’t put forward a homogenous body of works, a tendency that usually manifests across the lines of formal decisions or overbearing thematic tropes (that more often than not reduce rather than complicate the question at hand). In some ways the curatorial concept of Who’s Werner? is so strong that it deems the actual artworks themselves irrelevant – the artists are already performing its rigor through simply being present together. Yet there is still something important in this gesture, which works through putting forward an idea of shared or genealogical authorship already custom in many other disciplines, as Foqué chronicles in her exhibition text, but which has largely evaded art thus far.[1] In focusing specifically on long-term relationships between artists and their makers, the exhibition also manages to steer clear of becoming a rehashed debate around the prominence of the idea over the actual fabrication of the work – as with conceptual practices for the 1970s, for example – through treating support structures as generatively social, built on mutuality and affinities, rather than a clear cut division of labour geared for handing out individual claims to ownership.[2]

Who’s Werner? (exhibition overview), Kunstverein, Amsterdam, 2019, photo Chun-Han Chiang

As an example of how these affinities were enacted so as to become mutually beneficial, one major curatorial decision was to hang the Baldessari work in the hallway – a temporary corridor space produced for the exhibition itself, designed by Jan Phillip Hoff – so as to overcome the ongoing struggle Foqué has with the hierarchy of wall space in the gallery. Apparently, the right adjacent wall to the door always has prominence, with the one directly to its left being often forgotten, rushed past as if irrelevant. In this way, the power dynamics of visibility are employed in ways to equalise the playing field – Baldessari’s long-time assistant Norman Laich, a painter in his own right, hangs in full prominence on the right adjacent wall while Baldessari commands the attention of the hallway. Sure to not only address the politics of visibility within artistic practice itself, the inclusion of Denise Scott Brown speaks to the gendered history of erasure present in the relegation of women to the role of mere supporter (especially so, when they happen to be lovers). Despite co-authoring the seminal publication Learning from Las Vegas with her husband Robert Venturi, Venturi alone was awarded a prize for their collaborative work. Importantly, three of Scott Brown’s photos hang solo in Who’s Werner?, with Venturi present only through the copy of Learning from Las Vegas sitting on the bench made by Paul Robbrecht – the exhibition furniture designer for renowned Belgian abstract painter Raoul de Keyser.

In some ways the curatorial concept is so strong that it deems the actual artworks themselves irrelevant. Yet the gesture works through putting forward an idea of shared or genealogical authorship already custom in many other disciplines

Who’s Werner? (exhibition overview), Kunstverein, Amsterdam, 2019, photo Chun-Han Chiang

Who’s Werner? (exhibition overview), Kunstverein, Amsterdam, 2019, photo Chun-Han Chiang

Who’s Werner? also manages to collapse other elements of exhibition making often relegated to the footnotes of practice into the frame. The inclusion of certain works of ‘value’ meant the increase in gallery security: an alarm system was installed for the occasion of the exhibition. While this may seem largely banal in the scheme of things, it also reveals the ancillary activities constantly occurring in order to quite literally hold up a show. Artist Laura Kaminskaitė is the go-to white wall painter in Lithuania, often employed to return exhibitions spaces to their vacant state as a side job. Here, her contribution (Make-up/Makiažas, 2019) compounds her work and art into the same plane, using her skills to paint the gallery walls as a primer for the exhibition itself, yet doing so in a foundation brown and rendering the labour visible as a monochromatic, site-specific painting.

In this way, Who’s Werner? piggybacks onto careers of artists of a certain institutional, or even canonical weight, therefore opting to think ways of instituting off the backs of artists themselves – ones who’s generosity often make the sustainability of small-scale spaces such as Kunstverein possible.[3] Yet the thing about this new program for Kunstverein, of which this exhibition just the first iteration, is that it not only aims to begin from artists and their networks, but through doing so it complicates the singularity of the signature itself, bringing otherwise unseen figures to the fore and sincerely asking: Who’s Baldessari when he’s at home anyway?[4]

[1] I’ve always wondered what a disciplinary question could be that we would all commit to beyond ourselves. No matter how much one scientific researcher may dislike the other, neither will dispute the value of their work when the cure for cancer is stumbled upon. Moreover, neither will feel threatened by the very fact that they happen to be committing their lives to the same question. If anything, they probably feel compelled. This diffusion of authorial claim, or territoriality, seems to be rather inoperational within the discipline contemporary art: the market still forces us to work individually and to carry with us the weight of our own signature.

[2] It also seems important to note that Kunstverein itself exists within a network of sibling Kunstvereins, is premised on a members model and is mostly operational due to these structural decisions that make sole authorship or sole directorship largely defunct.

[3] I think here of fundraisers in the forms of limited editions or artist tours for gallery members, for example.

[4] A common saying in English, ‘Who’s he/she/they when they’re at home anyway?’ essentially means who are they in reality, in fact, when it comes down to it. It is often intended to demote someone in the eyes of another, or, to put it colloquially, pull them down a peg. 

Who's Werner?, Kunstverein, Amsterdam, t/m 21.12.2019

Isabelle Sully
is kunstenaar en schrijver

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