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Issue 134

Jason Dodge and Paul Thek
by Alex Turgeon

Blue, the last film ever produced by the British filmmaker Derek Jarman, depicts a single blue screen for the duration of one hour and 19 minutes. Soundscapes produced and narrated by Jarman, describing the director’s process of dying from AIDS, are overlaid onto the blue field of the screen. Blue in all dimensions, without horizon, without beginning or end, the colour engulfs the narrator and the viewer in a complete world of mourning. The film thus operates as a death mask, portraying the colour as a spiritual threshold between the transition from life into death by stating that “blue transcends the solemn geography of human limits.”1 A colour, as the film proposes, is used here as a tool to see beyond our very human condition, beyond our flesh and bone, into diverse spiritual dimensions.

American artist Paul Thek died of an AIDS-related illness in 1988. Ever since, his work has proven to be an art historical enigma. Thek made a name for himself in New York for his Technological Reliquaries (c. 1964–1967), a series of sculptures depicting grotesquely convincing fantastical forms of meat and limbs produced in wax. The fictional flesh was sculpted into forms such as a bloody tiered birthday cake adorned with candles or, in collaboration with Andy Warhol, incorporated inside a Brillo Box. Thek’s work incorporates the macabre of religious iconography, myth and Catholicism, with his early works describing the body as material in the most visceral depiction of our fleshy forms. In response to a visit to the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo, Italy, he expressed that “it delights me that bodies could be used to decorate a room, like flowers.”2 These bodies on display were the most realistic depictions of death; corpses venerated as objects, tokens or talismans with which to decorate the space of worship, operating as devices for communication into the afterlife.

The dual exhibitions of Jason Dodge and Paul Thek at the Schinkel Pavillon in Berlin mark the end of a series of exhibitions curated by Nina Pohl titled Porzellan und Vulkan (“Porcelain and Volcano”) focusing on the subject of artistic collaboration. The exhibition series culminates at the juncture between Thek and Dodge, their practices brought together to examine “ideas of authorship, artistic subject and division of labour.”3 The exhibitions of their work take the form of two parallel worlds composed one on top of the other. The Schinkel Pavillon is, most recently, made of up two octagonal exhibitions spaces that maintain the building’s former GDR grandeur. The upstairs exhibition space is nearly 360 degrees of floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto Berlin’s historic city centre, while the basement is windowless and flanked by painted wooden walls and mirrors installed inside the nave of the ceiling. A church and crypt in tandem for art’s reverence, eloquently constructed with Jason Dodge’s unnamed installation occupying the upstairs gallery and Thek’s works resting in the basement, operating as hieroglyphs inside of a tomb.

The aura of blue is sewn like a thread through the exhibition Paul Thek Newspaper Drawings / Little Paintings. Upon entry into the lower exhibition space, we are confronted with a panorama of blue seascapes Untitled (Island series) from 1969. Five gouache and ink paintings on newspaper hang in a row, the horizon line extending across the series at the point where the blue of the sea meets the blue of the sky. The panorama sets the constellation of the other works on exhibit awash in a blue disposition. The series depicts a lone island in the distance, a sequence of renderings describing a fleeting narrative through which the island reveals itself on the horizon, only to have it illustrated as falling further out of reach– a melancholic mirage, much like a phantom, forever alluding commitment and evading evidence. In her book Bluets, Maggie Nelson asks, “is to be in love with blue then to be in love with disturbance? […] And what kind of madness is it anyway, to be in love with something constitutionally incapable of loving you back?”4 How can the dead, much like a colour, be used to render an intention? What agency do they have in collaboration? Blue only communicates in one direction; blue may allude, but never puts out.

The upper gallery exhibits a site-specific installation by Jason Dodge made of found objects occupying the airy, classical architecture of the Pavillon. The work has no title, but is described as an ongoing organic response to the atmosphere and architecture where these artistic interventions take place. A cosmology of esoteric craftsmanship, each new and used piece of detritus is placed with pious intuition. Dodge’s intervention operates a codec of potential meaning for which the viewer, or practitioner, may define: three upright vacuum cleaners divide the space between seemingly coherent and seemingly bedraggled objects and debris; an amethyst cluster in place of the bag for a vacuum cleaner suggests a cleansing of energy, a tool employed in some sort of séance that has taken place here. An assemblage used to expunge the space of its past or to suck the spirits of the dead from distant, more abstract dimensions, back into this one.

The combination of these two artists speaks to each other’s sense of devotion, to melancholy and to mysticism. During the final stage of Dodge’s exhibition, the installation was moved downstairs to the lower gallery, making space for a reading by CAConrad, a writer with whom Dodge has worked previously as an artist and publisher. Reiterated into the basement space, the objects mirrored their former constellation upstairs, the tomb now activated by spiritual offerings for the afterlife. To describe a form of collaboration describes an equalizing consent of both parts, both intentions with which to draw upon. In the space of defining collaboration with the dead, there is only one side to the story, one perspective on how to navigate the detritus of the deceased: to be strung around the room like decorations, becoming objects for the use in someone else’s ritual of definition.

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