In William Gibson‘s 1986 novel Count Zero, an abandoned but sentient AI robot composes art objects from detritus found in space. Despite being built by a computer from discards and rubbish, these objects have a deeply human gravity—both a grace and a yearning for grace—and are highly prized. It is precisely this evocative use of materials and imagery that Isa Genzken gives us in Wind, her response to the death of Michael Jackson. This recent work, at Neugerriemschneider Gallery in Berlin, expertly conjures the agitation between glory and coarseness in celebrity culture.
Five monumental mixed-media works, all from 2009, are hung from the walls of the gallery. The outlier of the group in materials and scale, Wind (Rom), is composed of pages torn from a floral wall calendar, plastic, satin ribbon, spray paint, and tape. The other four works are larger and a more intriguing mix of temporary and durable materials: the weight and chill of large copper and aluminum plates clashes with flimsy photocopies provisionally clamped to their edges, and the glitz and promise of mirrored disco tiles is defeated by the crassness of cheap blue painter’s tape. To say that the work is abject would be somewhat misleading; the scale and materials often point to permanence and beauty, even though it falls short of being fully realized. In Wind, Genzken tells us that true beauty is not possible under current historical and cultural conditions.
The particular mix of images gives the work lyric force. Wind (Michael/David)—made of plastic, poster, photocopies, mirrored foil, colored paper, spray paint, and tape—depicts Jackson in his prime: styled, dancing, iconic. Gold spray paint adorns the cheap posters, giving Jackson a top hat or circling his exposed chest. The composition is also inflected by a centrally-placed image of the famous marble statue; a small copy of Lochner’s Altar of the City Patrons; and multi-colored curving marks that look like an enlarged thumbprint. In this way Genzken points the viewer to the distinction of Jackson’s oeuvre, inviting connections that signal individuality, singularity, and exceptionalism. But on closer inspection she undercuts her own assertions: the posters of Jackson are printed with © Annie Liebowitz, the original author of the photo; ripped from a book, the tattered reproduction of Lochner’s altar has his name and information about the piece at the bottom. It’s as if Genzken wants to build a new Oz, and then perversely delights in drawing back the curtain on her own construction: The gold? Cheap paint. The rainbow? A tacky photocopy. Our heroes? Well…
And yet, there is a scavenged poetry, too. Wind (Michael) uses repetition to evoke a sense of loss. Against a background of alternating copper and aluminum panels, the piece depicts Jackson in concert, leaping into the air in a dance routine. The photos (more cheap photocopies) are attached to the first two of the three copper panels, establishing a visual rhythm that points to the blankness of the last panel. Despite the heroic scale of the piece, the apparent permanence of the metal, and the brightly colored papers, the piece is cold and despairing.
The various compositions of the pieces are anarchic but not disorganized. Materials, too, are severely contrasting but not completely unharmonious. If the work is, as stated in the press release, “concerned with the depiction of this immaterial force of nature,” it seems that Genzken shows us a wind that can simultaneously elevate and sully. In the end, the work feels less specifically about the adoration and dejection of Michael Jackson than about the society that produced him.