January 26, 2014

Die Tödliche Doris. About Stars, Fans, and Splitting-Up

It happens to most boys and girls bands: the big falling apart, with angry trashing and exaggerated big moves. You are young, twenty something, and a certain breaking point makes you call for a quit. The ones I remember: The Spice Girls, New Kids on the Block, Take That, Guns ‘N Roses ... I wish I could give you more legendary examples, but I was a product of the  90s  - the “Entertain Us!” times, as the music critic Craig Shuftan puts it so well. After the splitting-up of the band the reunion inevitably follows when age (and wisdom) sets in. Most of the time the reason is plain materialism - the money is gone and the ideas for a solo career didn’t work out as planned. Then it is time to glue together the broken pieces. Some bands, however, got it wrong in the ending - instead of going out with a big bang they dissolved softly into something else. For instance the Westberlin post-punk artist band Die Tödliche Doris, founded in 1980 by two art students Wolfgang Müller und Nikolaus Utermöhlen, did so in 1987 -  dissolving into white wine to be precise. Indeed, it is most surprising to let alcohol finish you up when your name is Die Tödliche Do(s)is. The overall peaceful and loving dissolution defied the expectations of how punk was supposed to die. The self-assured and fresh faces on the solo autograph cards that were made for the occasion, were just too good to be true.

Wolfgang Müller's solo career autograph card, 1987

Twenty-six years later one of the Tödliche Doris band members, Käthe Kruse, decided in a stroke of genius to turn things around. West-Berlin is currently hyping (the world is always 20 years late in catching up), so there could not be a better timing to jump on the boat. A Danke! Die Tödliche Doris, Käthe Kruse exhibition visualized the band’s fight. I was a little flabbergasted when entering the exhibition. One of my books, which I made in collaboration with Wolfgang Müller in the year 2012, was in a yellow plastic bowl with gelatin of some sort, with “Danke!” written on it. It was the catalogue of our exhibition Gesture Sign Art . Deaf Culture / Hearing Culture, together with our DVD of the kids’ workshop and a LP of participating artist Christine Sun Kim. As we all know, anger can be destructive - it takes with it a lot of other people that are just standing on the side. The artist Käthe Kruse was present when I was visiting the exhibition. Part of the show seemed to be the explanation of the fight, which was a slow and painful therapy induced process over the years - indeed, 26 of them. The culprit was Wolfgang Müller, by being unappreciative of her solo works and saying so out loud, by ignoring her role (from 1982 till 1987 if you want to put it into years) by emphasizing others (band members Tabea Blumenschein, Chris Dreier, Dagmar Dimitroff, ...). Wolfgang Müller was found guilty of fully (and successfully) promoting a story of Die Tödliche Doris the way he had experienced it (subjective instead of objective). She herself had been able to let Doris go, but now it seemed to be the right time to take up where she had left behind.

True, Käthe Kruse admitted, Müller had been, back then, a great source of inspiration. The yellow plastic “thank you” bowl was to be read as an honest thanks, so she explained when she saw me looking at my dear babies stuck in gelatin. She literally had to thank Die Tödliche Doris, which had made her study art in the 1990s. Maybe Kruse forgot here to mention the second “but no thanks” part... yet it now also dawned on me how the harshness of making those art books into unreadable and unusable things could possibly be read as an encounter of pop with art brut. Next to it there was a plastic bag in which Wolfgang Müller had apparently given her the books as a present - hung as a fetish on the wall. Logically thinking, this bag seems to bite with the argument that Müller thinks her too unimportant to call her with name -  but we all know that logic is no part of splitting-up. Anyway, slowly but surely getting the picture of the whole endeavor I looked at the plastic bowl and was, of course, seriously considering an investment - 6800 euros was the price, so a Tagesspiegel article revealed later on. I’m a huge fan of everything Wolfgang Müller produces, including his collaborations with me. I guess Käthe Kruse saw (recognized?) the eyes of a victim because she warned me for the downside of blind admiration when you are young.  I always thought I was resistant to the whole groupies thing - I didn’t read Joepie - a Flemish teenager music magazine of the 1990s that had a poster of a star in the middle of each issue, which you could stick on your wall with pins. I swear that none of these fan posters made it to my wall.  


Four posters in the November 1990 issue

Fights are always childish - the art brut strategy of Käthe Kruse consistently defined  the rest of the exhibition - more in particular mimicking the “this is mine” phase of little children when their identities are being formed. Die Tödliche Doris always had refused to be pigeonholed, so Käthe Kruse’s “mine” is maybe an outing of long repressed identity issues. Kruse presented the costumes she wore during Doris performances (for instance the skeleton costume invented by Nikolaus Utermöhlen), draped on display mannequins - there where clothes belong. Patterned wallpaper, referring to a conceptual super-8 movie Tapete (Wallpaper) of 1984, was bought new and plastered on the wall - again, where it belongs. The tea cups and a aluminum plate of Kruse’s costume in Naturkatastrophenballet (Natural Disaster Ballet, 1984) were also bought new and hung as relicts on the wall. In short, the art brut strategy brought everything that was turned into art by Die Tödliche Doris back into banality. Only Kruse’s drum set survived banalization and was brought to the heights of Meret Oppenheim by wrapping it up in leather. In a video Käthe Kruse is reading the band’s contract naked (as we know since the 60s - the woman objectified by the male gaze) - a contract that was set up carefully by the band members to avoid fights in the future. The article “Rötliche Doris” by art critic Christiane Meixner that appeared in the Tagesspiegel increased the mysterious allures of the band’s fight, by suggesting things while avoiding to call the culprit by name. I called Wolfgang Müller for a response but his agent (or was it the answering machine?) told me he is not available for comments. Whatever, thanks to Käthe Kruse Die Tödliche Doris is now finally split-up in a way that is fitting to the greatest in music. Give it a year or so and the reunion party will be in the making. I’ll be following up closely and will keep you up to date.