Thursday, November 6, 2008

Mincing around Jonathan Meese

So I reviewed international art star Jonathan Meese's Toronto exhibit for this week's NOW. And it stands as one of the more difficult shows I've ever had to review. Why? Because much as much as I am excited to see an artist of such stature come to Toronto--and I definitely agree that it's a coup for Greener Pastures gallery owner Kineko Ivic--the content is really challenging to deal with.

In many ways, particularly the formal ones, I really like Meese's work--I just love the mix of messy, stapled-to-the-walls stuff hanging with the still-messy-but-higher-end expressionist painting. And in a similar vein, his bronze pseudo-busts are totally awesome--love the mix of mushy nonsensical content and supposedly dignified means. Really nice.

But I just can't be one of those art viewers who's like "yeah, swastika on the ceiling, awesome semiotic-play cool!" Nor can I be easily swayed by the stories of how Meese is such "a great, sweet, gentle, loving guy" in everyday interactions. I can, admittedly, be swayed by the international accolades and opportunities Meese has received, which confuses my reactions even further.

Fact: Meese uses swastikas and other Third Reich imagery in his work. This is part of why his work is popular--Meese deals openly with the horrific aspects of recent German history that many of his countrymen would rather move on from. And I do get the sense that Meese is attempting to use these symbols in some sort of therapeutic way. After all, his mother, who likely lived through the war, is also a big part of his performances and the imagery he uses. I suspect that rather than going the route of suppressing societal trauma, and having it fester and resurge, Meese would like to address it in some way.

But here's another fact: those swastikas and other forms of Third Reich imagery, while ubiquitous and considered acceptable in documentary biopic contexts (Valkyrie, anyone? Maybe some Schindler's List?) are very charged, upsetting, and triggering symbols when used in other contexts. So much of Meese's works' success (as with any artist, but especially here) depends on the special frame of the gallery and museum. Outside of that context, Meese's work just looks like the living room of some crazypants dude with a Hitler obsession and and itch to paint. Or, from another perspective, is Meese just exploiting his considerable visual acumen to gloss over (in his trademark messy, "raw" way) the difficulty such symbols present?

I know the work is more complex than this in terms of its art historical, political and social references, but it's a difficulty I really haven't seen addressed around his work, at least here. I'm probably not looking hard enough, and I'd appreciate any suggestions others have for related readings. But I just kept thinking of someone who had actually experienced the holocaust walking into such a gallery and being told it's the work of a great artist. And I kept thinking of them, quite reasonably, going into shock and feeling angry and upset. Is it okay for artwork to do that? Is it okay to tell someone like that that "the artist didn't mean it that way"? Is that the point? Should we all be able to shrug it off in a post-WWII, supposedly global-village-happy society?

I'm not sure, but I'm interested in discussing it further.


Gabby said...

I haven't seen the Meese show, or much of his work, but definitely understand the off-putting and potentially offensive affect swastikas have on everyday viewers, and can only imagine the effect they might have on people who have ties to the Holocaust more explicitly. The first museum job I ever had was at a Holocaust Education Centre in Vancouver (though I never admitted to it at parties - real conversation killer) which was weirdly situated in a neighbourhood with several Buddhist temples. So it was surreal and unnerving to spend all day researching horrible associations with the swastika and then get on the bus home and see passengers wearing necklaces with the same symbol, only this case it was manji, the symbol for eternity. I guess the point is that, like many contemporary symbols, the swastika was lifted and appropriated from much older faiths and traditions and that - as charged as it is today - it's read differently by different sets of viewers. I see it as potentially similar to Fastwurms' use of the pentagram in their work, which I'm sure is troubling to some viewers as well (they also apparently considered "rescuing" the swastika but decided it was too soon).

With what little I know about Meese, I'm sure he's not using it to reference the manji, but the use of the swastika in the gallery space sort of prompts questions about symbols' potent affective power even in an age where we are supposedly bombarded with so much visual culture that we are now apathetic to it. Maybe it can be read as a positive development if something in a gallery still manages to move people in some distinct and significant way (even if it is in the vein of outrage or disbelief)?

Leah Sandals said...

Thanks for your comments Gabby. Yeah, there is that thing about the swastika being a valid positive symbol in various cultures. I remember meeting this BC artist ten years ago, though I can't remember his name for the life of me, but the guy who has swastikas tatooed all over his body and who also is trying to reclaim the positive symbology of the symbol by handing out swastikas with smiley faces on them.

I don't think that's Meese's project at all, but it does relate to my overall discomfort with some of his choices.

I also tried the "if people react, that's good and they're engaging" argument with myself. But if that's the case, then how come the way I see people engaging with his work is mainly as art rather than as historical content?

I think I'm with you in that all this really could be the main point of the work--to recontextualize these symbols and question what they really mean to various people. Or see even whether they can be neutralized or worked through differently in the name of art and therapy. Or that this discomfort I'm having is why the work is effective. I still don't know, but I'm glad to get your comments and work through this a bit more myself.

Leah Sandals said...

Another thing that's relevant: like you, I've worked in the cocktail-conversation-killing realm of Holocaust education. In my case, I worked for a publisher that specialized in Holocaust education books for kids. So... that could have affected my interpretation here. Further, one of my parents is Jewish--not really religiously, but culturally for sure. So I can kind of relate to one of those "old people" I mentioned being my grandparents or great-grandparents. I don't often, of course, gauge art depending on whether I could show it to my grandparents, but this is where such things get personal, or at least my reactions do.