Flugblätter, which translates as 'flyers' or 'flying letters', sees 130 artists share their artistic responses to globalisation in an innovative and thought-provoking exhibition. To create the show, artist Birgit Jensen approached artists she knew from around the world, inviting them to contribute an image and accompanying text by email – each contribution reflects a different perspective on the transformations of our society in recent years - whether philosophical, social, political, economical or ecological - including reflections on the changes the artists have experienced locally in the 41 different countries in which they live. Jensen comments "We live in a time of quick changes. There are increasing tensions between different groups of society. Fragmentation, growing extremism, nationalism, racism and exploitation are only a few of the consequences. Climate change and our egotistical attitude towards nature confronts us with unpredictable dangers. In the same time we witness an immense advance of communication technology and social networking in our personal surroundings. I wanted to find out how artists I know all over the world deal with the transformations around them. Do they effect their thinking, their attitude, does this have an effect on their artistic practice? I got a very wide range of different answers to my questions. I was very surprised. The result reads like an extremely complex and fascinating investigation around art and culture. Art can play many different roles in our society." The participating artists are working with all kinds of different media, they are male and female, old and young, some of them are in the spotlight of public attention and some are only known to insiders.
Flugblätter at Cross Lane Projects, Kendal
by Sara Jaspan
In the spring of 2017, 130 artists from 41 countries around the world received an email from the Düsseldorf-based painter Birgit Jensen. It began by recounting a recent conversation she had overheard between two visitors at Kolumba – a museum in Cologne that boasts housing ‘two millennia of western culture in a single building’ – during which one remarked that he could not imagine wanting to live in any other era than the present. Jensen’s initial reaction was one of surprise (gesturing towards ‘the political, social and economic factors with which we are daily confronted in the news’), followed by a desire to know how others felt. To this end, she was writing to invite her network of artist-friends to share their own attitudes towards the current age and to reflect on their role as artists living through it.
Replies were requested by email in the form of a single image file (either an artwork, a photographic-reproduction, or something else) accompanied by a short text, with each of the two elements formatted to print on either side of a single sheet of standard A4 white paper. The collective result, the message explained, would form an exhibition titled ‘Flugblätter’ (German for ‘flyer’), which Jensen would present later that year at Künstler Gut Loitz e.V. – a small art space just outside the rural town of Loitz an der Peene in north-east Germany, where she was artist-in-residence. Since then, ‘Flugblätter’ has travelled from Loitz to Pictura Dordrecht (Netherlands, 2018), Maebashi (Japan, 2018), and now Cross Lane Projects in Kendal (UK, 2019).
I say ‘travelled’, but ‘reproduced’ would be a more apt term; the facsimile-based show requiring only a standard printer, an ample supply of ink and paper, and a reasonable internet connection in order to ‘arrive’ at each venue.
Poised at the entrance to the Cumbrian gallery (a converted warehouse, formerly part of the Kendal Mint Cake factory), I found myself on the narrow shore of a vast sea of paper; each page gently floating on the air currents in the room, suspended just above head-height from a maze of criss-crossing string. The scene felt calm – until entered, at which point it became a struggle not to drown amidst the tumult of responses to Jensen’s deceptively-simple provocations. Expressions of anger, hope, apathy, love, despair, humour and disinclination buffet the viewer back and forth through the space; coming together to form strong tides of shared sentiment and spiralling off into eddies of individual singularity.
Many of the pieces directly address the plethora of ‘contemporary ills’ – climate change, species extinction, rising nationalism, the refugee crisis, turbo-capitalism, Trump, terrorism, hate crime, fake news, the threat of nuclear warfare – all hinted at in Jensen’s email and which the vague and over-used phrase, ‘our current age’, has become accepted shorthand for. Others offer a far more oblique, if no less damning comment. Alexander Roob, for example, instructed Jensen to take a screenshot of the homepage of a drawn reportage website that he runs (the Melton Prior Institute). The top post that day was an image of a grossly soiled toilet, captioned: ‘A Plutocratic State of Checks and Balances’. On the other side of the sheet, Roob’s written counterpart: “there is nothing to report.”
