In the Studio: Christian Jankowski

Portrait by Jason Harrell


German artist Christian Jankowski is a familiar face in the art world. He gained an international following withTelemistica (1999), a self-referential video produced for the Venice Biennale that documents calls the artist made to Italian television psychics. Speaking live on air, Jankowski simultaneously produced and reflected on his work by asking the psychics to offer predictions about the success of his participation in the biennial. Born in Göttingen, Jankowski studied at the Hochschule für bildende Künste in Hamburg and now teaches at the Staatlichen Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Stuttgart. His first major show in the US opened in 2000 at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. A full survey organized by the Des Moines Art Center followed in 2005 and traveled to the MIT List Visual Arts Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Jankowski has exhibited throughout Europe, as well as in Mexico, Israel, Hong Kong, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand.

The artist’s familiarity also stems from the fact that he appears in many of his own videos and performances. For My Life as a Dove (1996), a magician “transformed” Jankowski, who was then still in art school, into a bird; the artist-as-dove was then placed in a cage for the remaining three weeks of the exhibition. (A reverse transformation ended the performance, and both magical acts were recorded on video.) In a more recent video, he appears standing motionless in various settings. Created for the Biennale of Sydney, Tableau Vivant TV (2010) mimics the conventions of a live news broadcast. Reporters (or actors posing as reporters) address the camera while Jankowski remains frozen in poses that illustrate key moments, however banal, in the work’s production and reception—from the artist’s trip to the airport to his arrival at the biennial’s opening party.

Fact and fiction are often indistinguishable in Jankowski’s practice. Strip the Auctioneer (2009) includes a video of a real auction at Christie’s in Amsterdam, complete with banner graphics detailing the price of a given work on the block. Jankowski offered the auctioneer’s own clothes to buyers, and the willing collaborator/auctioneer, a Christie’s employee, removed articles one by one, placing them on the block while apparently continuing the sale in earnest. Casting Jesus (2011) resembles an amateur talent show. The judges are Vatican experts who assess various actors’ portrayals of their Savior. The judges are real clergy and scholars, but the promised film about Jesus appears to have been a lark. Sometimes, reality and fiction end up at loggerheads. Heavyweight History (2013) is a send-up of a sports broadcast. An enthusiastic announcer provides running commentary as burly Polish weight lifters quixotically attempt to lift monumental sculptures—including several Soviet-era holdovers and a statue of Ronald Reagan—from their pedestals in various Warsaw parks and plazas. 

Clearly, Jankowski’s work depends on the good will of collaborators, from magicians to reporters to psychics. He wields his authority as an artist and filmmaker with empathy. The situations he sets in motion are entertaining, but they are never merely satire at the expense of the participants. Instead, the insights they offer stem from the collaborative process that Jankowski establishes. Indeed, the authorship of the artist’s videos is often an open question. Is Jankowski a director, a puppet master, a mediator, a curator of situations? 

Given these concerns, Jankowski was an intriguing choice to organize Manifesta 11, the European Biennial of Contemporary Art, which takes place this summer in Zurich. His curatorial project, titled “What People Do for Money: Some Joint Ventures,” will explore many of the questions implicit in his own work through a bold arrangement: visiting artists have been paired with “hosts” from various professions represented in the city. Catalan artist Carles Congost, for example, is working with a fireman on a new performance billed as a “pyro-musical spectacle,” while Mexican artist Teresa Margolles is producing an installation based on her interviews with sex workers. I met Jankowski this past winter in the busy Manifesta 11 offices in Zurich to discuss the relationship between his work as an artist and his work as a curator.         


AOIFE ROSENMEYER  This is a hectic environment, but what is your studio in Berlin like?

CHRISTIAN JANKOWSKI  It used to be a factory; it’s a large open space where several telephone conversations may be happening at the same time. It’s a challenge to concentrate, but everyone knows what’s going on. 

ROSENMEYER  Is it your ideal working space?

JANKOWSKI  I’m very happy there. When I was in Hamburg living in a storefront apartment, there was a constant overlap of public and private. I decided for the first time a year ago that one part of the building I live in would be fully private, and the other only for work. There were good reasons for the change, but I could also take over the working space for private events. I have a bar and a fireplace in my studio—things that make it very comfortable. 

ROSENMEYER  Your work often makes reference to the art market. Do you feel a duty to analyze the economics of the art world?

JANKOWSKI  A few of my works are inspired by the world in which I live—and in which I make my living. These projects are about selling art, art fairs, or the auction business. But I hope that my work also talks about other things. Strip the Auctioneer, for example, was only possible to make in the current art world, which has created the high-stakes auction and given rise to the ultrapowerful private collector, etc. Yet it’s also about engaging an individual—Amo Verkade, the auctioneerwho takes his own clothes off. Striptease also has a following, and this is a male striptease, so you can read it from various viewpoints. I’m used to art-world boundaries and I always think the grass might be greener elsewhere, in another professional world. But the only way out of the art-world grid is with the help of others, making reference to another world outside. 

ROSENMEYER  But doesn’t your work end up in the museum with the same audience as ever?

