It is quite unusual to see Isa Genzken naked. In Zwei Frauen im Gefecht (Two Women in Combat, 1972) the artist takes her clothes off all the time. In fact, the entire film consists of a perpetual dressing and undressing that she performs with her friend Susan Grayson. The joke is that the two women have to share one set of clothing – a skirt, a shirt and a bra. For the next eight minutes they will take turns as to who wears what. At first, Susan Grayson wears the skirt as a poncho and then hands it to Genzken, who takes her shirt and bra off and gives them to Grayson. Genzken immediately takes the skirt off again, leans on a window and waits until her friend is fully dressed with bra, shirt and skirt. We see a very young Isa Genzken here – short dark hair, very thin, lanky, who does something she is not at all known for – using her (naked) body as the object for an art performance that is simultaneously preserved on 16 mm black and white film. The women are laughing and talking, but the film is without sound, however, you can still feel the joy of this playful exercise as we watch Genzken smiling and giggling throughout the performance.
This film, and Isa Genzken’s performance in it, is quite exceptional because Gernzken became a sculptor at that time; a time when a generation of young feminist artists discovered film, video and body art as a new form of expression against a sexist and deeply patriarchal art industry. In a period when Martha Rossler developed her Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), Valie Export confronted men with their misogynist pornographic fantasies, and Friederike Pezold dismembered her body on film (Die neue leibhaftige Zeichensprache 1973-77), Isa Genzken created enormous wooden sculptures that she called Ellipsoids. Mathematically calculated by industrial computers from her own drafts and ideas, these huge spear-like objects would measure up to 360 feet and fill spacious gallery rooms with an air of archaic beauty and futuristic post-minimal amazement.
Isa Genkzen, always unpredictable and often rebellious, confronted the boy’s club known as the “art world” with a young female artist who subverted the mythically masculine discipline of sculpting with her own uncompromising works. After the Ellipsoids came the similarly symmetrical Hyperbolos, before Genzken would start using concrete for her bulky grey ruin-like objects that would stand on simple pedestals and have names like “Stage”, “Roof” or “Blue Room”. In the 1990s, these concrete constructions would become “windows,” but by that time Genzken had already taken up photography and developed a serious interest in architectural form as well.
Despite all this, in my view, Isa Genzken has always been a filmmaker first. Her films are rarely shown because she exclusively demands a cinema for their screenings. Aside from which, only a few of her films are actually films in the proper sense because Genzken has been translating her cinematic views and ideas into other fields of the fine arts since the 1980s. The “idea” of film is in fact the golden thread that runs through her ever–surprising and refreshingly irregular body of work.
For example, take Genzken’s long-lasting fascination with architecture. At the end of the 1980s she went to New York and immediately fell in love with the streets of Manhattan and their unique vibe. New York, more than Hollywood, is one of the most cinematic cities in the world and anyone who goes there for the first time feels like they have been there before. And that’s no lie: Andy Warhol, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee have been our New York tourist guides for decades and their views of the city have become images of our collective cinematic memory. Genzken’s gaze on urban architecture, even though mostly expressed in her photography, is also highly cinematic. With her artist’s book, “I Love New York, Crazy City” (1995/96), she became a unique tourist guide in her own right.
Genzken is always thinking in cinematic terms, although the output is rarely film. This is no coincidence: Before applying for art school, her application to film school had been rejected, meanwhile the fascination with the medium is something that has haunted her since childhood. In an art catalogue titled Notizen für einen Spielfilm (Notes for a feature film, 1993) she narrates her life as a series of film scenarios, starting with her father rushing to hospital for her birth. Genzken describes how she was street-cast for a film production as a young girl, and that as a 19-year old she was “a stunning beauty” who everyone from film school wanted to cast in their film projects. Interestingly, her bold and naked exposure to a film camera as an adult in Women in Combat happens in a self-directed art project. The same kind of rare exposure would happen later in a series of hospital snap shots which depict the interiors of a hospital room with a naked Genzken squatting in a bath tub. All in all, these images remain a marginal and little known note in her work.
Twenty years after Women in Combat and a few years after Genzken had fallen in love with New York she went to Chicago to make an art film about the town’s architecture and skylines. Chicago Drive (1992), shot in colour on 16 mm, is the artist’s effortlessly beautiful exploration of her love of architecture. Mainly filmed out of a car, Chicago Drive combines the spontaneity of a home video with the curiosity of a tourist gaze. Not unlike James Benning’s city films, Genzken’s portrait of Chicago has very little interest in classic documentary value and is instead concerned with how the medium is able to change our perception of the world. Ray Wang’s camerawork often glides through the town, capturing cemeteries and bridges, exteriors and interiors, but most often the facades of Chicago’s famous skyscrapers. At times the frame remains static, at others the camera spirals 360 degrees; sometimes we encounter Genzken somewhere in the frame and other times we discover that we are looking at the mirror image of a street.
