Can an artwork be care, can it do care work? In one of the basic works of care theory from the early 1990s, an exclusion is formulated as follows: “To play, to fulfill a desire, to market a new product, or to create a work of art is not care.”1 This generalized statement seems to assume an understanding of the autonomy of the artwork that is traditional. It doesn’t take the first two waves of institutional critique into account, begun in the late 1960s and early 1980s, and the increase in performative and critical feminist works intimately linked to them, again in every sense of the word. These tendencies were emphatically brought together through Mierle Laderman Ukele’s engagement with the themes of ‘maintenance‘ and ‘care‘ beginning in 1973. In her Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969! Proposal for an Exhibition ‘Care’, as well as performances in which she cleaned “the outside and inside of the gallery with a mop, water, and diapers”, she drew attention to the commonly obscured, feminized, and racialized distribution of cleaning and maintenance work in both the private sphere and in galleries.2
Artistic approaches to addressing institutional conditions as well as direct exchanges between artists and the public have further diversified since the 1990s. We need only think of the terms ‘socially engaged artistic practice’, ‘relational aesthetics ‘the discursive museum’, ‘new institutionalism’, ‘activist art’ and the increasing intertwining of artistic and curatorial activities.3 The networking and organizational work of Munich-based artist Maria VMier can also be understood in the context of such tendencies, and it stands alongside their own artistic work – or rather, is itself a kind of independent artistic work that emerges collaboratively.
Since 2013, the artist has run the publisher of artist’s books Hammann von Mier Verlag with Stefanie Hammann. They published the series of queer-activist (memorial) artworks by Munich artist Philipp Gufler: Projektionen auf die Krise: Gauweilereien in München (2014), I Wanna Give You Devotion (2017), Quilt #01-#30 (2020) and Lana Kaiser (2020). In terms of the organization of events and exhibitions, VMier founded and runs Ruine München, a “nomadic artist-run space with publication series”,4 together with Jan Erbelding and Leo Heinik, while between 2019 and 2022 they were also on the committee of the municipal gallery FLORIDA Lothringer 13. Within this activity, events, exhibitions, and publications can barely be separated. Due to the pandemic, the FLORIDA Lothringer 13 committee’s magazine became a favoured social space. The title of issue 7 of FLORIDA Magazin is Sorge (Care). It is not simply the issue’s theme, as the editorial puts it, but a form of action and the taking of a stance: “Our aim is to link local figures with voices from beyond Munich, and to seek out new networks of reciprocal care.”5 VMier’s activities within local and international networks are numerous and generative: hospitality, building connections, self-managed artistic work, events and meetings as art, and thus a shifting of what art itself is. But whether this art is always adequately recognized as such or whether it is often easily taken as a self-evident, hidden form of reproductive work, often done by feminized and queer people and carried out in precarious conditions in an environment between neoliberalism and state funding for the arts, is another question: even and especially in wealthy Munich. Let’s take a moment to recognize this form of artistic care work!
At the level of established museums, the exhibition action Site Visit (2022), curated by Giampaolo Bianconi, can also be considered part of the ongoing efforts to open up the institution. The exhibition ran from 8 March to 8 April 2022 on the lower level of Museum Brandhorst in Munich. An installation (Madeline Hollander’s Sunrise/Sunset, 2021) ran for the duration of the show, accompanied by four weekly installations by Munich artists Helin Alas, Johanna Klingler, Robert Keil and Maria VMier. There were also artist talks by Madeline Hollander, Haris Epaminonda, Carolyn Lazard and Cameron Rowland. VMier’s installation Hi! was the fourth work in the series, on view from 29 March to 3 April 2022. The greeting of the title seems to continue the motif of the title of the show, Site Visit, it serves like a casual welcome to a visitor. This is also the case for the two parts of the installation – the paintings, which the artist has called Companions, and the door knockers, entitled Objects of Request.6 The communicative tendency that we’ve encountered in VMier’s curatorial activities continues here. This is all the more remarkable as the paintings and sculptures are object works. The question that opens this essay now needs to be extended: can an object-based, seemingly autonomous artwork be care work?
