DUVE Berlin recently hosted the exhibition *MIRRORS* curated by Elise Lammer, a curator and artist working between Basel and Berlin. When I received the invitation to the show, I was really enticed– I found the use of the thematic of cigarette smoking unusual and fascinating and I thought the artists exhibiting brought together an interestingly dynamic overview of some of the strong artisticpersonalities currently prevelant in different art shows and exhibitions going on right now in Berlin. No one ever before thought to show Neil Beloufa and Sister Corita Kent together, but when you see it, it makes sense; the overall exhibition came across at first like a strongly curated show, diligently thought out to follow this theme about a fascination with smoking, but these certain bursts of kitsch and humanity blasted through, showing underlining constellations of different themes, questions, and viewpoints. It was such a great show, leaving me to think about what I had seen there long after leaving it– I got the chance to dissect my experience a bit with Elise Lammer during a Skype conversation we had in March.
I really liked the film selection you showed on the opening night of MIRRORS. It was really cool. I enjoyed it so much.
Thanks. It doesn’t happen so often that things feel so coherent. I’ve made programs of films in the past, but I particularly like this one.
I liked thee context of it, how it takes you around smoking. I was joking with my daughter who was there, we were watching the one where Mike Wallace smokes on TV in the 1950s, and she couldn’t believe they used to smoke on TV. Today it seems so weird but if you look at it in that way, it’s interesting.
Yes, and it feels far away but that was not so long ago. In a way I think there’s some nostalgic appeal to the program of films because it manages to reconnect the viewer to a recent past.
It makes sense, but one thing I think is so weird is that society used to be a lot more used to smoking. In high school, students would smoke in the bathroom, the teachers probably didn’t notice because they either smoked, too, or were used to smoking. It’s also interesting when you take it into the context of the gallery situation—something so dirty and smells so much now and in this gallery situation– it’s kind of placed on a pedestal or something.
Even after curating MIRRORS at Duve, I cannot explain why so many artists have been using the cigarette as a motif. I understand it as a timeless pop icon. It’s not only the shape of the cigarette that is so iconic and immediately recognizable, the cigarette stands for the perfect commodity. It used to be sold as a healthy product, then it became glamorous, and finally turn into deadly and shameful, you know? I think with every decade marked a step further away from cigarettes and this has contributed to turning it into a powerful placeholder that works for almost any agenda. It’s a magic element.
I can’t understand why an exhibition like this hasn’t been done yet. Of course there have been artists working with the allegory symbolism of cigarettes and there are definitely artists who smoke… I think it’s really novel this idea you had doing this show about smoking because there is a lot of iconography, too. It’s also such a fetish.
I think fetishism is a really good way to put it, actually. I’m also interested in the cigarette for its particular relationship to the industry; I love the fact that a commodity with very little function whatsoever can have so much agency. In a way, it functions in a similar way as contemporary art. Smoking doesn’t respond to an essential need, you know? We don’t need to smoke. We also don’t need to make or collect art in order to survive. Yet, somehow they both have a symbolic value that creeps into people’s lives, like magical objects. So the market or the industry have managed to turn the cigarette into this thing that is way beyond what it is. Smoking goes way beyond putting something in your mouth—when you smoke, you can almost imagine that you’re going to burn something that will go on forever, it has to do with your identity, with who you are.
Where did the idea to do this come from?
I’ve been coming across contemporary artworks using cigarettes for years. I just wanted to understand if that was a temporary trend or if there was any other explanation. When I started researching a little deeper I realized that the cigarette has been very present in Western Art for decades.
What do you mean?
EL: Well, I guess more specifically art from Post-War, when the American tobacco industry became more aggressive on the market. I guess the idea for MIRRORS was to connect several generations and discourses to suggest a continuity and a historical context. So many times in the recent years I heard curators and friends complaining about how hip (and problematic) artworks with cigarettes were: a painting showing people smoking, sculptures using cigarette butts, abstract photos of lingering smoke-there are thousands of examples. I was myself attracted to such works and wanted to understand why and if such works were relevant—turns out the cigarette is a classic motif and has been used by artists for a very long time. With the relatively recent ban on smoking and political programs finally treating smoking as a serious health issue, the cigarette has gained visibility in art, for its dangerous and nostalgic appeal, while in the 1950s, for example, it stood as a feminist symbol and before that tobacco was smoked for its religious and health purposes.
