Surrounded by the works in Father Figures Are Hard to Find, fifty or so attendees sat on the concrete floor of neue Gesellschaft für bildende Kunst (nGbK), awaiting the lecture–performance Da Da Daddy Hasselhof by Mysti, who appeared in drag, wearing a cascading blonde wig and bright halter and miniskirt combo. Her academic talk began with a slow-building critique of object-making and market-driven aesthetics, and came to a crescendo in a takedown of identity as an impervious shield against making bad or exploitative art. She challenged 02.02.1861 (2009–) by Danh Vo, a work that consists of a letter by J. Théophane Vénard, written just before his execution, to his father. Vo’s own father mails hand-copied versions of the French letter (which he cannot read because he doesn’t speak the language) to buyers in an unlimited edition until his death. A copy, rendered in flawless blue calligraphy, was prominently displayed in the next room.
Mysti is an emerging, U.S.-born performance-based artist interested in “queering theory,” while art star Danh Vo was born in south Vietnam and became a political refugee when his family fled in a handmade boat and was later rescued at sea before settling in Denmark. But both have fathers who were disappointed when their sons decided to become artists. These kinds of divergent yet overlapping narratives are echoed again and again in the transgressive, queer-centric exhibition, where father figures of all kinds are revered and rejected through entirely individual gestures.
At the entrance to the exhibition, the patrilineal status quo of identity is confronted by two self-portraits by Juliana Huxtable, Sympathy for the Martyr (2015) and Lil’ Marvel (2015). Rather than clinging to identity, Huxtable molds it like putty in her hands, shapeshifting into a superheroine or trans-Christ. Her self-aware, Cindy Sherman-like transformations are otherworldly but human, and thus gloriously imperfect. Much like Sherman’s earliest works, the tension between self-determination and others’ projections is well crafted. At the far end of the gallery, Rotimi Fani-Kayode’s performative images Under the Surplice (1987), Nothing to Lose IX (Bodies of Experience) (1987), and Bronze Head (1987), made nearly three decades earlier, critique the limitations of cultural inheritance through the lens of a queer, HIV-positive Nigerian expat.
Domestic Wish Machine (2015), by Lea St., consists of a few dozen crude salt-dough sculptures rendered in the style of the lost German decorative art form traditionally made by male master bakers. Grouped on high tables are a sausage imprinted with the word “success,” a slice of blueberry pie with “punishment,” a phallic banana with “effort,” as well as a delicate, scarecrow-like hand with “thank you,” and more. Loaded words and equally loaded symbols enter into a slippery free-association game between food and the body—between shame and desire.
In a viewing room wrapped entirely in denim, Konrad Mühe’s Fragen an Meinen Vater (Questions to My Father] (2011) is a painstakingly assembled video of clips of the artist’s deceased father, legendary German actor Ulrich Mühe. This postmortem interview is at once comical and devastating, weaving iconic soundbites from film and TV such as, “Death tells us things that are difficult to talk about” and “Please forgive me.” The father’s unwitting monologue to his alienated son invents a conversation many wish to have, and cannot, but its construction further exaggerates his absence.
Sarah Ancelle Schönfeld’s separate small room within the exhibition touches upon illness and how it tests and redefines a father-daughter relationship. Things That Are Not There (2016) was made collaboratively with her father Oskar Curter during weekly visits. A dripping IV infused with anti-psychotics creates a pool on the floor, which reflects a small projection of Curter. A classical watercolor still life of a teapot and a few cups, painted by Curter, hangs on the wall. The rhythm of the drips recalls the uncomfortable, temporal limit built into all relationships.
The curators installed John Waters’ words about his father in vinyl lettering near the exit: “We worked out all our issues, and the issues we didn’t work out I turned into a career.” Even in rejection of the biological, historical, symbolic, or holy father, he is still here, and maybe that’s not always a bad thing. Each of the artists in Father Figures Are Hard to Find has insufficient role models, but out of this lack they empower themselves. Their sensitive questioning acknowledges that there is no “me” without “him,” and confirms the extent to which this shapes them as artists and human beings, a space that can be perpetually reimagined.
Father Figures Are Hard to Find is on view at nGbK through May 1, 2016.