May 15, 2013

Memorabilia. Backstage at the Art Bookstore


It was in the Strassenfeger, a Berlin magazine of the homeless, that I read the best review about the current Martin Kippenberger show in Hamburger Bahnhof - Museum of Contemporary Art. I like the writing style of its author Urszula Usakowska-Wolff. She uses the platform of the Strassenfeger regularly, as a kind of free space in the stuck-up world of art critical magazines. Her vocabulary is particular, using words such as "reüssieren" and inventing new concepts like "Tutti-Künstler" (artist covering all disciplines and media) and "Überzeugungskünstler" (artist by conviction, or artist by choice).* Her reviews consist of extensive descriptive information. Yet while reading you get the feeling that the author is not as innocent as the harmless description might suggest. It is hard to put your finger on what Urszula Usakowska-Wolff is actually driving at -- you wonder if the direction that you are heading in, is the one intended. In a subtile way Usakowska-Wolff tricks you into her critical mindset. She does not explicitly utter an opinion herself yet she makes you think one. No wonder Urszula Usakowska-Wolff is also a poet who knows how to play with words and their suggestive power. Her poem book is, appropriately, called Perverse Verse

Perverse Verse, Pop-Verlag 2009

At least Kippenberger would have enjoyed Usakowska-Wolff baffling the saleswoman at the Walther König bookstore in Hamburger Bahnhof. She inquired if Kippenberger’s white oversized underpants were up for sale there. Kippenberger’s underwear has become such a Chose in the exhibition, Usakowska-Wolff argues, that she naturally expected it to be available as a memorabilia in the store. I wondered if Usakowska-Wolff really had had the guts or if it was just the free imagination of the writer. Since I myself am hanging out at that same bookstore quite a lot, I decided to verify. I asked the salesman if such an event had occurred. He told me he hadn't heard about it. That only confirmed my suspicion that much worser things are being asked in the art bookstore. And that on such a day-to-day basis that a question about artist’s underwear becomes trivial and not even worth mentioning to the colleagues. 

Some more underwear in Stereo Total's Wir tanzen im 4-Eck
a cover of Die Tödliche Doris, Tanz im Quadrat

Indeed, the art bookstore is like the backstage of the art world. I have watched drama unfold at its counter. Passions roar high. Relating to the Kippenberger art show, so far as I’ve seen, people get really excited when they hear there is no accompanying catalogue.  A simple “no” won’t do in that case -- people react with incomprehension and disbelief: “Sie können mir ja alles erzählen!” (You can tell me whatever!) There are two possible answers that can calm and satisfy the customers. Tell them there was no money for the catalogue: the customers always show utmost consideration for the money argument. Or make up a most incredible story, for instance that everything was ready for print when a computer crash made the whole script disappear. Customers love such disaster stories and will not raise doubt about your sincerity.

New in the bookstore: a beautiful edition of Marcel Broodhaers' writings

The salespersons at the art bookstores have a privileged look on the art world. I bet they know exactly what and who is inflating or deflating. I would like to pick their brain but I guess they have kind of a work ethic that does not allow them to speak out. I proposed the Walther König bookstore salespersons to do live stream blogging from the bookstore, giving fresh updates on what is happening in the shop. I’m still warming them up to the idea because they are doubting its commercial value. It is true that my idea is not so much about what is being sold or what is new in the shelves: it is the customer who would give away the show. The bookstore in the museum is the nearest place that visitors can think off to vent their opinions - those agonizing impressions they can no longer keep for themselves. Also artists drop by at the museum art bookstore - checking the presence of their catalogues as a barometer of their fame. The museum art bookstore seems to represent the space where transition to exhibition space and the director’s office quarters is possible. It’s like floor 7½ in the movie Being John Malcovich. 

Talking about movies: even the hollywood stars make their appearance in the museum bookstore while visiting the city. It was Jeffrey Deitch, director of MOCA Los Angeles, who made contemporary art into a celebrity event. During the Berlinale it is better to check out the museum bookstore than to go to Potsdamer Platz. Is knowing what a celebrity reads not as close as one can get? That way I saw Jeff Bridges, whose looks are as impressive in real life as on screen. I was so impressed I forgot to check what he was reading or buying. But upon checking later, I found out he apparently had bought something for kids... Giving guide tours at the museum I don’t encounter VIPs as such, but once in while I encounter eye witnesses, which is probably even more interesting because you really get to talk and hear first-hand gossip. A French lady told me she met Andy Warhol in the 1980s. He did not say a word, just watched and taped the whole conversation. Can it get more pop! 

Being surrounded with art books all day long, the art bookstore salespersons absorb the funniest details. I sometimes catch snippets of that knowledge. Did you know, for instance, that Laura Ashley died by stumbling over her own flower dress? And here a list of famous people who were spotted in the art bookstore - feel free to add if you had any prominent experiences yourself! Drew Barrymore, Charlotte Rampling, Cate Blanchet, Kim Gordon, Tom Waits, Caroline von Monaco, Patti Smith, Jill Sander, the Kessler twins, Pierce Brosnan.

* both words are used in her recent article on Wolfgang Mueller's book Subkultur Westberlin 1979-1989. Freizeit (Philo Fine Arts) in Der Strassenfeger, "Beruehmt zu seine bedeutet gar nichts.", 10/2013, p. 16-17.

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