Flugblätter at Cross Lane Projects, Kendal
In the spring of 2017, 130 artists from 41 countries received an email from the Düsseldorf-based painter Birgit Jensen. It began by recounting a recent conversation she had overheard between two visitors at Kolumba – a museum in Cologne that boasts of housing ‘two millennia of western culture in a single building’ – during which one remarked that he could not imagine wanting to live in any other era than the present. Jensen’s initial reaction was one of surprise (gesturing towards “the political, social and economic factors with which we are daily confronted in the news,” in her words), followed by a desire to know how others felt. To this end, she was writing to invite her network of artist-friends to share their own attitudes towards the current age and to reflect on their role as artists living through it.
Replies were requested by email in the form of a single image file (an artwork, a photographic-reproduction, or something else) accompanied by a short text, with each of the two elements formatted to print on either side of a single sheet of white A4 paper. The collective result, the message explained, would form an exhibition titled ‘Flugblätter’ (German for ‘flyer’), which Jensen would present later that year at Künstler Gut Loitz e.V. – a small art space just outside the rural town of Loitz an der Peene in north-east Germany, where she was artist-in-residence. Since then, ‘Flugblätter’ has travelled from Loitz to Pictura Dordrecht (Netherlands, 2018), Maebashi (Japan, 2018), and now Cross Lane Projects in the Lake District (UK, 2019).
I say ‘travelled’, but ‘reproduced’ would be a more apt term; the facsimile-based show requiring only a standard printer, an ample supply of ink and paper, and a reasonable internet connection in order to ‘arrive’ at each venue.
Poised at the entrance to the Cumbrian gallery (a converted warehouse, formerly part of the Kendal Mint Cake factory), I found myself on the narrow shore of a vast sea of paper; each page gently floating – or ‘fluttering’, as the onomatopoeic title of the exhibition invites – on the air currents in the room, suspended just above head-height from a maze of criss-crossing string. The scene appeared calm – until entered, at which point it became a struggle not to drown amidst the tumult of responses to Jensen’s deceptively-simple set of provocations. Expressions of anger, hope, apathy, love, despair, humour and disinclination buffet the viewer back and forth through the space; coming together to form strong tides of shared sentiment and spiralling off into eddies of individual singularity.
Many of the pieces directly address the plethora of ‘contemporary ills’ – climate change, species extinction, rising nationalism, the refugee crisis, turbo-capitalism, Trump, terrorism, hate crime, fake news, the threat of nuclear warfare – hinted at in Jensen’s email, and which vague and increasingly over-used phrases such as ‘these dark times’ and ‘the crisis of today’ have become accepted shorthand for. Others offer a far more nuanced, if no less damning comment. Alexander Roob, for example, instructed Jensen to take a screenshot of the homepage of a drawn reportage website that he runs (the Melton Prior Institute). The top post at that point was an image of a grossly soiled toilet bowl, captioned: ‘A Plutocratic State of Checks and Balances’. On the other side of the sheet, Roob’s written counterpart reads: “there is nothing to report.”
The question of whether artists have a responsibility to engage with the problems facing us (and, indeed, whether art even has the capacity to bring about change) similarly drew a multitude of opinions. Numerous idealistic statements and expressions of hope were put forward, such as Roman Klonek’s rallying call; “a work of art that expresses a special and new idea in an original way is always a protest against the world as it is.” Yet, these were tempered by an inevitable strain of cynicism that also ran through the show. Florain Kuhlmann, for instance, writing: “I have come to the conclusion that both art and the concept of art within meta-modernism are superseded and obsolete. Those who would like to keep holding onto them are very welcome to do so. For my part, I can no longer develop any particular motivation for performing in a social system in which contemporary success is solely defined by the successful production and marketing of highly-priced speculation objects for the 1%.”
Resistance to the conflation of art and capitalism provided an important context for the emergence of the exhibition. Just as the counter-cultural Mail Art movement of the 1960s and 70s developed as a way of circumventing the official infrastructure of the art world, the cheap and democratic nature of Jensen’s email-and-print model directly undercuts the revered artwork ‘original’ and by-passes the cost of hefty shipping and insurance-fees. Likewise, Jensen’s e-invitation didn’t fail to draw a tongue-in-cheek connection between the grass-roots exhibition she was proposing to stage at Loitz, and the roster of Blockbuster shows that would be taking place in Europe at the same time that summer, including the Venice Biennale, Documenta (spanning Athens and Kassel in 2017), and Skulpturenprojekte Münster. In contrast to the extreme hype and celebrity status surrounding these international art/networking events, ‘Flugblätter’ places sole emphasis on the work itself, presenting all 130 contributions in a simple, uniform manner, irrespective of career status.
The overriding focus of the show, however, remains connected to the initial question of ‘real world politics’. The double-sided printouts upon which each work is rendered echo the DIY flugblätters (flyers) that Jensen and her classmates were often handed by left-leaning campaigners on their way to school, growing up in the deeply divided context of 1960s Germany. They also reference the flyers that she and a group of fellow artists designed, printed and distributed at the entrance to a Fiat factory just outside of Milan during the 1980s in support of the British Miners’ Strike. And they draw a much broader, historic connection to the tradition of political pamphleteering that began with the invention of mass printing technology centuries ago.
“For me, the flyer is a medium that is intrinsically connected with the actual politics of any given present,” Jensen explained during a talk she gave at Cross Lane in April. “But they have fallen out of fashion lately. No one stands in the street anymore – they simply post their messages on social media. There you might reach a wider radius, but you lose that element of personal interaction.”
