This past summer, in an exhibition entitled ‘Der Pappenheimer’ at Kunstverein Hamburg, John Bock presented his work in an uncharacteristically ascetic way. Visitors entered an empty labyrinth of narrow white passages, with just a few of Bock’s signature absurd objects standing in the corners. For his retrospective at the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn, on the other hand, he has returned to the lavish abundance and chaotic diversity for which his performances, lectures, films, collages and large-scale sculptural installations have been known since the late 1990s. As part of ‘Im Modder der Summenmutation’, the artist reprised some of his past lectures, but the main focus was the numerous films that are often integrated into his shows. Nine of these films were screened in individual booths, including Inside Beyond (2007), Fixkosten (Fixed Costs, 2012) and Unter der Kinnlade (Under the Jaw, 2011). The latter is typical: a 19-minute piece set in a cross between a discotheque, a laboratory and an operating theatre. Here, the slightly deranged Professor Bock uses futuristic equipment to tackle the object of his desire, a patient by the name of Hinkebein. Repeating the words ‘a bloody business’, Bock saws through Hinkebein’s ‘phantom body’ and removes various organs, inspecting them with relish. The artist gives free reign to his love of the polymorphously perverse, presenting it in a light that is both garish and nonsensical. In the exhibition, alline screening booths were painted pale green, their geometric forms recalling stalls used to keep livestock. This is an allusion to Bock’s childhood: before studying business administration and later art, he grew up on a farm in northern Germany.
The second, larger part of the exhibition comprised an area for filming that includes various sets, a wardrobe and props. The sets have names like Sockenkuppel (Sock Dome), Stube (The Parlour) and Fellini-Raum (Fellini Room, all 2013). Rather than being static, they changed over the course of the exhibition, as Bock used the sets to shoot films during the early weeks of the show. This also explains the presence of film cameras and lighting equipment throughout the space. The contents here display all of the familiar traits of Bock’s work: a blood-smeared, deformed human body made of fabric, reminiscent of both Paul McCarthy’s work and Ghost Train aesthetics; pale sausages scattered about; abstract aluminium foil forms, distantly recalling Thomas Hirschhorn’s installations. Certain scenarios echo early videos by The Cure (whose singer Robert Smith happens to slightly resemble the artist), with expressively narrowed perspectives, psychedelic palettes and aggressively handled bodies. Among this characteristic confusion, there were frequent references to farming, including a machine for turning hay and fully functioning milking parlours, as well as wall paintings with rural-futuristic motifs, reinforcing the autobiographical reference. Finally, the films shot here quoted various cinematic and television genres, such as crime thrillers and horror films, whose logic Bock pushes to absurd extents. Over the duration of the show, these films also became part of ‘Im Modder der Summenmutation’.
The problem of this overflowing exhibition became clear when compared with Bock’s early performances in the mid-90s at the now closed Klosterfelde Galerie. At that time, in an exhibition space of just 20 square metres in Berlin’s as-yet-ungentrified Mitte district, Bock’s performances were still surprising and disturbing. His then novel combination of Beuysian lectures, Dadaistic nonsense and perverse mind games opened up innovative options for performance art. But today, his almost unchanged vocabulary – now transferred into the visual language of film – no longer has the same effect. There are no surprises; risks are no longer taken, time-tested formulas, such as delighting in the grotesque, are merely reeled off. With undeniable intelligence and skill, Bock runs through his programme. But his once-bizarre aesthetic has aged, relying all too routinely on its stock vocabulary. As a result, the artist has become entangled in his own oeuvre to increasingly repetitive and unproductive effect. It is also doubtful whether artistic strategies of quoting and mocking the media of art, transforming the presentation space into a production space, or re-enacting one’s own previous body of work – all strategies with by now long-established histories – are still capable of achieving anything other than compliantly fulfilling the agreed art-world standards of contemporary aesthetics.
First published in Issue 160