The Occidental Tourist by Douglas Fogle
Club Med—a cheap holiday in other people's misery.
During the upheavals of May 1968 in Paris, this Situationist-inspired indictment of the Western tourist industry could be found scrawled on the walls of buildings and on the barricades that had been erected in the streets. In the years leading to the uprisings, tourism in general and the vacation in particular would come to stand in for all of the ills of a materialist consumer culture that Guy Debord would anoint "the society of the spectacle." One only needs to think of the apocalyptic "holiday" scenario played out in Jean Luc Godard's film Weekend (1967) to see the full extent of the slippage of this critique from the counter culture to the culture industry. Nearly a decade later, this critique would be reborn as the avatars of punk rock, the Sex Pistols, would appropriate this phrase as the opening line of their fourth and final single "Holidays in the Sun" (1977). Wailing in a machine gun staccato and accompanied by the feedback-laced chords of his partners, Johnny Rotten's lyrics for this song would present an even more damning critique of the middle-class values of the "package tours" offered by local travel agencies, suggesting a trip not to Club Med but to Bergen-Belsen, the infamous site of one of the Third Reich's concentration camps. These critiques are just as relevant in the situation we find ourselves in today. Although world travel is hardly an invention of the twentieth let alone the twenty-first century, tourism is a particularly contemporary mode of being in the modern world. We are now confronted with a myriad of possibilities for travel from the newly minted more exotic forms of adventure and eco-tourism to the familiar and well-worn package tours to Europe, North America, or Asia. If one has the right amount of money, even the International Space Station isn't outside the limits of a determined tourist courtesy fueled by the entrepreneurial desperation of the Russian space program. But despite the more enlightened, less imperialistic forms of travel at our disposal today, and a full knowledge of their economic importance to developing countries, what precisely does it mean to participate in the global tourist economy?
This is the question that Franz Ackermann confronts in his work both directly and obliquely. Ackermann is a painter for whom travel is a categorical necessity. However, when looking at his work, it is clear that the road he travels is not that which we might associate with the classical grand tour. For Ackermann tourism is both a topic and a methodology. Since making his first international trip to Asia in 1991 on a DAAD grant, during which he spent a year living in Hong Kong, Ackermann has evolved a set of Situationist-inspired visual practices that have actively investigated the "psychogeographical" aspects of travel as embodied in the figure of the tourist . A major part of Ackermann's work can be found in the form of what he has termed his "mental maps"—small drawings rendered in pencil, ink, and gouache.
These mental maps are executed on the fly, in hotel rooms during the artist's travels, and they constitute what we might think of as a type of highly subjective GPS technology rendered at the level of the hand. Graphically abstracting characteristic architectural elements of the specific urban landscapes in which he finds himself, the artist creates colorful graphic networks that act as highly subjective records of the built environment of his various global destinations. Fast, expressionistic, and infused with a critical cartographic impulse, Ackermann's mental maps are more akin to Guy Debord's psychogeographical drawings of Paris or the architect/painter Constant's sketches of his New Babylon, than to any rationally ordered traveler's city guide.
The explosive character of urban space within the burgeoning confines of our contemporary global hyper-cities finds itself realized in the contorted geometries of Ackermann's larger canvas-based work he calls "evasions." Often developed out of his more delicate and contemplative mental maps, these vertiginous agglomerations of vibrant color confront the viewer with a collapsed sense of perspective in which pictorial, geographical and architectural space are forced through a vortex. Moving from work to work, a soccer stadium in Sao Paulo morphs into an office building in Hong Kong or later into an advertising billboard in Minneapolis. Nothing is recognizable yet everything is vaguely familiar. We are confronted with a traveler's sense of deja vu. It is as if in these works Ackermann has injected the Michelin Guide or London A to Z with a pyschedelia-infused mixture of pigments leaving the viewer with an experience reminiscent of looking at a painting by Hieronymus Bosch on acid or a Cimabue dropped through the looking glass. But instead of looking on a tortured landscape of hell or on the compressed architectonics of medieval architecture, we gaze out on the very modern and highly subjective traces of an artist's movement through space and time via the travel machine known as tourism.
Ackermann's "evasions" are commonly mounted by the artist on top of even larger site-specific wall paintings. In January of 2001, Ackermann arrived in Minneapolis in order to complete just such a project for an exhibition that I was curating at the Walker Art Center. It was strange to think about Ackermann becoming a tourist in Minneapolis, a moderately scaled city situated squarely in the Upper Midwest of the American continent. Spending time here, however, one soon realizes that the recent demographic history of the city itself reflects the ebbs and flows of the tumultuous upheavals of the global political and economic situation. Over the past twenty years, Minneapolis has seen an incredible influx of immigrants first from Southeast Asia and now East Africa. It was in this context that Ackermann set out to make a work entitled HELICOPTER NO. 15 (WATCH ME FALLING) (2001). Working in the touristically inhospitable dead of winter, Ackermann rendered a phantasmatic portrait of the city. Abstracted portions of an office tower by Philip Johnson melted into other vernacular visual elements culled by the artist from his walks through the city, creating a lurching, graphic tower of Babel. Mounted at the base of this massive psychedelic monolith next to a mental map of Minneapolis rendered in graphite were two photographs. One image was an archetypal view of a decades old beer sign by the Mississippi River that has taken on a kind of monumental iconic significance within the city. The other was the view from the window of the artist's hotel room where much of this work was mapped out. What became clear to me after seeing this completed project was that Ackermann not only travels physically, garnering more frequent flier miles with every project. He also travels psychically, producing hallucinatory visions of cities that are every bit as accurate as any tourist map. Looking at HELICOPTER NO. 15 (WATCH ME FALLING) one enters one's very own daydream nation.
If this contemporary mode of travel is a constant presence in Ackermann's practice and if his paintings are themselves dependent on his own movements across the globe, the artist does not leave his own complicity with this mode of being untouched by his critical stance. In his work HAUS AM STRAND (House on the Beach) (1997), for example, we see a photographic self-portrait of the artist standing with his back to the camera. The artist looks off into the distance, resembling, as the critic Jorg Heiser has suggested, "one of Caspar David Friedrich's Romantic protagonists.” But unlike Friedrich's WANDERER IN THE MIST (1818), this wanderer is wearing a military grade flak jacket emblazoned with the graphic invocation "tourist." Of course, courtesy of satellite television and the likes of CNN, the world has spent the better part of the last decade looking at journalists in bulletproof vests reporting from war zones such as Bosnia. In the last year, however, we have seen a quantum leap in the touristic aspects of the news media with the insertion of so-called "embedded" journalists into the United States and British military in the war in Iraq. Has tourism, once a subtly implied form of neo-colonial subjugation, now come clean and owned up to its imperialistic roots? Is this signage on the artist's flak jacket a target or a warning? Ackermann lets us think about this question within the context of the travel industry as he surrounds this self-portrait with an architectural framework of posters advertising slide presentations of travels to exotic locales such as China, Nepal, and Burma, which are commonly put on in Berlin and other German cities. In light of recent events, Ackermann's work begins to make me think about the implications of the Sex Pistols' "Holiday in the Sun" for the Christianne Amanpours of the world.
Some of the first American tourists to Asia in the post-war period were the "advisors" sent by the U.S. military to Vietnam. We all know the results of that holiday in the sun. Today, the embedded reporters in Iraq have undertaken their own more virulent kind of tourism. In his work, Franz Ackermann has taken note of this and seemingly replaced the idyllic slogan of May '68 "beneath the paving stones, the beach" with a more recent incantation brought to us by Francis Ford Coppola in his 1979 film Apocalypse Now: "Charlie don't surf." Perhaps he would if he had seen the slide shows.
In 1955 Guy Debord suggested that a new field of inquiry of "psychogeography could set for itself the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals." See Guy Debord, "Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography" in: Situationist International Anthology, ed. by Ken Knabb (Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1981), p. 5.
Jorg Reiser, "Travelling Light," Frieze, no. 66, April 2002, p. 57.
Douglas Fogle, Curator of Contemporary Art and Curator of the 55th Carnegie International, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.
First published in Parkett no. 68/2003, reprint with permission of Parkett Publishers Zurich/New York.