Friday, 3 July 2009

Thomas Zipp: White Dada

White Dada is composed of two areas: a replica lecture theatre and a period gallery filled with the repertoire of Dadaist gesture. Where the former space is large, high-ceilinged and bright, the latter is small, dark and low. Zipp’s distinctive aesthetic is immediately recognizable in both. Muted colours, fluorescent ‘chandeliers’, faces with silver tacks for eyes, a portrait of Luther: all are familiar from recent installations. At the same time Zipp summons the frisson of historical authenticity. To enter the windowless smaller space, with its benches and hessian-covered plinths, is to remember that the talismanic sites of avant-garde activity were often back rooms in dingy cafes.

As always Zipp alludes to a range of conceptual systems. In the smaller room medical images are prominent: wards, nurses, surgery and a page from a textbook detailing procedures for dealing with mental illness, including electric shock and ‘narcotherapy’. This latter term then connects with the drug references of the dried poppies and tea-spoons nearby. The effect is to suggest a continuum between state control and transgressive behaviour, one implication being that these practices are linked rather than antithetical. Such assertions of complicity between elements normally seen as opposed are common in Zipp’s work. In its overt evocation of the avant-garde, however, White Dada makes explicit its concern with the relationship between radical art and other social and political forces. It is in the conjugation of the show’s two spaces that this relationship is most succinctly examined.

The lecture theatre’s wood paneling and tiers of uncomfortable seats suggest some nineteenth-century Mittleeuropean institution. Rather than the recalcitrance of the Cabaret Voltaire the mood is one of aspiration to power and the intellectual mainstream. Botanical paintings are regularly spaced on the walls, interspersed with a repeated manifesto. An imposing light-coloured semi-abstract figure (the eponymous White Daddy perhaps) stands to the right, the abstract Arp of its head balanced on a Jacob Epstein torso. Hanging above it is a Constructivist diagram of fluorescent tubes. The connotations are of a confident utopian Modernism: it’s Year Zero in the circular hall and the large sculpture is a template for the New Man.

If Zipp is careful to distinguish between two forms of the avant-garde he does not assert a banal opposition between an emancipatory Dadaism and its rivals. This would contradict the notions of complicity implied in the smaller room. Hence the disciplined atmosphere of the lecture hall is in turn complicated by the tokens of adolescent rebellion that occupy its centre: drum kit, organ, distortion peddles, microphone and amp. Zipp and his band DA (Dickarsch or fat ass) showcased their improvised rock on the opening night with a torrent of screaming that Hugo Ball may well have approved of. As a result the austere theatre and the shabby backroom cannot be seen as independent. Rather the latter – with its benches along the walls – is a kind of antechamber for the former where the band waited, incubating their performance. In this way Zipp implicates each historical (and political) space in the other while reaching forward to touch us in the present.

For the amp is emitting a powerful hum, letting us know it is live, and so inviting the viewer to take up the instruments and perform. By doing so we may perhaps maintain some kind of fidelity to the event that took place here, traces of which can still be seen: the carpet stained with ash and alcohol, the wooden tiers covered in dusty footprints. And yet this is at odds with the melancholy the empty lecture hall exudes. We are too late, the players have left the stage, and the audience for anything we might do ourselves has already departed. Such ambivalence extends to the status of the band’s performance. By connecting with them through performing ourselves can we really channel the distant creative event of Modernism? Or was the gig, like its surroundings, simply a facsimile, history repeated as farce, a kind of Actually Existing Modernism that traduces and perverts the ideals in whose name it justifies itself?

The excesses of DA’s performance may have suggested the latter, seeming merely to assert tired Bataillean ideas of art as transgression. Yet Zipp’s conception of Modernism as constituted though a contradiction between creativity and control demands a more complex analysis. The performance stands or falls on the question of whether it is grasped under the mannerist sign of irony or as part of a larger, more properly tragic exploration of the contradictions at the heart of both Modernism and the last hundred years of German art and society. Indeed Zipp’s very ability to pose this formal question suggests that his work does indeed afford a useful purchase on the receding event of Modernism, even as it dramatizes the problems and tensions endemic to it.