February 2008, Theo Ligthart @ Transmediale in Berlin and Flatfile in Chicago
Theo Ligthart: Past and Future
@ Transmediale in Berlin and Flatfile in Chicago
Quick question: Did anyone else who was at Art Forum this past year find it at all bizarre to walk out of the fair at night and be greeted by a traditional music man—the kind who usually comes with a monkey—standing alone in the freezing darkness, turning the crank on his old fashioned music box? It wasn’t like that at Basel. It sure as hell isn’t like that in Miami. There’s just something awry in Berlin. Something that explains what this haggard old guy was doing outside a contemporary art fair, long after the well-heeled crowds had dispersed, playing an outdated melody on an ancient machine to no one in particular. In a way, it makes perfect sense.
A certain degree of absurdity is really the only constant in this city of incessant change, where contradictions dominate the scenery and the culture, not to mention the city’s history itself. Dutch artist Theo Lighthart, who has lived in Berlin since 2001, incorporates both of these facets in his work, unifying oppositions and toying with the surreal to create conceptual art in varying media. The video he exhibited at the recent Transmediale Festival here in Berlin is a perfect example.
The piece begins with a seated Ligthart straightening his French cuffs. He wears the uniform of a high-ranking capitalist, the obligatory pinstripe suit, and stares down the camera for a second before winding the handle on a miniature music box positioned under a microphone. A kind of lullaby begins to play. Except that it’s not a lullaby, it’s the socialist theme song for Europe’s proletariat classes, The Internationale, originally composed in the 1880’s by Pierre De Geyter and later adopted by the Soviets as their communist anthem.
Ligthart turns the crank intentionally, at times faster, other times slowly, occasionally looking at the camera with a distinct resolve over the film’s four minute duration. He plays this role well, channeling Patrick Bateman, but with a touch of humanity. Layers of symbolism and historical reference overlap—the mechanical music box as reference to the working classes and factories of the industrial revolution, the metaphor of who actually controls the laboring masses and the monotonous action of turning the handle—to assert one crystallized concept. His work is minimal, intentionally juxtaposing contradictions, eliciting specific questions. Nothing is left to chance.
Just as the Art Forum music man seemed like a ridiculous anachronism, the music box here is decidedly out of context. Shown in immediate proximity to a piece of modern technology (the microphone) it invokes a definite nostalgia. The act of “playing” this music, as performed by a poster boy for corporate globalization, goes from being amusing to being repetitive, and finally, irritating. It’s an ironic soundtrack for the daily grind, lifted from the past and repositioned in the present-day.
Next week Ligthart will be in Chicago, installing his work in Flatfile's group exhibition "Minimal" (opening on February 29th).
Unlike The Internationale (2005), the pieces he will exhibit in Chicago began as traditional mediums, which Ligthart then intertwines to creat a quasi-axiom, something that they viewer takes for granted on first site. He terms his aesthetic "deceptual art." In the same way that his benevolent music box song belies its revolutionary origins, these works introduce themselves as something they are not.
Ligthart photographs graffiti that has been deliberately covered up by solid blocks of colors, which attempt (but fail) to match their original backgrounds. The result mimics minimal abstract painting, even more so because Ligthart then prints these photos on canvas. The process itself already implies certain contradictions, “cheapening” (as the artist put it) the intellectual stature of abstract minimalism, in that such reproductions are usually found hanging at Starbucks or in racks at Ikea, gimmicky décor that’s quick to make and inexpensive. But, for Ligthart, the meaning goes beyond the technique.
Graffiti is obviously an act of rebellion, just as the act of painting over it to restore “order” is inherently authoritative. Yet, the mark of authority found in these works has proved counter-productive, inadvertently spawning its visual nemesis through brush strokes that scream modernism, that traditional label once affixed to freedom of self-expression and the avant-garde. Ligthart says it’s as if authority is “curating” the urban space, albeit accidentally.
By framing these shapes and re-contextualizing them, Ligthart makes “fine art” out of “street art” and, theoretically, disarms authority’s attempts to impose its own rule on the concrete landscape. Roles are reversed and definitions lose their permanence, something that Ligthart observes in the changing concept of “avant-garde”, which he says has been co-opted by advertising as a brand identifier, a marketing tool, a commercial prop.
Back in 2005, Ligthart was exhibited in Kunst Werke’s Regarding Terror: the RAF-Exhibition, in which he juxtaposed excerpts from the Red Army’s manifesto with advertisements for Mercedes-Benz “Avant-garde” Model, painted to look like photographs. Again, the concept is both concise and multi-faceted, brought forth by paired contradictions, and executed to deceive the general public, at least at first. As with Ligthart’s other work, the lesson here is that first impressions are inherently flawed and that surprises are always to be expected.
link to The Internationale video
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief