By Penny Rafferty
As we enter the low-ceiling-ed project space Stadium on Berlin’s Potsdamer Strasse, a friend is standing by the guest book, Leonie Nagel. We quickly and absurdly get into a conversation about leaving love notes, the type you find in the back of cheap newspapers…I saw you…I think I caught your eye, you were wearing…I would die to see you again..reverently we search the gallery for someone who we could drop into this narrative between the white sheets of guestbook praise. A gold tooth seemed a symbolic utterance, it soon turned into giggles and we were rushed out of the gallery before it closed. Only now do I wonder if those secret yearnings had come from Joram Schön’s coloured pencil and graphite drawings that hung boxed in glass throughout the gallery.
In English, the last name Schön translates as “beautiful” – I think of Isidore Isou, the founder of Lettrism, who provocatively suggests in Traité de Bave et d’Eternité (Venom and Eternity) that the Marquis de Sade knew so many beautiful women he could not find seductive pleasure in anything but a rotting corpse. The press release that accompanies Schön’s wall-to-wall cardboard architecture, pinned to the once white walls, recalls lyrics from Leonard Cohen song In my secret Life – interjected with crass German slang and small poems that one could easily find etched into toilet cubicle doors. Here’s one:
“Give me crack and anal sex. Take the only tree that’s left. And stuff it up your hole. In you culture. Give me back the Berlin wall. Give me Stalin and St Paul. I’ve seen the future brother. It is murder.”
All these layers demarcate parameters in which to view the small, finely rendered images in 44+21×4-24+1312-91 ≠ ? (Truth)nesses). The first one is about a meter long, on graph paper that brings back memories of arduous mathematics classes. It transcribes the title in bold biro font, like a bird’s eye view; underneath the words, storage container-like drawn structures begin to reveal themselves, filled with Classrooms, Anuses, Graffiti Throw-ups and Men. The drawings in the exhibition continue in the same style, and mostly relay images of skinhead men. Either on football teams, or searching in forests that equate to cruising grounds in the viewer’s eye, or jerking off naked as cars drive over the cliff into the cold depths of a maritime wave.
One cannot determine if these are fantasies from Schön or autobiographical anecdotes. Perhaps this is where the viewer cranes their necks harder. Is this a show-and-tell, a rough diary of intoxicating flirts and sucks with working-class skinheads? A taboo raises up like a phoenix in the gallery. The notion of the transgressive spectacle holds a dramatic effect in any white cube and has throughout art history, mainly because it allows the viewer to feel cultured whilst feeding on hard-worn fetishes. These are normally kept for private spaces with a certain amount of shame attached to them. But in the gallery it is Art, therefore it is allowed. In fact, one is encouraged to peer closer at a huge muscular alpha body getting a blow job from a tiny beta male.
44+21×4-24+1312-91 ≠ ? (Truth)nesses) explores the position of both the transgressive and the spectacle fluidly. Schön articulates it to a multifarious collection of viewers (or at least as multifarious as the art world gets). How the artist manages to touch each viewer regardless of their experience or even brazenly sexual preference I can only speculate on. The obsessive-compulsive graphite lines that make up each tiny skinhead-ed form seem articulate and studied rather than brash and lured. They are considered chimeric fantasies that navigate a certain depth of lust and violence rather than a peep show of the transgressive male.
bell hooks writes about this beguiling status of illicit love in her book The Will to Change as early as 2004. hooks suggests it is rooted within patriarchy, which is enforced on all bodies every minute of the day. It is enforced by meta and physical violence regardless of your age, marital status, ethnicity or sexual orientation. She concludes that these daily assaults affect male bodies differently than female ones, owing to the males’ overidentification with the violence of patriarchy. hooks declares we/patriarchy teaches men through violence to reject their emotions. This leads to a feeling of glorification through praise in doing so, and so men are rewarded for being, well, men, which allows them to commit furthermore violence onto others (even from the position of love). hooks determines this procedure as a life strategy for males.
“Violence is a boyhood socialization. The way we ‘turn boys into men’ is through injury… We take them away from their feelings, from sensitivity to others. The very phrase ‘be a man’ means suck it up and keep going. Disconnection is not fallout from traditional masculinity. Disconnection is masculinity.”
In this vein, Schön explores the “Disconnection” with his telling titles, such as Bodytalk – Feel my Body… A man touching another man in public may be encouraged when exercising a thoughtful dialogue about how big his biceps are. But not when he’s just comforting him in a soothing way for “feels” sake only, or in a lustful intimate manner. Saying that I don’t assume Schön to be creating an activist dialogue on patriarchy but his works do deal with the phenomena of it. These graphite visions depicted over the walls frequently lead the viewer into a pyscho-sexual reading of the body of work. One such image, in particular, is of a tiny blue-shirted male. He stands at the foot of a colossal rocky valley with his dick in one hand, presumably masturbating or pissing. The mountainous canyon screams ancient symbolic references to the labia and following the effeminate reading of nature as cunt. Immediately the viewer takes up the role of the pseudo-Freudian analyst: is he pissing or fucking the great Mother Earth, and what does that mean, psychologically speaking? And does it even matter? Probably not…
The reason why Schön’s work appeals to all beyond merely sexual taboos is that it represents something greater than an illicit behind-the-bush masquerade. It explores a much vaster chasm of the human psyche: the act of being oppressed due to societal archetypes. This is not specific to one’s gender, class or sexual grouping. Oppression awareness is a common discourse in contemporary politics today. In the west, we live in view of an increasingly growing awareness of the oppressive nature of patriarchy on the female body, but there is a gaping hole in this discussion. It is the oppressive nature of patriarchy on the male and the working class body. This space is also filled with a trauma that is yet to be discussed in the larger social sphere. Schön’s work touches on these moments and lets the viewer see the backdoors of these emotions, even letting us fetishize this trauma. For better or worse, we rebel via the transgressive image.
Joram Schön’s exhibition 44+21×4-24+1312-91 ≠ ? (Truth)nesses) ran from September 29 to October 27 at Stadium, Berlin.
Penny Rafferty is a critic, writer and curator based in Berlin.