Felix Gmelin has been reworking the experiences of his youth into art. In a critical, yet personal investigation, he subtly unravels the complicated interweaving of self-development, socialization and emancipation with which he grew up in the late 1960s and 1970s. The character of his work is as political as it is therapeutic.
With the presentation of Farbtest, Die Rote Fahne II, at the Venice Biennial in 2003, Felix Gmelin, a Swedish artist, found sudden international recognition. The work comprises two film projections, on the left a 1968 filming of a protest rally in Berlin, and on the right a remake filmed in Stockholm, 34 years later. The work led to countless reflections about re-enactment and the legacies of May, 1968. For the artist, these reactions have been a pleasant surprise. ‘From being a one-piece artist, I suddenly had the possibility to reinvent myself on a global level.’  Since then, Gmelin’s work has investigated the common ground between social reform and artistic revolt, between painting and video, and not least, between historic turbulence and his own family’s past. With film excerpts, often dug up from his father’s archives, the artist has honed in on the blind optimism of the romantic revolutionaries.
Felix Gmelin was born in Heidelberg in 1962 and has lived in Sweden since he was nine. His mother was a celebrated violinist, his father a radical leftist media theorist at the Berlin film academy. With a degree in painting and inspired by so-called institutional criticism, Gmelin was interested in the possibilities of painting as a form of resistance, something that could give paintings a direct connection to socio-political reality. In the 1980s, the work of the then very prominent Sherrie Levine was a beacon for this quest. Copying the art of others, this American artist raised the issue of what it means when an artistic statement from a different historic moment is repeated. What is it that distinguishes the copy from the original? What does this repetition mean, and what consequences does it have for authorship?
Gmelin’s first substantial work in which reproduction served as a productive impetus was Art Vandals (1996-1998), a series of 12 paintings and one object, modelled after examples of modern and contemporary artworks, all of which had been vandalized. The ensemble illustrates the significance – difficult to underestimate – of radicalism in modern art, in which innovation is not uncommonly a synonym for destruction. If students of art once learned their craft by copying well-known masters, the history of modernism is a succession of destructive actions by which artists meant to definitively break away from the work of their predecessors. The obsession of the 20th century, as Alain Badiou has written, is the obsession with absolute solution: only by destroying the old can the new emerge. Art Vandals shows how modern art has itself been the victim of the urge to destroy.
The fact that a great deal of destruction of art works has been committed in the name of the muse is an uneasy truth. The miscreant who sliced Barnett Newman’s Who is Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III (1967–1968) into strips claimed to have done so for the greater glory of the magic realist, Carel Willink, whom he considered undervalued. After a young Englishman at the Serpentine Gallery made the sheep in Damien Hirst’s Away from the Flock (1994) forever invisible by pouring black ink into the formaldehyde tank, he told the judge that he was merely intending to complete the work. The man who spray-bombed Picasso’s Guernica (1937) complained that the museum had robbed the work of its original power; it was his intention to ‘bring the art absolutely up to date, to retrieve it from art history and give it life’. He became a well-known art dealer.
The artistic claims of the vandals are of course controversial. Gmelin does not take sides, but he has repeatedly hinted that many of the victimized artists had themselves predicted the destruction (Picasso: ‘My painting is the sum of destructions.’). When Gmelin defiled his own version of Malevich’s Suprematisme (1920–1927) with the green dollar signs of the Alexander Brener ilk, and titled it Erased Green Dollar Sign (2001), he was not only referring to Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning (a drawing erased by and subsequently approved by Willem de Kooning), but he also seems to suggest that removing traces of vandalism is in itself a form of vandalism. Is this the world turned on its head? When Erik Dietman ‘enriched’ a Victor Vasarély with his unsolicited additions, the gallery owner who owned the painting wanted to sell the work for the price of a Vasarély, with the price of a Dietman added on top – a marketing ploy that perfectly illustrates the absurdity of the art trade.
Gmelin calls his tempera copies ‘a loving embrace of extremely violent actions’. They mark the moments when criticism becomes violence. In 1996, these works were discretely distributed through the galleries of the Malmö Konstmuseum, inconspicuously interspersed in the chronological presentation of the regular collection, thus confronting an unsuspecting audience with the ravages of recent iconoclasms. Only in the Iconoclash exhibition in 2002, at the ZKM in Karlsruhe, a show curated by Peter Weibel and Bruno Latour, which cannot be too highly praised, have these works been exhibited as a coherent series. Gmelin’s interjecting of the works in the regular Konstmuseum presentation moreover managed to make an en passant statement about the museum’s own methods, whereby works of art are not infrequently presented in ways that violate the original intentions of the artists.
Reproduction was also a driving force when Gmelin began working with film. At that point, he was as yet unaware of his father's cinematic experiments. That would change when he met Gerd Conradt, who at the Stockholm film club showed him his portrait of Holger Meins, a prominent member of the Rote Armee Fraktion. Like Conradt, Meins had been a student of Otto Gmelin’s at the Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie. Conradt subsequently provided the younger Gmelin with a copy of Farbtest, die Rote Fahne (1968), in which Gmelin Senior had appeared. The film had been made by students during a seminar. The images, taken from a moving automobile, show a red flag being carried through the streets of Berlin in a relay race. The film ends as a young Holger Meins plants the banner on the balcony of the Rathaus Schöneberg, at the very spot where John F. Kennedy spoke his famous words, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’. Three weeks after the film was made, mass student riots broke out in the city under the leadership of the charismatic Rudi Dutschke, who was murdered shortly thereafter. The RAF chose armed rebellion. In prison in 1974, Holger Meins succumbed to the effects of his hunger strike.
This student film became the starting point for Farbtest, die Rote Fahne II (2002), in which Felix Gmelin’s reflections on art and politics become entangled with his own family history. When the artist filmed the remake, he was the same age as his father had been, and like his father, he was teaching at an art academy, now in Stockholm. ‘As a teacher,’ Gmelin explains, ‘I saw the rising political consciousness among my students, who were very much involved in protests against the G8 in Genoa and Seattle. And there was another war coming up. In 1968, the US waged war in Vietnam, now America started a war in Iraq. Somehow, there was an equivalent. Karl Marx said that history repeats itself, the first time as a tragedy, the second time as a farce. I did not know that quote then, but it is very significant for this work.’
One crucial difference is that the remake ends with the closed doors of the Rathaus. The fact that the red flag is no longer waving could be viewed as a metaphor for the loss of leftist ideals, but what contradicts this self-evident interpretation is the work’s emphasis on continuity and repetition. This small-scale, intimate presentation seems to be specifically designed to avoid sweeping statements and to generate a sense of doubt about the revolts of yesteryear.
Every young person rebels, but it does seem somewhat senseless to redo your father's revolution. ‘In a way,’ says Gmelin, ‘this work is also a process of mourning my father's death. If he had lived, I would never have done this film.’ His father's death also made the artist heir to an archive that preserved the spirit of the 1960s on celluloid. This, and other film archives, now became his new field of investigation. ‘I decided to map the effects of the liberal movements of the 1960s in various fields of society, such as sexuality and education. What did society accept from those visions of the future and what did it reject?’ Now that May 1968 has been added to the history books, it is time for a more sober evaluation.
Just how duplicitous expectations for the future were at the time can be gleaned from the installation Two Films Exchanging Sound Tracks (2003). Two films are presented together, shown on screens facing one another. On one screen is Traktat (1967), by Michael Makritsch, about how the revolution would be helped if everyone expanded their horizons with the aid of psychedelic drugs. On the other screen is a 1974 documentary by Cecilia Lindqvist about education in China, which claims the opposite: a better society can only be achieved if every individual is prepared to sacrifice himself on behalf of the collective. These are two didactically inspired films buoyed by exoticism (drugs, the Far East), but propagating different lines of march towards utopia. Gmelin has reversed the soundtracks of the two films, so that their dogmatism is disrupted in a humorous way. For Gmelin, the work is also a wink of the eye to his own youth, spent in left-wing circles. ‘There was the notion that everyone had the right to talk, but there was always just one guy talking.’
