The Future of Art: A Manual
(Sternberg Press, 2011)
In The Future of Art: A Manual, German writer Ingo Niermann and artist Erik Niedling trace the tactics and intuitions of other artists, collectors, gallerists, and theorists. A variegated collection of interviews—transcribed in full in the book itself and edited in an accompanying documentary film—comprises their revelatory manual. The quixotic pair trace the future of art through a singular, conveniently malleable project. However, the outline is winding and faint, leaving the future very difficult to place.
This divination is not without precedent. In his 2006 text, Umbauland (Suhrkamp Verlag GmbH und Co. KG), Niermann offers 10 solutions for the reformation of his homeland, and proposes his most far-reaching project, the Great Pyramid Monument. The project initially consisted of constructing a mammoth German pyramid to dwarf the scale of Khufu’s. It was to be an ever-growing necropolis for all mankind. (One may still reserve a stone in one’s name at the project’s website.) It was the democratic monolith to bookend our shared (predominantly Western) history. It remains unrealized due to many social and pragmatic constraints, mainly financing.
The pyramid monument is resurrected in The Future of Art. In an expository conversation with Niedling, Niermann asserts his desire to become an artist, and a successful one. However, he intends to realize only one work of art in the span of his career, the Great Pyramid Monument, and plans to finance its construction by accessing, ideally through one collector, the absurd wealth flowing in the art market. This benefactor is to witness the monument’s full construction while alive and dwell in it as a corpse, positioning the collector as a contemporary Pharaoh. The revision elevates only the artist and collector, and leaves the rest of us to find our own monument. With Niedling as his sidekick, Niermann seeks the counsel of contemporary artists and art-world denizens on how best to realize his artistic vision and invite market success.
Those sought after are an oddly balanced sampling of international contemporary art, from Terence Koh to Harald Falckenberg. One may wonder at the female quotient: Philomene Magers, Antje Majewski, and (in the documentary exclusively) Marina Abramović are the only three women among Future’s 18 contributors, if one includes Niermann and Neidling. The familiar interview-curation strategy generates the map (or manual) of the operative art ecosystem. What is most engaging about the interviews is not their content, which consistently offers candid views of the various positions the interviewees occupy, but Niermann’s and Niedlings’s precarious angling of their ulterior lens. As Niermann proposes his Great Pyramid project to each interviewee, its valence shifts in accordance to his interlocutor’s position in contemporary art. Damien Hirst is cast in a perfectly harsh light as a spectacle size-queen. Self-aggrandizement is subtly foregrounded in an interview with Thomas Olbricht, a voracious collector. Niermann’s strategy is only occasionally subverted by more astute subjects, such as Boris Groys, who offers a direct critique of the pyramid project’s efficacy as art.
The relations of the book to the documentary are manifold. The book is very nearly a simple transcription of the interviews on the DVD, and there is a temptation to just “watch the movie.” But much would be lost in neglecting either half of this pair. The transcriptions are more generous, closer to the looseness of conversation, while the video is edited to a polish, using only the choicest content. But more importantly, the absorption of both media is exaggerated by their cohabitation. The echoes created between the two are strange, and one questions which is the original document. This confusion between the past (origins) and the future manifests in a periodic and growing torpor visibly expressed by Niermann and Niedling in the documentary. Interspersed throughout the interviews are vignettes of Niermann and Niedling idling in German parks, museum lawns, Coney Island, and a Thuringian mountain meadow. These passages are suggestive of a ludic boredom with any search for futurity.
As both the book and film progress, Niermann’s Great Pyramid project eclipses the archive, and it becomes apparent that the project’s critical acumen is directed at the system it aims to augur. During the interviews, its revelatory power may seem pedestrian, amounting to familiar critiques of other artists. It is only when they are viewed collectively that this ulterior lens achieves an exacting focus. Through its simultaneous suggestion of solution and infinitude, Niermann’s one-project art career portrays the anachronistic now of contemporary art. The effect is fun and incisive, yet it incites a non-recuperative inertia, hovering between the false expectations of a future and the fiction of renegotiating the past.