Spatial Structure. Florian Graf at Grieder Contemporary, Zurich
Florian Graf had quite a number of exhibitions last year. I encountered his works at Kunsthalle Basel, Grieder Contemporary in Zurich, and the exhibition space Schwarzwaldallee in Basel, just to mention a few. The strategies and media the Basel-based artist employs are diverse. He films, photographs, and builds model-size or monumental structures. Confusion, shifts, and alienation are recurring themes in Graf’s oeuvre, negotiated in alternating media formats. In November 2015, Grieder Contemporary in Zurich presented the solo show Dwell Time. One of the two gallery spaces features projects that can be described as mimetic in the best sense. Artworks that imitate social systems while at the same time distorting them. Benevolent imposters that in a virtuoso manner make use of practices and jargons, treating the given circumstances in an extremely productive way. This is the case, for example, with Graf’s Fantastic Ground U(r) Estate Agency & Property Development, a fictitious real estate agency which the artist set up in an empty store in Cumbernauld (Scotland). On view in Zurich are plainly framed ads for the residential projects. While the style of the 12 advertisements suggests an ordinary service provider, a first closer look already reveals that the projects we see are entirely fantastic. There is a huge gap between the architectural visions and their practicability: The enormous soap bubble that can be rented for just £ 102 a month promises a magnificent view from the common bathroom as well as a walkable distance to visionary ideas. In another, a tower separated from the rest of the house floats in the air. During the course of his action, Graf conducted a number of interviews with potential ‘clients’ and had the visitors of his agency fill in forms on their own ideas. In a conversation, Graf said that the staging was so convincing upon first sight that it was mainly children who detected the joke behind the professional presentation. The adults, deceived by the external appearance, at first hurried on.
On display in the same room are four episodes from the bustling life of the artist and art figure Olf Graphenheim, an alter ego of Flo Graf that the artist has been maintaining for years in film projects. Graf/ Graphenheim performs the existence of an artist in front of the camera. My attention was particularly drawn to the film Animistic (2014): Graphenheim retreats to the luxurious rooms of a baroque palais. Not just any tree, but the tree, the quintessence of a tree, if you like. Graphenheim, who in other films, that Graf shot with cinematographer Fabrizio Fracassi, appears as a restless action artist, turns to unaccustomed, classical techniques in Animistic and tries out oil painting. A picture-book artistic gesture: a canvas, an easel, a beautiful view to the outdoors. Not entirely plein air, for the artist mostly looks to the outside, to nature, without coming too close to it. But at times nature unexpectedly gains access to Graphenheim’s universe that seems to be relatively hermetic: A raven appears in the room, a woodpecker busies itself at the canvas… not with a deceptively real representation of a tree, however, but the wooden frame of the still empty canvas. The filmic mise-en-scène focuses on the persona of the artist, treats his actions ironically, while remaining very close to the language, the functionality, and the logics of the art business. In a conversation we had, Florian Graf pointed out that I understood the whole thing too rashly as a satire. And indeed, the scenes of the film could actually take place in this or a similar way. An exceedingly idealized work process, an all but reverent female assistant, a gallerist on the phone who is led to believe that a completed work exists, although the horror vacui of the white canvas was never overcome. Florian Graf lends his alter ego Graphenheim substance with the films: both artists act in the same world.
I’m surprised when I notice where the film Animistic was shot: The splendid rooms in which Graphenheim rails against his creative crisis are in Wenkenhof, a baroque estate in the vicinity of Basel. It is where Florian Graf in May 2015 celebrated the awards ceremony of the Kulturförderpreis of the Alexander Clavel-Stiftung and undraped the sculpture Moon Cage produced for the Wenkenhof. An empty golden cage on an austere concrete column with two mirrors rotating around it on a metal structure reminiscent of abstracted branches. Fragments of the garden and palace are captured, as is the light. At the time, I would have liked to have played David Blaine and been in the cage as a stylite. But what then came was even better: In the ceremonial hall of the Wenkenhof, a baroque buffet awaited the visitors. Sensuous overabundance, as if a still life by Jan Davidsz. de Heem had materialized in the middle of the room. An enthused guest next to me grabbed an ax to split the head of a pig. Others took selfies of themselves with entire bunches of cooked carrots including the stalks. Euphoria and silliness. Masked accomplices of Graf played badminton in the garden, and later on people danced.
It is the same room that served as the set for Animistic. The French garden surrounding the estate is a product of seigneurial interventions by (garden) artists and landscape architects. Yet Graphenheim does not succeed in capturing it pictorially, because his gaze prefers losing itself in the swaying treetops. The artist Graf, in contrast, succeeded in two things: The baroque frame and the tradition of courtly festivities is updated for contemporary forms of staging. In accordance to the mindset of a baroque prince, all of the price money was extravagantly spent for this festivity. In his book Was ist Barock (What is Baroque?), Erwin Panofsky notes that persons in the baroque garden appear as embellishment to emphasize the garden’s strict axes and perspectives. Useful elements of a superordinate aesthetics. The festival guests on this evening were by no means props, yet one could not but already feel oneself as a part of a further project by Florian Graf. One invariably carried out a maneuver similar to the one the artist often demonstrates himself: Inhabiting a place, taking possession of it, forming it anew, and thus creating rooms for art.
The second room of the Dwell Time exhibition refers to the title, for ‚dwell time‘ also has a technical meaning. It designates the time that elements remain in a certain state. For Grieder Contemporary, Graf created three House Fountains. The ceramic fountains glazed green vacillate between an organic and architectural form and simultaneously give the impression of being models for bizarre architectural structures or much larger works, for example, the sculptures for Chamber Music at Kunst Halle St. Gallen (2015). The dwell time of water is short: It evaporates and the house fountains have to be constantly refilled. The gallery’s employees are therefore forced to enter into a quite pragmatic relationship to the artwork, while I, as a visitor, enjoy the calm ripple, examine the other artworks and can’t help but chuckle about the feng shui moment.
Florian Graf, Dwell Time
October 30 - November 28, 2015 at Grieder Contemporary, Limmatstrasse 256, CH-8005 Zurich
Florian Graf, U(r) Agency, 2009, Cumbernauld Hit 2009
Florian Graf, U(r) Agency, fine art print on paper, 31.1 x 22.4 cm, 2009–2015, Grieder Contemporary Zürich
Florian Graf, Animistic, HD video, 16:9, colour, stereo sound, 2015, Grieder Conteporary Zürich
Florian Graf, Moon Cage, concrete, brass, steel, glass, colour, 2015, Foto Barbara Kern, Wenkenhof Riehen
Florian Graf, Dwell Time, installation view, 2015, Grieder Contemporary
Florian Graf, Si (Horse), 180 x 108 x 108 cm, chrome steel, base variabel, 2015, Foto: Rodolfo Ernst, Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen
Olga Osadtschy studied cultural studies and art history in Weimar, Berlin und Siena and current doctoral student at eikones NCCR Iconic Criticism, Basel.
 Erwin Panofsky, Was ist Barock?, Berlin 2005, p. 51f.s.