Whether or not levels of direct, invested engagement in politics are truly declining, the sentiment certainly resonates with the sense of general apathy, malaise and nihilism widely spoken about in the media and felt by many in response to the challenges of the present. Yet one of my favourite pieces in the show, a response by Melissa Gordon, provided a nice counter to the increasingly tired discourse around ‘the dark times’ that we’re living through. She writes: “I had a Korean student last year who would preface most of what she said with ‘these days’; ‘these days I’m thinking about colour’. Indeed, I could not help hearing Nico drone in my head and ask myself, exactly what is the context of ‘these days’ on thinking or making?”
Whether in relation to art or politics, can we really discuss the evolving present with any degree of objective insight or authority? Regard it as distinct from the times that came before? Or sum it up in one knowing, catch-all phrase? The museum visitor who responds to ‘two millennia of western culture’ with the remark that he could not imagine wanting to live in any other era seems sensible in some ways. The apparent darkness referred to seems to pale in comparison to many past periods in history. At least being alive now, in 2019, carries the potential to shape and change the future, rather than relive the past out of which our present has been formed.
Ultimately, however, the phrase ‘these days’ is perhaps most dangerous in its suggestion of universality. The character of ‘our’ current age will be experienced very differently depending upon factors such as place, race, gender, sexuality, class and health. The strongest aspect of ‘Flugblätter’ is the space it allows for a multitude of voices (varied in gender, nationality, age and prestige if, albeit, all artists), and the generosity of using a residency opportunity to allow others to be heard.
‘Flugblätter’ runs at Cross Lane Projects in Kendal, Cumbria until 18 May. An accompanying full-colour publication produced in collaboration with Künstler Gut Loitz e. V. 2019, containing all 130 artists’ contributions translated into English and German, will be launched on 7 May at Kunsthalle Düsseldorf. It is priced at EUR 20 + max. EUR 15 postage and can be ordered from mail[at]birgitjensen.de.
‘Flugblätter’ will next be presented at Clay Street Press in Ohio, USA (25 Oct – 14 Dec 2019).
Full list of exhibited artists: Moussa Séne Absa SN, Bill Allen US, Markus Ambach DE, Ulrike Arnold DE, Liz Bachhuber US, Vanya Balogh HR, Gudrun Barenbrock DE, Rainer Barzen DE, Heinz Baumüller AT, Christine Bernhard DE, Benjamin Bohnsack DE, Frank Bölter DE, Hans Brändli CH, Christoph Bucher CH, Julia Bünnagel DE, Luca Buvoli IT, Christian Deckert DE, Nikola Dicke DE, Arpad Dobriban HU, Susanne Fasbender DE, Frank Fenstermacher DE, Hercules Fisherman IR/GB, Pia Fries CH, Harald Fuchs DE, Shrutti Garg IN, Clemens Botho Goldbach DE, Paul Goodwin GB, Melissa Gordon US, Ted Green US, Ingo Günther DE/US, Jutta Haeckel DE, Wolfgang Hahn DE, Mark Harris GB, Lucy Harvey NZ, Isabelle Hayeur CA, Gabriele Horndasch DE, Bruno Jakob CH, Marcus Jansen DE, Halina Jaworski PL/IL/DE, Otto Jeschke DE, Sigmund de Jong NL, Celina Jure AR, Hüseyin Karakaya TR, Dagmar Keller / Martin Wittwer DE/CH, Nak Beom Kho KR, Roman Klonek PL/DE, Michael Kortländer DE, Evangelos Koukouwitakis GR, Gereon Krebber DE, Kirsten Krüger DE, Florian Kuhlmann DE, Stefan Kürten DE, Ton van der Laaken NL, Benje LaRico US, Jon Erlend Larsen NO, Denise Lasagni CH/FR, Silke Leverkühne DE, Nataly Maier DE/IT, Zhenia Couso Martell CU, Kaoli Mashio JP, Keisuke Matsuura JP, Christian Megert CH, Aron Mehzion ER, Peter Mell DE, Carmengloria Morales CL, Nicole Morello FR, Benjamin Nachtwey DE, Peter Nagel DE, Hanne Nagel-Axelsen DK, Holger Nickisch DE/NL, Michalis Nicolaides CY, Walter Nikkels NL, Hannes Norberg DE, Anita Oettershagen DE, Kenzo Onoda JP, Driss Ouadahi DZ, Marleen Oud NL, Heike Pallanca DE, Mark Patsfall US, Mark Pepper / Beza Alemu-Pepper DE/ET, Roxane Permar US, Wolfgang Pilz DE, Udo Rathke DE, Hamdi Reda EG, Kai Rheineck DE, Melanie Richter DE, Patrick Rieve DE, Alexander Roob DE, Ingrid Roscheck DE, Valentin Rothmaler DE, Glen Rubsamen US, Stefan Saffer DE, Mia Saharla FI, Leunora Salihu XK, Jochen Saueracker DE, Thyra Schmidt DE, Lars Ulrich Schnackenberg DE, Hansjörg Schneider DE, Nicola Schrudde DE, Max Schulze DE, Helmut Schweizer DE, Rebecca Scott GB, Michael Seeling DE, Marcus Sendlinger DE, Sean Shanahan IE, Thomas Stricker CH, Yuji Takeoka JP, Teresiña Talarico CL/DE, David Thomas AU, Patrick Thomas GB, Barthélémy Toguo CM, Barbara Camilla Tucholski DE, Sunok U KR, Natascha Ulianova RU, Jarno Vesala FI, Haichuan Wang CN, Deborah Wargon AU, Etsuko Watanabe JP, Shirley Wegner IL, Stefan à Wengen CH, Barbara Westermann US, Suse Wiegand DE, Christopher Winter GB, Mark Woods GB, Christoph Worringer DE, Mounia Youssef LB/TG, Miro Zahra CZ/DE, Uta Zaumseil DE, Tu Zeng CN.