I guess it kind of like when you look at painting for instance—especially figurative painting. I love talking to young artists who start out as figurative painters, who are really good at it, but when you suggest they look at an abstract piece, they block you and don’t want anything to do with it. But figurative painting is just abstract paintings using a certain leitmotif. Iconography kind of works this way, too. I think with this cigarette idea, the works get a kind of ‘plastic sheen’ over them because there’s the image of a cigarette involved.
For example, with the exhibition’s invitation card or some of the works in the show it seems at first like a novelty, but when you look at the artworks piece by piece… like, with Ashes to Ashes (1995) by Adrian Piper, which uses the story about the man and the wife who spent their entire marriage smoking together and then he dies of smoking and she end up sick with emphysema… the story is a channel to explore a lot of stuff. Like this lingering ugliness involved that’s so scary but poetic, too. (I myself have always had a fear of getting emphysema.) The subject of smoking allows a definite exploration of these different components, which are present in art. Looking at Sister Corita Kent’s contribution, which is very Pop, steeped in printmaking—it all builds together to make this sort of physical thing, which functions so well that it might seem at first to be ‘plastic’ on the surface or ‘simpler’ than it really is. These components are needed to bring it together.
Yes. It’s interesting you picked those works, they are the most historical ones and by the older artists of the show. The piece from Piper is from 1995 but she’s been producing work since the early 1960s and she’s mostly known for her strictly conceptual works and contribution to American minimalism. It was particularly important to include this work to the exhibition because it brings a very narrative aspect to the show, the work is very straight forward and in that sense so different from the other works on display, which are more abstract and poetic. The story you mention is actually biographic, Piper tells about the life of her parents and how the passed away from smoking related health issues.
Sister Corita was an early American pop artist as well as a nun. There is a great deal of irony in the quotes she used in the Sérigraphies in the exhibition. Like Piper, she is being rather visionary in her criticism of the tobacco industry. Life combines the slogan of a Lark cigarette ad with a hard-to-read quote from Hugo Rahner’s classic book Man at Play or did you ever practice Eutrapelia (1965). This is Corita’s unique script. Lesson Nine juxtaposes another slogan of a Philip Morris ad Come Home to Flavour Again (1960) with a text by Gertrude Stein from The First Reader (1946).
Interestingly enough, the younger artists included in the show adopt a more celebratory attitude towards smoking, for them the cigarette is funny, witty, nostalgic, sexy. I thought that was an interesting contrast that the two older artists actually adopt a more critical attitude, although the works were produced at the time when smoking was less of a big deal (respectively the 1960s and 1990s).
I like the piece by Neil Beloufa, who happens to be an avid smoker but is maybe best known for the relief pictures he does. I mean, he is starting to show more and more of his projection work…. it’s something completely different from the normal ‘Neil Beloufa’ hype going on…
Yes, this work is quite unusual within the scope of Beloufa’s practice, it’s part of a series of multiples using the cigarettes as motifs, half way between a homage to the working class, with the cigarette being the emblem (and cliché) of the ‘Working Man’ during his break at work. This vision is contemporary to the one of a glamorous Lady smoking in the American films from the 1950s who didn’t have to work, and was disconnected to any form of labour. To me it feels Beloufa wanted to highlight a counter-intuitive association of ideas. But like other works in the show, Cig Dancer is a rather humourous and playful work.
Do you think it makes a difference that this exhibition took place in Berlin, as compared to another city?
It does. In Berlin people smoke so much, especially during art openings. Smoking and art go hand in hand here—In the beginning I was hoping to do the show in New York because I thought the topic would be more subversive, more problematic, since it has become so complicated and expensive to smoke there. Berlin, like Vienna, still stands at the opposite side of the spectrum and gathers all the clichés of the Old World’s hedonism: sometimes it feels like people like to ignore the warnings of the past decades, during which it became totally clear that smoking is really really dangerous. (laughs)
How did you come across the Jason Simon piece?
