My Dirty Little Heaven
Wangechi Mutu's Installation at Deutsche Guggenheim
As Deutsche Bank's "Artist of the Year", Wangechi Mutu has transformed Deutsche Guggenheim into a fascinating environment: her collages, a site-specific installation, and a new video form a gesamtkunstwerk that involves all senses. The show's curator Friedhelm Hütte, Global Head of Art, Deutsche Bank, introduces Wangechi Mutu's complex work.
||Wangechi Mutu's installation My Dirty Little Heaven is the first exhibition in Deutsche Bank's "Artist of the Year" program. With her substantial, absolutely distinctive work, Mutu is one of the most important contemporary African artists. As the focus of the Deutsche Bank Collectionis on works on paper, the "Artist of the Year" award is geared to young artists who have created an unmistakable, outstanding oeuvre in which works on paper or photographs play a key role. Of primary importance is the fact that the medium paper is best suited to capture the draft, the first idea-those elements in which the artistic process is reflected in an immediate way. The main aim of our art activities is to promote young artists who with their creative work give society orientation, shake things up, open up new perspectives and points of view.
Mutu's work challenges the viewer. It questions our conceptions of beauty, our image of the other, of what is foreign. In an interview with the director of the Vienna Kunsthalle, Gerald Matt, Mutu said: "That very Christian-puritanical, nationally and historically schizophrenic, beautiful Kenya of my past proved to be the perfect carcass which to pick at and understand myself and the culturally fractured world around me." Mutu counters the idea that she is an "African" artist who draws on the culture of her home continent in her work with a multiperspectival cosmos which attests to the loss of a clear identity. This universe is populated by chimeras that seem to drift around like sea dwellers or microorganisms, touching each other only fleetingly, in ever-new constellations. In Fallen Heads, for example, a large collage on view in Mutu's Deutsche Guggenheim exhibition, women's heads overgrown with roses and pearls seem to float through a veil consisting of blood-red hues. Black lines gush from their eyes and mouths, recalling tentacles or seaweed; bizarre extremities make contact like sensors. The alienation and uprooting in Mutu's images and installations is obvious. She seems to be less interested in reflecting on original cultural identity than in providing a vision of a future in which more and more people, as migrants and permanent travelers, are becoming part of the "AlieNation." In her view, cultural identity is no longer determined by geographical origins, ancestry or biological disposition, but is increasingly becoming a hybrid construct that one can determine and change oneself.
One of the Deutsche Bank Collection's main aims is to illustrate the cultural variety of our world, as well as challenges such as migration and increasing globalization. The first art concept for Deutsche Bank's twin towers is now legendary, with each floor devoted to a different artist. A tour of the bank building was akin to a journey through German art history after 1945. Now the corporate collection has a global focus, and this will be reflected in the new art arrangement of the towers after they reopen in 2010 following extensive modernization work. The artists who were selected are younger and more international. Wangechi Mutu is among the artists, who come from all of the continents, to whom an entire floor is dedicated.
Her exhibition at the Deutsche Guggenheim is inspired by memories of Berlin, among other things. During the period when she was attending a boarding school in Wales, Mutu visited Berlin shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Her impressions of the material discrepancies between East and West Berlin, as well as the citizens of the former GDR's tremendous desire for products which they knew only from TV and which they seemed to worship like fetishes, are the starting point for the project at the Deutsche Guggenheim. Another important starting point for the installation is the phenomenon of Shanty Towns on the outskirts of large cities such as Rio de Janeiro, Lagos, and Cape Town. Shanty Town residents use everything they can get their hands on, from plastic refuse to building waste, to construct their improvised dwellings. They repair or convert items that have been thrown away, recompose things. Their indigence forces them to deal creatively with the few resources available.
"It's not about turning things into something else in an unusual or innovative way," Mutu explained in an interview for the Deutsche Guggenheim Magazine, "it's about having no choice, about eking out a living in times when your humanity is being constantly taken away from you. It's about trying to remain human, trying to make your home cozy even though everything outside you tells you that you should be a criminal. I'm not trying to make it look "ghetto" for the fun of it. What I'm trying to do is investigate what is behind this impulse that is important for those of us who don't have to live that way. As a matter of fact, I'm convinced we can learn from that way of thinking."