Hi! is an installation running along the long right-hand wall of the lower level of Museum Brandhorst, consisting in a sequence of five paintings on large-format paper, as well as eight door knockers cast in bronze. Painting, door knocker, painting, door knocker, door knocker, painting, door knocker, door knocker, door knocker, painting, door knocker, painting, door knocker. The lengthy sequential arrangement suggests a rhythmic readability akin to a line of verse, with the suggested direction, thanks to the deliberate ordering of the works, running from left to right.
For the paintings, the impression of a process of reading is further strengthened by their being printed on paper. The massive sheets in slightly irregular sizes seem to have been taken from a single large roll, their ends are cut or ripped, they undulate, are hung portrait or landscape, in one case a work is made of two sheets in portrait side-by-side. The lines, strokes, marks, and spirals on them, in part in gaudy colours (orange, yellow, blue, reddish), form chaotic attempts at calligraphy, a spectral, unreadable script. Technically, inks and pigments are applied with brushes of different sizes or directly by hand. Some lines have become brittle as they dried, such that a precarious materiality arises, a scratchy surface. Elsewhere there are agglomerations, monochrome circles; not black holes, but orange holes, blue holes. Sometimes multiple layers of different colours overlap, giving a three-dimensional impression. Such agglomerations tend to be more in the centre than on the edges, which gives the overall image an impression of space – as if there had been explosions in the centre that are now moving towards the edges. Is it a jubilant universe? The visualization of the music of the spheres? A smudged and unruly Windows 95 Bézier curve screensaver on a giant screen? In any case, the sense of movement is fundamental.
If the paintings are dynamic, agile, explosively bright, spectral, and spherical, the door knockers in-between initially seem like the exact opposite: a dense, heavy objectivity. If one of them was actually mounted on a door, then it would presumably be on the heavy, ancient wooden doors of an enchanted Gothic villa. No reusable silicon model was used for the manufacture of the door knockers, they were formed in wax and then cast. In the process, the wax model is destroyed. This means that each door knocker is a one-off, both in terms of the surface, which shifts between polished and rough parts, and in terms of the size and shape. With their differing energies and densities the door knockers appear to grow inward into themselves, into a darkness that only wants to exist for itself, and which we cannot touch. And visitors are also welcome to touch them, lift them up and knock them against the wall. This also brings the varying materiality into relief, as the range of tones produced reaches from muffled, heavy tones to a light klack-klack. When visiting the exhibition, you can often hear one or many knockers that visitors are knocking on the museum’s walls with.
But the more continuous rhythm is the implicit one in the sequence of paintings and door knockers. The door knockers become the dense contractions of the cosmoses that are exploding in the images. The rhythm that we read is also a heartbeat, as if this lengthy wall was a single living, pulsing organism. This impression is reinforced by the form of the door knockers, as they resemble bodily organs, even hearts, and in the text accompanying the exhibition they’re also referred to as aliens. Some of the preceding Companions had already been shown in VMier’s Zungen/Tongues exhibition (Artothek München, 2020). At the same time, the paintings’ bright colours recall the feminist sci-fi horror film Annihilation (2018, dir. Alex Garland), in which a group of scientists explore a dazzling zone called “The Shimmer”. It’s an alien environment that is continually mutating, a complex network that transcends the bourgeois individual alien. Are we confronted with a similar environment in Hi!, yet without being able to enter it? At least we can knock. Who do we expect will answer? Who lives in or behind this museum wall? What kinds of relationships emerge?
Knock knock. Do we knock in order to be granted (or to demand) entry to the state-funded neoliberal museum by its gatekeepers? In this context, Maria VMier should surely be considered less an established representative of the institution than as someone knocking, as the representative of a local artistic community, one that in Munich is not always taken seriously by its supposedly global institutions: in this sense Site Visit leaves a stale aftertaste. But it’s not so much about this specific case as the general tendencies of an unfettered art market in the 21st century, in which the romanticized, precarious artist has become the blueprint for the idealized neoliberal subject: “For ideologists of neoliberalism, art’s highly motivated, individualistic and unregulated labor offers a compelling model for new forms of work in the service sector.”7 To that extent, precisely the fact that the door knockers remain symbolic within the exhibition, that visitors to the exhibition even during a seemingly interactive knocking only hit a white wall, which does not open, seems wholly apt: no one answers! There is no door here.
