2017 Skulptur Projekte Münster

‘Don’t Be Afraid of Me, I’m a Digital Painting’: Ei Arakawa’s Pictures Sing in Münster

Arakawa’s work in Münster.


Many art types—dealers, curators, journalists—are today making their way from the Skulptur Projekte Münster to Art Basel, the annual fair for modern and contemporary art in Switzerland. The open-air art experience that is the former is pretty much the polar opposite of what you get at the latter. A few years ago, Art Basel introduced a Münster-like program throughout the canton called Parcours, but most of the art viewing still takes place within the rigidly rectilinear, confined environs of the convention center. More importantly, and no matter how many art deals may be quietly going on in its hotels and cafes, Münster doesn’t seem to breath the air of the art market, whereas the market is the point of Art Basel.

One Skulptur Projekte artist perhaps inadvertently provides a gateway between the two events.

Ei Arakawa has placed LED versions of paintings by two famous artists (Gustave Courbet and Joan Mitchell) and five not-so-famous artists (Amy Sillman, Atsuko Tanaka, Jutta Koether, Reena Spaulings, Nikolas Gambaroff) in the middle of a field far outside Münster’s city center, on the southwestern end of Lake Aa. They look like pixelated digital images, and they are best viewed at dusk. If you want to know what they are doing there, you don’t have to wait long before they start singing their answers to you.

Yes, if Gilbert and George long ago gave us a singing sculpture, Arakawa now gives us singing paintings. They sing intermittently, so, for those who lack the time to wait, Arakawa has helpfully affixed a lyrics sheet to the back of the elaborate electronic mechanism that houses each painting.

The lyrics. (Click to enlarge.)

These digital paintings have many and varied things to croon about. Their primary concern would seem to be their digital existence, their lives online versus the “real thing”—the pressures put on art by the way in which it circulates these days.

But the market is also, more subtly, a theme throughout, beginning with the painting that greets visitors at the edge of the field, Courbet’s The Meeting, also known as Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet, from 1854, in which Courbet recalls an encounter with his patron, Alfred Bruyas, along a country road, a setting not unlike the one in which you find Arakawa’s digital paintings. The reason Courbet’s painting was so revolutionary at the time is that he gives himself the same status as his wealthy patron: just two well-to-do gents exchanging a word at a turn in the path. (Today, we find echoes of The Meeting in, for instance, photographs of Damien Hirst with François Pinault.)

Arakawa’s version of The Meeting advises us not to be “afraid of me / I’m a digital painting.” It acknowledges that the whole digital aspect has more than a whiff of “Trumpean post truth. Artists’ anxiety.” It tells us that Courbet’s patron is his “soulmate.”

Performance has always been a prominent aspect of Arakawa’s artistic practice, and he has The Meeting plead, “Performance people? What can we do? / Instagram hype. Artists’ anxiety.” The Meeting seems to take a jab at the big-money aspect of the Venice Biennale’s national pavilions with “Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet / You paid for your pavilion!”

“Wandering with Bruyas,” it continues, “art system as how one wants.”

A 2016 painting by Jutta Koether refers to the endurance test that is singing in the middle of a field, exposed to the elements, at a festival that happens every ten years, and runs all the way from June to October: “Münster rain or shine, decennial thistle / I sing each day, four months, cruel pastoral idyll.”

With the title of its song, a brand new painting by Nikolas Gambaroff tells us it is a “double agent.” It wonders about art history. “Degas, Redon, Valloton, Dubuffet. Which one is to survive?” It reminds you that it is in “contemporary Deutschland” and that it “might have to go to Documenta.”

An Amy Sillman diptych from 2007 wants you to know that it has performed with Arakawa–likely a reference to 2007 project Arakawa did at New York’s Japan Society that involved paintings by Sillman. That, it sings, was “a different use of paintings,” but “I’m an image today.”

“My buddies in the field here,” it ribs, “don’t they look very goofy?”

But the last word goes to a painting from two years ago by Reena Spaulings, the multivalent entity that is, among other things (such as the protagonist in a novel by the Bernadette Corporation), the gallery that represents Arakawa. (To add a further dimension to things, Reena Spaulings has a show at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne at the moment that includes similar paintings, as well as several homages to Bonjour Monsieur, Courbet and the original Courbet, on loan from the Musee Fabre in Montpellier, France.) Later Seascape 6 is brooding on the market. It sings a song called “Why Am I Here?” that begins with a recollection of its “painful” experience of “endless auditions,” and it tells us “it’s a tough town. Any town in reality”—meaning, presumably, where IRL commerce gets done. “The dealers sit with me,” it sings. “I’m just a face.”

“The dealers you and me,” it continues. “How are we doing today.” It slips in a double-entendre that encompasses both a great seascape painter and the crating up of works for collectors: “Hey Turner, shipped out. Good it’s my last day at my booth.”

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