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LESS OIL MORE COURAGE - retrospectively looking forward 

“Is that really meant to be as blunt as it looks?” a friend asked me as we stood in front of the work “LESS OIL MORE COURAGE” by Rirkrit Tiravanija in the rotunda of the Fridericianum. A 30-meter-long, 5-meter-high deep-black wall painting stretched out in front of us. And this message was emblazoned in the centre of the curve. Was it an attitude, a note, a warning?

Rirkrit Tiravanija says he came across these words by chance when he received an invitation to a retrospective of the painter Peter Cain, who had died young. The exhibition, shown in Cain’s gallery five years after the death of the American artist known as “the car painter”, was entitled “More Courage and Less Oil”. Peter Cain painted in oil, rendering large depictions of compressed and slightly surrealistic-looking cars. Sometimes he portrayed the tail of an automobile, sometimes the front, and sometimes the vehicle tipped on its side and balancing on just one wheel—but never with people. Cain worked on a picture for a long time, painting very precisely and meticulously, almost in a photorealist style. The entry “More Courage and Less Oil” was found in his artist notebook, and looking back at his oeuvre it became clear that a short time before his death he was on the verge of developing further. He had just completed paintings showing his partner Sean.

The note that Cain directed to himself served as a picture on the invitation to his posthumous retrospective, and Rirkrit Tiravanija was inspired by these words and the possibility to play with them. When the phrase is reversed, the referential scope is expanded. Tiravanija showed “LESS OIL MORE COURAGE”—a small painting with white letters on black ground—to an international audience in the Italian Pavilion at the 50th Venice Biennale. Four years later this work obtained even greater meaning when at the Sharjah Biennial he not only placed this small painting in the staircase next to oil paintings depicting sheiks, but also put it in on a poster displayed on billboards throughout this wealthy, oil-profiting city.

Tiravanija’s art is always close to people. He is interested in openness to the public and social situations, and in space, which he converts; he is interested in everyday activities and the people who perform them. At the Kölnischer Kunstverein he replicated his New York apartment true to scale and invited visitors to the flat, which was open 24 hours a day, to linger, eat, talk, listen to music or sleep. He set up a normally functioning supermarket in the Migros Museum in Zurich and became world famous for his curry kitchens. Although these works are more than a decade old, they remain bold and unconventional to this day. The same is true of his project “The Land”, which he has carried out since 1998 as a place of social commitment, as a place of encounter and experimentation, as a kind of lab together with artist friends such as Philippe Parreno and Superflex. For the project, artists, students and Chang Mai residents get together on a former rice field. They live and work there, grow rice and fruit, experiment with art and architecture.

Modernity’s efforts to fuse art and life are implemented and real in Tiravanija’s work. There are some critics of this intensive interweaving, though. They speak of antiquated utopias, of passé perspectives and of an obsolete artistic practice that is no longer up to date in the postmodern age of fragmentation and social restructuring. But isn’t it more important today than ever before to show possibilities and create spaces in order toreflect on oneself, on social activities and developments, and politics? Tiravanija’s art does this, and he practices an art which at a time of global crisis couldn’t be more topical.

Rein Wolfs and Rirkrit Tiravanija have known each other for many years; they are friends and come from the same generation. When Wolfs began his tenure as artistic director of the Fridericianum, this modern practice of incorporating everyday life in art fusing has experienced a repositioning, received new dimensions, and opened up new perspectives, which are also pursued by a younger generation of artists. The Fridericianum is an ideal location for this. It is a building which just celebrated its 230th birthday, which was an ambivalent educational institution in the days of the German enlightenment, which is the main building of the documenta exhibitions, and which is located in a city whose self-confidence is wavering. Kassel is in the middle of Germany yet in the province. The current artistic aim in Kassel must be to draw attention to social conditions and everyday life while looking outside the box, inspiring discourse and raising questions by means of radical artistic positions.

Christoph Büchel surely did this in an extremely consistent way with his much-discussed (may he excuse this phrase in this context) exhibition “Deutsche Grammatik”. Artistic intervention in life, and the opposite, went so far in Büchel’s exhibition that passers-by indignantly claimed that the city had gone down the tubes so much that even an important art venue like the Fridericianum had to house a discount supermarket. Following this exhibition, the Fridericianum hosted a four-week performative work by Daniel Knorr in which the artist created production chains with several levels of content and referred to historical processes. His subjects were the flow of time, the formation of history, as well as retrospection and new beginning. Klara Lidén works with spaces—constricted spaces, darkened and brightened spaces, and restructured spaces. Her accessible installations enable viewers to experience social activities and processes and the localisation of the individual. With her Kassel work “NEVER COME BACK” she caused a stir in the art world, and visitors to the exhibition struggled with a claustrophobic feeling. The pictorial worlds of Cyprien Gaillard seem more tangible in this respect, as he dealt with known media. But he also critically observes and documents current living environments, human destruction, decay and societal malfunction, confronting us symbolically with failed utopias and showing us the ruins of the world. This kind of artistic attitude, embodying direct dealings with all facets of life, was vehemently underpinned in the exhibition “Frühling” by Pawel Althamer, which just ended. For the entire duration of the exhibition, he invited Kassel children to occupy and shape the rooms of the Fridericianum, to sleep and practice activities in them that were not art in the conventional sense. Some visitors voiced discontent, confusedly looking for the “art”.

One can assume that only very few oil paintings will be shown at the Fridericianum in the future and that the risk will actually be taken to engage with life, not in a modern way, but in a topical and direct manner. I think that this is still the challenge of art. The wall piece “LESS OIL MORE COURAGE”—at least so much can be revealed here—is overpainted, but its message remains, even if it seems “blunt” on the surface.

Andrea Linnenkohl
July 2009

* At irregular intervals the Kunsthalle Fridericianum is publishing a web column.

Andrea Linnenkohl

Andrea Linnenkohl studied art history, sociology and cultural anthropology and has been an assistant curator at the Kunsthalle Fridericianum since Rein Wolfs became artistic director there. In 2007, she was the assistant to the technical director of documenta 12. Prior to that, she worked in René Block’s team, was involved in the organisation of exhibitions and other events, and worked on exhibition catalogues in an editorial capacity. In 2006, she took part in the realisation of the Belgrade October Salon.