Josephine Meckseper’s work focuses on particular aspects of the society that don’t make any sense: the quest for oil and profit while a civilization cannibalizes itself, the usurpation of radical ideas and movements by marketing campaigns, and how corporations convince you to buy a brand of underwear. From using photos of street demonstrations (sell a newspaper, join a movement with an acronym!) or hot rod cars (cure your small dick syndrome and guzzle gas at the same time!) to incorporating medical walkers and bottles of bourbon into installations, it’s all fair game. Josephine exposes the real absurdity of our culture.
Her work has evolved from the sort-of-fake-but-not-really FAT magazine, a subversive tabloid complete with stories on sinking ships and alien children but all about culture, with articles and photo projects by young artists. She is now making installations with actual objects and actual ads. A wall of 1970s German shirt and underwear advertisements is currently on display at MoMA in her joint exhibition with Mikhael Subotzky, and if you think those look silly, just consider what this season’s crop of underwear ads will look like in 30 years. Her current installations, which resemble our culture fed through a psychotic blender and spat out into a mom and pop store, can be destabilizing. There are familiar things: “Out of Business” signs, all sorts of ads, slick vitrines, and the aforementioned walkers, but everything is a bit off—out of whack. There’s always a lot to look at in a Meckseper show, and while it might seem a bit strange, it’s more of a mirror than you may initially realize.
Flavin Judd Your family was friends with members of the Red Army Faction/Baader-Meinhof Group and was politically active. Do you think the generation of ’68 succeeded in doing some of the things that they aspired to—decreasing the top-down political structure and trying to get political/power structures to more closely resemble their ideals? Or do you think the generation—that of your parents—failed? Is the result of their actions and those of others (the Black Panthers, the War Resisters League, and the student groups of 1968) a world where America elects for its first black president or one where George W. Bush is responsible for senselessly killing thousands of Iraqis? Or would both of those have happened anyway?
Josephine Meckseper I see the German ’68 generation as a direct reaction to fascism and a collective need to overthrow power structures related to Nazi Germany. Many key positions in the courts and military ranks were still filled by Nazi members in the ’60s, and groups like the RAF or Baader-Meinhof were exposing and fighting against that fact. Other, less violent ’68 activists like Joschka Fischer ended up forming the Social Democratic/Green Party government of Germany from 1998 to 2005. The revolution literally resulted in executive representational power. I see a parallel to the political developments in the US during the anti-Vietnam war era, but the Reagan and W. Bush years were exponentially regressive and almost wiped out all liberal progress made here in the late ’60s and ’70s. Nevertheless, the ’68 generation shaped the foundation for the new liberal transformation that’s taking place with this election.
FJ Has growing up as the child of this generation, surrounded by utopian visions and revolutionary language, had an effect on your work and the way that you look at the world? How has it affected the way you think about art?
JM I am more interested in making art as an experiment with an uncertain outcome. Neither specific formal techniques nor sending direct political messages are of much interest to me. Instead, I integrate present realities and my immediate surroundings into my work. For example, living in New York, one of the world’s epicenters of capitalism in a country that has been fighting a war for the last six years, resonates in my current work.
FJ Does that experimentation have a driver, though? There is a lot of consistency in your work: the use of available media, models, mannequins, vintage fashion products, and other consumer items. Do you experiment with objects because there’s something you want to explore or do you find images and objects that interest you and later put them together to see what happens?
JM I’m looking for new ways to subvert normative mass culture in order to re-contextualize images and signs that have become inflated as a result of over-proliferation. For example, I produced a fake magazine called FAT in the ’90s. The idea behind it was to produce a conceptual work in magazine form, designed to look like the Italian tabloid Cronaca Vera. It was an underground operation without any real structure or regular publishing cycle. Sylvère Lotringer, the theorist, wrote for the first issue, and artworks by Monica Bonvicini, Dan Graham, and Matthew Barney were disguised as advertisements. Around 2000, I began to focus on making shelves and vitrines. I felt motivated by the idea of establishing a link to real shop windows smashed by rioters. I also wanted to bring out the paradox inherent in manic consumption and its presentation platform. Both the magazine and the three-dimensional works exaggerate this method of disseminating information and consumerism. I’m less concerned with the discourse of aesthetics than exploring the contradictions and absurdities of the materials I work with. They are merely signifiers or modes of representation which form a subjective vocabulary of the present and always have the potential to be (mis)interpreted, (mis)translated, changed, and reinvented.
