The title of this post is a German word that’s been adopted into English usage in the art world and translates roughly as total artwork — which I suppose is similar to the concept of total football as played by the Brazilian team of 1970 — as the ideal and ultimate, all-embracing example of a skill (so the defenders could dribble like strikers and vice versa). In aesthetics Gesamtkunstwerk is similarly ‘a synthesising of different art forms into one, all-embracing, unique genre’.

The quotation above comes from the catalogue of an exhibition called Gesamtkunstwerk currently running at the Saatchi Gallery just off the King’s Road in London. It’s a collection of work subtitled ‘New Art from Germany’ — so writing about a contemporary German artist in my novel I thought I’d better visit.

I’m not much of an art expert, particularly on sculptures and installations, but I found the quick visit I had around the gallery in my lunch hour to be quite fascinating. There was a fair amount of what most people would find quite bizarre — bits of cloth threaded on to sticks and so on — but even the more abstract sculptures seemed to have something of a theme about materialism and post-industrial society. Scrap metal and other discarded objects were often used as materials.

Similarly, there were a fair number of collages formed out of pictures taken from popular culture. I’m a bit ambivalent about ‘real’ artists creating collages — it seems like cheating to me to chop up existing images (presumably the copyright of someone else) and just re-arrange them in a different pattern. But that’s all related to the debate about artist as craftsperson and creator or artist as an interpreter and re-imaginer. One artist whose collages made an impression on me was Kirstine Roepstorff, who’s actually a Dane working in Germany. She had an impressive collage that looked like it had been set in Center Parcs called ‘You Are Being Lied To’ (by men apparently — it’s a feminist statement) but I marginally preferred a science-fiction flavoured work called ‘All Possible Experiences’ which I’ve linked to below via the Saatchi Gallery website.

All Possible Experiences -- Kirstine Roepstorff -- from Saatchi Gallery
All Possible Experiences -- Kirstine Roepstorff -- from Saatchi Gallery

I also liked Stefan Kürten’s architecturally inspired paintings, which reminded me of all the solidly-built, brutalistic office blocks that I’ve worked in myself in Germany over the last 10 years or so.

I was impressed by Georg Herold’s two sculptures (both called ‘Untitled’). These were both of female figures created out of wooden battens and canvass and finished off in red or purple lacquer. The catalogue points out the paradox that the figures appear in poses that are sexualised and festishistic yet they are made using very dehumanised materials (not the smooth marble, bronze or plaster that one might normally associate with representations of the human form).

Georg Herold Untitled 2010 -- in Gestamtkunstwerk at the Saatchi Gallery
Georg Herold Untitled 2010 -- in Gestamtkunstwerk at the Saatchi Gallery

While all the artwork is new, the artists themselves are a mixture of ages. (I bought the catalogue as it has CVs of all the artists and I’ll use it to construct a more credible apprenticeship for Kim.) There are some young artists but there also some éminences grise. Isa Genzken had several peculiar assemblages of objects on show — according to the Time Out preview she has been more influential in the German art scene than Gerhard Richter. I’ve not blogged about it but I went to see the Tate Modern’s exhibition of Richter’s work (Panorama) last year and I think I’d rather part with money to see a retrospective of his work than Genzken’s – but then what do I know? (Well I suppose I know quite a bit more about German art than I did a couple of years ago.)

I’d not been to the Saatchi Gallery before so the highlight of my visit wasn’t the art from Germany but the fascinating Richard Wilson work 20: 50. This is a huge tank of used sump oil with a mirror smooth surface that is viewed from a platform slightly above. It’s amazing — a black void that’s also invisible and reflective.

We had another workshop session with Emily today and I took the opportunity of being up in the general area to visit the London Art Fair at the Business Design Centre in Islington. Not having the financial means myself to set up as a dabbler in art collection, I realised that I’m fairly ignorant about the business of art — how galleries and dealers interact with artists and collectors. I was a little reluctant to pay well over £10 for a ticket to an event which seemed to be geared around selling things but I was incredibly glad that I did. I only spent about two and a half hours there but could easily have spent twice as long. The effect of walking around the exhibition with so much art on display was visually intoxicating — and mixing with that arty type of person will hopefully inform my writing of Kim.

While most of the artwork was up for sale, there was plenty of work from well known artists that could be viewed as it would be in a gallery. I didn’t have time to track down the Damien Hirst and David Hockney pieces (and if the gallery owners had looked at my shoes then I doubt they’d have given me the time of day) but I did come across a couple of Beryl Cook pictures quite unexpectedly.

From my fairly random strolling around the stalls I noted the following artists (and their exhibiting galleries) as those I particularly liked. Pamela Stretton’s  mosaic-like works at the Mark Jason Gallery were intriguing (rewarding both close up and distant viewing). I also liked the abstract cityscapes painted by Alicia Dubnyckj and Jenny Pocket at Sarah Myerscough Fine Art. On a similarly geographical theme I also enjoyed Tobias Till and Susan Stockwell’s work at TAG Fine Arts. (Susan Stockwell’s ‘China Gold’ is about the most eloquent commentary on globalisation and the credit crunch that I’ve yet seen — if I had £3,500 to spare I’d buy one of the 5 copies.)

For research purposes I was less interested in the famous artists and more in those who made a living at their art but have yet to hit the heights — which is the position the novel finds Kim to be in. Because of this interest, I managed to get a place on a guided tour of the Art Projects section of the fair which is dedicated to new and emerging artists.

The tour was given by Art Projects’ curator Pryle Behrman who explained the recurrent themes that appeared to be common in much of the work. Unsurprisingly a lot of art commented on the economic situation but he said there was also an emergence of playfulness and a rejection of the concept of artists as a profound commentator. He said that many artists realised that art fairs where work was sold to speculators at inflated prices (like the one we were at) were part of the problem with the naked greed strain of capitalism — so artists as a whole could hardly be holier-than-thou about it.

To emphasise the point, one of the most striking exhibits was the corbettPROJECTS ‘Ghost of a Dream’ by Adam Ekstrom and Lauren Was. They create spectacular but fragile displays decorated with used lottery scratch cards and covers of romantic novels.

Perhaps the most bizarre, but also thought provoking, was the work of Jenny Keane who sketches stills from horror movies in black and white line drawings. She then licks the most horrific part of the picture (such as where a vampire might strike on the neck) and does so with such intensity and endurance that she not only scrapes a hole in the paper but makes her tongue bleed in the process (see photo here). The blood and saliva seep into the paper around the hole — and are listed as artistic materials when the works are sold — see here.

The boundary between physical and intellectual, which Jenny Keane is breaking down by embedding her bodily fluids into the artwork, is something that probably polarises the ‘artistic’ community and the respectable bourgeoisie who might like to collect their works. I briefly mentioned about 3 months ago that I went to see the Pipilotti Rist show ‘Eyeball Massage’ when it was on at the Hayward Gallery. Rist is not shy of using her own body to make her point as an artist. Although it’s never titillating or prurient, she appears naked in some of her works and one of the best known, Mutaflor, features shots from a camera that appears to emerge out of her anus — which is fleetingly shown in close-up.

This was all shown at a flagship exhibition at one of  Britain’s leading visual art galleries so it’s understandable that in the novel this is the metropolitan attitude than Kim blithely takes with her into the Home Counties sticks — but will her very liberal attitudes go down well with the respectable commuting and country types?