JANKOWSKI  There are projects that have a life outside of the art world, like Casting Jesus. There was a lot of communication with the Vatican throughout the process about iconography and new media. The finished project was exhibited at a conference of German bishops, and it was shown in front of the altar in a Catholic church. It was shown in a Protestant church, too, for several weeks. The Protestant pastor even created ceremonies around it. The work continues to stimulate discussions about art in different contexts. 

ROSENMEYER  Is the dialogue that occurs during the production of a work as important as the response from audiences that view it?

JANKOWSKI It’s good if both happen. In the case of Casting Jesus, we negotiated with the Vatican before production started, and then we got feedback from them after they previewed a version of the work. When I first went to the Vatican to show Casting Jesus, officials there wanted to change something. But I asked them not to, telling them: “It’s good the way it is. You always wanted a human Christ, and now here is Christ appearing very human.” And they accepted that, which I didn’t expect. It can be a fragile process, and it’s always easy for people to say no.

ROSENMEYER  In that work and in others, you have looked at faith and belief in an art framework, which invites consideration of what importance art is given. What do you believe art should be?

JANKOWSKI  It should connect people with the times they are in, and with each other. It should connect them to parts of their own minds they don’t yet know. It should question individuals and the state they are in at a given moment, but it should also give them ideas about what they could become. I think art should also bring joy: good times during the little time you have on earth. 

And art should question structures—power structures, and the structures you build for yourself. Art should tell people that they have options. Of course these are things that some religions or other disciplines, like politics or sports, can also do. Organized religion can be good at repressing people, for example, but I’ve met people who use their religion to free themselves from boundaries. Art can be used or misused. It almost doesn’t matter what kicks you, but it’s good if something kicks people. For me, this is art.

ROSENMEYER  Do you feel some responsibility for how your work is received?

JANKOWSKI  Yes, of course. And I’m not into irresponsible art in general. Though that doesn’t mean everything has to have a slogan: “Political correctness and don’t waste energy!” There are good projects that waste a lot of energy just to make people conscious. I’m teaching, which is a responsibility but not a burden. I had professors to whom I am still very thankful, like Franz Erhard Walther and Stanley Brouwn. 

ROSENMEYER  Do you often rehearse with your collaborators? 

JANKOWSKI  Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Sometimes I like to lose control of the mechanics of film production, and that can be an efficient way to work. If you intervene on live television [such as in Telemistica], it’s good if you are the wild card in the situation. You can’t repeat a live moment, though sometimes it takes a while to appreciate the result. 

Often, I have an abstract idea of what I want to achieve, so the moment in which the other person responds is a surprise, and I’m frequently very happy with it. I try several takes, but generally the first one is the most complex. At that specific moment you can see somebody thinking, which doesn’t happen if you rehearse it. 

ROSENMEYER  What is your relationship like with the people who appear in your videos and performances?

JANKOWSKI  Having the machinery—the camera and the editing process—on your side means you have to gain the trust of the people participating in your projects. I am still on very good terms with most of my actors, or collaborators—whatever you want to call them. On television I see “reality” formats that are very abusive. These shows reflect badly on those who produced them, and they’re made to please a crazy audience. You need to look at a format from a distance to judge it, being aware of the players who manipulate it. 

ROSENMEYER  Your work is frequently read as a critique of what Guy Debord called the “spectacle.” Are you responding to the spectacle in contemporary life, or do you instead try to expand the potential of the media?  


ROSENMEYER  Your 2011 video The Will of the Curator suggests that the curator’s job is impossible. The curator 
character—played by Berlin-based curator Christina Landbrecht—discusses her role, her ambitions, and her goals. She faces enormous professional challenges, but because this character comes across as horribly demanding, she’s quite unsympathetic. It seems like an indictment of the profession. Yet you took the job organizing Manifesta, so the role must have some appeal. What can you do as a curator?

JANKOWSKI  First of all, Christina is a very nice person, and she didn’t just play the curator, she was my curator for a show. When you listen to her demands, you realize that these demands actually describe her own tasks, limitations, conditions, and duties. I just asked her to replace “I have to” with “I want to.” (“I want to earn less than €2,000 a month, 
I want my private holiday to coincide with openings of international biennials,” etc.) Those are the conditions of a young contemporary curator working in a German institution. I was asking her to reveal all her secrets. 

As to what one can do as a curator: you can amplify what you believe in, what you think is important, what thrills you. If it thrills you, there’s a chance it may thrill others. It’s a chance to say something louder and with many variables. It’s an experiment.

ROSENMEYER  In your 2008 piece Dienstbesprechung (Briefing), the staff of the Kunstmuseum Stuttgart exchange roles—an electrician becomes the director, a security guard the curator—to mount an exhibition of your work. The amount of creative control that the curator attains becomes a key theme. Could you discuss your approach to curating?

JANKOWSKI  There are all kinds of different art practices, so why shouldn’t there be different approaches to curatorship? As an artist, when I’m confronted by a curator who is very precise about what he or she wants to do, it is stimulating because I can react to that request. If I have a different opinion, fantastic, but a strong curatorial perspective is a starting point. 