FJ One of the reasons I like your work is that it functions as a reverse assimilator to culture. The signs and images that you use go through the Josephine Meckseper machine and come out as something else. Once this happens, it’s impossible to return to the previous incarnation. In my mind, what was once a sign of paranoid authoritarianism—the hammer and sickle—is now a sign within the Josephine Meckseper lexicon. Whether that is good or bad for you, I don’t know… (laughter). But this reverse assimilation is not the typical undermining of culture that has been going on since the rise of civilization. In most subversions, something (a person, a symbol, an object) is knocked off a pedestal. In your case, the target of your efforts is not really the object on a pedestal. Underwear, chrome car rims, and car ads are instruments of power; they are the result of concerted efforts by huge entities to tell individual people what to buy, attempts at negating an individual’s ability to think. Your work takes car ads or slogans and uses them against themselves, exposing their origins. In your hands, a Saab commercial doesn’t say, “Buy a Saab,” it says, “Saab is related to wars in distant deserts, to oil and death, and you would be better off ignoring Saab.” What would you like to be the effect of your work?
JM I kind of hope for Joe Sixpack types with a sense of humor to walk into my shows. One way to ensure this was to put a fake “Help Wanted” sign in the window of Elizabeth Dee Gallery in New York during my exhibition at the height of the art market bubble a few years ago. To the surprise of the front desk person, people asked about the position quite frequently. Most art world people didn’t enter, because of another sign indicating that the gallery had gone out of business. The gallery’s name was painted over and logos of other businesses were temporally stuck on the façade.
FJ That’s great, misleading signs which are not all that wrong. An art gallery is a store only for a certain audience and that audience took the “Out of Business” sign literally. The non-art audience took the “Help Wanted” sign literally. Very sneaky on your part, really. It’s like turning the Guggenheim into a skate park to see if anybody shows up with a skateboard. Imagine an “Under New Management” sign hung up on your favorite museum. I assume when you move on to the next project you take your old ones with you. What are the shows or projects that you were particularly happy with?
JM I like some of my recent shows for which I had only a few weeks of preparation time, like my solo exhibition in Berlin at Arndt & Partner during the fall. The less I fuss with details and just hammer out ideas, the more interesting the results. It’s the hectic and adrenaline-driven process that makes the works more urgent and in touch with the present, without any trace of a studio practice. A film made out of car commercials, for example. Installations predicting the financial crisis—which included a sculpture of fake puke.
FJ What artists and writers influenced you, both earlier in your life and now?
JM My great grand uncle Heinrich Vogeler was an inspirational source for merging philosophical and political concepts with art production. He started out as a utopian Jugendstil artist, architect, and philanthropist in my hometown of Worpswede, Germany and had to flee to Russia in the late ’30s, where he became a socialist painter until he died in utter poverty. In my late teens I became interested in Minimalism—your father’s work for example—and when I moved to the US in 1990, Bruce Nauman, Richard Prince, Michael Asher, Dan Graham, and Andy Warhol were artists I looked at. In the last few years I have seen works by Isa Genzken and Louise Bourgeois that I admired. But none of that is on my mind while I’m at work. It’s more like background noise.
FJ Background noise is underrated, in my opinion. From my father, Donald Judd, to Richard Prince could be seen as quite a stretch; what did you see in their work that interested you? Anything specific that made it into your mode of working?
JM Works that have overarching organizing principals always fascinate me. In Don’s case, his way of reducing and distilling aesthetic principals to their quintessential elements creates an autarkic art form, freed from the burden of figurative and expressionist art historical baggage. Prince’s work, in contrast, employs methods of assimilating and subverting advertising and popular culture, going hand-in-hand with the artist’s tendency to fictionalize his own persona. Both have a certain way of developing a system that is specific, but complex and open-ended enough to leave room for expansion and grandiosity.
FJ Did you ever go to the Soviet Union before it collapsed?
JM No, I never made it that far east. I went to East Germany several times in the ’80s before the wall came down and had to come to terms with the fact that practiced socialism was harder lived than admired in theory from a safe distance. The coffee tasted like dishwater and the toilet paper was like 50-grade sandpaper. People seemed generally miserable.
FJ Your works that viewers step inside of—Meckseper stores—present cultural images in the same way as typical products are displayed. Just like a sentence’s words change meaning when rearranged, you situate objects in a way that undermines their second-order signification. An ad for sexy underwear might be placed next to a walking cane on a mirrored surface that reflects the viewer. A “power tie” appears on the surface of a canvas along with a photo of a Hummer. These objects are then placed into a gallery that looks like a store. If your world were the normative one, then somebody else, in a parallel universe, would have to do the reverse: take your images and use them to sell polyester long-sleeve shirts in the desert. In fact, if you put your work in an environment outside of what is accepted as high western culture (which requires a certain cultural education and cynicism) your work could sell polyester shirts and vintage underwear. Would it bother you if your work were mistaken for the cultural signs and imagery that it critiques?
JM I think the minute something is materialized it runs the risk of becoming appropriated and assimilated. I’m sure neither Duchamp nor Monet would have imagined that replicas of their work would end up in tacky museum gift shops. And yes, relatively speaking, if a Taliban guy were simultaneously confronted with a Neiman Marcus catalogue and a catalogue of mine, he would probably identify both as Western consumer propaganda. Contemporary art does not yet possess a universal language, because it’s economically tied to an elitist structure.
FJ All cultures are built on fictions—ideas that stocks and houses have value, that certain people are powerful, that some things are beautiful, some are desirable and others are the reverse, and the idea that these states are unchanging. Say that everything made by us that exists outside of our bodies is fiction; are you then making a parallel universe? Will you go beyond the making of stores to making broader installations? Will I be seeing money with your face on it sometime soon? If not, can you put my face on it?
JM Yes, it might come to that. I’m already printing dollar bills with my image, but I can still offer you the nickel or dime. I’m also working on large installations with oil pumps and military bunkers that will exceed any scale that I have worked on in the past. They will be exhibited in Zurich at the Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst next year and might tip the scale on the neutrality of that country.
FJ I would be honored to become a Meckseperian mode of capitalist exchange. After Switzerland you can send the oil pumps and bunkers to Bush in East Texas.
JM Some of the work will actually travel to the Blaffer Gallery in Houston afterward. I was recently there and was shown the Bush Sr. bronze statue in the center of the city. Texas provides the right context for my new work.
FJ If you are demonstrating the connections that decent people everywhere would prefer to leave unsaid, then are you not actually demanding a truth and thus working similar to how the ’68ers did?
JM A fundamental critique of capitalism is built into my work. My interest is to expose the absurdity of materialism’s manifestations. But it’s a more literary and philosophical search, in which I often resort to humor. Think of the toilet brushes, for example. At the same time, Hegel’s fundamental inquiry into how the human mind deals with developments and contradictions also comes into play in my work. Hegel demonstrated how natural it is for us to think in contradictions and how this paradox manifests itself linguistically, culturally, and in the realm of ideas. These concepts play a role in how I treat specific issues in my work.
FJ It’s not just capitalism you’re critiquing; it’s human nature. Capitalism could be just a polite word for humanity. People buy Hummers for the same reason they bought fancy carriages and imperial purple robes: to pretend they are not who they are or to try to be somebody they would prefer to be. Your work is almost archeological. It takes mundane objects and contextualizes them so that they act as examples of absurdity and hypocrisy. Do you feel that there is a “real” behind the fictions or just a swarm of fictions that replace each other when one is worn out?
JM The fictitious parts are very fleeting and translate better to my writing. I’ve been writing fiction since childhood; I like the experimental side of it and the surprise of the final result. But in my art works I’m dealing with scenarios that have severe consequences, such as observations about the endpoints of excess. There was a real temptation to use subversion and resistance in times of opposition, to expose the conditions revolving at that moment. The disasters of the Bush administration were as real as the financial crisis is now, although they were still abstract to most people, because they did not affect everyday aspects of people’s lives like unemployment or the mortgage crisis now do. Either way, art works are consumer objects; they sell back their image to an elite society that is part of the condition we find ourselves in.
FJ If you were not an artist, what could you imagine yourself as?
JM James Bond.
Flavin Judd is a writer who wrote and directed the film Tales of Cerro Chino and is currently working on a graphic novel. He lives in Paris.