Almanac of Contemporary Aesthetics
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CHEERFUL NIHILISM

Berlin-based artist Julian-Jakob Kneer (Swiss, b. 1992) juxtaposes the deviant and the normative within singular artifacts, distinguished by a dark decorativeness and a kitsch austerity.

Words by Allan Gardner

At what point does pop culture become material for contemporary art? Love Island is too fresh, too raw, too clear a document of a society in the process of giving up—but for some reason, The Simple Life fills us with joy. Everyone on Earth has seen the Paris Hilton “STOP BEING POOR” photo memed and recirculated in the last year, with a nostalgic eye cast over bottled tans and low-rise jeans, and a worrying number of people fondly remembering owning those Libertines jackets. What we’re really experiencing is people in their early thirties looking back to their mid to late teens with rose tinted glasses—nothing new there. The rule of thumb when it comes to art and popular culture, it would seem, is to leave about fifteen years before trash settles into culture, then it’s fair game.

Swiss artist Julian-Jakob Kneer is up to his elbows in the mire of popular culture. His work is an exploration of taste as a concept, embracing kitsch and camp as a means of investigating the operative language of symbols, often as they become part of mass-media history. Kneer is as likely to crib from Rammstein as he is from Freud, not seeking to bridge gaps between high and low culture, but instead utilizing all culture as a material basis for expression. Much of the artist’s work is concerned with the self, or our relationship to ourselves.

His debut solo exhibition at the Vienna-based Shore Gallery, titled “Ever After,” consisted of three large wall works made of CNC carved polyurethane, with dying roses scattered across the floor throughout the gallery. The show’s theme was based around popular depictions of romantic and performative suicide, and the romanticization of the dead, dying, or death generally in popular media, looking at narcissism and martyrdom both in these depictions like Romeo and Juliet, and more broadly as a state of being. Aesthetically the works go beyond a timely nostalgia and instead collapse the aesthetics of popular culture in a stark rejection of good taste. Looking somewhere between Han Solo frozen in carbonite in the movie The Empire Strikes Back, and head shop and historical tombstone ornaments, Kneer confronts the viewer with a semiotic milieu representative of a contemporary popular culture in which all things are made equal.

This democratized approach to media references is defined by a sense of cheerful nihilism. As Kneer describes the show, “The exhibition represents three archetypes: The martyr, the narcissist / artist who would commit suicide out of vanity / at their peak. They drown in self-love, the Dorian Gray kind of narcissist. I’m thinking 27 Club, Avicii, Lil Peep, Heath Ledger, Falco. Second is the losing lover / loving loser who's love is not returned and who might end their life out of spite. Third is the suicide pact, the couple that manifests their love by dying together. These archetypes ultimately are the same. In the end we’re all alone, we’re all going to die. Birth and death are inevitable and everything between might just be a farce. We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars. Life is a game and love is the price.”

The artist’s most recent solo exhibition at brunand brunand berlin continues this exploration of our internal provocations through pop culture aesthetics. “The exhibition is as much a self-portrait of me as it is of everyone else. A self-portrait as the Joker. The Joker as something present in all of us, not as a character, rather an avatar. The Joker is a medium to mirror an unbiased reality without prejudice, the agent of chaos provoking extremes aka "best" and "worst". A fifth season. A floating signifier. A drug. I remember reading a quote of someone saying: Fools have a purifying power in society because they question what is right and ask the right questions.

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Rather than choosing a title for the show, Kneer chose seven, with each title representing one of the seven works in the the show—although each title is interchangeable, not linked to any specific work. The titles (SOGAR DIE GRÖSSTEN STARS ENTDECKEN SICH SELBT IM SPIEGELGLAS (LEBEN IHR LEBEN IM SPIEGELGLAS) / BORN TO STAND OUT / WITNESS ME / DECAYDANCE / MADLEY / LACHEN IST DIE SCHÖNSTE ART ZÄHNE ZU ZEIGEN / SELL THE HOUSE SELL THE CAR SELL THE KIDS) act as a useful insight into the artist’s work. It’s unlikely that anyone will catch every specific reference, which alludes to the subjective nature of meaning in contemporary pop culture.

“The set up consists of enlarged vanity mirrors with attached curtains and quotes written in lipstick and (a) costume(s). Sculpture works and / or a performative installation. It is stage and backstage: a Kammerspiel / a performance for one. I’m inviting the viewer to imagine themselves in this costume, on that stage of self.”

Ultimately, this recent presentation reflects the complexity of semiotics in current-day pop culture. The speed at which trends emerge and fade might create the impression that they are less important than in the past, an argument for the seemingly endless ’90s nostalgia. Kneer’s work accelerates this sense of nostalgia, encouraging viewers to become aware of the fact that a subjective relationship to a given aesthetic will come with its own set of memories, experiences, and perspectives. Utilizing a figure as recognizable as the Joker, reaching back only to 2019, is a means of democratizing affinities to any given piece of culture. The spectrum of value is flattened, and high and low are considered long dead terms, as Britney Spears and Christopher Wool rub shoulders in Kneer’s endless media landscape.

Image courtesy of the artist.

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