Spring 2008 Book Review
by Rachel Hopper
Marion Ackermann (ed.)
Hatje Cantz, Kunstmuseum Stuttgart, 2007
168 pages, $50
Josephine Meckseper has an acuity for juxtapositions of fashion and politics, passion and style. Her photographs, films, installations, and assemblages remix familiar modes of presentation—merchandising, photojournalism, and political propaganda—in puzzling combinations that create a visually lush, subtly provocative experience. The Kunstmuseum Stuttgart's catalog, which accompanied Meckseper's first major solo exhibition, provides a critical introduction to the conceptual artist's practice. The book includes an interview with the artist by exhibition curator Simone Schimpf, and essays by Okwui Enwezor and Christian Holler. Although articles have appeared about Meckseper in Artforum, Frieze, and the New York Times, this catalog is the first publication to track the artist's development over recent decades and to allow Meckseper to discuss her own art in depth.
The texts offer many insights into Meckseper's work, including her perspective as a modern-day Marxist. Although the artist states, "the basic foundation of my work is a critique of capitalism," her leftist leanings are tempered by a healthy skepticism toward rhetoric and hegemony (27). The book opens with her series of photographs, "The Stuttgart Cycle" (2004). The pictures record mundane scenes from Stuttgart's streets: shoes for sale, posters of models in a hair salon, a placard announcing a demonstration for "solidarity and class struggle," graffiti supporting the Red Army Faction, a view through barbed wire of the Stammheim prison, and the main desk of Christian Democratic Union party headquarters. References to left wing politics in the same series as photographs of commercial displays are not as disjunctive as you might expect. Her matter-of-fact presentation of opposing slogans, signs, and signifiers causes each to blend into the next, until they start to feel the same - loaded and lonely.
In their essays, Enwezor and Holler contextualize Meckseper amidst other artists and theorists. Enwezor mentions others who have used "negation" as a fundamental concept in their work - Andy Warhol, David Hammons, Barbara Kruger, and Jenny Holzer (48). Like these artists, Meckseper reasserts "the radical potential of artistic forms in the commodified field of political cynicism." Holler builds on Enwezor's arguments emphasizing the feeling of "escalation" in her work "for while appearing to surrender peacefully to the triumph of capitalism, they are nevertheless charged with a potential for tension which disturbs this same deceptive peace." (124)
In her interview Meckseper explains, "Instead of aestheticizing political issues and problems, what I try to do is challenge ingrained perspectives, for instance, habits of seeing in leafing through a newspaper in which horror stories from Iraq appear side by side with underwear advertisements" (27). This sensitivity to the cacophony of mixed messages in print media may relate to Meckseper's work as a photo editor for Der Spiegel in the 1990s and to her time spent earning her MFA at the California Institute of the Arts from 1990 to 1992. In the midst of the Rodney King riots, she snapped pictures of the chaos. She later made a film that interspersed these still images with footage of a lecture by Felix Guattari. The book also offers rare glimpses of the magazine Meckseper published in the early 1990s, FA7, a quirky blend of artist inserts with sensational tabloidesque pictures and stories. With her conceptual contrasts and low-end aesthetics, she seems visually attuned to an underlying static: the white noise of commercialism and the politics that purport to stand apart from it. In this context, the fact that the Stuttgart exhibition was sponsored by Hugo Boss, the very same company whose underwear advertisements appear in Meckseper's displays, is both ironic and fitting.
Although Meckseper is skilled at evoking the numbing and confusing struggles that surround us, what is most moving about her art are those moments that cut through the grey area, from references to the very real destruction of war, to the exposed look in the eyes of her models. These are the punctum that draw us in, remind us of what's at stake, and reveal the wounds inflicted by power and greed.
The corresponding exhibition was on view at the Kunstmuseum Stuttgart from July 14 to October 28, 2007.