Take a Seat
by Gerhard Mack, 2010 (english)
Ian Anüll’s art transforms the everyday, while simultaneously making it possible to perceive the values and conditions we live with from day to day.
During his first visit to the People’s Republic of China—a sojourn as artist-in-residence at Galerie Urs Meile in Beijing in 2008—Ian Anüll (*1948, lives in Zurich, Switzerland) asked passersby on the street to write the words “Made in China” on pieces of canvas. A tutorial in Chinese made it easier to understand each other. In return, each person received a bar of Swiss chocolate; when the artist offered each participant ten euros, they all refused. China is not only the most populous country on earth, but during the past decade of globalization, it has established itself as the world’s workshop, whose products are synonymous with speedily manufactured, cheap goods of frequently doubtful quality. At the very least, the label “Made in China” implies that this country, with its masses of people, produces mass-manufactured products for everyone else around the globe. Anüll’s art action reverses this cliché and instead draws attention to the individual human being, who can be easily forgotten in light of the large numbers of other people. About seventy times, Anüll asked individual Chinese people to write out the label in their own handwriting; afterward, each one signed the canvas on the back. Both the canvas and the paint were made in China, and the authors of the works ranged from construction workers to managers—all belonged to different social classes, professions, and age groups. The label identifying a product’s country of origin, which is the most ordinary thing in world trade, was given a unique feature: the handwriting of individual persons. This has even more impact when we remember that writing is a kind of drawing, and that, since the start of the early modern era, our Western culture has considered drawing to be the most direct expression of artistic intention, whereas, in Confucian China, calligraphy was regarded as one of the highest of all the arts. In this group of works, art comes to the street, amalgamating everyday objects, and—unlike the situation of the art market—it is not paid for with the universal accounting unit of money; instead, an exchange of goods takes place.
In his exhibition Take a Seat, at Galerie Urs Meile in Beijing, Anüll takes the situation a step further: he asks fellow artists from China to write “Made in China” on white paper (of the sort used for grocery bags in Switzerland) and then to add their signatures. Any profits from sales are split three ways, among the gallery, Anüll, and the other artists. Contemporary art has been one of China’s big exports for a good ten years, and many artists have established their own “brands” under this general rubric. Expressing this, while at the same time retreating behind a label that designates origin, probably takes some courage and effort. Every participant defines himself—at least, in Anüll’s group of works—as a producer of goods, which are nothing more than each artist’s own perceptions, ideas, emotions, and visions, all translated into visual language. These artists point out that they are taking a deeply personal part of themselves to market.
Anüll’s art always targets the heart of the present-day, and right now, that heart beats inside the economy. In countless works, the artist has shown how the capitalist structure influences our views of life; how money, as a general medium of exchange, subjects human interaction to the conditions of supply and demand; and how we often determine the inner worth of something by measuring it against its price. As an artist, however, Anüll does not operate as a critic. Even before globalization, the world was already too strongly interconnected for anyone to confront the fundamentals of society head-on. It is easy to reject something, but much harder to influence perceptions by making people look at places where there are distortions and ruptures. In our age of ironic cynicism, this can actually only be accomplished by shifting things around slightly. Anüll is a master at this. He punches holes in paper currency, making the bills clearly worthless, while allowing us to wonder how we might have used it to indulge ourselves; he treats serially manufactured products—like the masks available at African airports—as if they were originals, and thus nonchalantly brings up the issue of the relationship between a copy and an original; he has new postmarks stamped onto old postcards, thus subtly guiding our attention to the time that has passed between then and now.
These interventions are always nearly trivial, and often they are not immediately apparent. As an artist, Anüll travels light. He prefers the things he finds at the exhibition site. He is someone who discovers things, and he uses his infallible sense of material qualities to transform these intangible or tangible found pieces. His materials generally cling to their origins and yet they are transferred to another context, in which the meaning of art is examined. Out of this, the things that come from the everyday world take on the capacity to irritate or disturb. The second group of works in this show, the “style” works, is paradigmatic of this ability. The word “style” is written in different languages on a plain panel, and wherever it is shown, it redefines the context in which it is displayed. “Style” is a concept that signals membership in the upper classes and excludes those who have no style or do not know what the fashionable style happens to be at the moment; here, it becomes the key that opens up everyday codes. Examples might be the “energy dialogue” with the briquette pieces in Beijing, a geometrical floor pattern in Morocco, or a cashier’s sign in a shoe shop in Shanghai. Each time, the “style” panel transforms the situation, providing a commentary that seems like a little act of sabotage.
The fact that, when it detonates, it can make an incredible noise in our minds, becomes clear when we see the stools that Anüll has had made for Take a Seat. In form, they resemble the rubber bullets Swiss police shoot at demonstrators. Monstrously enlarged, they mutate into harmless designer objects, which could easily fit into an IKEA environment or into the most expensive homes of art collectors. Questions about the ways that democracy is viewed in different zones around the world are linked to art, when we recall, for instance, the five hundred pieces of Walter de Maria’s sculpture, The Broken Kilometer (1979), an icon of Western art, which the artist mentions in a conversation. In Ian Anüll’s work, the political and the aesthetic, the simple and the complex, the tangible object and the unfathomable philosophical question are separated by a mere associative thought.
Translation: Allison Plath-Moseley