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Community in process - Artistic collaborations from the beholder’s perspective

O.T.2005 (mit Anturie) auf Bütten 36x28cm

Artistic collaborations turn out to be manifold, and therefore cannot be meaningfully subsumed under this large generic term. To which extent do collaborative works actually differ from solo works? Is it of any interest for the beholder whether one or two artists contributed to the work on display? Is it mainly a creative exchange on an artistic level without any effect or meaning for the “excluded third man”?

A purely quantitative approach to this question (i.e. taking inventory of the artists) would prove to be insufficient as the creative methods, resulting works of art and effects are too varied to obtain a significative conclusion. Why is that?

O.T.2005 (mitKartoffel) auf Bütten 36x28cm

First of all, artist groups or movements whose members are connected and associated through an explicit and aesthetic programme, also somehow create “collaborative works” even if these were apparently produced by one single artist (e.g. cubism, constructivism – DeStijl, Bauhaus, suprematism).

Additionally, artist couples who are collaborating for many years have often developed their own, common handwriting that cannot be reduced to a sum of works produced by two individuals, nor seen as the simple addition of separate creativities (e.g. Fischli & Weiss, Bigert & Bergström, Delbrügge & de Moll, Gilbert & George).

Finally, temporary collaborative projects can strongly diverge in their methods – depending on the motivations, personalities and relationship of the artists. There might be pre-agreed conceptual compromises which later on gives an impression of unity in the resulting work; consequently the symbiosis between the artists let a “third individuality” emerge (e.g. Dahn/Dokoupil); or the artists might proceed through a spontaneous and reactive process maintaining the work’s mobility and openness (e.g. Barfuss/Wachweger).

Some artist-duos strive to erase all traces of subjectivity; for others, the canvas (or any given medium) represents the arena of an artistic and constructive power struggle that is sought as a desirable creative process. And there is also often the wish to express common interests in a sustainable fashion…

This far from exhaustive list of differentiations already demonstrates how difficult it is to determine the borders and limits of the notion of “artistic collaboration”, be it in terms of content or general artistic effects.

Does “collaboration” mean above all a direct, artistic influence of the creative interaction by the Other? Even such an influence could not be defined with certainty, nor reduced to the simple common denominator of an immediately shared work space. Even quoted motives from anterior works of art could fit into this definition of a collaboration.
And why should not the moustached Mona Lisa be considered as a collaborative work of Leonardo da Vinci and Marcel Duchamp? Of course, the Joconde was clearly not intended as a collaborative work by its creator; but the reputation and value established in the independence of da Vinci’s finished work are exactly what the second artist is building on: neither Leonardo da Vinci, nor his work are put into question or ridiculed, it is rather the rigid, deadlocked perception of the Mona Lisa as an eternal value, as a finished, sacrosanct unity that is attacked.

O.T.2005 (mit Rosen) auf Bütten 36x28cm

This capacity to break open stagnating and passive perceptions is an essential aspect of artistic collaborations.
Cooperating artists voluntarily agree to a partial disempowerment by the capability of the Other to influence. Thus, the moment of the unexpected, the incalculable, the constraint to react and the impossibility of the single artist to think the work through from start to finish prevail in the creative process. Thanks to the dialogic character, the work remains “open” and refers – yet after the official “completion” – to an infinite continuation and unpredictability.

The interplay of action and reaction becomes particularly apparent in cases where both sides remain recognisable as artistic interventions of two, i.e. different individuals. This is for example the case in the collaborations of Elvira Bach and Tina Tahir whose common works will be exhibited in the Kunstkabinett (Regensburg, Germany) from 27/01/06 till 26/04/06. These two very different artists collaborate without making compromises and thus guarantee the preservation and clear recognisability of their own, individual handwriting. The consequence is an intensification of the dialectic effect.

The large-surface, stylised painting, the powerful, dynamic strokes of the brush, the dark contours and often surface-covering, diagonally arranged representations of women by Elvira Bach give the impression of a certain massiness, an unceremonious elementariness, a very dominant presence and closeness, and thus, does not seem at first to be easily reconcilable with the delicately powdered, distant (and sometimes styled in neon-colours) photo models around whom tender graphic ornaments and urban symbols are entwined in the photographies of Tina Tahir.

O.T.2005 (rote Spaghetti mit Frau) auf Bütten 36x28cm

But in their collaborative works, artistic differences coalesce to a synthesis that is less an amalgamation than a playful, enjoyably unfinished seesaw motion. It is this oppositeness and seeming irreconcilableness that form the special zest of this collaboration. The work is not topped off, but there are interventions and modifications instead that break the closeness open, and that pull the beholder out of the security of an uncritical passivity.

By the sheer contribution of the still-creative and not-yet-too-tired eye of the beholder, every work of art can raise the claim of being a “collaborative work”. But when artists – especially those who represent different genres, generations, attitudes – explicitly emphasise this implicit claim through cooperation, they simultaneously and silently seem to object to the old cliché of an art-(and-artist-)solipsism, in a more insistent and direct way than usual. They remind us that art wants and should be unsettled and open-ended, that every work of art sets invisible suspension marks and calls for continuation.

Collaborations are insofar comparable to an aide-mémoire, an attempt at resuscitating the indolent exhibition visitor. They underline what has also always been present in solo works, but was slowly being overlooked and forgotten – namely the fact that art is not an isolated loner; it needs people to think or see further. The second artist becomes an “ideal beholder” by demonstrating the needed lack of intellectual distance in a creatively meddling way and by shaking off the receptive doziness and engaging in an open dialogue.

Text: Armi Lee
Übersetzung: Armie Lee

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