Bones Beat: Christian Jankowski’s Living Sculptures


This week Bones, intrepid art-world raconteur, spends some time out in the cold with Christian Jankowski’s Living Sculptures. Call it art vs. the Apple Store…

Faced with the invitation to participate in the 1999 Venice Biennale, the then-31-year-old German artist Christian Jankowski relocated, logically enough, to Italy. Thus ensconced, alone, he learned the language, and spent late nights telephoning TV psychics. He asked them what he should make for the fancy festival, and the hot-lit seers flipped tarot cards and reassured the man with the halting voice and limited vocab that his piece was going to be a great success. Jankowski taped these expensive consultations, and the 22-minute Telemistica was born and shown. It was exactly as successful as the psychics had promised.

Jankowski received a commission from The Wadsworth Atheneum’s MATRIX program in the wake of Telemistica, and the resulting work, The Matrix Effect, is a dry 30-minute documentary on 25 years of the Hartford museum’s under-taught contributions to contemporary art. In the film, the Atheneum’s longtime curator Andrea Miller-Keller wanders around her place, America’s oldest public art institution, encountering Sol Lewitt, Glenn Ligon, Christo and Jean-Claude, John Baldessari and others on her rounds. They kiss, chatter and reflect on the program and art in general, and the experience is terrifically educational. And if all that casual intimacy and shared insight with artworld luminaries weren’t enough, all the roles are played by local 7-to-10-year-olds. With one tweak, Jankowski brings out a bumper yield from all involved: artists become sympathetic, vulnerable, interesting and sincere, temperaments their egos usually struggle to attain, while children become improbably intellectual. Sight unseen, a grouse or a graduate student might deride this work as a one-liner, yet I was delighted and nourished anew after seeing it a second time, tucked away in Marian Goodman Gallery’s Dan-Graham-curated group show Deep Humor last summer. One-liners do not appreciate in quality like this.

The Doris Freedman Plaza is a small parcel of greenery on the southeastern tip of Central Park where a recent Jankowski project will be living until May. The plaza is named for the 1977 founder of the Public Art Fund, which imaginatively beautifies the length of Manhattan with temporary all-weather art. Jankowski’s Living Sculptures is their latest project: life-size bronze casts of street performers whom the artist encountered in Barcelona, including a suited and booted Che Guavera, a battle-ready if slightly fat Roman Legionnaire who aspirationally calls himself Caesar, and Dali Woman, who has an Orientalist flair, with fan and parasol, as well as a stack of drawers protruding Surreally from her front.

The little park attracts fewer eyes than the always-open subterranean Apple Store across the street on 5th Avenue, and sells itself in gentler tones than the tyro ringmaster chaps barking carriage rides around the park’s perimeter. Last Sunday, on a stakeout in the snow, perhaps thirty people paid mind to the sculptures over an hour in which at least five hundred walked by. The attentive ones were an even split between post-adolescent backpackers, often with fluffy mustaches, who love Che, and young boys in a delirious phase of adoring soldiers more than their mothers. In other words, a reliable core audience, and most of these fans had their picture taken in a pose of solidarity. A total of four people read the project description stuck in the soil behind the works, and the vast majority of passersby walked clean through, anxious perhaps that the Apple Store was running low on hats for their iPhones. A hundred yards away, two men in feeble and poorly-proportioned Statue of Liberty costumes were selling their likeness to tourists at two dollars a pop, and raking it in.

Jankowski, as usual, didn’t do a lot. He bronzed a contemporary presence that is accepted and patronized instinctively, as a parasitic given of the heavy-spending tourist terrain, rather than actually liked. He canonized the wonky miseducation that these amateur historians promote: this Caesar’s sword, for example, will now ever be a nutty and demonic H.R. Giger-type fantasy from the 1970s. This is flimsy entertainment, and people don’t pay attention for a reason. As art, it doesn’t fare much better: these works were shown before, in London’s Regents Park for the 2007 Frieze Art Fair, and by Jankowski’s standards, I thought then that they totally tanked.

One act of staring at staring at something there’s not much reason to stare at, however, provokes hunger for another, and my first instinct after visiting the Living Sculptures was a jog over to the double-sized horserider who sits on a one-story pedestal immediately to the plaza’s south. The sculpture, a 1903 gift to the city’s citizens care of the chamber of commerce, shows General William Tecumseh Sherman, the grandfather of heartless shock-and-awe American modern warfare, with Nike, the goddess of victory, leading his charge. I haven’t thought about Sherman and the role he took in tidying the Civil War since before Bush took office but, after many lost hours of frustration over our recent crazy war that I won’t get back, I wish I had. For the reminder, I have Christian Jankowski to thank. Jankowski allows us to catch up on extant culture, and own it, with wonder and hope, before we hurry towards our next narcissistic invention. His contented take on professional passivity– standing still while the world moves around you, and loving it, like the silly performers he has now immortalized–is a tonic and a blessing.-Bones

Christian Jankowski’s Living Sculptures will be at the Doris C. Freedman Plaza, 60th Street and 5th Avenue, until May 1st. The lofted bar at the Plaza hotel offers a gilded hangout nearby, though it is stupidly expensive. The frozen lakes on the south of the park are beautiful.

Next week, Bones goes to Small A Projects, a Broome Steet gallery originally born in Portland, Oregon and young in town, where there’s been a party apparently going on.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 15, 2009

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