Erik van Lieshout’s New Film Tells a Tale of Money and Morality

With the current debate on art institutions’ reliance on private funding, the Dutch artist teaches us how to avoid becoming complicit in a company’s shady activities 

Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard had an ambivalent relationship with literary prizes: he accepted a dozen, some reluctantly, and refused others. But he was never indifferent to these awards: he even dedicated the posthumously published book Meine Preise (My Prizes, 2009) to them. There, Bernhard gripes about the procedures and vanities associated with such prizes and does not hesitate to talk about dirty money. On accepting a prize worth 25,000 Austrian schillings (circa 1,800 Euros) from an industry association, he writes: ‘Generally I thought one should always take money whenever it is offered and not think twice about where it comes from and how. Such considerations are always utterly hypocritical.’ But does the source of the money make no difference? Bernhard continues: ‘No one reproaches a beggar on the street for taking money from people without asking where they got the money they’re giving him.’ Whether one accepts or refuses big-money prizes, then, also depends on one’s own situation. Being able to decline financial support is also a form of privilege.

Erik van Lieshout, ‘The Beer Promoter’, 2019, installation view, Gallery Guido W. Baudach, Berlin. Courtesy: the artist and Gallery Guido W. Baudach, Berlin; photograph: Roman März 

With more and more art institutions currently being attacked by artists, activists and journalists for accepting funding from major pharmaceutical companies or tolerating board members involved with teargas or weapons companies, it seems clearer than ever that money in culture is always linked to political issues. The question of where money comes from has become more central than ever.

These discussions form a backdrop for Erik van Lieshout’s 35-minute film Beer (2019), the central work in the exhibition ‘The Beer Promoter’ at Galerie Guido W. Baudach in Berlin, where it is displayed alongside drawings and sculptures. As in many of his films, Van Lieshout stars as the protagonist and, here, tackles a personal dilemma: having been nominated for the 100,000 Euro Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for Art in 2018, he plunged into an artistic and moral crisis. Shortly after his nomination for the most prestigious art prize in the Netherlands, The Guardian revealed the brewery’s misogynistic business practices in Africa. According to their reports, very badly paid ‘beer promotion girls’ are subjected to systematic sexual abuse – both by clients and by their own superiors. As a result of their low wages, many were driven into prostitution.

Erik van Lieshout, Untitled, 2018-2019, installation view, ‘The Beer Promoter’, 2019, installation view, Galerie Guido W. Baudach, Berlin. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Guido W. Baudach, Berlin; photograph: Roman März

Van Lieshout’s critical examination of Heineken, and his inner conflict related to the company’s art prize, form the film’s backbone. A number of subplots deal with other aspects of life as an artist: questions of creativity and failure, the fear of ageing and being forgotten. Elsewhere, Van Lieshout asks how much personal content one should reveal in his art: he includes scenes from a psychotherapy session and talks about his sex life with his wife, who is also his studio manager.

While the film’s aesthetic sometimes recalls suggestively-edited trashy television, Van Lieshout’s intellectual sensibility and sense of humour depart from such formats. We see the artist performing strange contortions on his studio floor to find new ideas or sawing through the walls of his apartment, as if to break through a creative block. The film also shows how his assistants roll him through the city of Wiesbaden in a human-sized beer can, which is also on display at the gallery and bears the Heineken logo. Beer ends with footage of the awards ceremony in Amsterdam in which the artist eventually accepts the prize. Like Bernhard, Van Lieshout exposes his inner conflict as a means of artistic engagement without becoming complicit in a company’s shady activities.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Main Image: Erik van Lieshout, ‘The Beer Promoter’, 2019, installation view, Gallery Guido W. Baudach, Berlin. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Guido W. Baudach, Berlin; photograph: Roman März  

Kito Nedo lives in Berlin where he works as contributing editor for frieze and as freelance journalist for several magazines and newspapers. In 2017, he won the ADKV-Art Cologne Award for Art Criticism.

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