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It All. Indefinite Article.1
On Nayoungim & Gregory Maass

Clemens Krümmel

No matter where they might come from, those who explore the art production of Nayoungim & Gregory Maass,2 which seems to proceed as effortlessly as it does aimlessly, find themselves caught in an inscrutable play of ambivalences. In using the term ambivalences, what I have in mind is not the traditional question repeatedly posed of artist couples: who is responsible for what in the production process.3 In the case of N&GM,4 their working together and their appearance as a production duo might well not be a primarily conceptual decision.5 And they are even less ready to accept merely superficial ambiguities like that of the division of tasks: for these ambiguities can be found structurally in all their appearances, expressions, and publications—as a self-contradiction, incongruity in terms of style or image, inappropriateness of means, or simple ambivalence—to a degree that I have only rarely encountered previously. This begins with the excess of dis-identificatory self-reference in creative dialogue with the institution Kim Kim Gallery, along with corporate identity and advertising products and a mania borrowed from Martin Kippenberger for “great” work or exhibition titles.6 The titles continue the aforementioned logic of interarticulation, for example when pretention becomes pitiable due to orthographic mistakes (“Survival of the Shitest”, 3bisF, Lieu d’Arts Contemporains, Aix-en-Provence 2009), popular truisms are parodied by way of absurd inversion (The Early Worm Catches the Bird, Space Hamilton, Seoul 2010), or when they allow pseudo practical acronyms blown up to managerial fragments of system theory to become even more ominous (Garage, Car, Fridge, & Snowman The Purpose of a System is What It Does (POSWID)– Platform at Kimusa, Seoul 2009). At issue here is clearly not a decidedly arbitrary arrangement of the relationship between the title and the titled, as once propagated by the surrealists, but—Kippenberger once more—the use of an advertising space beyond “the work itself” that is also intended to catch beholders and readers in an amalgam of benign double binds.7
Naturally, the ambivalent aspect in N&GM is best sketched by taking a look at what they exhibit. Most of the works I am familiar with, to the extent that they do not cover innocent surroundings with art claims, tinker in some way with the parameters of their own semantic object character so that in the individual work (at least) one contradiction appears with more or less rhetorical clarity. This takes place on manifold layers. Many works, often produced as series intended for an exhibition, contain contradictions between the visual knowledge of popular culture and high art, for example when SpongeBob SquarePants encounters minimal art morphemes or Matchbox cars find themselves affixed to mismatched situations with metal profiles that are also of industrial origin. But the auxiliary material that accompanies the works as well—titles, framing, presentation, commentary—also reveals contradictions when it comes to these concepts, for example, the question of whether the kind of pop knowledge used in the exhibition context at hand is really pop or not perhaps arcane and/or loaded with problems of cultural representation. After hundreds of discussions over high and low, there is still quite a bit invested in this play of meaning and meaninglessness, so that the art world that participates in these discussions always seems to agree on new forms of backlash that drastically undercut critical standards (as the recognition of specifics and complexity), perhaps because within a market for the purpose of maintaining systemic closure and illusions like permanent innovation and spiritualized “genius” at issue is its continuous oversimplification, forgetting, and re-inauguration.
Entering a room with works by Nayoungim & Gregory Maass —be it in an individual show or a group exhibition—conveys not only the impression of a heated climate of production, but also the sense of a search for how to proceed from work to work. In the comprehending act of beholding these works, a vague trace can be followed without all too much encouragement: it seems as if new antipodes are constantly being invented and added to what was just seen. One of the most important here could be the antipode between the autonomous sculpture and the readymade, or between “can do” or “would like to do,” when industrially made found pieces are placed alongside difficult to learn traditional pottery techniques, so that it sometimes seems as the two artists are working with a faux-surrealist variant of the culture of quotation. As historical definitions of surrealism speak of the “accidental encounter” of visual components from contradictory categories and the freedom-as-arbitrariness asserted in this impersonal formulation, with its exploration and authorization of a supposedly underlying unconscious, one finds oneself asking in the case of N&GM as well to what next higher level their syncretism might refer. Unlike artists who work with a sculptural syncretism like New York artist Rachel Harrison, who stands in a tradition close to the surrealism of Louise Nevelson and shapes the inner heterogeneity of the elements of her sculptures in a rather well-tempered way, they do not refer to a higher level, but rather to the “next” level, wherever that might be.
Rightly so, representatives of so-called “contextual art” have been accused of ultimately practicing a forced referentialism, when for example they only seem to create forms for presenting surprising, antecedent historicizations or classifications of anecdotes that belie modernism, without providing the something specifically artistic of their “own” that was demanded of them. But at the same time, with such techniques they could at least be credited with making active use of modern achievements like the artistic license to be elsewhere. For our purposes, it should be emphasized that external references in the work of N&GM—such as scholastic effusing about a cultural junk figure like David Hasselhoff—are primarily structurally specific references and prove less to be proper references in an art historical sense. When along the length and width of the entire exhibition, the Hof (sic!, or: ambiguous allusion to the Korean institution of the beer bar) is handed back and forth following all the tricks in the book, alternating between the sublime and the banal, between cultural valence and cultural denial, N&GM appropriate the well oiled, available tools of 1980s irony, at least we think we see ourselves implicated in a shoulder clapping scene of nerdy co-knowledge about this extraordinary polyvalent and talent-free star.8 But then it becomes clear that the two artists (supposedly both!) are interested in Hasselhoff primarily as a neuralgic point in the field of global culture; he becomes worthy of sculpture not due to an act of condescension from the supposed heights of cultural commentators, who find the man somehow cutely odd and thus in some way relevant for a current culture of cute oddness, but due to a different quality, his exquisite emptiness as a popular figure with at the same time an extremely exaggerated rhetoricism, his dependable quality as a walking mise-en-abyme effect. In contrast to contextual art, which produced and cultivated the currently most common form of reference—apart from the fact that those referenced are always the others—in N&GM there is almost never a straight thematic reference to be found, a reliance on the direct expressive power of something that already existed (somewhere)—at least not on the level of so-called content, either anecdotal or the factual.
The individual works might still provide the impression that the internal contradictions and oppositions that shape and deny form could be found out more slowly, as the more important moment is revealed precisely in the act of moving on to the next work.9 It is this rather difficult to describe moment in which one thinks one has recognized something, to have understand one of the jagged piles of allegory or the precariously balanced figures. The moment in which one thinks to have mastered the minimal shift from not understanding to understanding something (and which always in my case proves to be an error), where one finds oneself caught thinking with the stubborn mindset of a crossword puzzle solver to be sure that with a bit of patience the next situation of unclarity will clear up in a similar way. Of course, this is the moment of the greatest ignorance.10 It is the moment of routine self-deception, in which most of us (myself included) make our way from unsound knowledge to unsound knowledge in perhaps other, non-art situations, leaping from iceberg to iceberg in a global warming of understanding. Because N&GM gives us such a broad spectrum of conglomerates of contradictions, referring to one another and become objects, there is the chance of becoming aware of our own culture of “not wanting to know too precisely.” More than a kind of epistemological fitness course that is once more supposed to serve the purpose of education, enlightenment, or improving of our own ability to adapt, with this art the (beholder) art of surfing on ambivalences can be learned. Surfing as a movement that activates all the functional contexts of the surfer, without being about a different goal than somehow staying on top of a production of contingency experienced as elementary.

A N&GM-work like XXX – a dizzyingly literal over-completion of the postulate of the old-hat postulate of the “subversion of the signs,”11 for publicly in a Korean context the large format neon-version of the traditional sign for baths, where steam elements are supposed to rise from a signet representing a basin in harmonious wavy lines, is tipped over, so that now both the bathwater and the sign as the baby are tossed out—shows however that allusions to primarily popular and vernacular forms of knowledge play quite an important role. The questioning of the value of such forms of knowledge is a constitutive component of pop cultural processes of negotiation that still today take place between agents of various guilds. “Cool knowledge,” one of the least questioned, yet most central positions in the context of current cultural productions, provides the true fuel of the most caustic minimalisms and protestant conceptualisms. N&GM’s achievement is having recognized this, as well as the rapid drop in value of particles of knowledge in the context of the Internet, and having transferred it to a continuously stumbling production of post-industrial conversation pieces. They know that leaving out “cool” background information—that can prove to be polite expert commentary, arrogant babble, as art gossip, or as groundless speculation—each reception of own works rules, above all when at issue is the ambivalent vestiges of the serious and most seriously sculptural.12
The only thing today that still seems even stronger are the comments of the experts, which for its part has access to several hunting grounds of knowledge. It is by far more than just visual artists hanging on the infusion needle of cool knowledge, it’s the critics and curators as well. This, at any event, seems to be one of the reasons why speaking with N&GM about their works can be a difficult undertaking.13 If a fellow critic was recently right at lunch, then there is now a more or less subliminal edge of quarrelsomeness taking hold in the relationship between artists, critics, and curators, which was poisoned from the very start.  I say colleague, but this is only true in the loosest of senses: she is now a veritable adjunct professor in cultural studies who actually only writes criticism on occasion, as she herself admits. And myself? I participate in both criticism and curating, occasionally writing for hospitable seeming projects and journals, but increasingly I find myself having difficulties in hiding my alienation from the existence of being a critic/curator. Why the quarrelsomeness, when beforehand there was at best competition? And why does it remain subliminal? The answer is relatively simple and seems to provide a good key towards approaching an advanced production reality like that of N&GM.
The answer that is relevant for N&GM’s production has to do with the blurring of the arts et métiers of the two professional groups. While at the moment especially in the Western world, but by way of the international art and biennale business also beyond this narrow frame, educational policy guidelines are being used to proclaim artists as the other, at times the better researchers, in that what was once perhaps an under-reflected component of artistic work, investigation or research, is now simply hypostasized as “artistic research” and isolated monoculturally. By definition this can lead to knowledge, but scarcely to “cool” knowledge. There’s no bad intention required to suspect, in brief, that this is the constant repetition of fraud under false pretenses, which in the meantime has been installed by way of higher education policy and broadly generalized, financed, and established. The interesting thing about this distant banter is perhaps the interpretation of my co-alienated critic-colleague, according to which the over-emphasization of “research” by thousands of artists, intended by cultural policy and willingly accepted by thousands of artists, serves on the one hand to pacify cultural pessimist worries about a “lack of criteria” in the artistic field of production within the market, because “research” suggests concrete “results.” On the other hand, art in a certain sense becomes “reskillable,” after what Rosalind Krauss a long time ago called de-skilling in the arts, and outfitted with a before and after, “finally” granted quantifiability once more.
We know the first wave of such “artistic research art,” which uses “idiomatic discourses” of the 1990s battle between contextual art and service art, and often in proximity to academies, biennials, and other interest groups serves other aesthetic trivial expectations in pairing art and research: the file cabinet with materials on the over hundred artists of the exhibition that in the course of the exhibition is supposed to be filled up (and in the case of an exhibition like Hans Ulrich Obrist and Barbara Vanderlinden’s “Laboratorium” (1999) is largely empty, but somehow impressive). The book cabinet with references to everything that is precious and dear: the nomenklatura of Foucaultdeleuzeguattaribataillearendtagambenrancièrežižeklatour, furnishing with worktables, video booths, photocopiers, internet stations as administrative aesthetic of institutional critique with unlimited claim on the time of the co-producing receivers.
This could be dismissed as an almost necessary tribute to the trend towards massification in all sectors of the art field, the unavoidable consequence of the increased competitive pressure in immaterial economies. At any event, it generates a quarrelsome mood among critics, curators, and artists, because in the meantime the realization has been made that they are all farming the same field of research. Alongside the obvious (and yet so unclear) activity of criticism itself, art critics (and I still count myself as one of them) have a two-fold task as researchers: as discoverers they seek out new (or unknown) artists or artistic subjects, and as meta-discoverers they find out and present what the artists have discovered. Alongside (or besides) finding art good or bad, under the pressure of huge competition in terms of information they develop into meta-artists, while artists in contrast become informal critical truffle hogs working the same forests. But it would be hackneyed to accuse both sides of economic opportunism.
N&GM’s works, interventions, and other activities are not intended to ameliorate such smoldering conflicts. Yet unlike most of their colleagues, based on the awareness of the mixing of the guilds they have already been saturating a body of work with visual and linguistic rhetorics for a long time, whereby nobody would ever think to call this “research.” This certainly does not mean attributing them once more with the merely specifically instinctual-artistic or accusing them of occupying the remaining open spots in the art field, as done by so many others. Instead we need to attest that the “art with a capital A” that N&GM create in ever new rhetorical tricks without any great camouflage, should not be described with a single kind of irony, that it not only practices a pretentious self-reflexivity, but above all exposes it, in clear awareness of all risks and traps.