I knew that I could not reinvent myself for Manifesta. My interests are my interests, and they probably invited me because they expected something along those lines. And they accepted my proposal. I’m no longer alone, now we think this can be interesting. 

ROSENMEYER  Do you differentiate between your roles as curator and artist?

JANKOWSKI  The attitude is the same in both roles. It’s about talking to different people. I’m interested in bringing different people to the art world—not because I think a bigger audience is a better audience, or that a diverse audience is better. But bringing more people in also brings different viewpoints and surprises.

ROSENMEYER  Which have been your best collaborations with curators?

JANKOWSKI  I’ll never forget meeting Harald Szeemann for the first time in 1997. It was fantastic. Still a student, I was invited to the Biennale de Lyon with the work My Life as a Dove, which he had seen in my first gallery show. I drove the piece to the exhibition in my mother’s Opel Kadett Combi, from Hamburg to Lyon. When I arrived at the biennial location, he walked me through the exhibition. “Here’s Bruce Nauman, here’s Joseph Beuys, here’s Philippe Parreno, here’s Jason Rhoades,” he said. “And look—right here I found a fantastic wall for you.” And the way he cared was very touching, how he sold me that wall in his playful way. And it was a good wall. It’s also a good question to pose to myself—how good a curator am I?—because right now I’m not selling the walls as well as Harald did. I think curators have to have a vision, an idea of what to do, but it’s a compromise, a politics of space and so on. Curators are jugglers. 

ROSENMEYER  Are there elements of the job that you didn’t anticipate?

JANKOWSKI  I’m not used to speaking for others. I have the institution behind me, and I’m not always OK with everything that it does. I’m used to producing my ideas, and I wonder why colleagues from the Manifesta tradition don’t immediately support my proposals! Why do they question them? It’s so unproductive! But curating is less about yourself and more about the team; you have to learn from each other, too. 

ROSENMEYER  You often work with others and put words into their mouths. For Art Consulting (2015) you invited an art adviser to give a presentation to a company that had given you a prize. This video, like many of your works, leaves ambiguous what is real, what is fiction, which ideas or statements are the protagonists and which came from you. There’s always a bluff or a smoke screen. Ironically, perhaps, now that you’re acting as a curator, the audience may finally get a clear picture of what you think. Your selection is your choice. Do you feel exposed by this?

JANKOWSKI  I am exposed, yes. But I have to step up to the plate. My colleagues and my friends are looking at what I’m doing. I am making decisions that will be judged. That’s just reality. 

ROSENMEYER  Manifesta 11 is composed of several different layers: artists working in tandem with local hosts from various professions, films of these collaborations, traditional exhibitions, and a floating event pavilion on Lake Zurich. It’s a complex structure. What is the heart of it?

JANKOWSKI  The relationships between the artists and their professional Zurich-based hosts. The exhibition grows from there into the world, into their different fields of business, into institutions, into the “Pavilion of Reflections” on the lake. It grows in how we communicate about these collaborations. 

ROSENMEYER  The artist’s job today can be classified as part of what some social scientists call “the precariat.” This is a class defined by irregular, short-term, unstable labor. Is this a condition that suits you?

JANKOWSKI  It suits me. But I think you can’t compare different economic realities so easily. Because with short-term labor you’re here today, the past is forgotten, and you start something else. As an artist, though you go from project to project, you are viewed in relation to what you’ve done. There’s continuity. Maybe it’s just a continuity that I cannot see judging another world I don’t know—I don’t know if part-time laborers also see development in their work. They probably do. 

ROSENMEYER  Do considerations of “honest” or “dishonest” work inform the Manifesta project? There’s manual, skilled labor, which could be perceived as more authentic somehow than financial speculation, for example. Where would art lie on that scale?

JANKOWSKI  I would never say “dishonest financial speculation” and “honest manual labor”—it’s like saying honest Surrealism and dishonest Minimal art. I have to be neutral, harboring no preconceptions, if I am to involve others in a project. I try to be the curious alien from outer space bringing other people into a relationship. When the artwork is finished, then it can be judged and interpreted—never beforehand. 

ROSENMEYER  It seems your proposal was a clear strategy to make a local biennial—no one expects the Venice Biennale, for example, to be about Venice. But paradoxically Manifesta, the biennial that travels to a different European city for each edition, is more rooted and has more of a sense of place each time.

JANKOWSKI  These professions are already international—the New York Police Department might be interested in what their colleagues in Zurich are doing, for example. The specific situation here in Switzerland can have a global perspective. But we are outsiders. Manifesta is a potpourri of Europeans, and we are a chaotic bunch. It’s nice because it shows that Europe exists and it is partly dysfunctional. But the biennial is also against isolation.

ROSENMEYER  How will you judge the success of this project?

JANKOWSKI  If people are touched. Other artists, friends, curators, and the people who see it by chance—who all come with various preconceptions of what art is. Working with these collaborations is a new idea of what an exhibition might be. I hope people—art insiders and outsiders—will remember this Zurich summer and continue to tell its stories. It will be a success if it continues to kick in the future. To groove. To shine.   


Manifesta 11, at various venues in Zurich, June 11–Sept. 18.