WOLF VOSTELL Reclaiming the Present through Décollage

ROOSTER GALLERY | JANUARY 10 – FEBRUARY 3, 2013

While many texts on contemporary art claim Allan Kaprow as the founder (better than “father”) of the Happenings movement in the United States, few acknowledge the parallel importance of the German-born artist Wolf Vostell (1932 – 98). As was typical of Kaprow, a major spokesperson and historian for the Happenings in the late 1950s and ’60s, he consistently referred to Vostell as his European counterpart. While Kaprow saw the Happenings in America as emanating from Pollock’s “action painting,” he was clear to acknowledge Vostell as a forerunner of décollage environments, primarily in Europe. Rather than Pollock, the sources that played heavily for Vostell included the work of Nam June Paik; the affiche décollage or torn poster artists in Paris; and the nouveaux realists or “new realists,” instigated in 1960 by critic Pierre Restany and artist Yves Klein, in Nice. (Contrary to the press release for this exhibition, the artists in the latter group were not the same as those in the former in Paris, with the possible exception of Raymond Hains, who moved between both groups.)

Wolf Vostell, “Desastres,” 1972. Video still, 45min., color. Copyright: Wolf Vostell Estate 1963 – 2006. Courtesy of Rooster Gallery.

Wolf Vostell, TV-Montparnasse: A Possible Survey on Video is a somewhat modest yet precisely executed exhibition at the Rooster Gallery in the Lower East Side, where a selection of the artist’s video works are installed across two floors. While the exhibition’s title may read as slightly awkward, the purpose of the show is to clarify Vostell’s applications of video in his décollage films—such as Sun in your head (1963), Vietnam (1968-71), Disasters of Peace (1972), and TV-Butterfly (1980)—and also in TV-Montparnasse (1982), an important but intense video installation. Upon making the rounds of these various moving images, one may be struck by the poetic, political, and erotically charged content that Vostell has intentionally employed to transmit his ideas.

“TV-Montparnasse”—the major piece in the show—consists of an intimate circle of five monitors (not flat screens) upon which we view five separate angles of a nude female body, each angle shot in still sequence. Between the legs of the subject, close to her vagina, a small TV monitor screens a French news broadcast. Yet during the making of this piece, Vostell considered sound, generally associated with TV, as a deterrent to the poetics of what he wanted to reveal. The video monitor between the woman’s legs is directly related to Duchamp’s 1954 mold, “Wedge of Chastity” (1954), which is reiterated as a concrete form in Vostell’s Disasters. Eight years later, in Butterfly (shown in the upstairs gallery), the concrete was transformed into a video monitor, which became a study for the “TV-Montparnasse” installation. Part of the impact of the downstairs installation is the haunting silence of the space as viewers enter into the circle of televisions, each of which rests on a pedestal that places the screen within the natural gaze of a standing person.

Josefa Cortés Morillo, director of the Museo Vostell Malpartida in Spain, writes that “TV-Montparnasse” presents the female body as an “object of desire [while it is] submitted to a voyeuristic discourse that translates the female essence and its sensuality into eroticism by means of technological harassment.”  The question that might be raised here is whether television is intrinsically a manner of harassment; and if it is, to what extent does this media format deny or support “the female essence?”  Within the context of visual culture, where critical judgments often harness our ability to perceive a neutral discourse, the vindication of Vostell’s project seems all the more intriguing.  The décollage films and video-assemblages on view here do not celebrate voyeurism. Nor are they intended as spectacles. Rather they reverse the terms of the spectacle as defined by Guy Debord, by pointing in the direction of media as the ultimate mechanism of voyeurism, the intruder that intervenes in the experience of intimacy and thus functions as a kind of panopticon used to reduce or control sensual feelings between human beings.

Therefore, Vostell is interested in leveling media—by silencing the auditory component and by allowing simultaneous angles of vision to elevate the poetics of the female body. Rather than being harassed, through either direct voyeurism or technological accomplices, the female body becomes a catalyst of knowledge and visionary exaltation. In “TV-Montparnasse,” we associate these images of the female body with the vibrancy of space, light, and time. This is consistent with Vostell’s working concept of décollage as a visual force that breaks down outworn values and replaces them with thinking as a function distanced from media. In this sense, “TV-Montparnasse” serves as an aperture into another sphere of influence, a vital storehouse of energy and timeless rejuvenation. Here we begin to realize the absurdities that prevent our movement toward a future in which we are allowed to pursue what we want to become.


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Robert C. Morgan

Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.