In huge, bright-red letters the upside-down writing on the wall of Kunstmuseum Stuttgart promised comedy on a truly grand scale: Christian Jankowski’s first major survey show in Germany. Since the artist went hunting for food in a supermarket with a bow and arrow (The Hunt, 1992), he has, with increasing frequency, smuggled his productions into existing mass-media formats such as television shows and movies. When, for example, German filmmaker Lars Kraume asked to use several ideas from Jankowski’s work in the film Viktor Vogel – Commercial Man (2001), the artist cleverly bartered ‘ideas for camera time’, allowing him to ‘borrow’ well-known actors from the existing set and ask them for their views on art (Rosa, 2001).
Whereas 12 years ago he had himself turned into a pigeon by a magician (My Life as a Dove, 1996) or lay paralysed at the feet of an American televangelist (The Holy Artwork, 2001), these days Jankowski has withdrawn into the background. Today he mostly leaves performing to figures from the worlds of entertainment and culture. For the new, drily titled work Dienstbesprechung (Briefing, 2008) Jankowski acted as the mediator of his proposal for individual members of the museum staff to swap roles. After drawing lots, the director changed places with a technician, the curator with a security guard, the funding manager with a caretaker.
The recorded briefings on the handing over of tasks were shown on 26 monitors around the exhibition hall; the viewers sat on stacking office chairs on colourful islands of carpet. A film shot by a director who had been commissioned to accompany the ‘new’ members of staff in their everyday routine with his camera team, but who had not been told about the charade, was projected onto a large screen – resulting in what was in effect the parody of a corporate image film. This leaves one question unanswered: who or what is ultimately the target of the prank? Is it the system of power inside the museum, Jankowski himself as an ‘institutional critic’, the hired film crew or the individual members of staff? Although all parties are involved as players in the game, it is predominantly the museum employees, caught on film in what are sometimes embarrassing situations.
Despite the exchange of roles, rules that applied beforehand still seem to be in place: in her handover briefing with the technician the director laconically remarks that unfortunately this year’s acquisitions budget has already been used up. What has taken place here? Is the exchange of roles in effect merely staged, or is it actually affecting the institution’s infrastructure with incalculable results? Ultimately it’s impossible to tell whether or not such a risk was ever really taken. One might ask, however, if it really matters whether the exchange of roles was actually sustained in everyday working life during the entire run-up to the show. It should suffice that the story in the film is convincing.
After all, Jankowski’s work to date has focused more on questions of belief between artist and audience. He has often delegated the realization of his works to specialists in faith: a television astrologer made prophetic predictions about the artist’s life and work (Telemistica, 1999), and a professional public speaker delivered a fitting eulogy for all the artists short-listed for a prestigious art award (Congratulations, 2000). The recent series of commissioned paintings, ordered by Jankowski from Chinese copyists (China Painters, 2007) also bring together belief, prophecy and art: photographs of the unfinished shell of a Chinese art museum supplied a backdrop against which the painters were asked to paint their ideal image of a future exhibition there.
In these delegations Jankowski is able productively to test both his own role as an artist and that of his accomplices in the context of economic and media frameworks. Unfortunately, in Briefing the artist largely fails to reflect on his own activity. It is true that a few of the ideas proposed by staff members in the film were actually realized in the exhibition. An African artist, a friend of the new curator’s from the cleaning staff, was allowed to hang several of his brightly coloured canvases in the show. But when the protagonists are followed into situations that reveal nothing but their shortcomings, the humour is not subtle any more and becomes cynical.
The museum’s new funding manager, actually employed as a caretaker, is hopeful of securing fresh money as he sets off for a meeting with the sponsorship department of a well-known fashion company. But the caretaker’s communicative skills quickly fail him, and after a few minutes his interlocutor from the PR department shows him the door with a mixture of professional friendliness and veiled discomfort. The exhibition catalogue perfectly highlights the project’s dilemma. The freshly appointed director is allowed to pen an amusing foreword, and the new curator conducts a brief interview with the artist, but then the game is over.
Obviously the ‘actual’ director could not refrain from adding an afterword in form of an ‘erratum’ note. As usual, the ‘former’ curator and several ‘former’ curatorial assistants exercise their defining authority over the meaning of the artist’s work in a number of essays. Jankowski’s attempt to turn an institution’s working methods on their heads, at least within the parameters of his own art work, gets lost somewhere between a parody of business consulting and scripted reality television.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
First published in Issue 120