Isa Genzken’s Mannequins Are All Kinds of Messed Up, but This German Artist Is No Dummy


Just because you didn’t attend a meditation retreat at Kripalu last weekend doesn’t mean you can’t love your fellow human. All you need, really, is to pop in to Isa Genzken’s show at Zwirner, where people — gallery-goers like us — are the stars of the show.

If you saw Genzken’s raucous MoMA retrospective in late 2013, you witnessed the German artist’s nearly 40-year career arc, beginning with imitation (of minimalism and Dada), moving through austere architectural sculpture, and culminating in the disco/raver who-gives-a-shit sculptural assemblages that have become her signature. Weaving cheap stuff culled from dollar stores — eagles or toy soldiers, soap dishes or plastic flowers — into narratives that address terrorism, capitalist consumption, and human frailty, Genzken, now 66, was the coolest AARP-eligible artist you’d ever met.

You also may recall, at the MoMA show’s entrance, a gaggle of shaggy, whacked-out sentinels, maybe a dozen of them. Department-store mannequins dressed not in Anne Klein but in thrift- and dime-store getups — cowboy hats or Halloween masks or sheets of insulation — they hung out solo or in pairs. Genzken called them actors. Made especially for the MoMA show, they nearly stole it.

Now those actors — or their cousins, sisters, brothers, fathers, and mothers — are back, at Zwirner, where Genzken exhibits 28 more, all birthed since the MoMA show closed. Several are brand-new; a few were shown in Germany earlier this year. Installed alongside architectural sculpture and wall works, the figures assume more complex tableaux than the group she showed at MoMA. Even better: These dummies are freed from that nasty invisible fence of museum floor tape. We may roam among them, even get in their faces if we like.

These dummies are freed from that nasty invisible fence of museum floor tape. We may roam among them.

Together they present a curious scene when the gallery flings open its garage doors each day and passersby — or driversby — gape into the hangar-like space. This could be a typical downtown still life — some kind of film shoot, maybe, or a fashion editorial in the making. (But it most definitely isn’t.) That no wall or door separates the dummies from us is an invitation we can’t refuse.

Making our way inside, we encounter two cops in uniform, minus trousers. With their backs to us, they’re watching what could be some drugged-out models splayed on the floor after a night of too much partying — it’s unclear if the legs of one pink-wigged girl are actually attached to her torso, so contorted is her pose. Whatever’s happening, these authority figures have been caught with their pants off. They’re voyeurs at best.

Nearby we see two children — one wears a mullet wig and a fluorescent jersey, the other a shirt in a size suited for his father — positioned so close they seem to be whispering or about to kiss. Whatever their secret, we’d like to know it. Deeper in, seven ragtag figures, children and adults, face each other in a closed-in circle of solidarity. Elsewhere a youth, his mouth and arms covered in fluorescent tape, towers over a clutch of taxidermied animals. The gestalt of these outfits is both ragtag and radical, with pops of Day-Glo topped by wigs and masks and faces covered in goggles. It’s creative but also alienating, quiet but chaotic.

Growing up in post–World War II Germany, Genzken knew the confusion of ruins as well as the straitened tides of reconstruction. The early minimal objects she made in the 1970s — the ones that at MoMA felt derivative — seemingly renounced that chaos. But once she started making architectural works and those crazy assemblages, she began touching anarchy in an important, robust way. Maybe it was her move, in the mid-1990s, to freewheeling Berlin that helped usher in that change. Or perhaps the change had already happened and Berlin nurtured it. Whatever it was, we feel the energy of that city — or, at least, the legends we hear of that city — in these works. The Zwirner figures are how we might imagine the dance floor at one of those massive Berlin nightclubs — the most notorious of them, Berghain, is referenced in a wall work here — if the lights were turned up. There are tribes, loners, druggies. There are spaced-out folks and there are observers. There are couples and there are paranoids. Some may be children, but even the children grow up fast.

Still, no matter how strong our feats of projection, these are just dummies. Right?

Yes, but. When people, real humans, show up, something radical happens. (Please be sure to go with others, or on a busy day.) Next to these dummies, visitors on their Chelsea gallery crawl look more interesting and more alive than usual. Well, duh, you might say — they are alive, after all. But look up and around and sometimes you can’t tell an artwork from a spectator. And there’s something magical about that.

Genzken’s dummies are one great participatory artwork, a relational aesthetics abetted by effigies, that makes us shine for each other. They may be fucked up, alienated, and tribal. But so are we. And so what?

Isa Genzken

Zwirner Gallery

519 West 19th Street


Through October 31