The Night of the Gatherer

Max Frisinger picks up what other people throw away and binds it into sculptural cartographies of the city

Max Frisinger, Altar, 2008

Max Frisinger, Altar, 2008

Not long after sundown, I meet Max Frisinger in Kreuzberg for an excursion. For nine years now, he’s been doing this: roaming around at night and collecting stuff. At first he walked, but for a few years now he’s been using a bike with a specially built trailer. We set off into the mild spring night…

Hold on – is this going to be the usual serving of local urban colour and social kitsch to avoid the hard work of understanding art in favour of waffling on about the artist’s authentic life? I can see the article already: a busy crossroads in Kreuzberg, here a kebab shop, there a street punk and in the middle the sculptor with the rag-and-bone-man thing. Oh no, not that, please. Especially not with Frisinger. He goes about the business of collecting with a cheerful casualness which belies the fact that this technique is actually a peculiarly crafty sculptural one. His approach is not indiscriminate, it requires a concrete, cognitive-haptic procedure. It involves compositional decisions that recall abstract-gestural painting – minus the signature style of the artist in the polymorphous smearing and shaping of wet paint. In contrast to painting, the pieces of foam rubber, the garden chairs and the skeletal prams remain stubbornly present as former items of practical use, adding their voices to the abstracting process of composition.

Consider for example the installation k21 (2009) presented by Frisinger for his intermediate diploma show at the Hamburg Art Academy. In one corner of the space, a section four metres wide and five metres high was set apart, its edges and outer surfaces marked by battered laminated boards in various shades of grey, and one in red, positioned like a Constructivist dash of colour. Looking between the boards was like looking into the insides of a machine whose tubes and wires have become hopelessly tangled. A ladder, a rolled up piece of orange carpet, hose pipes and aluminium struts; two handsaws, their blades pointing downwards, their handles arranged like the eyes of an African mask; a silver bass guitar, hung from a clothes horse with an ornamental golden ball for a head and a lifebelt as a hat, draped with old electric cables (so there are also anthropomorphic, puppet-like elements); and among all this, the ropes, elastic bands, chains and pulleys strapping the objects in place. Rather than making heaps or solid blocks, Frisinger always works with this kind of fixing in space between crowding and airiness.

Spydermanstudio (2010), for example, is a gravity-defying weave of objects suspended from the ceiling inside the cuboid form of a room. This piece – rather than recalling a compulsive hoarder filling his home with garbage – is reminiscent of something more like an astronaut combatting the tedium in a space station by making absurd connections between different pieces of his equipment.

Max Frisinger, Spydermanstudio, 2010, Detail

Max Frisinger, Spydermanstudio, 2010, Detail

Beyond ideas of Spiderman and astronauts, this work can also be described in more down-to-earth terms within the history of (Post-)Minimal Art: Frisinger positions a volume in space, at the same time as filling it with holes. In a single gesture, he uses the found everyday item and abstracts from it by showing it as one of many. As objects in space, his works have the kind of theatricality criticized in Minimal art by Michael Fried in 1967 (art as stage prop); but at the same time, their pictorial quality also allows the viewer to become totally immersed in the visual experience, the kind of absorption evoked by Fried in the following decades. In contrast to the welded metal sculptures of Anthony Caro preferred by Fried, Frisinger’s work achieves this effect not by a composition rendered uniform through the application of paint, but by means of bricolage. Rather than a mere hotchpotch of symbolic and fetishist references, Frisinger’s take on this approach creates something woven, like a spider’s web, where what is caught forms both a reservoir and a component of the whole.

No contemporary artist I know of performs this weaving more successfully than Frisinger. There is no mystique involved; one is tempted to view him as something more akin to a mathematical wizard capable of memorizing endless columns of prime numbers; hence the field trip to see exactly what happens when Frisinger looks for material. When he started out in Bremen, he explains, a round tabletop gave him an answer to the question: How to draw the perfect circle? There’s no need to draw it – it’s already there. Sounds a bit like a parable, like Giotto the shepherd boy drawing the perfect sheep. In the Renaissance legend, the artist bears everything within him, nature speaks through him; in this Modernist version, the same function is performed by the object, through which technology speaks. One is a little too messianic (the artist as chosen one), the other deceptively pragmatic (the artist as aesthetic engineer). But Frisinger has long since moved on from the perfect circle; his is not a purist project. In his constructive process of abstraction, waste is no longer waste: nevertheless, it continues to bear the specific traces of urban life, the subtle as well as obvious differences of taste and social status.

This is the process described by Charles Baudelaire when he writes about the rag-picker: ‘Everything that the big city has thrown away […] he catalogues and collects. […] He sorts things out and selects judiciously; like a miser guarding a treasure, he collects refuse which will assume the shape of useful and gratifying objects between the jaws of the goddess of Industry.’ Quoting and translating this passage, Walter Benjamin emphasizes Baudelaire’s implicit comparison with the poet. According to Benjamin, the poet is an ‘illustrious type’ onto which a ‘common type’ is ‘as it were, superimposed’ – he is ‘permeated by the features of the rag-picker’. Yet, however poor the poet may be, all of this remains an allegory, with its talk of ‘word rags’ and ‘scraps of language’. And this is where the parallel with Frisinger ends: in his case, the superimposition of the rag-picker onto the artist is not an allegorically sanitized process, but a literal, ‘dirty’ one – dirty to the point of inevitable associations with the chaotic tangles of junk left in the wake of major natural disasters.

