Profile: Isa Genzken

Isa Genzken always wanted the courage to do "totally crazy, impossible, wrong things.”


The oeuvre of artist and phenomenon Isa Genzken is rooted in the medium of sculpture, but before you start thinking of marble, stone or bronze, think again. Her work encompasses installation, film, video, painting, collage and photography. The art world praises her for her incessant pursuit of artistic renewal and willingness to risk everything in that quest. In the Journal of Contemporary Art, Genzken sums it up like this: “I always wanted to have the courage to do totally crazy, impossible, and also wrong things.”

Glamcult loves German artist Isa Genzken for her unorthodox vision of the world around us. For her radical use of materials usually not connected with established art (graffiti spray paint, epoxy, window dummies). For her seemingly nonchalant attitude towards putting together her work. For her passion for all things unpolished and underground. The innovation and invention of her work, rich in autobiographical elements and subtle comments on society, have served as a source of inspiration for generations of artists and art lovers. Despite being schooled as a sculptor, Genzken has never felt constrained in her use of media. Rather, she’s always challenged the concept of sculpture, scanning the boundaries of the discipline while working around themes such as big-city life, fashion, architecture, the human body, subcultures and (dance) music. She started to experiment in the 1970s, while studying art history and fine art, with computer-calculated abstract sculptures, followed by wooden spear-shaped objects (ellipsoids and hyperbolas) and sculptures made from unusual materials (concrete and epoxy). She really challenged the concept of sculpture with her more recent, complex narrative collages and assemblage-tableaux integrating everyday objects, which over the last ten years have brought a renewed sense of urgency to her work.


It comes as no surprise that someone with a CV like Genzken’s has been featured at Documenta in Kassel (2002), the Venice Biennale (German Pavilion, 2007) and had several retrospectives in Europe. It was the city of New York, however, that showed her first comprehensive survey exhibition—at the MoMA in 2013. It’s not especially surprising given that despite being based in Berlin and studying both there and at academies in three other German cities (Hamburg, Cologne and Düsseldorf), Genzken has always felt attached to New York, travelling there twice a year before settling in the Big Apple in the Nineties for some time. Off the back of her stay, Genzken created the book I love New York, Crazy City, providing us with a weird and wonderful guidebook for the city that never sleeps and a much-appreciated look into her private life through all kinds of posters, takeaway menus, torn pages from magazines, notes, addresses, hotel bills and photos taken of her during her stay (by, among others, none other than photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, a kindred spirit and close friend).

In the 1980s, while she was in New York and lacking a studio to work from, Genzken started to take photos of the ears of women on the streets of New York. In an interview with Wolfgang Tillmans she said: “Not a single woman said no. Because I didn’t ask for their face, but for something largely anonymous… The women always said, ‘What, my ear? Sure!’ Everyone thought it was great.” Genzken loved the different shapes she saw, and the way people expressed their identity through them with jewellery (or the lack of). Next to “unknown” people in the street, Genzken also portrayed her own ear and that of Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon. By enlarging a single, specific feature and positioning it so that it receives full attention, it could be argued that Genzken turned the ear into a model for a sculpture. Ears not only caught the artist’s attention for their beautiful form, but also because they connect with two prominent themes in her work: 1, they pick up signals and 2, they serve as a window between inside and out (of the human body in this case).


With her Nineties series of colour-sprayed, dyed and taped-on ready-to-wear shirts, Genzken was researching the borders between sculpture, fashion, painting and performance. The shirts are raw, authentic and eccentric—just like the artist—and they completely fit her aesthetic: colourful with a dark rim, cool but not necessarily beautiful. They’re mostly shown up against a wall, but last spring they were exhibited on real models—those of the well-known agency Tomorrow is Another Day, which provides boys for the shows of the likes of Saint Laurent and Gucci. Genzken told Interview how de- lighted she was that the models had fun during the performance, and that they even took pride in wearing her designs. She loved to see how real life and art can be merged like this, shifting roles and meaning. Just as they did in the Nineties, when she offered the shirts for sale at an exclusive menswear shop at the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin for the not inconsiderable sum of €5,000—too expensive for even the most fashion conscious. Not that it mattered to Genzken; she was happy that the shirts stirred things up.


For her photographic series X-Ray, Genzken persuaded her doctor to make radiographic photos of her while drinking, laughing, singing and smoking. She didn’t have trouble convincing her doctor, since the two of them had a good understanding: “He liked to drink too,” she explains in conversation with Jeffrey Grove, co-curator of the Isa Genzken retrospective at MoMA. She was allowed to keep her jewellery on as well, something forbidden when undergoing X-Ray under “normal” circumstances. Just like drinking wine from the bottle while being “examined”. In an interview with Wolfgang Tillmans she said: “I was just interested in seeing what it looks like inside my head—and the idea that they could just examine the inside of my head like a globe.” From this, Genzken created two series. The first (1989) was printed positive (black on white) and the second (1991) was printed as negative (white on black). Genzken humorously refers to the images as “party pics”.


For her series Schauspieler (Actors) Genzken took window dummies, loosely dressing them in colourful clothing, wigs, gas masks and other embellishments, thus creating remarkable types. According to the artist, mannequins possess the idealised version of our human body, and by taking them out of their context, dressing them differently and placing them in a museum, they can be viewed as actors. It could also be argued that Genzken creates alter egos with these dolls; it’s her own clothing she uses to dress them. The series plays once again with notions of sculpture, creating images that could represent a scene from a film. They are sculptures that are almost alive, not resting on a pedestal but leaning forward into the room. In many of her late works, Genzken uses assemblages to redefine known and unknown objects or images from contemporary society with everyday materials. She likes to create work that is both well known and new to us, creating something unfamiliar and weird from something that we recognise from our daily reality.


Close to Genzken’s Berlin studio, there’s a plaster works where they make reproductions of the famous Nefertiti, shown at the Egyptian Museum in Berlin. Not only does this bust reference the classical Berlin museum world, but also Nefertiti’s mythic beauty. Genzken had long wanted to find out how to make a cast of Nefertiti herself, usurping this iconic figure and dressing her the way she wanted, modernising the ancient sculpture to her own liking. She has created two series of Nofretete so far (in 2012 and 2014). In the latest she styled her busts with funky sunglasses that wouldn’t attract attention on Fifth Avenue. Or the Panorama Bar, for that matter. Did we say we just love this superstar?!

By Joline Platje

Isa Genzken: Mach Dich Hübsch! will be on display at The Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam) from 29 November until 6 March 2016.

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