Jakob Lena Knebl at mumok, Vienna
I spend a lot of time in gyms. Vanity and peer pressure are the main reasons that motivate me to push weights in repurposed office buildings that smell like sweat-soaked polyester and blind faith in aspirational aesthetics. Recently I’ve spent a couple of days in Vienna, where additionally to doing squats in a squalid gymnasium surrounded by eighteen year-olds with juicier biceps than mine, I’ve also done some exercise at mumok in order to fully appreciate Jakob Lena Knebl’s exhibition “Oh…”, which, among other topics, cleverly explores our perceptions of bodies, the conventions around them and ways to surpass said conventions.
For “Oh…”, Knebl, a staple of Vienna’s queer art circles to say the least, has been allowed to dig deep into the mumok’s rich collection and arrange hundreds of works as she pleased. The result bursts with a rarely seen type of energy: it’s intelligent, funny, relatable, complex, and first and foremost, accessible to basically anyone. In this exhibition, she cheerfully mixes clothes, furniture, design pieces and art works, royally kicking any hierarchisation in the butt. To a certain extend, the artist seems interested in infantilising the viewers’ approach to what they might be looking at; hence, she staged many of the works on multilevelled, colourful and mirrored alcoves, environments in which Guy Bourdin and a Pokemon would feel equally at ease.
Many objects on view can only be perceived through their reflection – they’re hung behind partitions and walls, and so I found myself not only examining the reflected image, but also trying to have a peek at “the original” by twitching and bending my body quite often – only to see, in many cases, representations of other bodies and evocations of corporeality. The use of mirrors and reflections cleverly redirects to thoughts of metaphysical nature; while definitely selfie-friendly, this type of installation also opens the door to questions about gaze, whether it’s your own or the one of others. The nice thing about it though is that it really just opens them; it gives you the possibility to deal with your instagram addiction if you want to, but it doesn’t force you to question your dismaying reliance on the likes your carefully staged self-portraits might generate.
The artist also playfully desacralizes much of what’s on view: In a genius move, she covers a large Giacometti sculpture with a stylish, mod-inspired red sequins dress; with this simple addition, the typical silhouette doesn’t look like a starving giant anymore, but rather like a glamorous attendee of the opening who just decided to remain in the museum for the show’s duration. Weirdly enough it feels like a choice made by the sculpture itself, and in the end, gives it a surprising aura of sovereignty. But Knebl’s arrangements never seem disrespectful; some tremendous works shine bright despite their small format or relatively unknown creator. A good example are two photographs by Kaucyila Brooke, from her series “Kathy Acker’s Clothes”, 1999–2004. The photographs simply show what the title suggests: a mesh T-shirt and a one-shoulder dress from the feminist author’s archives, hung on wire hangers and shot against pale background. These simple clothes look like skins a snake would’ve shed with incommensurable attention; to great effect, emotions attached to loss, mourning and remembrance suddenly materialise themselves as almost palpable organisms. One can suddenly feel, yet not see them, and like undefined, elegant little animals, they trailed me for quite some time while I was looking at other things.
While the majority of art works on view are drawn from the mumok’s collection, Jakob Lena Knebl has also included some of her own work. Large installations composed of textile, typography, ironmongery and (you guessed it) mirrors suggest domestic spaces, playgrounds, boudoirs and spaceships at the same time. Staged portraits of the artist, often rather lightly clothed or with her body covered in paint, function as more in-your-face reevaluations of what defines physical desire or distaste. In a photomontage, the artist included herself in a group of Fernando Botero figures, creating a link between her silhouette and the typically chunky people the Colombian artist is known for; yet she stands out from the crowd, a vivid alien in the middle of these beige beings, irreverent without any feeling of superiority: how you look is a malleable aspect of who you are, or whom you wanna be – it’s an opportunity, not a limitation! she seems to be saying.
“Oh…” offers the visitor a delicious, twisted and unorthodox taste of what (the) art(s) can trigger – whether hidden, worn, hung on a wall, or dramatically staged. Looking at this display, a child may be entertained as much as an art historian. Knebl is certainly not the first one to blur the lines between categories of things and people, but in this instance, both the complexity and approachability of what’s on view come across as a genuine move, and not as some type of gotcha strategy.
“Oh…: Jakob Lena Knebl and the mumok collection” is on view at mumok, Vienna until October 22, 2017.
Text: Karim Crippa
Museum moderner Kunst
Stiftung Ludwig Wien
Jakob Lena Knebl und die mumok Sammlung
17. März 2017 bis 22. Oktober 2017