There’s a story that I really like about the Sister Corita’s work. I remember reading somewhere years ago that she had made a few works about smoking and cigarette brands but I was never able to find the exact reference again, so I had to discard this information and somewhat abandonned that piece of research. I didn’t know where to find the works in question, so I asked my friend Denis Pernet, a curator with whom I worked in the past and who helped me select the films for the screening at DUVE. He’s a curator based in Geneva and we’ve been recently collaborating on this performance exhibition at the Schinkel Pavilion. Denis, who knows everyone, put me in touch with Julie Ault, who owns some of Sister Corita’s works . So I emailed Julie and she suggested that I email her friend Jason Simon, who knew which of Corita’s work dealt with smoking. Later in our email conversation, he told me that in 1996 he had done a solo at Pat Hearn Gallery about smoking. Naturally I invited to be part of MIRRORS. On top of that, Jason is the owner of one of the work in question. I thought it was really great, because not only did he agree to lend us his work by Sister Corita, but he also connected me to the Corita Art Center in LA so I could get a loan for the other work I wanted to show.
I also really like the smaller ‘room’ ceramics with the cigarette butts in them from Adrien Chevalley. I like how its this balance between something fine and fragile and then you have these gross cigarette butts filling up inside.
These are actually ashtrays that Chevalley uses in his own studio. He sent this series of ceramic ashtrays for the exhibition, they are little domestic spaces, where the cigarette butts stand for the people inhabiting each room. What’s also interesting is that there’s this whole archive aspect to it: Every time he shows this series of works, he includes the butts of the cigarette that were smoked when last exhibited. (laughs) Of course, there’s no difference between one cigarette butt and the other but I like the idea a lot, it adds an invisible layer of time to it.
I really like that, too! I think that’s what I like so much about your show, because I think while there’s different ways to curate, what’s going in here is what I like to call ‘onion curating’ because the show has a lot of layers of information included. Looking from the outside, you wouldn’t know this secret element included at first, but it adds weight to the show. There’s probably even stuff involved that you don’t even know about personally. From all of these elements, only a few are given as knowledge to the public. But the layers make it a really living show. I really see that here.
I’m really glad you are saying this, I think that was the main intention behind the show. For example, when I had to pick a title for the show, I wanted to give an indication that the show was about cigarettes and smoking, but didn’t want to be over didactic. This exhibition was already so topical and thematic, that I could not imagine adding any more hints. If I had written a conventional press release, I would have failed at explaining how all the artworks are connected. Of course, superficially they all deal with cigarette and smoking, but there is a constellation of interwoven meanings that only comes later. I think if someone from the audience take the time to go through these layers, whichever layers the pick up on, they can make new connections and it’s very rewarding in a way. As you said, even though I’m the curator, I don’t think I’m myself aware of every single underlying meaning. I keep discovering new elements to it every time I go back.
Making such a straightforward thematic show was a bit of challenge, because I’m aware of how problematic it can be. I mean, if you start a project and you say it’s a show about ‘cars’ or ‘palm trees’ (that’s another one someone should do), it’s very dangerous, because it’s always on the verge of becoming either too didactic or completely flat, or even worse over instrumentalizing the works on display to serve your own narrative. That’s why I think I had never done any thematic group show until now.
But I think this whole concept does make it a very intelligent show—it’s an intelligent theme, and intelligent concept, even though there is this slight element of slapstick in it. And I like this about it because it’s about overcoming some silly surface urge to laugh at the situation. It keeps people from taking things too seriously. I really respect that about it and it makes for a really nice show.
SHOW CLOSED 16 April 2016.
*MIRRORS* – Curated by Elise Lammer
DUVE Berlin / Gitschiner Strasse 94-94a (Entrance D, Floor 2) / 10969 Berlin / T -F 11-18h, Sa 12-16h
Elise Lammer / www.salts.ch / Currently in Residence at Kunsthalleroveredo.ch
Images: Courtesy of Elise Lammer, DUVE, and the Respective Parties (Installation shots from the *MIRRORS* Exhibition at DUVE, Berlin.