A young person descends the steps of a dilapidated stairwell; Paint is peeling off the walls, a dirty sink is rusting away, and you have to look very closely to spot the tiny Odradek in the pattern under the stairs. Jeff Wall wandered around Prague for a long time to find a location for his light box work that was a perfect fit for Franz Kafka’s story “The Concern of the House Father”. In “Taboritskà 8, Prague, July 18, 1994,” the Canadian artist located the fictional, “extraordinarily mobile,” speaking creature, resembling a spool of thread with a supporting leg, with an “undetermined residence.”
Like so many things with Kafka, the strange Odradek eludes clear clarification despite numerous attempts at interpretation. Franz Kafka is one of the few writers whose name enriches our vocabulary as a common term. The adjective “Kafkaesque” stands for the oppressive, absurd, eerie atmosphere that prevails in the powerful author’s texts, and it characterizes the works of an extremely worthwhile exhibition in which the Munich Villa Stuck shows how on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Kafka’s death next year the world-famous writer continues to inspire artists. We learn that Kafka drew himself and maintained contact with the art scene in his hometown of Prague, where he also met Alfred Kubin, whose works he must have liked with their grotesque and fantastic motifs.
Marina Abramovic’s assist? Alfred Kubin’s “Power”, around 1903: Image: Municipal Gallery in the Lenbachhaus
The show is merciless, so to speak, with killing devices in medias res, with the gruesome execution machine from the story “In the Penal Colony,” which writes the violated commandment deeper and deeper into the condemned person’s naked body with countless sharp needles until the death occurs. The monstrous device, which the curator legend Harald Szeemann had recreated for his exhibition “Bachelor Machines” in 1975 based on Kafka’s meticulous description, is now in the Stuck Villa and right next door is the “Killing Machine” by the Canadian artist couple Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller. At the push of a button, robot arms begin their murderous needle dance around a dentist’s chair with arm restraints to shrill music and disco ball lightning. In the era of George Bush Jr. and 9/11, this 2007 work updated Kafka’s criticism of disregard for life and the sanctioning of torture.
Insomnia, indigestion, self-doubt
All beginners and those who are forgetful about Kafka will be helped by excerpts from the comic by Robert Crumb and David Zane Mairowitz, which illustrates the life and work of the author and now introduces the chapters of the course with juicy illustrations on large banners. Curator Helena Pereña emphasizes the subjectivity of her selection of works from more than thirty artists. Not everyone refers to Kafka as explicitly as Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler, who recreated the room from the famous story “The Metamorphosis” in which Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning as a monstrous vermin. In their multi-part photo work “Gregor’s Room I,” the artists turn the room into the scene of a search for bugs.
Does the web come from Gregor Samsa or a monster vermin or both? Chiharu Shiota’s “During Sleep”, 2023: Image: Jann Averwerser/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2023
But all exhibits find a piece of terrain in Kafka’s abyssal cosmos. For example, where the author’s gaze turns inward, partly due to his own physical and psychological needs – among other things, he was plagued by insomnia, indigestion, and self-doubt. Mona Hatoum’s “Deep Throat”, the tracking shot through an esophagus beautifully arranged on a plate, fits in there. Likewise the great series “Mercy Hospital” by Ida Applebroog, who died a few weeks ago. It was created in 1969/70 during a stay in a psychiatric clinic. Working on the sketches through themes such as power and sexuality of people, animals and shapes growing together helped the artist to find her way back to life and herself from an elementary crisis – which is reminiscent of how much Kafka viewed writing as, so to speak, “food “needed.
An atonal improvisation
Family relationships, an implicit ongoing theme of the sensitive Franz, who was oppressed by his father’s dominance, find parallels with painted horror stories by Paula Rego, also with Louise Bourgeois’ “Ode to my Mother” in the form of an arachnid. “During Sleep” is what Chiharu Shiota calls her installation made of dense black threads that cover an entire room and also a bed, a highly claustrophobic situation worthy of Kafka. Would he have recognized himself in all the contributions to this show?
Room with a nightmare view: Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler’s “Gregor’s Room III” from 1999 leaves you perplexed. : Image: Goetz Collection
In any case, in Andreas Gursky’s photograph “Passport Control,” which shows two counters that are identical except for the officials’ faces and appear repellent, he could find a perfect label for bureaucratic absurdities and constraints that he, the insurance employee, was very familiar with; The image could also serve as a modern illustration for his text “Before the Law,” in which a doorkeeper denies a country man “entry into the law” for the rest of his life. Films by David Rych and Franz Wanner transfer Kafka’s interrogation scenes, in which the guilt of the interviewee is always already established, to interviews with migrants and asylum seekers that are characterized by arbitrariness and abuse of power.
Hannes Hintermeier Published/Updated: Recommendations: 15 Alexandra Wach Published/Updated: Recommendations: 10 Stefan Trinks Published/Updated: Recommendations: 10
Kafka is said to have often laughed out loud at readings, but his humor, or rather the tragicomedy in his writings, is rarely highlighted. Rodney Graham’s film of a man in prison clothing who is led to a piano builds a mental bridge. He’s supposed to play, but the handcuffs aren’t removed, which is why he can’t sing the “Reverie” reverie announced in the title, but instead performs an atonal improvisation. The exhibition in Kafka’s honor ends with the absurd slapstick situation. He probably would have liked her.
Kafka: 1924. Museum Villa Stuck, Munich; until February 11, 2024. A catalog will be published.
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