Guarding the Avant-Garde: David Lieske on the Hypocrisy of Collecting

A new show asks what it means to be radical in our age of spectacle

David Lieske’s new show, ‘La Collectionneuse’, (2019), takes its inspiration from Éric Rohmer’s eponymous 1967 film – a tale of two friends entangled in a chess-like game of male egotism and obsession with a teenage Lolita figure.

The exhibition – the artist’s third at Corvi-Mora – critically reflects on how these drives manifest in the art world. Eight shelves display various ephemera (books, magazines, journals) documenting work from Europe’s 20th-century new wave. Lieske explores how desire plays out in the curated confines of the gallery, exploring the tension between art making – turning imagination into objects – and the materialistic appetites of collecting.

David Lieske, La Collectionneuse, 2019, exhibition view. Courtesy: Corvi-Mora, London

Outside the gallery, a black and white print (La Collectionneuse, 2019) captures a woman holding a lighter to a half-burned photograph. In this small act of heresy, the female collector sends the exalted white male up in flames, playfully subverting the traditional auteur-muse dynamic typified by the men of European cinema referenced throughout the show. But this image-within-an-image also reflects a kind of saturation point: a maze of proliferating images from which there is no escape. 

Inside, tomes about Marxist Italian film directors Pier Paolo Pasolini and Luchino Visconti rub shoulders with German anarchist magazines (Radikal) and film theory journals (Filmkritik), alongside a book immortalizing left-wing German militant Ulrike Meinhof. It’s a microcosm of the avant-garde: both monument and memorial, embalming counterculture as a touristic retreat for middle-class consumers. Can the radical artist resist being co-opted by a capitalist system? And can art still offer an aesthetics of resistance when governed by an economic imperative; one more Instagram-friendly bauble in our age of spectacle? 

David Lieske, La Collectionneuse, 2019, exhibition view. Courtesy: Corvi-Mora, London

Lieske’s curation of these cultural signifiers jarringly hints at the objectifying nature of all desire, which appropriates everything into the realm of ‘thingness’. Yet between the objects, Lieske encodes his own readings contra the status quo. A magazine featuring an interview with feminist post-structuralist Hélène Cixous offers, by association, a takedown of Rohmer’s film, deflating sentimental myths of macho genius.

Stills from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1971 film, Pioneers in Ingolstadt, and volumes by Thomas Mann seem both to flatter, and impishly undermine, the great forefathers of 20th-century German culture. Placing them alongside a monograph of collector Peter Ludwig Sammler, Lieske leaves them to swirl in a more complicated cosmos of associations, evoking the uneasy relationship between creativity and commerce. All art, he suggests, is plagiarism with imagination. 

David Lieske, La Collectionneuse, 2019, exhibition view. Courtesy: Corvi-Mora, London

Lieske uses these counterpoints to surface the tensions and repressions underpinning cultural capital. William Friedkin’s controversial 1980 film, Cruising, the story of a gay serial killer on the loose in New York, dramatizes queer desire stalking mainstream Hollywood sensibility – a process of mutiny and exploitation. R.D. Laing’s Anti-Psychiatry and Medizin und Profit (M. Gaglio,1973), a treatise against capitalist medicine, sit next to genteel books like Moving Historic Buildings (John Obed Curtis,1979), bordering on bourgeois kitsch.

Can these vital forces – outlaw sexuality, madness, the roaming id – survive the institutionalization of the gallery? Is the lust of the collector – the urge to amass, to possess, to flaunt – in direct opposition to the true calling of the bohemian artist, who should forever remain outside of polite society? 

David Lieske, La Collectionneuse, 2019, exhibition view. Courtesy: Corvi-Mora, London

In this most meta of shows, the final laugh is left to Lieske himself. A tape recorder plays the soundtrack to Rohmer’s film, all dialogue scrubbed away. Birdsong, cicadas, the splash of a swimming pool. It appears that we’ve been incorporated into the mise en scène too, playing the dutiful role of observer-consumer: both the agent of our own desires and the object, finally, of somebody else’s.

Main image: David Lieske, La Collectionneuse, 2019, silver gelatin print, 25 × 17 cm. Courtesy: Corvi-Mora, London

Daniel Culpan is a writer based in London. He won the 2016 Frieze Writer’s Prize.

Issue 206

First published in Issue 206

October 2019

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