New Living: Mike Bouchet at the Schirn in Frankfurt
Whether he lets jeans rain down from the sky in Colombia or installs a floating ready-made house for the Venice Biennale—when he examines the phenomena of a global consumerist culture, Mike Bouchet’s subversive humor is always in evidence. The Frankfurt-based Californian has numerous works in the Deutsche Bank Collection; in the new art installment of the Frankfurt headquarters, an entire floor will be dedicated to Bouchet. Now, the Schirn Kunsthalle presents his work in a major exhibition. Oliver Koerner von Gustorf had a look.
||In the early seventies, Bryan Ferry sang In every dream home a heartache with Roxy Music—lurking behind the façade of every dream house are anguish and broken hearts. The song speaks of a bizarre love for an inflatable doll—and the modern one-family house as the setting for an estranged, normative life. The Roxy Music song would make an ideal soundtrack for Mike Bouchet’s exhibition New Living in the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt. The Californian artist serves up the dream of a house of one’s own suffused with collective longing, neurosis, and fear in every conceivable variation: cut, stacked, framed, and pressed. This dream, which Bouchet gets a grip on using chainsaws, forklifts, and axes, is prefab through and through. It tastes like freshly mown lawn, wall-to-wall carpeting, white picket fences, real estate ads, and never-ending commercials in which the sky is always blue, the laundry clean, and life like new. The point of departure for Bouchet’s installation is a complete prefabricated house made by the American company Forrest Homes and marketed as custom home construction comprised of interchangeable parts. Millions of this type of home can be found across American suburbia and increasingly in Europe as well—complete with imposing white columns flanking the main entrance.
A 2,500-square-foot house with the lovely model name Sir Walter Scott can now be seen separated into hundreds of individual parts and stacked together in piles at the Schirn in Frankfurt; previously, it was on show in a high-caliber prelude to this exhibition—at the 2009 Venice Biennale. The initial idea for Bouchet’s project Watershed was itself spectacular: in a reference to the artificial structures of a homogenous suburban architecture that creeps outwards from cities in portioned lots and seems to suggest independence, individuality, and proximity to nature, Bouchet wanted to erect a prefab house in the Adriatic as an idea for a globalized lifestyle on the water. As one of the most tourist-ridden and artificial cities of the world, Venice—paradigm of European culture and at the same time a historical Disneyland wrestled away from nature—provides an ideal location to take this kind of housing development sprawl to its limit. It was a huge task to have the prefab house, which weighs tons, made floatable for the Biennial; Bouchet installed it in the harbor near the Arsenale. Owing to a technical defect, however, the house sank two-thirds into the water only hours later and had to be salvaged with divers and cranes, accompanied by the lively involvement of the public. Entirely by chance, the disaster generated a highly symbolic image: although the project had already been planned previously to the crash of the American housing market, the sunken house was unmistakably reminiscent both of a crashing world economy and of a New Orleans destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
After the end of the Biennale, the house was taken apart and shipped to Frankfurt. Around a year later, a completely different image emerges: out of the remnants of the prefab house, the installation Sir Walter Scott has been born—a hybrid of Arte Povera and Minimal Art. Positioned at regular intervals are 15 carefully arranged shoulder-high stacks of extremely heavy lengths of various different wooden parts, each of which constitutes the maximum weight of 450 kg. per square meter, the static limit of the exhibition hall floor. "The idea came up while I was building the house, before it sank, before it was built," explains Bouchet in a quiet voice. "All the materials for the house come in roughly these dimensions and everything comes in sea containers. The formats mostly were 20 x 2.40, all the timbers and everything. I immediately felt, oh wow it would be great to take a house and try to return it back into the forms."
Behind his horn-rimmed glasses, the 40-year-old Frankfurter by choice seems like a friendly nerd. But while he relates with relish how he took apart the prefab house with a small team using a motor saw and an axe, one can’t help but feel that one is sitting opposite an artful dodger. The so-called transformation was a brutal act. Traces of the massacre committed here can be read from the torn-apart, nail-ridden wooden parts, like the rings of a tree. "I like activity and action in art," says Bouchet. "And I like it in my practice—that there is human activity involved. In this particular case I want to show it more than I have in other works." The brutal deconstruction of the American dream merges here with formal issues. The installation confronts the viewer with form, mass, and weight; in best minimalist tradition, it sets both viewer and sculpture in relation to space. A series of Bouchet’s studies from the Deutsche Bank Collection shows how precisely he worked at constructing the stacks; while the building parts were layered in a series of different variations in a factory space rented to this purpose, he used drawing to gain clarity about the various materials and colors, heights and statics. It was important to him, Bouchet stresses, that the viewer receive an impression of the various different stages of the process in the work, that one see its artistic, formal, and highly subjective decisions. One of these decisions was to place discount carpeting beneath the stacks of wood. "I also like this association between interior and exterior," says Bouchet, "also carpets themselves, especially these oriental patterned carpets—their motifs all stem from nature. The four corners represent the four corners of the earth and in the center there is always a fountain with plants and a garden around it. It’s a garden inside your house. So I like this play."