For My Dirty Little Heaven, Mutu transformed the Deutsche Guggenheim into a suggestive environment which recalls both a protective cocoon and the improvised buildings found in Shanty Towns. She built organic-looking sculptural constructions from simple means such as gray, felt-like blankets made of recycled materials or brown parcel tape. The creations cover walls and floors of the exhibition hall and at the same time provide the framework and background for Mutu's collages and her new video work Mud Fountain. The form and content are closely intertwined. Her exploration of topics such as abundance, beauty, gender roles, and ecology find their counterpart in her artistic practice, which Mutu herself calls "modest." Unlike contemporaries such as Jeff Koons, Anselm Reyle, and Takashi Murakami, who work with a slew of assistants and have established veritable art factories, Mutu tries to do as much as possible herself. Cutting out the motifs for her collages alone takes weeks. This time-consuming manual activity enables her to reflect on the work she is creating. During the production process, she repeatedly makes intuitive decisions that influence and alter the final result.
It is characteristic of Mutu that she refrains from using imageprocessing programs. That the Internet is "too open" for her as a picture database and that she can recognize "what the problem is, what we love and what we hate" much more clearly from magazines, is not only attributable to the mass tastes depicted. It is surely also due to the physical presence of the pictures: the tactile quality of the paper, the aging processes of the material, the print quality. In Mutu's work, the conceptual appropriation of images and her reflection on them are related to a physical experience: "I think one of the things about being an artist is that your brain is in every part of your body that you use to create." Mutu transforms the images of an alienated world into something all her own. Although she engages with Baudrillard's postmodern idea that it is impossible to distinguish between original and copy, between model and depiction, between reality and imagination, from trivial pictures reproduced thousandfold she creates originals bearing her unique artistic style, which are "auratically" charged due to the very individual and time-consuming work process-through thoughts, ideas, and associations that she incorporates in the work.
My Dirty Little Heaven can be likened to a transformer which passes this energy on to visitors-by means of visual, tactile, or even olfactory stimuli, which in turn trigger associations, memories, and fantasies. The White Cube as a neutral, pure space in which art can be viewed detached from everyday realities embodies, as a symbol of western modern art, a desire for symmetry, rationality, and enlightenment. Mutu opposes this notion with her "small dirty heaven," an improvised, organic, pieced-together architecture which occupies the space, "contaminates" it, so to speak. The architecture suggests that one can ensconce oneself provisionally in this cool construction, can create a home, warmth, one's own "heaven." It is a space whose walls are plastered with dreams and longings, in which almost everything is a substitute for something that one cannot own or be. Liquid drips from upside-down bottles hanging from the ceiling slowly but steadily. The enamelled metal bowls which catch it are reminiscent of mass feeding or look as though they are there to collect water dripping through a leaky roof. The tables could also be stretchers for wounded people or biers for corpses. While the gray blankets hanging in front of the walls and windows can be viewed as a Beuysian metaphor for warmth and protection, they relate to very real disasters and states of emergency.
In the passageway between the exhibition hall and the café, documentation of the project Miss Sarah's House, which Mutu began in 2008 as part of the Prospect 1 biennial in New Orleans, will be on display. The biennial was called into being as a cultural aid program to assist residents of the city destroyed by hurricane Katrina. Mutu extended the main idea of generating money by selling works and through art tourism by providing active help. On the property of Sarah Lastie, an old woman who lost her home because of Katrina and later was swindeled by a construction company, she erected a poetic memorial-the naked wooden scaffolding of a house, which at night is illuminated by hundreds of light bulbs. The work was simultaneously a sign of hope: Mutu developed a limited edition and with it began to collect the 120,000 dollars needed to rebuild Sarah Lastie's original house, a project she launched together with the New Orleans Women Artist Collective.
With their masses of (re)produced images and materials, Mutu's collages and installations address the issue of waste: the daily overload of media pictures, consumerism, ruthless exploitation of natural, economic, and spiritual resources, a world in which bodies have become commodities. She juxtaposes these phenomena with an alternative, more human economy. The attempt to develop this economy is an integral part of her artistic practice and her general thinking: "I have a theory that there's an incredible waste of resources, imagination, and ideas-although they are right in front of us. Often you find them in places you'd least expect: in areas with incredible poverty, with people who seem to be the least educated, but who are actually quite ingenious because they're still alive despite the conditions they live in. In a way, my exhibition is an homage to their systems, to their way of working, to this kind of tenacity and ingenuity."
My Dirty Little Heaven
April 30 - June 13, 2010
Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin