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ARTIST PROFILE: TONY COKES

On how Tony Cokes rewrites history as a remix of fakes, lives and songs to dance to at Haus der Kunst and Kunstverein Munich.

  • Jun 30 2022
  • María Inés Plaza Lazo
    likes to develop curatorial and communication strategies for others, individuals and institutions. She grew up in Guayaquil, Ecuador, lives and works between the streets of Berlin and the world.

Some of the monochromatic surfaces here are bound to personal experiences and anecdotes. Others to political chapters of a city. Others to horror scenarios. Others to twitter comments. Never on his own words, but on everyone else’s: Tony Cokes (*1956 Richmond, Virginia, USA) seems to be one of the very few artists that create coherence in between all of these sources, arbitrarily put together. Cokes takes life stories as artworks that are more than abstract, isolated depictions of reality. The relations depicted in his work let resonances of history shake the layers of the contemporary. You can see Cokes everywhere in the center of Munich: As AD Banners in the old metro wagons from 1972 or in the passage that crosses from the English Garden. The echoes of his exhibition Fragments, or Just Moments, are sounded by the Zhu X Tame Impala’s track, My Life, whose remix by Kyle Watson will also guide you through Tony Cokes works featured throughout the music and propaganda issue of Arts of the Working Class.

My Life occupies the halls of Haus der Kunst. Its presence challenges a complex order of an invisible fascist past and present that continues to divide Munich. Cokes explodes histories and archives that appear not to be connected, but builds upon a thread of denial and relativization, through the tracks vibrating in Some Munich Moments. Sound functions as a constitutive element that complicates the visual components in the exhibition. Fragments, or Just Moments incorporates brutal, banal, historic and fortuitous archival footage of the city’s chapters that operate like a series of snapshots twinkling across the halls of the Kunstverein– the very same venue that once hosted Goebbels’ „Entartete Kunst“ exhibition. Text passages from Alexander Negrelli's book, "Kommando Otl Aicher", form the historical contrast of the Kunstverein. They are underlaid with the colors Otl Aicher chose for the design of the Munich Olympic Games of 1972, as well as Donna Summer's "I Feel Love," which she recorded in Munich in 1977 with Giorgio Moroder. Its beats ask to think of all the Bavarian Extravaganza that was produced in the 1970s; a time when the power of newly produced images was naively used to avoid any pursuit of unveiling affiliation to the nazis and connect it with current political affairs– an endavour which is problematic enough, to say to the least.

Most of the stills in Cokes’s exhibition come from a new body of work that was produced over the past three decades. Within this newspaper, we honor his methodology, which relies on vast forms of textual materials, colors, surfaces and tracks of pop music that turn the act of looking into cultural practices and artworks in and of themselves. The proximity he evokes between collective memory, individual intimacy and contemplation readings pursue exceptional differentiality. 

By juxtaposing not only readings but existing archives of musical, political and linguistic texts with one another, a third way of viewing Cokes’s works takes place. And then we start to dance. Fragments, or just Moments takes a deep dive into contexts,historical affairs and possible futures instead of controlling them. At the Kunstverein, you will find alternative versions of Some Munich Moments, on slanted screens. Both shows have components of a review both chronological and conceptually complementary, addressing space through video works, subtexts, formal relations, rhetoric and patterns of speech. 

The exhibition Fragments, or just Moments is on view at Haus der Kunst’s Luftschutzkeller: a former bunker that provides enough compartments that create perfect rows of video galleries. Walking inside, viewers can hear techno coming from the hallway while the sounds from the videos are fed via headphones. In the case of Some Munich Moments, music by techno DJ Fear N Loathing accompanies images shot by US documentarian Julien Bryan, who filmed the facade of Haus der Kunst after the opening of the "First Great German Art Exhibition" in 1937, as well as the "Degenerate Art" exhibition. Cokes combines this context carefully with footage of war-torn Munich in June 1945, and excerpts from Hitler's opening speech to the "Great Art Exhibition," combined with EDM tracks by Da Fresh and Joy Orbison. 

All of these components are part of Tony Cokes’ recipes for communalities which are the predicament for a thoughtful, conscious empathy for those affected by history. Cokes’ trajectory is woven out of curiosity and a huge portion of interest in disarming institutions, show how they function, and how people inside them operate. All this will stick to you like any other earworm repeating the pressing social issues condensed in our production as subjects under capitalism. What Cokes achieves in his seemingly minimal works –mostly monochromatic backgrounds depicting quotes from endless yet meticulously arranged sources– is, at the end of the day, a pristine form of political action. A gentle fire contemplating a horizon for radical imagery.

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Tony Cokes lives and works in Providence, Rhode Island, where he serves as Professor in the Department of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University. Fragments, or just Moments, the solo exhibition of his work jointly organized by the Haus der Kunst and Kunstverein München, is on view through October 26, and he is included in the 2022 Whitney Biennial, on view through September 5, 2022. 

Tracks: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iKC-XMA540c

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Banner: Tony Cokes
Stills from Some Munich Moments, 1937–1972 (2022), Commissioned by Haus der Kunst and Kunstverein München.
Courtesy the artist, Greene Naftali, New York, Hannah Hoffman, Los Angeles, FELIX GAUDLITZ, Vienna, and Electronic Arts Intermix, New York.
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This Contribution was released with the support of Rudolf Augstein Stiftung, Bundesverband Soziokultur, Neustarthilfe, Beauftragte der Bundesregierung für Kultur und Medien.

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