After retrospectives at some of the world’s most renowned institutions, Enrico David’s work is still admirably confounding. Perhaps this is because as Oliver Koerner von Gustorf articulates, the artist balances opposing logics in a way that opens palatable pathways into the psychological puzzles of today.
There are these indescribable creatues in the small paintings Enrico David made and embroidered during lockdown. They are neatly lined up in a room behind the tiny apartment’s open-plan kitchen – images of horned dancers who look like aliens or archaic deities. Alluring and Aries-like, they look at you with the astonished, curious expressions of lambs that do not suspect they’re off to the slaughterhouse. Yet they also seem knowing, almost sly. Looking into their small, porcine eyes – watery and rimmed with kohl – you can see the entire universe. The chubby heads of these powdery, starry children are royally festooned and embroidered with yarn, and the abstract, geometric motifs in spirographic patterns are reminiscent of archaic crowns or mantillas, but also of craft shops in suburban strip malls, of 1970s string art made from leftover yarn, and of Mother’s Day gifts gathering dust in basement rec rooms and senior centers. While working on the paintings in the spring, David notes, he was listening to a lot of radio dramas on BBC Radio 4.
In 2019, the artist’s Gradations of Slow Release retrospective was shown at two of the most important American museums, Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art and Washington DC’s Hirshhorn Museum, showcasing works from the last 20 years of his career. The same year, he was also featured in the Italian Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale alongside Chiara Fumai and Liliana Moro, two legendary feminist artists. By then he’d already presented work twice before in that biennial’s main exhibition, and he has exhibited around the world, his art found in collections like the Hammer Museum and Tate Modern. He is represented by Michael Werner Gallery, which puts him in the ranks of artists such as Georg Baselitz, Peter Doig, and Francis Picabia. Born in Ancona in 1966 and now living in London and spending a great deal of time in Berlin, Enrico David is riding a career high. And yet you can easily imagine this bearded, always slightly aristocratic-looking man self-isolating in the simple guest apartment off the courtyard of Berlin’s KW Institute for Contemporary Art, meditatively embroidering in the face of the apocalypse and reflecting on his childhood as he looks out into the deserted spring, still dusted with snow in April.
By now, summer has arrived. Today is one of the first really hot days. It’s only 10 a.m., but the sun is already searing down from the sky. Footsteps rumble up and down the wooden stairs; people from the shipping company pick up David’s work. I find a table in the courtyard, order a coffee, and wait, as tourist groups with masks around their chins meet at the gallery entrance and waiters hurry back and forth across the gravel. The deceptive idea of going “back to normal” is shimmering in the air. On my phone, news keeps pinging in: the Eiffel Tower reopens; hundreds of thousands flock to the English coast during heat wave; 29 million people still need to be tested in India. On YouTube, videos appear every day of police officers violently assaulting Black Lives Matters protesters. Trump’s Tulsa rally was only held a few days ago, and we cannot escape the afterimages of him heading to church in that shroud of tear gas, like in some sequel to The Omen. The racist, totalitarian aspects of our capitalist system never seem to have been so obvious, so visible, and we realize how close our reality is to edging into a full-blown Orwellian nightmare – and not only in the US.
“It’s probably just my perception, but I feel that we’ve never been more exposed and openly implicated in so many layers of politics,” David says when he takes the seat opposite me. “All these suppressed conversations are beginning to be tabled: body, race, gender, and the trail of guilt from reckoning with such discussions – a collective wake-up call from various prolonged states of denial, forgetfulness, and convenience. Maybe it’s something that keeps recurring in history, but I think it happening with such speed and convergence is unprecedented.” In two days, he is planning to travel to Italy. The borders have just been opened, but trains are still running irregularly. He says he has no big projects to talk about; everything’s really in flux now. The apartment at KW is only a temporary solution. Nothing seems permanent or plannable anymore. “There’s a sense of danger, of utter uncertainty. Is life – and sanity – more at risk than ever? It’s a type of fear that feels peculiarly life-affirming, one emerging from a collective sense of loss of reason and rationality. It reminds me in a perverse way of the uncertainty of the creative process, of the doubts and dilemmas, of sleepless nights, of the terror of not knowing which way to go. As artists, we take ourselves into these regions with a sense of inevitability accumulated over years, decades. But never so abruptly and suddenly, or on such a massive scale.”
Everyone’s suddenly feeling this urgency, which casts art in an entirely different light. Like Kai Althoff, Cosima von Bonin, Henrik Olesen, and Elizabeth Peyton, David belongs to a generation of artists who, in the 1990s, combined their queer or feminist politics and institutional criticism with a dandyish, hypersensitive, and cryptic aesthetic. David’s work, too, is also often categorized as “surreal” or “eccentric.” Back then, this radicalism was necessary in order to develop a new artistic language, to expand the understanding of what art could be, and to include marginalized and excluded perspectives into the male-dominated canons of modernism and the 20th century. But what do these queer, and in some ways elitist, networks and artworks look like today? How can their claim to subtlety and radical exclusivity be justified in the face of this permanent state of emergency when we all should be taking to the streets? What happened to the political promises of this artistic milieu? Are they just gathering dust in collections, relegated to discursive decoration? I thought questions like that would break David out of his reserve.
But he just laughs and says that he spotted me earlier, glued to my phone and immersed in the news. “At any given time, we are implicated in the ‘historization’ and ‘politicization’ of the moment, whether we are aware of it or not, whether we like it or not. Thinking, feeling, and making for me is about crafting language that works both as a conduit and a disruptor between different places: on one hand, the ‘politicized,’ informed, bulimically news-fed sphere where the line between opinion and expertise blurs worryingly, and on the other, a place of disconnect, privacy, silence, redundancy, and irrelevance.”
The word “bulimically” strikes me. It really does seem a form of bulimia, this compulsion to not only always be connected to the news stream, but to react to everything and everyone like some twitching pink anemone, to show off our attitude and relevance, to like, to reject, to judge, only to then get sick of it all and try to meditate instead, to steal our nerves. There is this feeling of oversaturation, and this constant effort to rid ourselves of our incessant internal monologues, of all the garbage assaulting us online. “It is not for nothing that, in the age of the digital platform, we use liquid metaphors of ‘feeds’, ‘torrents,’ and ‘streams’ to describe the way images, sounds, and words surround us,” William Davies wrote in the London Review of Books. “In the midst of an online experience of one sort or another, clicking a button marked ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ is about as much critical activity as we are permitted.” As examples of this terrible binary of approval and rejection, he cites Brexit and the colonial legacy of the British empire, the processing of which is reduced by right-wingers to a question of being “for” or “against” the country and its history, a forced dichotomy also very present in current discussions around historically problematic monuments. What the United Kingdom needs isn’t either self-hatred or self-love, Davies postulates, but self-knowledge.
Davies continues his analysis with a description of a psychological effect of such blunt polarization: “Melanie Klein identified as ‘splitting’ the psychic process whereby the self, unable to accommodate its own ‘bad’ aspects, projects them onto others. Terrified that one might be entirely and exclusively guilty, one adopts a position of exaggerated innocence and virtue, while attributing total and irredeemable badness elsewhere.” This process takes place on all strata of the political spectrum, whether it is the right, “who projected their anxiety onto a culture of violent ‘wokeness’ which it claims is pulling society apart,” or the left, “who are publicly shaming and trolling unapologetic nationalists online.”
It’s precisely this collective narcissistic disorder that David’s art deals with. It demands the right to an autonomous, complex artistic language that doesn’t have to be topical, that expresses contradictions rather than definite positions. In his exhibitions, it’s as if David surfaces exactly that which is repressed and externalized; he both physically and speculatively gives shape to a body’s inner conflicts and neuroses.
That bulimia David mentioned can be felt in panitings like Untitled (2010) and sculptures like Dramage (2014), made out of Jesmonite and bone. The sculpture that gave his retrospective its name, Gradations of Slow Release (2015), looks like a half-completed or digested person being squeezed out of a birth canal or colon, a painful yet possibly pleasurable experience that has something forlorn, almost auto-erotic about it. His Giacometti-like Life Sentences (2014), which resembles someone reading and a piece of furniture for such a reader, tackles compulsiveness and obsession, as do the stylish funnels, orifices, and hairdos his creatures develop to absorb the overload of information, consumption, and violence. They are distortions and at the same time status symbols.
Again and again, David’s works have been read as sexualized, subversive commentaries on art and design history, on the Renaissance and baroque, but above all on pre-and postwar modernists. This is due to the fact that he practically uses such vocabulary like a parasite, sampling it through other sources. Even his earlier works combined Commedia dell’arte influences with leather fetish or Wiener Werkstatte ornamentation. The glossary included in the catalogue for his Ultra Paste exhibition at the ICA London in 2007 reads like a travel guide for tasteful and educated gays: Walter Benjamin, Sigmund Freud, Adolf Loos, Madame Gres, and Friedrich Nietzsche. We see the floor plan of Marcel Proust’s bedroom on Boulevard Haussmann, stilted baroque shoes of Venetian ladies, and furniture designed by the Italian architect Luigi Vietti, a representative of rationalism.
The fact that David’s work is understood as an insider’s commentary on an insider’s domain is mainly due to his exhibitions’ “classical” arrangement, which looks as if someone was commissioned to make things appear as reverential, modern, and museum-like as possible. “I was adamant that the work should conform to the display canons of the galleries in the most traditional and classical of ways,” David says. “The circular galleries in Washington, DC, were originally architecturally devised for sculptural displays, and there was a sense of fortuitous inevitability in placing the works in this coil-like journey. I wanted to have a sense of ‘time entrapment’ to the show, a rigidity that would hopefully enhance the works’ sense of instability and impermanence.”
To better understand what David means by “rigidity,” one need only look at Ultra Paste. The installation recreates a stark green bedroom reminiscent of a modernist prison cell. Anything personal or private is stowed inside a wall of varnished cupboards, and a spartan bed is integrated into the wall unit and illuminated by a fluorescent light. Paradoxically, the bed could also be a desk. Here, everything is accessible, unadorned, under control.
In the monastic cell, a young man has pulled down his pants to masturbate into a life-sized mannequin. “Ultra Paste was the presentation of my childhood bedroom, which I used to share with my older brother, with whom at the time I had a very conflictual and problematic relationship,” David explains. “There was a potential charge I could only grasp on an intuitive level, like the sensation of a deep memory being evoked by smell, color, and so on. An accidental encounter with a collage by Dora Maar allowed me to turn that memory in on itself, as it were, and turn it into a sort of rabbit hole, a doorway to another side.” The collage by Dora Maar to which David refers, Vieille femme et enfant (1935), also broke a taboo. In it, a little boy rubs up against an old woman in a flooded rococo room. But David’s work is rawer and less surreal. The mannequin is no human, no mother figure; it is just a fetish object. Brown fecal fluid oozes from the cracks of the modern wall unit, as if all suppressed urges, all vulgar and violent fantasies are yearning to come to light.
Built by his father, the teen’s room may be “civilized,” but it’s also a puritan prison, a place where masculinity is smothered, suppressed. It is reminiscent of a passage from Georges Bataille’s essay “The Notion of Expenditure” (1933) in which the French philosopher developed the heretical thesis that a human society could have “an interest in considerable losses, in catastrophes that, while conforming to well-defined needs, provoke tumultuous depressions, cries of dread, and, in the final analysis, a certain orgiastic state.” Bataille compared the social suppression of such destructive, wasteful urges to a strict father forbidding his son debaucheries like masturbation: “The father’s partially malevolent solicitude is manifested in the things he provides for his son: lodgings, clothes, food, and, when absolutely necessary, a little harmless recreation. But the son does not even have the right to speak about what really gives him a fever; he is obliged to give people the impression that for him no horror can enter into consideration.” In this respect, “conscious humanity has remained a minor.” We’re allowed to acquire and consume everything, but “non-productive expenditure” is forbidden. Bataille believes art to be among the cultural instruments that drain these excess energies, that help sublimate these wasteful urges. And certainly, art always involves wastefulness in one way or another.
One could argue, however, that society has fundamentally changed since the 1930s. Many urges are no longer suppressed. Masturbation is discussed publicly. Pornography, fetishes, and perversions are permitted. The only catch is that they are useful now, productive, feeding a huge industry. It is becoming more and more difficult to break sexual or cultural taboos, to slip through a “rabbit hole,” to escape this exploitative prison without paying or being paid, without becoming part of the machine. Facing the permanent dictatorship of utility and rationality on the eve of the Second World War, Bataille formulated a critique of capitalist and socialist exonomies, both of which for him served only production as an end unto itself. This critique was linked with protesting the exploitation of nature – a critique of the modern role of humanity which has lost all sense of proportion vis-à-vis its puny place in the universe.
In this sense, you could also see Enrico David’s work as a critique of civilization itself. It would be easy to classify him alongside Bataille as a libertarian surrealist in a classical tradition of artists, philosophers, and poètes maudits who rebelled against the supremacy of rationality: de Sade, Blake, Van Gogh, Nietzsche, Artaud. Early works such as Untitled (1999) and the Bulbous Marauder shown at the Galerie Daniel Buchholz (2008) certainly feature androgynous Clockwork Orange-like harlequins, which many critics saw as evil clowns, as references to childhood trauma, Picasso, or postwar modernism. Above all, however, what these figures symbolize is irrationality; they are a kind of shamanic trickster, healer and imposter, the popular fool who can criticize kings under the cover of fun and nonsense. With the start of the Enlightenment, this character was banished. All across Europe, the time between 1650 and 1800 was an epoch of the “exclusion of irrationality,” and this adversely affected anyone who didn’t give in to the demands of the age of reason: beggars, vagabonds, and sex workers, but also people who were unemployed, politically conspicuous, depressed, mentally ill, or physically challenged.
