Rainer Ganahl at Baumgartner Gallery • New York, February - March 2001


The overblown discussions about the return to painting and its thematic correlative of beauty seemed to have unintentionally aided in a type of theoretical implosion. For art can now safely return to where it demanded the least amount of critical reflexivity from its viewer. This inertia is not only a barometer of the dearth of criticality in artistic practice, but it also signals art’s mirroring of other conservative currents in the cultural landscape. One can also see this with art’s new formalist darling: video. Pity that video in some circles has regressed to reiterating a reactive and antiquated art for art’s sake credo; witness the interfacing of video with the newest technology as form trumps everything to the point of its fetishization. Thus it came as a breath of conceptual fresh air that Rainer Ganahl’s recent exhibition--which could be paraphrased as a “return of the “para”-real”--addressed what maybe one of histories most (in) famous
characters via a constellation of formal and conceptual strategies.
Ganahl’s untitled exhibition at the Baumgartner Gallery in New York centered on documented seminars, lectures and general responses towards Karl Marx, his writings as well as to other tangents related to his ideas and their problematic legacies. The lectures were conducted by post-Marxist luminaries as Ernesto Laclau and Terry Eagleton. Ganahl, however, ups the ante in what may have been an academic exercise by including a video interview of Rudi Gurtin, a travel agent who lived under Stalin and defended genocidal Stalinist policies as well as a contribution by Siglinde Hofman, an ex-Red Army Faction soldier incarcerated for 15 years for what some call terrorist activities and others acts of politically justified violence. These were the main elements of the exhibition, though they were formally and conceptually
punctuated by responses to Marx(ism) through the most “democratic” of information dissemination: the internet. These responses covered parts of the exhibition walls producing a visual and semiotic interplay of divergent viewpoints.
What is interesting about these disparate, yet heated and sometimes banal opinions is that Ganahl plays them off each other like a three card monte dealer. Here we see the stereotypical bearded Marxist academic, then we see the neo-liberal espousing McCarthy-like anti-Marxist gibberish, and up from the carefully placed rubble arises the trust-fund anarchist. All of these personages convey the conundrum of what it means to interrogate the social body by way of the body politic where Marxism has seemed to ossify by virtue of historical change that seems to have nullified its applicability. Concomitantly, Ganahl subtextually questions our placid artistic and intellectual climate, which Laclau called in a different context as the “Death of the Death of the Author”, that attempts to construct a veneer of theoretical neutrality by undermining art that critically engages the world that art is a part. The tired excuse that one still hears in the halls of academia and cultural institutions such as galleries and museums is that such art lacks aesthetic criteria. In other words, beauty exposes its ideological head paralleling what a post-Marxist literary critic has coined “the Ideology of the Aesthetic.”
The idea of the aesthetic as ideological or as an ethic, or lack thereof, isas old as Walter Benjamin’s discussion of the conflation of art, politics and aesthetics at the end of his famous “Mechanical Reproduction” essay. Yet it continues unabated in our own historical moment via the privatization of culture in the most frightening ways: curators who suffer from historical amnesia; museum directors as CEOs who fulfill Theodore Adorno’s dictum of the museum as mausoleum; sound-bite journalists who moonlight as visually dyslexic art critics; and artists who have attend so much to the demands of the art market that homogeneity to them means something you do to milk.
Ganahl’s formal and conceptual net was nonetheless cast wide as evinced by the various elements of the exhibition that cohered together without seeming too clinical, distant , or hermetic, unlike early Kosuthian Conceptualism and its emphasis on the severance of the art work from its social context. Ganahl’s Conceptualism and its formal articulation could have been his Achilles Heel, yet it was through this same conceptual framework that underscored the nature of what was being addressed: a particular meta-discourse channeled in a vertiginous visual and linguistic loop via systems of information that short circuited each other. Ganhal’s exhibition was thus more than a sociological investigation of the state of Marxism and its effects in the 21st century; but paradoxically, it was equally about the complacency of culture and the culture of complacency.

Raul Zamudio
New York, New York
2001