"Inside" and "Outside"—in Bouchet’s work this also refers to the ambivalent relationship between the art establishment and the "real world": globalized capitalist mass culture, the world of the entertainment, fashion, and sex industries—the commercial world that affects our dreams of life, work, and personal fulfillment. Again and again, Bouchet critically and ironically questions his role as artist as well as the economic processes lying at the heart of artistic production. Bouchet employs entrepreneurial strategies, which he continues ad absurdum into his work. For instance, in 2004, for the project Carpe Denim, he had thousands of "one size fits all" jeans he designed himself manufactured in a small factory in Colombia. And all at once, it’s raining jeans: as part of the action, half of the supply was thrown from an airplane over the place of their manufacture; he used the rest as canvas for paintings or sold them as high fashion in European galleries—with jeans installations that resembled decorations in high-end boutiques. The same year, for the project My Cola Lite, Bouchet produced his own brand of cola—pitch black and unsweetened. The production formed the basis for a sculpture of soft drink crates using 2,000 one-liter bottles and a five-meter-long container bearing Bouchet’s cola logo. The black fluid also served him as paint for a series of paintings and paper works, such as Atlanta Gold (2004) from the Deutsche Bank Collection, in which he uses the product design and slogans from a variety of cola brands for his pictorial compositions. Later, the Bouchet Canburgers were made according to the same principle: canned hamburgers that he sold at a street market in Paris in 2007 and at the Paris gallery George Phillipe & Nathalie Vallois in 2008 in an installation made from 10,000 stacked golden cans.
In one of his best known series, the Jacuzzis, which he has been making for and naming after prominent figures without commission since 1998, Bouchet shows just how strongly identity functions as product and brand in public perception. The works are dedicated, for instance, to Jude Law, Steffi Graf, Ted Turner, and Kofi Annan. The bathtubs of cardboard and fiberglass, sculptures and furniture in one, look modernist; they can be used like any ordinary Jacuzzi, although their shape often forces the user to assume uncomfortable or bizarre positions. In their raw and seemingly improvised manufacture, they seem deliberately anti-commercial—like a favela version of the luxurious lifestyle. At the same time, these absurd prototypes remind us of the corporeality and mortality of the people they are dedicated to, conveying an almost oppressive intimacy. Bouchet’s individual models come too close to his patrons; his do-it-yourself attitude robs them of their aura of glamour and aloofness.
Again and again, Bouchet’s works hone in on Hollywood’s power. His drawing series FBI ID drawings (2007) from the Deutsche Bank Collection addresses the fact that witnesses today are no longer asked by the FBI how a suspect looked, but what star they most resemble—a method with a considerably higher rate of success. Bouchet asked friends and acquaintances to describe him with this method. Overwhelmingly, they found a striking resemblance to the actor Eric Stoltz, which led to a series of self-portraits depicting Bouchet/Stoltz in various different film roles. For his painting series the Tapestry Cartoons (2005-), for instance, he created collages from a number of different mainstream film posters and had them painted by professional billboard painters. The large-scale canvases are assembled together from various films like Frankenstein monsters and given titles like Broke Instinkt (2005) or Elephant Miss Undercover 2. They transform the film industry’s sophisticated advertising aesthetic into a wallpaper pattern in which poses, slogans, symbols, and signals come together in every possible combination to form a matrix that can go on endlessly. At the same time, they are classical oil paintings that function as "originals" in the context of a gallery or museum.
Whether it’s a matter of his sculptures or paintings, Bouchet’s works always have a strong performance character and address the process and context they are based on. His work is inseparable from a subversive inquiry into the actual economic conditions that lead to the artistic end product—a pair of pants, a painting, a hamburger, or a house.
In this vein, Bouchet’s exhibition at the Schirn can’t be read as a mere proposal for "new living." The title alludes to the fact that it’s a matter of "filling" the museum itself. Similarly to his Jacuzzis, Bouchet’s Frankfurt installation addresses both the aura of the work of art as well as its character as commodity and its representation. An art idea is always a business idea, as well. While for Warsaw Travel/Travel Warsaw Bouchet started up a travel agency in 2001 where one could exclusively book flights to and from Warsaw, the second part of the exhibition in the rotunda of the Schirn consists of an agent’s office selling pool models with names like Sussex and Petersburg that are based on a simple principle. The "pool" is a negative shape of the house of each customer—dug into the ground and filled with water. Its measurements correspond exactly to the floor plan of the respective house, while its depth equals the heights of the various different parts of the building. Bouchet also developed a model for the Schirn that could be excavated directly next to the museum building. The sculpture Swiss Stack adorning the office hints that it might be a matter of a sort of anti-architecture: a pedestal with a block of USM Haller shelving units squashed together into a block and atop which books on architecture are stacked—a view to wrench the heart of any architect. As with Bouchet’s house sculpture, completely different value systems collide here: the devaluation or destruction of design objects and dwellings leads to their revaluation in an art context. While Bouchet’s works assume the form of modern or minimalist works of art, one can never be quite sure whether they actually enter the art historical canon or remain mere quotes from a consumerist culture in decline.
01 JULY - 12 SEPTEMBER 2010
Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt