Franz Ackermann: 9 x 9 x 9
White Cube, Bermondsey, London
22 January – 13 April 2014
by JANET McKENZIE
Personal travel and the cult of tourism form the subject of Franz Ackermann’s paintings, inevitably representing the dichotomous nature of 21st-century global life: fear and freedom, exotica and simulacra, the crowd mentality and the need for solitude.
Ackermann’s works are hard-hitting images that capture the duality inherent in modern life: between poetry and politics, and between the self and knowledge. He creates a visual structure that exceeds the picture plane. Mental maps form the basis of his working method: they push against the edges of the picture plane; his larger paintings exceed a strictly 2D plane, being more like relief sculptures, employing layer upon layer of collaged forms – abstract painting, ephemera from travel, photography and juxtaposed linear structures – to denote the performative aspect of his initial research. The multifarious elements of his practice establish a tension that is further amplified by the installation as a whole, where the paintings are hung within a site-specific mural.
The exhibition at White Cube, London cannot be anticipated from works in reproduction, a point the artist is keen to clarify. The cubic gallery space in White Cube’s Bermondsey gallery measures 9 x 9 x 9 metres. Ackermann wanted to exploit the unique space, where the height was particularly important to the spatial energy and gravity that could be established. The work requires to be seen as a whole.
Ackermann explains the process: “In the Berlin studio, we set up a model [of the White Cube gallery space]. As much as possible is done in advance as the installation is [itself subject to] a limited amount of time. So we mix the colours, we test them in the studio, accounting for relations within the colour field. I am not testing them here. I visit the space and then we set it up; the trees and the columns are mapped in; the colours are more difficult. [What is most] exciting is that the way the components of this mural [interact with the paintings]. It is not only a mural in terms of a fresco painting, but also still a hanging wall for other pieces. The interesting moment is when the pieces that cannot be adjusted during the process [they are already behind glass] are inserted as details in the mural itself.”
The interaction between the mural painting and the works that have come into existence over a much longer period requires a significant level of control in the six-day installation period, thus creating its own time pressure. The artist sees this time pressure as a positive quality: “You can paint with a brush, but also with time. Time becomes an active role. It’s a physical 3D performance. Using a brush or a pen is only one aspect: they are tools that I have to count with my team, and with my assistants I assess the amount of colour in time, not in aesthetic terms. When we make mistakes, it is not a crisis: this is the [reality] of the [working method]. [Adjustments are required] and for example, we make more details like small lights like fruits on the tree. The whole work changes continuously until today.”
Ackermann admires the work of Michael Craig-Martin, who also works directly on to wall surfaces. Although possessing an extraordinary command of the architectonic space his works inhabit, Ackermann has had no architectural training. Along with the work of Craig-Martin, the work of Sol LeWitt has also been very important to him. However, although the mathematical rigour of LeWitt’s work enabled their portable quality (LeWitt created instructions so that a team of assistants could recreate the works in other venues), Ackermann believes the precision is too regimented for his purpose and for the cultural context within which he is now operating. “That is why I keep this idea of [retaining] so much pencil within the works; it is a very free use of these tools: pencil and painting and connecting and combining the two.”
The mood of Ackermann’s work is close to apocalyptic. In exploring the dichotomies of freedom and fear, for which international travel provides an acutely powerful interface, the artist addresses the confusion and opportunism inherent in the ruthless race for material success. Since his first experience of travel, as a young artist on a travel grant to Hong Kong, where for 12 months he shared a dormitory with 15 other young travellers, he has made a searing comment on human existence. In a world of cheap flights, credit cards and the opening up of previously closed countries such as Russia and China during the cold war, his contemporaries in the early 90s took advantage of new possibilities.
Even despite financial crashes and terrorist attacks, extraordinary numbers continue to seek what Ackermann perceives as the superficial pleasures of cultural consumption, epitomised by the tourist “short-break” mentality: the three-day city visit. Three Days One Living (2013) refers to the phenomenon of city planning that increasingly supports the tourist industry. He points out: “We have a couple of million people permanently in the air, in the plane. So we have a new continent: the airborne population. If I had been asked an Orwellian-style question relating to the diminution of personal freedom 20 years ago, I would be on the street demonstrating. Why don’t we demonstrate against things such as the level of surveillance we are all subject to? These days, there is this incredible freedom, we have little disease [due to vaccinations and medicines], we have our own rooms, and freedom of movement. We exist in a rich cultural belt. We try to protect this cultural belt with immigration borders, but we don’t find a dialogue with the people outside [our own narrow existence].”
The success of Ackermann’s work lies in his ability to create a homogeneous work of art that envelops the viewer. The viewer is drawn in to the works through a familiarity of images from daily life and also by the spatial quality of the drawing employed, to document the artist’s daily walks through a city, to map, to explore. As viewers we accompany the artist on this process of discovery and we are inevitably drawn to contemplate the anarchy and threat of modern life. Ackermann’s elegant formal language initially belies the subversive character of his work. Although his work exists within the German tradition – from Expressionism a century ago to the significant contribution made by contemporary artists who are his senior, Anselm Kiefer, Georg Baselitz and his teacher Sigmar Polke – Ackermann has found his own voice independent of his forebears and has become one of the most stimulating and important artists working today.