With Drawing a Universe, at the KAI 10 in Dusseldorf, curator Ludwig Seyfarth put together a very ambitious show. After all, to draw a universe is no small feat. In fact, it’s massive: an act of conjuring up an entire cosmos of natural laws and social customs, of uncharted possibilities and alien creatures (some seemingly emerging from the tradition of middle earth, others descending from the genres of outer space). It was something that the Romantics worked on. The Modernists, the Kazemir Maleviches, Luis Buñuels and Robert Musils of the early 20th century, too, laboured towards this ideal exhaustively. But after some of these utopic fictions turned into catastrophic realities – i.e. Communism, Nazism – drawing a universe became something of a taboo. It was the kind of grand narrative you were better not to engage in. As a result, artists like Martin Kippenberger and Joseph Beuys, Jeff Koons and Sarah Lucas were not interested in drawing new universes; they were (dis)content ripping apart the ones their predecessors had sketched out.
This show was the latest in a series of exhibitions from the past few years or so aiming to reinstate the modernist art of imagining possible worlds. Here, as elsewhere, it has been a case of repetition with a difference. In contrast to the modernist tradition, the seven artists in Seyfarth’s show constructed universes across a wide variety of media, genres and traditions, ranging from aquarelle paintings (Anke Röhrscheid) to pen drawings (Bettina Krieg), cardboard sculptures (Jenny Michel) to installations made from twigs, sand and wood (David Thorpe), chromatographs covered in mineral salts (Nora Schattauer) to a musical composition (William Engelen). The artists also all created what the press release aptly referred to as ‘Wimmelbildern’, multiplicitious and chaotic worlds, worlds eluding one ideology or logic but invoking a teeming plurality of often contrasting ideas and sentiments: freedom and chaos, nature and culture, eroticism and oppression, science and fiction, dreams and memories.
What separated the works on view from many of their modernist predecessors was that they were mostly critical of the worlds they imagined. In the exhibition’s first of four rooms were Jenny Michel’s five large cardboard and paper structures, Paradise-Vehicle (2012). Resembling a DIY rendering of the fleet of Star Wars, the vehicles were supposedly set for paradise but had become so laden with plans that they had become too heavy to take off. Left on the ground, these structures felt like the critical ruins of a mysterious modernity, at once rational and sentimental (strangely similar to Cyprien Gaillard’s 2007 video Desniansky Raion).
A similar caution was present in Bettina Krieg’s large pen drawings in the third room. Taking her cue from Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Brueghel, Krieg portrayed black-and-white worlds full of dynamism and diversity, including birds, botanical gardens and waterfalls, theatres and modern architecture (Untitled, 2012). But her worlds also featured explosions and trashed cars, human organs and tentacles, heavy machinery and graveyards that exuded a sensation of imminent danger. The worlds seemed to almost burst out of their seams, their spherical shape punctured by tentacles and rockets.
Seen together, the works offered the viewer a range of fictional worlds to inhabit. All of them had their instant charms: Thorpe’s organic-ness, Röhrscheid’s depth, the playful intertextuality of Michel’s starships, Krieg’s dynamism. But each also instantly announced its problems, its internal threats: hermetic sectarianism, isolation, chaos, death. In this sense, the exhibition intelligently and very provocatively offered a keen insight into our present moment, into our world, or worlds: beset by all kinds of crises, and in need of alternatives. But the question remains: where do those alternatives lead?
Timotheus Vermeulen is associate professor in Media, Culture and Society at the University of Oslo and a regular contributor to frieze. His latest book, Metamodernism: Historicity, Affect and Depth after Postmodernism, co-edited with Robin van den Akker and Alison Gibbons, is published with Rowman and Littlefield.
First published in Issue 10