Another cherished myth of the 1960s is the sexual revolution. How embarrassing the effect of this erotic emancipation could be is shown in Film Stills (2004). The ensemble includes paintings, drawings, photographic works and a video in which Otto Gmelin enjoys the pleasures of body painting with an unknown young woman. The painting performance is undoubtedly intended as a politically correct answer to the paintings that Otto Mühl had made with nude women as sensual brushes, but the result is an idiotic, toe-curling performance that can purple anyone’s cheeks. Where the paint-smeared nudes in the pastels and the paintings still seem acceptable to our eyes, the nudity in the film is almost unbearable. The sexual ‘liberation’ simply will not mesh with profound shame about loss of dignity and integrity.
Sound and Vision (2005) contains a fragment from a sex-education film from 1970, on which Sweden seems to own a patent. The government had decreed that blind children would no longer receive sexual education with the help of plastic dolls, but with models of flesh and blood. The film shows how pupils, encouraged by their excited teacher, are visibly embarrassed as they – none too gently – pinch the genitals of two naked pupils. This fragment does not express an emancipation of our visually handicapped comrades, but the painful contact between clothed and unclothed children, between handicapped and not handicapped, none of whom has the faintest idea how to deal with the good intentions of their teacher. On the second screen, we see Otto Gmelin using weird noises to try to entice his young son into making strange faces. Little Felix is patently uncomfortable and trying to get away from the camera.
Gmelin’s critical, yet personal investigation into emancipation movements subtly unravels the complicated intertwining of self-development, socialization and emancipation in the 1960s and 1970s, a time when terrorists were sex idols and the discovery of the atom bomb was celebrated as a gift from God.
In Tools and Grammar (2007), Gmelin’s most complex installation to date, he roots out the messianic tendencies of the 1920s and 1930s. Here, his investigation into the sometimes consistent, sometimes contradictory perceptions of the eye, ear and sense of taste leads to the very brink of what we are able to perceive, if not the unimaginable. The centre point is Bei den Blinden (1926), a film from the German Bundesarchiv about a progressive school for the blind in Stuttgart, where children were encouraged to develop other senses to compensate for their handicap. We see blind children using their fingertips to feel the carvings on gravestones in a cemetery, and later, back in the classroom, translating their impressions into clay slabs. Close-up photographs of these raw, grubby clay tablets show how much these ‘felt’ representations resemble expressionist art. Gmelin combines the photographs with small paintings after Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Sepp Hilz and others, the originals of which were presented by the Nazis in 1934 as degenerate art, in the exhibition Entartete Kunst. The ideological basis for the exhibition was a book, Kunst und Rasse, by painter and architect Paul Schultze-Naumburg, the most vehement of those who found fault with the Bauhaus. The comparison between modernist art and drawings by the mentally handicapped was his brain-child. The fact that the handicapped were amongst the first victims of Hitler's ethnic cleansing cannot be seen as entirely unrelated to the condemnation of certain forms of art, and this is the unsettling conclusion suggested by the connections in the work of Felix Gmelin. The scenes of the blind children amongst the gravestones hint at the horrific things soon to befall them.
Although past expectations for the future are an important motif in Gmelin’s work, what most interest the artist are our contemporary expectations for the future. ‘After the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11, history is opening up again. I try to make art that reflects what I see, and what I see is a very politicized world. My art is political in that sense, but I do not try to change society. I do not have the answers.’ Felix Gmelin may not have the answers, but he is certainly asking the right questions.
Felix Gmelin will be taking part in Difference on Display, from 13 December 2008-8 March 2009, at the Beurs van Berlage in Amsterdam.
- See, among others, Maxine Kopsa, ‘Het waarom opgesloten tussen twee vertellingen’, METROPOLIS M No. 4, 2004, pp. 86-103.
- This and subsequent statements by Felix Gmelin are taken from his lecture at De Ateliers, Amsterdam, April 1, 2008.