Max Frisinger, Noah’s Ark (CocoRosie), 2010, Detail

Max Frisinger, Noah’s Ark (CocoRosie), 2010, Detail

This is also the crucial difference between Frisinger’s work and the pictorial sculptures assembled out of plastic household utensils by Jessica Stockholder, which are characterized by the ease of procuring the materials used – a simple matter of selecting shapes and colours from the wide range available in shops. By contrast, Frisinger’s objects bear traces of use, and their integration into the sculpture’s structure is governed to a greater degree by chance. More than a feat of engineering (the precision of a clock mechanism), they resemble the improvised solutions to practical problems (towel wrapped around dripping tap; chewing gum used as grout). And this quality is even present when they become trompe-l’oeil, as in his work Altar of 2008, realized at St. Catharine’s Church in Hamburg, where it was fitted into the sober Protestant neo-Gothic cross vault like a sumptuous Catholic Baroque altar. Marble columns are represented by rolled-up lengths of corrugated foam rubber, ornamental arches by drainpipes, cherubs by cardboard ladies from the red light district, comets’ tails by plastic rails.
Since 2010, Frisinger has also been mounting his finds inside large terrarium-like vitrines.

This change of register cannot be reduced to the obvious benefits in terms of longevity and transport (which historically were not the only advantages of oil on canvas over frescos). The loss of scale and scope is balanced, thanks to the imposition of standardized formal limitations, by an increase in concentration and viewability. And Frisinger explores the possibilities of this format. Noah’s Ark (CocoRosie) (2010) is like a 3D version of Piet Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie-Woogie (1942–43) that looks different from each side, with random details in the material (rough wood, blue and yellow plastic from the nursery), but always follows the basic pattern of a right-angled grid. In contrast, Invisible (Sophie Hunger) (2010) is like looking inside a cargo container – rendering the invisible visible. Here, too, everything is arranged with careful consideration, but this time as if it were less a matter of compositional finesse than of stowing rolled up pieces of foam rubber and all kinds of wooden junk in a container in the most secure and space-serving way possible: a kind of ironically modest rejection of the noble claims that resonate in the notion of virtuoso composition.

In Papa Butterfly (Secret Sauna Sirens) (2010), circular fragments of cane furniture and clothes stands are fixed by wire in an airy but immobile constellation, like a freeze-frame image of the inside of a tornado. Finally, Russian Ballerina (China Woman) (2010) is the vitrine most clearly formulated for frontal pictorial impact, as Frisinger made clear last autumn – when he exhibited the piece as part of his solo show at Contemporary Fine Arts gallery in Berlin – by pushing it right up against the wall. It was like standing before a miniature cabinet of curiosities, complete with totem masks (a plastic abdominal muscle trainer topped of with a feather duster), a voodoo scratching post for cats (a branching section of a thick tree trunk wrapped around with rope) and a fertility symbol (a pink baby’s bathtub fitted with a strip of red plastic).

Max Frisinger, k21, 2009

Max Frisinger, k21, 2009

Faced with vitrines containing everyday objects preserved like relics, works by Arman and Joseph Beuys automatically come to mind. But perhaps in Frisinger’s case it has more to do with the new kind of concrete art Allan Kaprow, inspired by Jackson Pollock’s painting, called for in 1958; an art made out of ordinary things like ‘paint, chairs, food, electric and neon lights, smoke, water, old socks, a dog, movies.’ Frisinger’s take on this is dominated by the chairs and the old socks (but without the Utopian belief in the Happening, which no longer holds the promise of liberation for artists and viewers).

During our night out in Kreuzberg, after roaming around for a while – ‘it’s like fishing’ says Frisinger – in a poorly lit canal-side street, we come across a skip. In among all sorts of filthy, amorphous trash, there’s a large, non-filthy object whose morphology is clearly identifiable: the polystyrene support for a bathtub, one side still covered with tiles. It’s like a nod from reality to the sculptural adaptations of just such things in the work of Manfred Pernice. A piece has been broken off, but that doesn’t matter. A few streets further, on Sonnenallee in Neukölln, stands the three-part mirror from a dressing table; the two holes where lamps were once mounted look like hollow eyes in a large, mirrored mask. A few hundred yards further on, a folding ladder leans against an electrical distribution box; Frisinger checks whether it can be made to work (it can, with two screws and a little persuasion) and takes the ladder. The whole thing is marvellously absurd: he checks his find to make sure it functions, although its regular function is of no importance to him as part of a work. He searches among rubbish, stuff that has been discarded as useless, for things he can use for ‘useless’ (i.e. not serving any immediate purpose) art.

The broken bathtub support is a sculptural volume; the mirror mask face is a picture; the (almost) functional ladder is a structural-constructive element. These three finds already contain all that Frisinger needs. Where they were found, whether by dim lamplight or the light of a pocket torch, whether it was raining or a mild breeze was blowing: all these conditions surrounding the discovery are like mnemonics, aiding their subsequent adaptation within Frisinger’s sculptural constructions. It’s about familiarity with the objects and, at the same time, an artistic cartography of urban space. In other words: if he were to have assistants gather stuff by the container-load, the result might be nothing, or a load of rubbish (just as social media sites like Facebook depend on links to events in actual reality in order to function). As the masters of memory in antiquity and the Middle Ages placed the words of a text to be memorized in the rooms of an imaginary palace (the introduction in the fireplace, the punch line in the bathtub), so all of Frisinger’s finds remain present in his mind on account of the circumstances of their discovery. Is there a better argument in favour of doing it yourself than the importance of remembering?
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Jörg Heiser is director of the Institute for Art in Context at the University of the Arts, Berlin, Germany.

Issue 1

First published in Issue 1

Summer 2011

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