But I shall not rehearse the narrative of my own brute awakening, which may remind some of that fateful encounter between Valèry and Mallarmé and which roused me from a certain dogmatic slumber. Confession and biographical nicety are unbecoming of my vocation. Let it suffice to say that one must learn to welcome, even court, such shocks to the cerebral apparatus.
Nor shall I take the time to trace the spare and demanding trajectory of Krebber’s prolonged and unscrupulous intervention into the leviathan of the art world, his willingness to play the dandy. Yet such study will certainly reward the artist who views her practice less in terms of an ongoing process of creation and more as a series of strategic decisions that produce the artist—more precisely the dastardly proper name—as much as the artwork. For Krebber, the artist is not chiefly an inventor of works, but a tactician; the gallery less an exhibition space than a field of operations; the art world a battlefield. A battle into which one must enter, I should add, as one enters into the self: armed to the teeth.
Yet Krebber is not one for direct confrontation. He has little taste for grand spectacles. His tactics are more oblique, paradoxical, senseless, clever. At times, perhaps too clever. No matter. More to the point, the problem that guides his practice is not how to win, but how to free oneself from this imperative. Not to invent, but how to appropriate the impossibility of invention. Success is defined here less by victory over as by neutralization of one’s enemy.
Such is the task that Krebber sets for himself in general and which is pursued with supreme pedagogical rigour in Puberty in Teaching, his recent show at the Kölnischer Kunstverein, 17.4-8.6, 2008, whose essential trope was repeated at his show at Greene Naftali, 9.17-10.18, 2008. In both shows, one encounters secondhand windsurfing boards sliced into equal segments and hung on the wall like Donald Judd’s, to adopt Krebber’s own simile, or occasionally placed on the floor like Carl Andre’s. As is oft the case with Krebber, the show is framed by a catalogue of the same title, forcing upon the viewer a new level of mediation that compels her to recast the exhibition in light of the trajectory of Krebber’s better known incursions into drawing and painting. The exhibition in Cologne also includes an open air sculpture spelling in block letters HERR KREBBER on the lawn in front of the Kunstverein, alluding no doubt to the HOLLYWOOD sign.Krebber is here playing at being a bit of a fool, flamboyantly scoffing no doubt at all and sundry pretensions to artistic mastery. Nothing could be more adolescent, yet he knows it is never enough, however, to denounce, to jab the finger. Krebber is after all a strict pedagogue. He is aware that to truly teach one must teach nothing at all. Except perhaps the taste for the precision of refusal. An obscure objective indeed! This means neither ignoring nor opposing, but playing with mastery: with its pretensions, its goals, ends and objectives. How to neutralize the figure of mastery, to reassume today the grand legacy of refusal that the avant-garde once captured? This is the question that the exhibition joyously poses.
What then is the point? Let me be precise, for we find in this selection of these ready-mades a most subtle dialectic.
A Krebber exhibition cannot be read in isolation, but must be placed in the context of his incessant struggle to stage himself as artist. And this most recent exhibition is nothing if not didactic. The name gives it away: HERR KREBBER. The artist’s name functions as that vanishing mediator which both precedes and proceeds from the work. Both the place where meaning, and thus mastery, is so often sought (the artist as conveyor of mystical truths) and the place where nothing strictly speaking takes place, the name becomes the empty place holder that occasions the work: an interval preceding the work but only apparent after the work. The work produces the name, and the self (that tissue of obscurity) vanishes behind this protuberance. This is a necessity no doubt that allows the name to circulate in the market as the arch figure of artistic value, that master figure that crowns the work like a halo. By explicitly staging the name, Krebber appropriates this process as the condition of his critical practice.
The work itself next to the name is almost beside the point. And we can now perhaps glimpse the supreme delicacy of Krebber’s dialectical interrogation of the name. In addition to the name there is always the work: the more substantial the better. It gives buyers more to grip onto. What pray I ask could be more substantial than a surfboard? What could be more beautiful? Let me be blunt so that the point is not missed. These diced windsurf boards make a mockery of sculpture’s claim to immediacy, that illustrious bodily presence that Judd exhaustively sought. And yet we know full well that there is nothing more laughable than a formal analysis of a ready-made. But this is precisely what this work demands: analysis fore-grounded with an acute but laughable intensity.
Krebber’s point, however, is not to extract chuckles from the diaphragms of the cultivated. As he has written, this is not humour, but well presented humour – what he calls “artificial camp ‘with a twist.’” By being forced to acknowledge the work’s materiality and weight (“required by object-based practice, requirements that can be avoided in teaching, philosophy and in other forms of mediation”), we must acknowledge precisely through this very acknowledgement (and here’s the twist) that its materiality is beside the point. The work is rather an occasion—an occasion to play the artist, to stage the name, to play at being a self. And thus to play at undoing the mastery of the name.
For Krebber such play is the most refined of critical gestures. To be a bit crude, we could say that the selection of the ready-made and the decision to slice it up introduces an interval into the work that diverts us away from its shear presence to the cut, which introduce an interval, a bit of absence, into the object. There is nothing original about this kind of critical negation, this dramatic assertion that nothing takes place but the place. But originality is beside the point.
It is the name goddamn it. Yes, the name must be invented. The work functions as a detour towards the name. If the project, as Krebber himself tells us in the press release, is to adapt Valery’s Monsieur Teste, it is certainly because Krebber assumes as the cruel and pitiless axiom of his practice the following of Teste’s affirmations: “ ‘What do I do all day?’ I invent myself.”
How are we to square this with Krebber’s well known statement? “I do not believe I can invent something new in art or painting because whatever I would want to invent already exists.” The answer is as crushing as it is simple. Under such conditions of total exhaustion, where the name becomes the value of the work, the stuff of press releases, the task is not to invent works but to labour against the name for the sake of the self. If Krebber’s last intervention can indeed be read as an attempt (perhaps condemned to failure) to play with and against the name, it is because the self can only be pursued through the dissolution of the fragmentary identity the name serves to assemble. Such an artistic consciousness would be worthy of M. Teste.
But names can never be dissolved. And there’s the rub.
Krebber has learned from Teste something that cannot in turn be taught. For the self can neither be known, nor encountered. Glimpsed only in the gaps in presence that the artist must do her best to construct, to stage and elaborate. One can only become a self by refusing to be anything whatever, by becoming indefinite, in short, unnameable.
This has little to do with the Germanic heft of the labour of the negative. Krebber’s struggle with the name is neither epic nor tragic. It is perhaps comic. And Krebber, you should know, is the least ironic of artists. Comedy has always been concerned with proper names.
To resist the centrifugal force of identification, the assumption of a rule, a style, a cadence one must stumble, produce bad ideas, unfinished ideas; one must slip on bananas and be crushed by pianos. This is what it means for Herr Krebber to become a sign, an impossible proper name, an empty signifier. So that one can let in that gust of air that separates the self and the name. One may then approximate that impossible objective of constructing a name that divests itself in its simple enunciation….H-E-R-R-K-R-E-B-B-E-R. Letters like planks across an abyss.Then, perhaps, we find thought behaving as a man: strange and inscrutable.