Review: Christian Jankowski, “Retrospektive”

Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin.

In a perverted display of sincerity and vanity, prankster darling of the art world Jankowski invited German actress Nina Hoss to curate a midcareer retrospective of his work. This kitschy spectacle of hiring a famed performer as novice curator— although in line with his interest in role reversals, referenced within the exhibition by the inclusion of Mein Leben als Taube (My Life As a Dove), 1996, in which Jankowski invites a magician to turn him into a dove, and Direktor Pudel (Director Poodle), 1998, in which he, similarly, has the director of the Hamburg Kunstverein turned into a poodle—barely passes as a cheap trick, evading critical engagement with the art historical relevance of his work.

Installations, photographs, posters, and films ranging from 1992 to 2014 are cobbled together throughout. Nearly filling the far room, a fully functioning karaoke box, titled The Day We Met, 2003, provides a selection of 3,000 songs for visitors to choose from while four love stories play as generic background films, showing the tall, blond, blue-eyed Jankowski each time with a different, but equally attractive, Asian woman. Hung high throughout the main space, large, white neon signs from the 2010 series “Visitors” blare sarcastic phrases like “good very very good!”— platitudes pulled from drawings and cartoons left in art institution guest books. In another screening room, 33 more of Jankowski’s films play in chronological order. Hula Hoops line the darkened room, alluding to his short film Rooftop Routine, 2007, which is sandwiched among longer segments in the program.

One of the most concise works on view, Die Jagd (The Hunt), 1992, shows the artist hunting for groceries at the supermarket with a bow and arrow. He targets products, shoots, and then purchases his finds. The work carries a logic similar to John Baldessari’s “Commissioned Paintings” from the late 1960s, made from pictures of the artist’s hand pointing, somewhat arbitrarily, at “things.” In both cases, the artist becomes facilitator and interlocutor for the holy transformation of object to objet d’art.

Is it all just cursory jokes and games? In part, yes, but that’s the crux of Jankowski’s oeuvre. He follows in the sardonic footsteps of Martin Kippenberger, who used humor to deal with societal hypocracy. Jankowski, on the other hand, grew up during the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of prosumer culture. He built his career on poking fun at art world conventions yet always managed to do so within the framework of artmaking and art exhibition, wielding mass media platforms to achieve his détournement. But how many of the works are ego-stroking cons, and how much is meant to reach outside the art world to reveal hiccups in larger society? One wonders if Jankowski’s brand of ironic humor can still be relevant. It may be only to those who continue to believe in convention.

First published in Modern Painters, May 2016: Print.
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