For Performa 11, Berlin-based artist Jonathan Meese held his own one-man protest in his own solo show in Chelsea. Meese’s timely “occupation” of the Bortolami gallery was a mad, sake-fuelled rant whose purpose was to shock his bourgeois art-world audience.
Meese’s work often draws on history, particularly that of his own country, and his performances cathartically “act out” Germany’s dark past. He can often appear as a messianic prophet. Pacing back and forth on a makeshift stage before a packed crowd, Meese spoke of government at odds with the individual. “Democracy wants you to be afraid of everything,” he said. “It wants to make you un-precise. . . Democracy wants you to feel free but you are not free. You think you are so free because the jail is so big. The jail is so big you don’t even see the guards . . . you yourself is [sic] the guard and the victim at the same time.”
JAN BAUER.NET / COURTESY JONATHAN MEESE.COM. COURTESY OF BORTOLAMI.
The artist’s speech, titled “War ‘Saint Just (First Flash),'” vacillated between reason and unreason. For more than an hour (I left after an hour and a half, at around 7:30 p.m.; the gallery says it lasted for another hour), the long-haired Meese screamed, full-throttle, a combination of profanities and wisdoms into the microphone that he had taped to his neck. He wore dark sunglasses, bell-bottomed black cords, and a zipped-up leather jacket over which he had strapped two belts-a black studded one and a red one with an Iron-Cross buckle, which gave him a bit of a deranged air, and veered between English and German.
To emphasize certain points, Meese would say them again and again, in the same breath. “We must obey art. We must obey art. Obey. Obey. Obey,” he intoned as he mimicked the Hail Hitler arm gesture. (Meese often uses the offensive and grotesque to parody dogmas, cultish historical figures and even his own shamanistic status, and it was hard not to cringe at these salutes.) He would stop only briefly to take swigs of sake, which he then would spit either on the floor or on his sculptures. After about an hour of screaming, Meese worked himself into such a frenzy that he actually foamed at the corner of his mouth. At that point, I began to worry about his mental and physical wellbeing.
The evening took an even stranger turn when two bare-chested young men entered the gallery yelling. Though it wasn’t clear what they wanted, they weren’t part of the show. At first Meese acknowledged their presence vaguely (“yah, you are screaming that’s good,” he told them) and then returned to his performance. The interjection of the two men, who were escorted out by gallery staff, emphasized the anarchic aspect of Meese’s diatribe. It also placed his protest within the broader atmosphere of our time. His calls to “objectify the leadership,” and his insistence that “no single human should be in charge of the world,” would have resonated at any of the many recent demonstrations taking place across the globe.