1 See

2 Abbreviated in the following as N&GM.

3 Those who ask in such a way usually only want to know how the roles are divided, or how the question of power is clarified or left unclarified. Perhaps works by more than one person are always suspect, for despite deconstructionist debates the picture with singular authorship is still extremely valued, especially when it comes to auction bids, paying, and creating value. But also when due to the abdication of technical virtuosity as an argument in recent decades, the generation of artistic ideas has supposed to be authenticated by way of the individual (and his or her breaks, failure, and gaps in consciousness), at issue are not only questions of copyright, but speculations about genius as a psychical competence that remains unfocused in the framework of mutual inspiration. Double or multiple authorship can sometimes only be reinstalled by evoking the modern kitsch phrase of the “fusion” of the opposition between art and life or this or that culture, if not as a neo-liberal catchphrase of mutual in-sourcing. There’s always something difficult to grasp about production couples, on several levels, difficult to uncover in their works. Already here, in the case of Nayoungim & Gregory Maass a kind of law of the always absent second goes in force.

4 Here, I would already like to request your understanding for the corporate appearance of this abbreviation.

5 Faced with the blank stares of N&GM, which I regularly receive as the only answer to such questions of ideology, well-loved in art critic circles, I have become accustomed to think nothing more of it. I thought it was something of a local characteristic to completely ignore all questions that could be seen as tricky or difficult to answer, at best in such a way that the stupid questioner understands the silence he or she is confronted with as a kind of socially sanctioned mystical silence, that in still reverence is named profane or sacred site of the unspeakable. See note 1.

6 See Martin Kippenberger, 241 Bildtitel zum Ausleihen für andere Künstler, Cologne: Martin Kippenberger, Wie es wirklich war. Am Beispiel. Lyrik und Prosa, ed. Diedrich Diederichsen, Frankfurt/Main 2007, XX.

7 They are benign because they usually remain in the blow-up buffer of the art world, whose psychological impositions as a whole no longer need to be reflected anew. Furthermore, the titles with their often competitive metaphorics can also be read as simple signals of a lacking desire in the face of the rigid mechanisms of exclusion of the very international art business they want to enter, but then somehow would rather not.

8 Well, irony is actually no longer such a hot commodity: See Clemens Krümmel/Isabelle Graw, “So ist das nun mal. Zur Ausstellung der Grässlin Collection in den Hamburger Deichtorhallen,” Texte zur Kunst 45 (2002), 189–192.

9 More important, but not decisive.

10 Comparable with that of New York critic Jerry Saltz, who, when faced with (in this case not even so unfamiliar) works by the artist John Miller, spoke of an “I-don’t-get-it” aesthetics in the Village Voice, because he didn’t understand, but wanted to give this non-understanding a validity in the system of art criticism. 

11 See Just do it! Die Subversion der Zeichen von Marcel Duchamp bis Prada Meinhof, curated by Thomas Edlinger, Raimar Stange, Florian Waldvogel, Lentos Kunstmuseum, Linz 2005.


13 Happily, I find this all the easier in their absence. A great suggests understanding coolness as a symptomology, if not a pathology.