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Franz WestMerciless

  • Exhibition

  • June 2002 - April 2003
  • MASS MoCA

Through the summer and fall of 2002, Franz West: Merciless included objects and furniture on the first floor of the Tall Gallery, plus the objects and installations shown in the large second-floor gallery, dominated by the pink intestinal knot, Drama (Model). Beginning in November 2002, the exhibition was comprised of two monumental sculptures, Drama and Kantine, on the second floor.

Franz West works the territories between furniture and sculpture, and between public art and our most private emotions and physical acts. His objects almost demand to be touched, picked up, sat on, read, or worn. It is not surprising, then, that West emerged from a moment when the art scene in Vienna was dominated by what became known as Actionism, a highly charged art movement focused on the human body in its most visceral, sexualized, animalistic state of being. But West felt that if life (and art) were somehow alienated from an elemental, grounded state of existence, the most effective role for art was not the theatrical, blood-infused erotics of Actionism and Happenings, but rather the direct confrontation and interaction with the viewer.

Actionist events were performed by artists, or by audiences under the direct control of artists. Picking up on the interactive quality of those events, but jettisoning the intervention of the artist, West created a body of work known as “Adaptives” in which the viewer is invited to pick up strangely shaped objects. Often difficult to handle and awkwardly sized, the objects forced the viewer to assume ungainly, off-balance poses, and in these moments of physical exertion and self-consciousness West proposed that the artworks (and their handlers) become “representations of neuroses.” Unlike the Actionists who proposed ritualized ecstasy as a conduit to some fundamental state of pure being, West’s objects seem to highlight the impossibility of catharsis: we are always self-conscious, he seems to say, and art is always something out there to be grappled with.

Influenced by his wide readings in philosophy, and particularly the Viennese philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, West came to feel that while art’s ultimate purpose and meaning might always remain unknowable, it should at least be practical in its use. West liked his art to be useful in its natural setting: a comfortable gallery chair, which is at once both a piece of sculpture and furniture, is an ideal object for West. In Kantine, for example, visitors were invited to sit (and during special events, even eat) at a vast table, or perhaps pull up a chair to read a book. In doing so, the visitor engaged with art, adding to the sculpture by becoming enmeshed within it.

West’s practice of creating comfortable environments within the space of art institutions has made him a father figure for a group of younger artists working today under the banner of “relational aesthetics.” “Don’t look for the meaning of things,” as Wittgenstein wrote, “look for their use.” Cooking, eating, socializing, reading — the most basic activities of life — become “media” within this art practice. Add to that West’s penchant for puns and clever wordplays (Kantine refers to “Kant” and “food service”), and one begins to sense the tricky richness of his work.

Franz West, Drama (Model), 2001
Photo by Arthur Evans

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