Though these precarious groups were at first thrown into prisons, workhouses, or the gutter, the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries saw the emergence of early forms of the psychiatric institution. The prison system was also reformed, and a comprehensive prison-industrial complex was developed that completely insulated, monitored, and punished inmates through systematic and almost industrial methods, as the French philosopher Michel Foucault famously described. Foucault, moreover, documented how these monitoring practices weren’t outsources from society, but could be detected in the newly emerging factories, schools, and other institutions. This enlightened surveillance state also includes museums, which at the end of the 18th century became places where objects were permanently stored and exhibited for everyone to enjoy. Yet the egalitarian approach is a means, not an end: to give everyone access to collections, regardless of their class or education level, requires embedding artworks or artifacts in a powerful, authoritative narrative, a canon of history and politics – another institutional part of our collective conditioning.
In his work, David speaks of art and its institutions as machines that can exploit everything and eliminate anything that our “like/dislike” society suppresses: the non-functional and the squandered, the useless and the contradictory, the sick and the weak. But the fact that David creates such classically alluring work is not decorative proof of an affirmation; rather, it is a strategy to introduce viewers to the uncomfortable core of his practice.
Similarly to how Ultra Paste’s teen betrays his father figure by masturbating onto that anatomical totem in his sterile room, David fetishizes and defiles the patriarchy as embodied in art history, its institutions, and in the culture at large. The artist decorates and abuses his prison in pleasurable, humorous ways, playing both warden and inmate, therapist and patient. Yet the instutitons do not seem to recognize how radical his approach really is. During a public discussion in 2019, Stéphane Aquin, chief curator of the Hirshhorn Museum, said to David: “I couldn’t help but wonder how very classical your works in the galleries look…but then when you look up close, you think, ‘How weird!’ Your work is so resistant to meaning.” That’s the art world’s typical reaction when any artist cannot be pigeonholed with regard to the canon in five minutes: it just doesn’t belong and is placed hors compétition, as it must belong in the harlequin or arts and crafts department.
But David’s response makes clear that he uses art from all manner of eras to develop a visual language that is ultimately not about the art itself: “The work is my experience of reality. I don’t feel like I’m making anything up in a weird way. To me, this is perfectly logical: when you are in the realm of creativity, art, or poetry, you are investigating canons that might actually fall out of the norm. On a day-to-day basis, we as human beings invest energy in making sense of things because we have to. We have to function. Art is the one place where you can actually disrupt the flow of functionality, of that rationale, that sense of absolute truth, or whatever truth you’ve chosen to believe in.” When the chief curator smiles somewhat blankly, David clarifies: “The strangeness that I describe is a strangeness that you recognize, because it is your strangeness too. You also understand that strangeness. It’s just that you might not invest as much time or energy dwelling upon your strangeness. So I do it on your behalf, in a way. I am also describing your strangeness.”
Enrico David’s work illustrates not only the strangeness of one kind of institution, but the strangeness of the whole enlightened system that, though clearly mad, categorically denies any possibility of its own insanity, that refuses to recognize its own workings, even when racism, inequality, and environmental devastation are driving the world towards annihilation. Bataille’s obscene writing means to spur the reader to open their eyes to what our culture obscures, to death, horror, and self-destruction – and thus to live differently. One can see a similarly poetic and obscene intention in David’s work, an attempt to develop a new artistic vocabulary, both visual and linguistic. “I like image and language trying to coexist as one,” he says. Just how politically this coexistence can be interpreted is evident in his sculpture Roman Toilet (2014), in which a plump female figure with a cone-shaped torso and tiny arms is crowned by a gigantic old-fashioned hairdo, the exaggerated contours of which are reminiscent of a pile of dung. The figure evokes the most disparate associations: the elegant Rome of Helmut Berger and Cy Twombly, and its mixture of jet set, nobility, and avant-garde, but also the exuberant trash of Tinto Brass’s Caligula (1979), its excess of wigs, blood, sex, luxury, and violence. The title seems juvenline, even regressive, but it could also point to the end of an empire that gulps everything down like a toilet. Enrico David’s work seems tailor made for this time in which rationality and irrationality are waging a global, completely irreconcilable battle that’s putting the entire planet to the test. “This sense of reconciliation with the uneasy is crucial to me,” David says in his beautiful Italian English, which always sounds a bit like it’s from another era. “Achieving this is often a matter of engaging with different degrees of tastefulness and conventionality, balancing the abject with the discreet, and dressing it up as benign. I think that serving it up for scrutiny in a ‘friendly’ manner might give us a chance to understand how to use it better, how not to succumb to it or turn it against each other.”