Knock knock. But maybe we don’t knock in order to be allowed to enter, but rather to find an exit – an exit from a zone in which it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.8 The idea that VMier’s spherical, spectral paintings could be a representation of the end of capitalism may sound presumptuous, almost like a return of the bourgeois religion of art in search of transcendence combined with an over-estimation of the role art can play in terms of social change. But the supposition, conversely, that art knows or should know nothing about society and capitalism would itself form an ironic and nihilistic end point. Art is neither everything nor nothing. Better an art that shows the end of capitalism – even if it only shows or indicates it – than an art that doesn’t even try. Also, the idea that the end of capitalism cannot be represented is again a mystification. In this sense, why not visualize the end of capitalism, and why not do so using exploding constellations that struggle outwards against the bounds of the image?
Knock knock. Perhaps the difficulty of imagining the end of capitalism also lies in the fact the such a formulation invites us to imagine this end as a single, absolute horizon. A more realistic imagining might be to acknowledge that scattered end points of capitalism already exist, or at least that in-between zones with an indeterminate status do: zones that are initially also effects of capitalism, but that extract themselves from the processes of frictionless valorization. An example might be glitches and errors, which Legacy Russell embraces as disruptions of the system in the digital as well as analogue world in the manifesto Glitch Feminism (2021).
While Russell’s embrace of the glitch runs the risk both of romanticising the varying conditions under which a glitch can occur and of once more othering non-binary and gender-dissident existences, her analysis of abstraction in relation to the glitch is highly relevant:
Gender has been used as a weapon against its own populace. The idea of “body” carries this weapon: gender circumscribes the body, “protects” it from becoming limitless, from claiming the infinite vast, from realizing its true potential. [...] This glitch aims to make abstract again that which has been forced into an uncomfortable and ill-defined material: the body.9
Russell’s concept of abstraction offers a new perspective on the practice of abstract painting in the 21st century such as that of VMier. If, as we have seen, VMier works a lot with the concrete encounter of bodies in the social sphere, then the abstracted encounter of Hi! constitutes a site where the body that is imposed by the state can also be eluded, “becoming limitless, [...] claiming the infinite vast”.10 uch a position runs precisely counter to the reappropriation of the body in second-wave feminism, but is not for that any less feminist. It is precisely non-binary and trans people who are read as female who are incessantly and brutally reduced to their body: by the male gaze, by fantasies and speculation about their genitals, but also by the excessive (self-)imposition of badly paid or unpaid organizational and care work.
A second way that Russell’s demands are relevant to VMier’s works is the fact that Russell does not consider the digital world as a secondary phenomenon relative to the analogue world, but rather aims to transfer strategies from the former to the latter:
In glitch feminism, we look at the notion of glitch-as-error with its genesis in the realm of the machinic and the digital and consider how it can be reapplied to inform the way we see the AFK world, shaping how we might participate in it toward greater agency for and by our selves. [Glitch feminism deploys] the Internet as a creative material....11
As an initial reservation, we should note that Russell's engagement with property relations – digital or analogue – remains relatively general. In both worlds, it is more likely that we’ll run into paywalls with our heads than that a door knocker will smash the walls down. But what is interesting about Russell’s thesis is that digital glitches also crop up in the analogue world, and that it can therefore be considered as an effect of the digital one, even as a kind of total glitch of the digital. This interpretation moves one step away from Russell’s manifesto towards VMier’s works, and the tendency, observed during the pandemic, of artists to seek out some respite from the merciless screen, with its email programmes, spreadsheets, and Zoom calls.12
This is not only a mere return to the material world, as though the digital did not exist. It is rather that Russell’s approach allows discussions about media and materiality as such to be shifted. Concerning the question of what is contemporary in painting and sculpture like VMier’s, it could be argued that the decisive criterion is not whether a work is digital or analogue, whether pixels flicker or pigments are applied. What counts is whether kinds of agency are devised, whether a glitch movement is possible, whether the end of capitalism appears conceivable or not. But if such analyses could be arbitrarily applied to any abstract painting or sculpture, they’d be meaningless. In Hi!, these aspects all come together in a specific constellation. There is the grounding in Maria VMier’s overall work complex, their organizing, networking and care work. There are the titles Hi!, Companions and Objects of Request, which open things up and forge new relations. And there is the above-mentioned fact that the work in this constellation does not so much consist in its component parts, but rather a more abstract, living overall body arises, a living, pulsing alien wall.
