Joseph, What Have We Done?

Jan Bonny and Alex Wissel’s new film project, ‘Rheingold’, sends up the ethical superiority of art making versus capitalist production

‘They’re collages.’ That’s how the German art consultant Helge Achenbach described the false invoices that landed him in an Essen court in 2014. In an episode of Jan Bonny and Alex Wissel’s new satirical film mini-series ‘Rheingold’ (2016–ongoing) – sketches from which will be screened at the Kunstverein in Cologne later this month – we see Achenbach sitting at a table, scissors in hand, cutting out figures and sticking them onto invoices. He becomes frustrated when the photocopier jams. For artists Wissel and Bonny the collages are more than just a nice story. They reveal a tale of cultural politics and the dovetailing of business, crime and the 20th century artistic avant-gardes.


All images: Jan Bonny and Alex Wissel, ‘Rheingold’, 2016-ongoing, film stills. Courtesy: © the artists

All images: Jan Bonny and Alex Wissel, ‘Rheingold’, 2016–ongoing, film stills. Courtesy: © the artists

Before he was jailed on charges of fraud, the real-life Achenbach was one of Germany’s most influential art consultants. His clients included Deutsche Bank, Siemens and the heirs to the supermarket chain Aldi; he would defraud them of €20 million. Before this Achenbach was a social worker, joining Germany’s Social Democratic Party with the hope of improving the world. Later he befriended the Dusseldorf-based painter and revolutionary idealist Jörg Immendorff. From the estate of Joseph Beuys, he bought the Bentley in which Beuys would drive himself to openings (Beuys took care to park a sufficient distance away so as to not be seen leaving his luxury car). In 2014, Achenbach was arrested at Dusseldorf Airport on his way back from Brazil where he had been installing art in the German national football team’s extravagant living quarters during the World Cup – the so-called ‘Campo Bahia’.

In one scene from ‘Rhinegold’, we see former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder – a real-life friend of Achenbach’s – proclaiming that ‘art inspires to greater heights of achievement’. He is adopting a Napoleonic pose for a portrait by Immendorff. Indeed, one of the pillars of Schröder’s Agenda 2010 reform programme was based on Beuys’ notion that ‘Everyone is an artist.’ This Beuys-Schröder concept becomes one of the film series’ leitmotifs: Achenbach sitting at the table, gluing and cutting his ‘collages’. ‘It’s all about art, it’s all about ideals, we can learn from art,’ says a character in another episode.

In the 21st century, Beuys’s argument for artistic universality would become, ‘Anyone can become Me Inc.!’ Bonny and Wissel’s series alludes to claims made in The New Spirit of Capitalism (2005), first published in French by sociologists Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello in 1999. In the book, they trace the shift within capitalist economies since the 1960s, a shift they blame for the deepening gulf between rich and poor on a global scale. Added value is no longer created by material products but are replaced by immaterial values, above all information. The new means of production are networks and their products are data. For Boltanski and Chiapello, this shift coincided with political and artistic avant-gardes’ call for creativity, flexibility, authenticity and the levelling of hierarchies. Meanwhile creativity, flexibility and flattened hierarchies have become the watchwords of neo-liberalism, and its equating of art and capital. The artistic avant-gardes and the liberal left, it would seem, are not only complicit in this change but have supplied the ideas for its development.

Capitalism didn’t co-opt art as people like to believe, rather, art became an accessory to the crime. Bonny and Wissel’s series tells the story of how one of the great myths of the artistic avant-gardes of the 20th century – the ethical superiority of art making over capitalist production – has crumbled. One scene in ‘Rheingold’ is particularly telling. Achenbach sits at a table making collage-invoices when Joseph Beuys walks into the room. Like a ghost, Beuys slowly strides around, his gold-plated face falling off in flakes. His arms cling to a plush rabbit. Silence. Achenbach becomes restless. With an almost tearful voice, he turns to Joseph: ‘Neo-liberalism and the baby-boomer generation have fulfilled what you and the 1968 generation promised. Everyone can work when they like, no hierarchy. Everyone is their own boss, no unions. At last, everyone is responsible for themselves. Everyone is an artist.’ It is a quiet, desperate lament that begs to be contradicted. But no contradiction comes.


Joseph, say something!

Silence. Footsteps. Slowly, Joseph lies on the sofa and, with stony mien, strokes the rabbit’s head.


Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Jan Bonny and Alex Wissel’s sketches for ‘Rheingold’ will be screened at Kölnischer Kunstverein on Thursday, 28 April 2017 at 6pm.

Noemi Smolik is a critic based in Bonn, Germany.

Most Read

Two Baltic cities with compact, open-minded and active art scenes
Stanley Brouwn has died, aged 81; a new triennial of contemporary art for Uptown Manhattan
WIELS, Brussels, Belgium
At home in the gallery
Dana Lixenberg wins the 2017 Deutsche Börse Photography Prize; David Adjaye received a Knighthood
Q: What do you wish you knew? A: All that I don’t, of course!
Ahead of the third Antwerp Art Weekend, a guide to the best shows across the city
On Alan Clarke’s Rita, Sue and Bob Too, the death of Ian Brady, and what laughter might conceal
Celebrating its 70th anniversary, a preview of some of the highlights of this year’s festival which opens today
Ahead of Paris Gallery Weekend, a round-up of the best shows to see in the French capital
A stroll through the off-site shows
Anne Imhof and Franz Erhard Walther win Golden Lions; the Louvre Abu Dhabi to finally open
Tate Britain, London, UK
Werken, 2017, Chilean pavilion, Arsenale, 57th Venice Biennale. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Italo Rondinella
Highlights of the National Pavilions in the Arsenale
The best of the National Pavilions across the city and the Fondazione Prada’s intricate, collaborative exhibition
A first look at ‘Viva Arte Viva’ at the Arsenale
First impressions of Christine Macel’s ‘Viva Arte Viva’ in the Central Pavilion
Phyllida Barlow, folly, 2017, installation view, commissioned by the British Council for the British Pavilion at the 57th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia. Courtesy: the artist, Hauser & Wirth, Zurich, London and New York, and © British Council, London; photograph: Ruth Clark
Tanya Harrod on the art of Phyllida Barlow, who is representing Britain at the 57th Venice Biennale 
A response to some of the responses
With the sad news of the death of Stanley Brouwn, aged 81, revisiting this feature on the elusive artist, first...

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

March 2017

frieze magazine

April 2017

frieze magazine

May 2017