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Greetings from the Benelux Pt. 2

by Jörg Heiser

I first have to make a confession. In the first part of this report from the Benelux I omitted a crucial bit about the Tino Sehgal show at Jan Mot Gallery. But that was for the sake of not ruining the experience, which kind of depends on the visitor being sort of unprepared (that word of mouth has the same effect is another matter). And so my response to this exhibition will be posted separately towards its end in a few weeks.

image: Justine Frank, unknown photographer, 1928

Never mind, there was more to see. After Brussels, Antwerp. I’m sure it’s the cliché to say that, but still: you immediately sense that it’s brimming with fashion and design to an exceptional extent for such a relatively moderate-sized city (470,000 inhabitants); people look well-dressed, elegant; furniture design stores abound. In one of the gallery streets, the Ann Demeulemeester flagship store is located (the other three are in Hongkong, Tokyo, and Seoul; here’s a short Suzy Menkes clip on Demeulemeester’s men’s winter collection 2009/10).)

Of course the shop is elegantly minimalist to the extreme, but if fashion critics these days talk about the new sobriety of fashion in the face of crisis, then that is just silly – that kind of elegant minimalism was as much a part of the boom era as was the glitz’n’bling.

At Michelin Swayzer, new works by Christopher Wool – what can I say, elegant as ever, with their black-and-white cipher-like gestural spray-paint lines treated with his characteristic technique of smearing these over again with a rag soaked in solvent. There are some silk-screens which translate and reassemble this work into singular print compositions. This is all very eloquent, but also strangely, statically cold after all these years of exploration – maybe Albert Oehlen’s mid 1990s lesson that there can be no ‘clean solution’ through abstraction still struggles to break through in the Wool universe.
I loved Leon Vranken’s show at Stella Lohaus, read more here. In any case he presented anything but a ‘clean solution’. And you can’t really talk about sobriety when it comes to the show at Extra City: the Kunsthalle-type space run by German Anselm Franke (formerly Kunst-Werke Berlin) currently features what is possibly the craziest show in Europe at the moment, and the main reason for my short stop-over in Antwerp: ‘Justine Frank (1900–1943) A Retrospective’. The coloured walls are full of work of the Jewish-Belgian surrealist who was a lover of Georges Bataille and died in Tel Aviv in 1943. Small canvasses and watercolours, most dating from the 1930s, an orgy of excess and obscenity, much in the vein of a Surrealist desublimation, of polymorphous perversity, mixed in with Jewish iconography – at the time of the Holocaust. All of this work is a contemporary invention of Israeli artist Roee Rosen – Justine Frank is his alter ego. It’s a bit as if Kara Walker’s subject was not the trauma and impossibility to come to terms with slavery in the US, but the trauma and impossibility to come to terms with the history of anti-Semitism.

One could write this whole endeavour off as frivolous provocation. But that would mean to miss the crucial point. Roee Rosen rather consciously and in the most reflected manner possible brings up the question whether it is truly the case that only abstract art can adequately respond to the Holocaust and its aftermath in Jewish contemporary culture – with the emphasis on ‘adequate’. How adequate is adequate? Does trauma really only warrant a void and the negation of representation – doesn’t it inherently ask for a kind of hysterical overdetermination? Israeli, Berlin-based curator Hila Peleg – initiator of the Justine Frank project at Extra City – says that Roee Rosen’s credibility and earnestness is not least confirmed by the fact that he has been one of the most influential and thorough art teachers in Israel (art and art history at Bezalel Academy of Art and at Beit Berl College). Next, and last: Amsterdam, in part 3.

About the author

  • Jörg Heiser's photo

    Jörg Heiser is co-editor of frieze and co-publisher of frieze d/e. He is based in Berlin.