The question of whether an artist has a responsibility to engage with the problems facing us (and, perhaps more primarily, if art even has the capacity to bring about change) similarly drew a multitude of opinions. Numerous idealistic statements and expressions of hope were put forward, such as Roman Klonek’s rallying call; “a work of art that expresses a special and new idea in an original way is always a protest against the world as it is.” Yet, these voices were tempered by the inevitable strain of cynicism that also ran through the show. Florain Kuhlmann, for instance, writing: “I have come to the conclusion that both art and the concept of art within meta-modernism are superseded and obsolete. Those who would like to keep holding onto them are very welcome to do so. For my part, I can no longer develop any particular motivation for performing in a social system in which contemporary success is solely defined by the successful production and marketing of highly-priced speculation objects for the 1%.”
Resistance against the conflation of art and capitalism provided an important context for the emergence of ‘Flugblätter’. Just as the counter-cultural Mail Art movement of the 1960s and 70s developed as a way of circumventing the official infrastructure of the art world, the cheap and democratic nature of Jensen’s email-and-print model directly undercuts the revered ‘original’ and by-passes the cost of hefty shipping and insurance-fees. Likewise, Jensen’s e-invitation didn’t fail to draw a tongue-in-cheek connection between the grass-roots exhibition she was initially proposing to hold at Loitz, and the roster of Blockbuster shows that would be taking place in Europe at the same time that summer, including the Venice Biennale, Documenta (spanning two countries in 2017), and Skulpturenprojekte Münster. In contrast to the extreme hype and celebrity status surrounding these international art/networking events, ‘Flugblätter’ places sole emphasis on the work itself, presenting all 130 contributions in a simple, uniform manner, irrespective of career status.
The overriding focus of the show remains connected to the initial question of ‘real world politics’, however. The fluttering, double-sided printouts upon which each work is rendered, echo the flugblätters (flyers) that Jensen and her classmates were often handed by left-leaning campaigners on their way into school, growing up in the deeply divided context of 1960s Germany. They also reference the flyers that she and a group of fellow artists designed, printed and distributed at the entrance of a Fiat factory just outside of Milan during the 1980s in support of the British Miners’ Strike. And they draw a much broader, historic connection to the tradition of political pamphleteering that began with the invention of mass printing technology centuries ago.
“For me, the flyer is a medium that is intrinsically connected with the actual politics of any given present,” Jensen explained during a talk she gave at Cross Lane. “But they have fallen out of fashion lately. No one stands in the street anymore – they simply post their messages on social media. There you might reach a wider radius, but you lose that element of personal interaction.”
Whether or not levels of direct, invested engagement in politics are truly declining, the sentiment certainly resonates with the sense of general apathy, malaise and nihilism spoken about in the media and felt by many in response to the challenges of the present. Yet one of my favourite pieces in the show, a response by Melissa Gordon, provided a nice counter to the increasingly tired discourse around ‘the dark times’ that we’re living through. She writes: “I had a Korean student last year who would preface most of what she said with ‘these days’; ‘these days I’m thinking about colour’. Indeed, I could not help hearing Nico drone in my head and ask myself, exactly what is the context of ‘these days’ on thinking or making?”
Whether in relation to art or politics, can we really discuss the evolving present with any degree of objective insight or authority? Discuss it as distinct from the times that came before? Or sum it up in one knowing, catch-all phrase? The museum visitor who responds to ‘two millennia of western culture’ with the remark that he could not imagine wanting to live in any other era seems sensible in many ways. The dark days we’re living through seem to pale in comparison to many past periods in history. At least being alive now, in 2019, carries the potential to shape and change the future, rather than relive the past out of which our present has been formed.
Finally, the phrase ‘these days’ is perhaps most dangerous in its suggestion of universality. The character of ‘our current age’ will be experienced very differently depending upon factors such as place, race, gender, sexuality, class, health and so on. The strongest aspect of ‘Flugblätter’ is perhaps the space it allows for a multitude of perspectives, and the generosity of an artist using a residency opportunity to allow others to speak.
‘Flugblätter’ runs at Cross Lane Projects in Kendal, Cumbria until 18 May. An accompanying full-colour publication produced in collaboration with Künstler Gut Loitz e. V. 2019, containing all 130 artists’ contributions translated into English and German, will be launched on 7 May at Kunsthalle Düsseldorf. It is priced at EUR 20 + max. EUR 15 postage and can be ordered from mail[at]birgitjensen.de.
