Adrian Ghenie (b. 1977)
Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's… Read more PROPERTY FROM AN IMPORTANT PRIVATE EUROPEAN COLLECTION
Adrian Ghenie (b. 1977)

Untitled (Study for Kaiser Wilhelm Institute)

Details
Adrian Ghenie (b. 1977)
Untitled (Study for Kaiser Wilhelm Institute)
oil and Xerox collage on canvas
48½ x 79 5/8in. (123.2 x 202.2cm.)
Executed in 2011
Provenance
Haunch of Venison, London.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2011.
Literature
J. Judin (ed.), Adrian Ghenie, Ostfildern-Ruit 2014, p. 46 (illustrated in colour, p. 47).
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Lot Essay

‘Painting is like a plaster cast of the times in which we are living. It rematerializes the digital image’
ADRIAN GHENIE

‘I’m jealous of the specific power of cinema to build a virtual state, and of its capacity to break with reality. For two hours you’re completely under its spell! … I’d like to bring something of this magic, of this entire force, into painting’
ADRIAN GHENIE


A vast, haunting tableau writ large with the shadows of history, Untitled is among the largest and most visually complex works in Adrian Ghenie’s seminal series of Studies for The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. Beneath the clinical glare of a dimly-lit medical chamber, three spectral figures preside over an unseen operation. To the right, a surgeon and nurse shift in and out of focus, submerged in a corrosive monsoon of green, purple and acid yellow. Pigment rains down the length of the canvas, splintering and stuttering like digital static. Through a prism of painterly and cinematic allusions – from Gerhard Richter and Francis Bacon, to Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch – the work visualises the volatile relationship between image, memory and reality. The scene it depicts is at once indistinct and disturbingly familiar, flickering with images of Europe’s dark past. Based on the notorious eugenics research centre from which the series takes its name, the work filters its disquieting subject matter through a gauntlet of layers, screens and fractures. Its content is unmistakable, and yet – through technical sleight of hand – its veracity is held tantalisingly at bay. ‘What interests me is the texture of history’, explains Ghenie (A. Ghenie, quoted in ‘Adrian Ghenie in Conversation with Magda Radu’, Adrian Ghenie: Darwin’s Room, exh. cat., Romanian Pavilion, Biennale de Venezia, 2015, p. 32). In a world where images are polished to digital perfection and disseminated at the click of a mouse, the artist reminds us of the grainy, flawed and heuristic process through which bygone events write themselves into collective consciousness. In the slippages and surface disfigurements of Untitled, Ghenie gives form not only to the ghosts of the past, but ultimately to the way they are processed by time.

Having grown up under the Romanian dictator Ceausescu, and having watched him executed on television on Christmas Day, Ghenie is fascinated by the way in which digital media flattens visceral experience. Through the physical malleability of paint, the artist seeks to rematerialize his subjects and – in doing so – rescue them from their virtual fate. ‘My generation knows what life was like before the Internet’, he explains. ‘And so you still happen to hear echoes of the old world when you wake up in the morning … Then, you realize that the world is changing its texture, is changing its skin. I am very sensitive to this aspect. The world is beginning to have the texture of easy-to-clean surfaces. It no longer has pores. All the objects around us are beginning to be shinier and shinier’ (A. Ghenie, quoted in ‘Adrian Ghenie in Conversation with Magda Radu’, Adrian Ghenie: Darwin’s Room, exh. cat., Romanian Pavilion, Biennale de Venezia, 2015, p. 32). As such, Ghenie takes as his subject matter major historical turning points – people and events that have shaped the course of contemporary reality. The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute stands at the forefront of this line-up, along with figures such as Charles Darwin, Vincent van Gogh and Elvis Presley. By choosing subjects that are deeply ingrained in the universal psyche, Ghenie seeks to expose the illusory mechanisms through which they are transmitted to future generations. Thus, the language of cinema looms large in his works, evoking not only the dark mise-en-scènes of film noir but also the accelerated temporality of motion pictures. The history of painting, too – with its dialogue between figuration and abstraction – is parsed through the surface of his canvases, clogging its weave and sticking to its fibres. Images that were once consigned to internet archives and the pages of history books are restored to complex, textural realities. We can no longer skim over their smooth, dimensionless surfaces, but are instead forced to plunge into their living, breathing depths.

The present work is a virtuosic testament to this effect. Across its sprawling surface, Ghenie infuses paint with the instability of film, shrouding his faceless figures in ambiguity. A ghostly apparition hovers to the left, his face warped and skull-like upon a superimposed xerox panel. Foreground and background shift in and out of focus as figures dissolve into shimmering veils of pigment. ‘I’m jealous of the specific power of cinema to build a virtual state, and of its capacity to break with reality’, he explains. ‘For two hours you’re completely under its spell! And there’s something spectacular and seductive about this entire story which has become so familiar to us; we’ve been going to the cinema for one hundred years already, so it’s almost routine and we don’t even analyse how incredible this cinematographic medium really is. I’d like to bring something of this magic, of this entire force, into painting’ (A. Ghenie, quoted in ‘Adrian Ghenie in conversation with Mihai Pop’, Adrian Ghenie: Darwin’s Room, exh. cat., Romanian Pavilion, Biennale de Venezia, 2015, pp. 82-83). As we attempt to unravel the drama from the painterly gloom, we are forced to question every aspect of our perception. Does the scene offer a readable narrative, or is it simply an abstract panorama playing tricks on the mind? We recognise its story almost instantly, yet our belief is perpetually suspended. Peering through the layers of miasma to the inescapable fact beneath, we are forced to confront our instinct to look away.

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