by Deborah von Wartburg —
In a powerful self-curated solo exhibition,Sebastian Utzni communicates through postcards, a ‘70s-game and with scientific methods
‘Ma pensé est toujours dans cette maison de St. Julien qui abrit ceux qui j’aime. Ton frère.’ With these words someone signed off a postcard that now hangs in the Lullin+Ferrari Gallery in Zurich. On the other side of the card, four African girls are killing time on a sofa. One is posing with a scarf behind her back and looks knowingly into the camera. They wear wide-cut dresses, one of them shows her naked breasts, ‘Fillettes arabes’ is printed above them. It was shot in Tunis, send to France, the date is not mentioned. Next to this one, countless other postcards are precisely hung next to each other on a clothesline across the gallery.
‘Jeunes arabes’ is the name of this installation from German artist Sebastian Utzni. One larger picture on the line catches the eye. It shows, so says the inscription, the young prophet Mohammed. The same prophet, represented in a cartoon by the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, for which Al Quaida IS attacked their office in 2015. According to a legend, the so-called Mohammed painting is a picture that the Christian monk Bahira painted from memory after meeting the Prophet Mohammed when he was between 9 and 12 years old. The portrait is produced and sold as a poster in Iran. The source for the poster and the painting is a photograph on a postcard, which is told to be taken in Tunisia between 1904 and 1906. It was published as a postcard under the title “Mohammed”. Later the same photo was coloured and distributed with the title “Jeune arabe”. A term once used to describe religious art, is today used to categorise young male migrants in European political debates, often with prejudicial or menacing undertones.
The art-market: a game, a science
Often Utzni’s research begins in a flaneur-like manner, through which he uncovers cultural, political and aesthetical parallels. His artworks are conceptually strong, politically challenging and never lack a certain childishly playfulness, like for example the “Drei nackte Frauen” which were shown 2017 in the Herrmann Germann Contemporary Gallery in Zurich. With this work he took three Barbie doll Bodies, painted them black and exchanged their heads with those of Mao, Marx and Lenin. Also in this current exhibition, Utzni uses toys and gives them a modification, which lets them speak in a new context.
At the gallery entrance, Utzni takes aim at the art market with two striking works. One is a giant flipper-machine in which the ‘artist’, ‘the gallerist’, ‘the auctioneer’ and ‘the collector’ challenge each other. Instead of ‘Booster’ or ‘Triple points’, the targets are ‘economies’ or ‘wows’. Every day the game between the art market players restarts at zero – perhaps the most unrealistic part of the analogy. Utzni describes the art-world as a game, where everyone wants to achieve ‘value’, where ‘benevolence’ and ‘prices’ have the same importance and where ‘happiness’ is needed.
The walls are hung with infographic-like paintings of colour-dots in different sizes. From the first sight, they don’t look like well realized artworks, but evidence would suggest they must be. Because Sebastian Utzni asked art experts, which paintings they thought would achieve record sales this year. He then employed a computer program to analyse which colours appear most in the named pieces. Aping the position of a neutral observer, Utzni dissects the functioning of the art market in a scientific manner – but what he does is to remove all artistic value of the analysed pieces. The question, if the dissection process has produced new artistic value, remains part of the work.
The exhibitionis very well curated by Sebastian Utzni himself. If the pseudo-scientific paintings are dry, the ‘young arabs’ resonate with warm wishes.
Der vorliegende Text der Kulturpublizistik-Studentin Deborah von Wartburg entstand im Rahmen des Kurses «Schreiben über Kunst» (Leitung: Claudia Jolles und Aoife Rosenmeyer). Er erschien erstmals am 27. September 2019 auf www.artlog.net by Kunstbulletin.