‘Flugblätter’ will next be presented at Clay Street Press in Ohio, USA (25 Oct – 14 Dec 2019).
This text was originally published by the Fourdrinier – a contemporary art magazine dedicated to artists working with paper on 05/02/2019. Sara Jaspan is an arts writer based in the UK.
www.thefourdrinier.com | www.sarajaspan.wordpress.com
Artists included in Flugblätter at Cross Lane Projects: Moussa Séne Absa SN, Bill Allen US, Markus Ambach DE, Ulrike Arnold DE, Liz Bachhuber US, Vanya Balogh HR, Gudrun Barenbrock DE, Rainer Barzen DE, Heinz Baumüller AT, Christine Bernhard DE, Benjamin Bohnsack DE, Frank Bölter DE, Hans Brändli CH, Christoph Bucher CH, Julia Bünnagel DE, Luca Buvoli IT, Christian Deckert DE, Nikola Dicke DE, Arpad Dobriban HU, Susanne Fasbender DE, Frank Fenstermacher DE, Hercules Fisherman IR/GB, Pia Fries CH, Harald Fuchs DE, Shrutti Garg IN, Clemens Botho Goldbach DE, Paul Goodwin GB, Melissa Gordon US, Ted Green US, Ingo Günther DE/US, Jutta Haeckel DE, Wolfgang Hahn DE, Mark Harris GB, Lucy Harvey NZ, Isabelle Hayeur CA, Gabriele Horndasch DE, Bruno Jakob CH, Marcus Jansen DE, Halina Jaworski PL/IL/DE, Otto Jeschke DE, Sigmund de Jong NL, Celina Jure AR, Hüseyin Karakaya TR, Dagmar Keller / Martin Wittwer DE/CH, Nak Beom Kho KR, Roman Klonek PL/ DE, Michael Kortländer DE, Evangelos Koukouwitakis GR, Gereon Krebber DE, Kirsten Krüger DE, Florian Kuhlmann DE, Stefan Kürten DE, Ton van der Laaken NL, Benje LaRico US, Jon Erlend Larsen NO, Denise Lasagni CH/FR, Silke Leverkühne DE, Nataly Maier DE/IT, Zhenia Couso Martell CU, Kaoli Mashio JP, Keisuke Matsuura JP, Christian Megert CH, Aron Mehzion ER, Peter Mell DE, Carmengloria Morales CL, Nicole Morello FR, Benjamin Nachtwey DE, Peter Nagel DE, Hanne Nagel-Axelsen DK, Holger Nickisch DE/NL, Michalis Nicolaides CY, Walter Nikkels NL, Hannes Norberg DE, Anita Oettershagen DE, Kenzo Onoda JP, Driss Ouadahi DZ, Marleen Oud NL, Heike Pallanca DE, Mark Patsfall US, Mark Pepper / Beza Alemu-Pepper DE/ET, Roxane Permar US, Wolfgang Pilz DE, Udo Rathke DE, Hamdi Reda EG, Kai Rheineck DE, Melanie Richter DE, Patrick Rieve DE, Alexander Roob DE, Ingrid Roscheck DE, Valentin Rothmaler DE, Glen Rubsamen US, Stefan Saffer DE, Mia Saharla FI, Leunora Salihu XK, Jochen Saueracker DE, Thyra Schmidt DE, Lars Ulrich Schnackenberg DE, Hansjörg Schneider DE, Nicola Schrudde DE, Max Schulze DE, Helmut Schweizer DE, Rebecca Scott GB, Michael Seeling DE, Marcus Sendlinger DE, Sean Shanahan IE, Thomas Stricker CH, Yuji Takeoka JP, Teresiña Talarico CL/DE, David Thomas AU, Patrick Thomas GB, Barthélémy Toguo CM, Barbara Camilla Tucholski DE, Sunok U KR, Natascha Ulianova RU, Jarno Vesala FI, Haichuan Wang CN, Deborah Wargon AU, Etsuko Watanabe JP, Shirley Wegner IL, Stefan à Wengen CH, Barbara Westermann US, Suse Wiegand DE, Christopher Winter GB, Mark Woods GB, Christoph Worringer DE, Mounia Youssef LB/TG, Miro Zahra CZ/DE, Uta Zaumseil DE, Tu Zeng CN