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This is not an exit

Isa Genzken’s decades-long obsession with the relationship between leisure, travel, commerce and the inertia of modern life

SLEEK Magazine

Isa Genzken: Project

Although it may seem like it today, Instagram did not invent the vacation travel brag. People have arguably been using photography to show off about their holidays since the invention of the camera. The work of the late American photographer Slim Aarons typifies this. His iconic images captured aspiring mid-20th century celebutantes reclining on white yachts and by the poolsides of mansions for LIFE Magazine, way before individuals self-published their similarly-themed snaps on the grid. Nevertheless, the photo-sharing app has democratised the phenomenon and given rise to ‘flex culture’, the currency gained on social media via other people’s views and likes.

Today, flex culture has introduced a new factor into the consumer choices of millions: outfits chosen based on how they pop in the feed, vacations selected on their photogenic backdrops. Subsequently – and as if it barely mattered where you went at all – your holiday transportation became something to #humblebrag about, too. If you don’t have private jet money, there are companies you can pay to take photos aboard a grounded plane, or you could, as one UK reality TV stars rumoured to have done, simply push through the curtain to first class for a quick snap before moving to your allocated place in economy.

By the turn of the last decade, a sea-change in public attitudes to luxury lifestyles began challenging the moral compasses of people dropping geotags from five-star resorts, festivals, skiing trips and biennales like breadcrumbs. Last year, while Greta Thunberg sailed the Atlantic, celebrities were periodically ‘cancelled’ for their international flights, especially less energy-efficient private jets, indicating a shift in thinking around travel. As a result, American economist Thorstein Veblen’s influential 1924 “leisure class”theory – the idea that under capitalism, status is attained through conspicuous consumption – seems less able to explain the relationship between power and wealth in today’s society.

Although German artist Isa Genzken has spent the last five decades exploring travel, commerce and the architecture of global society through sculpture (especially assemblage), her latest exhibition, Window – currently on show until May 2 in London at Hauser & Wirth – feels especially timely. The central piece of the show is an installation featuring elements of an airplane’s interior. The untitled work is a model, not a readymade – but it might as well have been.

“I have always said that with any sculpture you have to be able to say, although this is not a readymade, it could be one,” the artist told Wolfgang Tillmans in conversation in 2012. “That’s what a sculpture has to look like. It must have a certain relation to reality.”

In Genzken’s sculpture, the set-up is not luxury; it is plain, unbranded standard-class seating. But even in its most budget iterations, air travel is an elite activity, undertaken most regularly by the world’s most affluent people. The windows, mostly closed, offer no real view outside. Here, focus is drawn inward to the mode of travel; where we’re headed or what we might see is unknown. Despite the show’s title, this scene feels intentionally oblivious to what lies beyond the grey portals.

The idea of ‘mode of travel as destination’ is present throughout Genzken’s work. Her 2000 show at Frankfurter Kunstverein, Urlaub,  (German: ‘vacation’, a reference to the holidays taken by 19th-century white-collar workers), featured photographs on board the luxury yacht of a well-known publisher, as well as images from inside a plane looking out through the window, this time onto an indistinguishable cloudlike space.

In a catalogue essay for Urlaub entitled ‘Longing for Other Places’, German art historian and curator Vanessa Joan Müller discusses the liminal spaces that exist en route to a holiday destination, remarking: “The trip out of the city to the longed-for journey’s destination first often leads to places such as train stations and airports, which are diametrically opposed to this goal: urban non-locations that function like transit zones reduced to directional vectors. In addition, the journey often goes through anonymous transit zones that embody a certain ‘elsewhere’.”

This sentiment seems to encapsulate much of the German artist’s output. Windows are a repeating motif, which often literally frame Genzken’s ideas. The very title of her latest show, for example, also echoes the artist’s 1992 Chicago exhibition, Everybody Needs At least One Window, a show comprising free-standing concrete structures suggesting various openings and interiors.

Travel and commerce have also long been in dialogue throughout Genzken’s work. A previous London Hauser

& Wirth show in 2015, Geldbilder  (German: ‘money pictures’), featured foreign currencies, tourist maps and lifestyle magazines. Elsewhere – and true to her assemblage approach – the three collage-based scrapbooks that make up her art book I Love New York, Crazy City  (1996) are pieced together from photographs, flyers and other found objects, assembled into a kind of personal, impressionistic, DIY city guide.

Channelling lived periods of intense cultural significance in Germany and New York, Genzken has always presented the porous messiness of personal experience alongside cleaner sculptural work that seems to give form to more universal ideas. Images in photos and collages gain momentum and take three-dimensional shape. Like the architectural structures that punctuate her work, it is as if the rumination upon an idea expands into the clarity of consciousness and becomes concrete. The focal point of Window manifests in precisely this way, while its origins, which can be traced like familial DNA throughout the decades that Genzken has been making art, gesture to something more omnipresent.

From SLEEK issue 65

Image: Isa Genzken, Untitled, 2018
Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth and Galerie Buchholz Cologne / Berlin / New York. Photo: Todd White

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