In this overall constellation, the artwork appears as both action and relation, which concrete care work does not actually form a part of, but it does at least indicate the possibility of care – between abstract, borderless bodies, both people and artistic materials. In comparison to the earlier works of relational aesthetics such as Tino Sehgal’s discussion formats, the form here is incomparably more open: it is not stipulated who will care for whom, what kinds of bodies can participate, what kinds of discussions can be held. What is clear is that in the relationship between artwork and audience we are dealing with relations between organisms that are more lively and more interconnected, but not more physically defined.
But this time at least, Maria VMier is not obliged to do any more work, they can sit back and relax during the exhibition as if the relations were automated. I hope that, somewhere in the iridescent cosmos, they spend a glitch-afternoon resting and care only for themselves, or better: that they are carefree.
Text by Lisa Jeschke about the installation Hi! during Site Visit at Museum Brandhorst, Munich 2022.
Translated from German by Marty Hiatt.
Joan C. Tronto, Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethics of Care. New York and London: Routledge, 1993, p. 104. ↩
Franziska Brüggmann: Institutionskritik im Feld der Kunst. Entwicklung – Wirkung – Veränderungen. Bielefeld: transcript, 2020, p. 84. On the racialization of care work in the context of waged labour, Tronto writes: “In the United States, ‚cleaning up‘ jobs are disproportionately held by women and men of color” (Tronto, p. 113). ↩
On the developments mentioned, see Janet Marstine, Critical Practice: Artists, Museums, Ethics, London and New York: Routledge, 2017, passim. On activist art, see Kim Charnley, “Art on the Brink: Bare Art and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy”, in Gregory Sholette, Delirium and Resistance. Activist Art and the Crisis of Capitalism. London: Pluto, 2017), p. 1–16. Charnley critically remarks that in the art world, there has been both a “social turn” (p. 2), and simultaneously the capitalist fetishism of the art object has become ever more extreme: “the art market has, up to now at least, entirely avoided the effects of the crash of 2008. In fact, it has prospered: there is a boom in museum building and auction sales for contemporary art continue to rise” (p. 4). ↩
FLORIDA MAGAZIN 7: Sorge. Munich, 2021, p. 5. ↩
Both titles do not stem from the Brandhorst exhibition. On the title Companions, see Jan Erbelding’s text on Maria VMier and Paulina Nolte’s exhibition „In Praise of the Dancing Body“, Galerie Françoise Heitsch, Munich, 27.1.–1.4.2022. The exhibition included a selection of the series. The installation at Brandhorst shouldn’t be considered a permanent complex of works, but as the presentation of certain works for a certain context. ↩
Charnley, 10. ↩
See Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Winchester, UK, and Washington, USA: zero books, p. 1–2. The epigraph to the first chapter is “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”, a phrase “attributed to Frederic Jameson and Slavoj Žižek”. ↩
Legacy Russell, Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto. London: Verso, 2020, p. 7–8, my emphasis. ↩
Ibid., S. 15. ↩
Ibid., 16. ↩
Another example is the work series PATTERNS (2021) created with Sharpies by media artist Anja Kirschner. See Lisa Jeschke, “Immersion/Preparation: Anja Kirschner’s PATTERNS and SKINS”, in Illiberal Arts, Anselm Franke and Kerstin Stakemeier, eds., exhibition catalogue, Berlin 2021, p. 6 f. ↩