Chicago Drive is marked by playfulness and surprise, two elements that can be found in all of Genzken’s work, but especially in her film work. The editing, the sound, and the camerawork toy with the medium and the audience’s expectations at the same time. Although, as non-locals, we never know where we are, a commentary suddenly enters to explain where we are located, but just as suddenly disappears. The soundtrack works similarly: dramatic choir music sets in and then stops abruptly. We hear an irritating, monotonous beeping sound and then nothing for some time. Later, we hear live sound, then bits of Detroit Junior’s ‘Somebody to Shack’ and finally Luther ‘Guitar Jr.’ Johnson’s ‘Got To Have Money’. For the viewer, these stylistic devices have the effect of never knowing what’s coming next – something that has been true of Isa Genzken’s career as a whole.
Who would have thought that in the 2000s, with exhibitions like Fuck the Bauhaus: New Buildings for New York (2000), Empire Vampire (2003/2004) and Ground Zero (2008), the artist would start working with completely different materials like ready-mades, articles of daily use, cheap plastic foils and toy puppets, and turn her new “trash sculptures” into film-like installations?
When we look at the battlegrounds strewn with plastic warriors, puppets and paint in these sculptural installations (which made many art critics think of three-dimensional science fiction, or even splatter film stills), the notion that the cinematic idea completely pervades Genzken’s works becomes even more obvious. Empire Vampire, for example, is an allusion to yet another potential but unaccomplished film project, and once again combines architecture (the Empire State building versus the Chrysler Building) with a cinematic idea. And what shook our trust in the reality of film images more than the attacks of 9/11? In Memorial Tower (Ground Zero), Genzken turned to materials like plastic and synthetics and took up her old theme of symmetrical tower sculptures to rebuild the twin towers, and hung them with filmstrips. These filmstrips are in fact undeveloped photographic strips and can be read as placeholders for all our unanswered questions. Was 9/11 all shocking special effects, or was it real? Where does the disaster movie end and where does the real catastrophe begin? When does the image turn into reality? Here, Genzken’s art investigates the historic destruction of the symbolic and iconic architecture and links it in an irritatingly colourful way to the fantasy of cinema. Her personal artistic processing of the biggest global trauma in recent history is thus nevertheless optimistic.
For her most recent film project Genzken has teamed up with artist friend Kai Althoff, and demonstrates her great talent for combining elements of mass and pop culture while taking irony seriously. Genzken and Althoff had already made the hilarious 5–minute improv-interview film Warum ich keine Interviews gebe (Why I Don’t Give Any Interviews) in 2003, in which Althoff plays an investigative art journalist and Genzken plays herself. “Giving interviews is the opposite of making art,” Genzken says, and answers a question about her approach to modern art with the statement that being forced to answer such questions is the reason she doesn’t like giving interviews. Making an interview film about not giving interviews is a good example of Genzken’s approach to not taking things seriously while doing just that. It’s a little bit like her laughter in Women in Combat that reveals that although she is committed to the project, she also allows for comic relief and irony. The interesting question here and in her 2010 feature-length film experiment Die kleine Bushaltestelle (Gerüstbau) (The Little Bus Stop (Scaffolding)) is: How funny are her films supposed to be? On the evidence of art critics’ reviews and audience reactions (at a Berlin screening), they are to be taken very seriously.
The Little Bus Stop is in fact not just a wild comedy of manners and does tackle many profound issues of an artist’s life in the art world. In one of the more than 20 scenarios in which Genzken and Althoff interact and improvise small skits, they talk about the potential political content of art. “What’s the use of political art if in the end it gets bought by rich people anyway?” Genzken asks, slightly intoxicated. She adds that all art might be political, but never works as political art if it’s given a clear political intention. In a different skit, Genzken lies in bed, wine bottle close by, and doesn’t want to be part of her own exhibition opening because she doesn’t want to meet “all those arseholes.” There are certainly autobiographical elements in such scenes, not least because alcohol is always present, and it is no secret that Genzken is “quite a boozer,” as her grandmother says in another of Genzken’s films titled Meine Großeltern im Bayerischen Wald (My Grandparents in the Bavarian Forest, 1992). In fact, in every scene of the film (which was shot between 2007 and 2009 in Berlin, Cologne and New York) Althoff and Genzken are either drinking, drunk, or hung over. All seriousness aside, the The Little Bus Stop is also the campiest, wildest and queerest film extravaganza since the early John Waters. Using low-key, no-budget camera aesthetics, Genzken and Althoff open up their Pandora’s box of bad taste and gender bending and find themselves in new roles and settings every few minutes. At first they are two hookers who hang out in a hotel room and discuss the sexual preferences of their customers and the liberties and restrictions their job entails.
“I get treated badly, but at least I am not locked away”, Genzken says, wearing a cheap blond wig and not much more than a pair of stockings and bra. ‘Artist life equals prostitution’, the art reviews screamed, but you might also just enjoy yourself watching two stage hogs having fun with their norm-breaking gender parodies and their over-the-top performances. Later in the film, Genzken and Althoff will impersonate homeless people, cops, a hotel guest and a servant, two men playing the piano (one chain-smoking, one asthmatic) and two babies who watch food flying over their heads. The cultural and subcultural references go from Absolutely Fabulous to Buster Keaton to Pink Flamingo’s Egg Lady and beyond. And when you hear Genzken, bonnet and all, speaking like a baby while a parcel of black pudding dangles over her head, you can be sure it won’t be the last time Isa Genzken does something that no one would have foreseen.
A major retrospective of Isa Genzken’s work is currently showing at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and runs till March 10th, 2014.