by Emma Holmes
It’s been nearly two decades since the maverick artist Frank Zackoff first staged his pioneering videos and subversive performance projects, and he’s still pushing the boundaries. High above the city at the fabulous house of Anna Benau, we met and spoke about his latest hazardous and transfixing work. In these performative acts he creates an immersive tension by permitting the audience to interact with his physical presence, exploring the potential of the body as a highly visible locus for bringing political action to public attention. Rudely transgressing the boundaries between the popular and the absurd, Zachoff flagrantly pollutes overt references to historical art with pop cultural allusions and strategies.
He took me for a stroll around the grounds and while we surveyed the view of the city below, I asked him about how his exploration into ‘how far art can be pushed’ was progressing. “It’s a natural development,” he said, “you have to think of a new edge, and always approach everything with sincerity, especially if you’re trying to instigate a sympathetic collaborator out of the viewer.” The video installations and photographs which he produces alongside the performances are impressively coherent and visually re ned, while at the same time there is a seemingly improvised spontaneity in their execution that makes them vital. The films capture a performative audacity and a subversive visual dynamic which Zachoff constructs using distinctive additive layers to challenge notions of time and causality. In ‘Alien Reception’, a piece about the mechanics of space and the psychology of multiplicity, a vital understanding of simultaneity and accidental participation is explored and crisply conceived, amidst clamorous profusions of colour and randomly generated code and data.
We continue the interview inside over drinks, and he and Anna fill me in on their longstanding friendship as we discuss his forthcoming retrospective presenting key works in video and photography at the New Contemporary Art Museum until December. The exhibition is a must-see for its intriguing clarity and shock value. If anyone can pull it off, he can.
Frank Zackoff interviewed by Isabel Dobai. ‘Trembling Time’ opens on the12th of October 2012.
She gets into a cab and focuses on the rearview mirror as the city outside starts to darken. The rush hour vendors meander from car to car balancing boxes of chewing gum, flowers and lottery tickets. She sifts through the papers, and pulls out a few official letters. An autocratic past has prepared her for the selective bureaucracy she nimbly manipulates. She carefully extracts the magazine from the newspaper. “It’s a powerful image, have to hand it to him,” she thinks to herself, “too bad about the timing…” The offices are emptying out, so she dials and leaves a few messages. She is con dent they won’t return her calls, endorsing the power of her new appointment and confirming that it won’t be taken further.
She hasn’t seen him in over a decade. It was a lifetime, yet they’ve known each other long and well enough for it to make no difference. She remembers twenty years ago when her father eventually died, he’d been indispensable. Her father had lived out his alcoholic demise after losing everything, in an abandoned cabin amidst the rubble of a demolished factory. They went together to the site of his death, and her recollection of the timeless clarity of those distant northern valleys will always be intertwined with the wretched desolation of that forsaken place. Her father had done a good job of making himself scarce and it had taken weeks before his body was found. That was the worst thing. “We had a hell of a time dealing with his affairs,” she recalls, looking down at her rings reflected in the darkened cab window.
As the car proceeds to the edge of the city, she heads past the end of the disused railway line. From there she can clearly survey how monstrous the city has become during this past decade. Its huge weight is halted on this side by the toxic river’s recurrent floods and the raised highways which circulate around it. Now the largest and richest city on the continent, the gap between wealth and poverty is at its most vertiginous and normal life is intimately connected with security. Extensive surveillance networks have become normalised, along with secret police and swift action against protesters with water cannons and tear gas. Despite the potential security risk, the financial markets are flourishing and with the completion of various landmark architectural projects and strategically planned museums in some areas of the city, an immensely rich and interesting cultural life has been generated.
She walks through the double doors of the airport terminal and makes her way to the far side of the arrivals lounge until she reaches a sliding glass window. Inside, the two men look up from their desks when she announces her name. Buzzing her through, she hands the papers to the airport security official. “It has some ring to it,’’ she thinks as she hears the border policeman say “Culture Minister, please follow me,” and leads the way through to the back corridors of the airport building. When she enters the room, Frank stands up to greet her. “Thanks for coming to get me through security,” he says calmly. “Yeah, you made the cover of the magazine supplement,” Anna replies, and shows him the image on the front of the magazine she is holding.
It’s a photograph from his most recent performance entitled Icarus. In this piece, he slowly transforms himself in front of the audience into a disarming creature by attaching prosthetics onto his body with large rolls of Sellotape. Then climbing into a harness which suspends him, metamorphoses into a type of sacrificed alien or fallen superhero extending into the space. The audience, consisting mostly of museum-goers and students, take turns from a carefully supervised queue to draw and write on the stiff, semi-transparent membrane covering his body with marker pens. The last member of the audience carefully writes on him, and his two-hour ordeal of hanging still with a spectacularly engorged chest and brutally compressed waist is almost over. The whole piece is filmed and when at last the photographs are taken, he is entirely covered in red, black and blue markings. On top of plenty of tags, written messages, some diagrams, obscene scribbling and outlandish drawings, the last participant has written meticulously in thick red capital letters across his body the unmistakable rallying cry of the resistance, “An armed people will never be crushed!”
They walk out of the airport and cross the road, now empty except for military vehicles. They descend the stairs into a subway corridor that leads to the platform, and board the train. Sitting in the carriage, the old, bloated graffiti skims by the windows outside and a last glimpse of roofs and heavy clouds gives way to the electric interior and the flat grays inside the train.
“Why did I agree to attend the opening, big mistake,” Frank tells Anna how intimidating it was to be detained by the armed, blank-faced military men at the airport. How his fear of being interrogated progressed into a state of heightened sensory awareness and he instinctively pretended not to speak the language, but he could hear part of their conversations in the next room, and the way they spoke revealed how sadistic they were liable to get if they’d had a chance to question him. “Don’t worry,” she says, “you’re here now and the pieces look fantastic in the museum.” She is referring in part to his early work, purchased cheap under her directorship, back when his impressive career was getting off the ground. He was pleased when she proposed the project initially and eagerly accepted to do the exhibition, motivated to some extent by a nostalgic relationship to the city where as an adolescent he had spent four years. In Frank’s mind it was a significant step, a mid- career retrospective in the New Contemporary Art Museum, but he hadn’t expected to feel so exposed after the outcome of Icarus last week. Exhibiting here and now will raise questions about his commitment to critical and political intervention and the effectiveness of his work will be perceived as an affectation for entertaining the ruling classes of an oppressed state. As a radical he has attempted to expose the contradictions inherent in the discursive arena between privilege and politics, including the fact that in order to survive most of the ragged edges of underground, cultural rhetoric will become inextricably linked with fashionable lifestyle. But this time he misjudged the dynamics of the situation and he realises he has accepted the fictions entrenched in the cultural discourse of soft global power in order to maintain an active role and support his practice worldwide.
Anna has been progressing with cautious ambition along the narrow corridors of power for some time. Though typically she would argue that for someone like her the luxury of political choice, which other countries hypocritically preach as they invest trillions in this economy, is a fallacy. In the years following her father’s death, the military coup profoundly transformed the country, and particularly as she found she had the advantage when her mother re-married a lieutenant, one thing had led to another.
With her at the helm, he could see where they were heading. His international artistic status would help to substantiate their claims of tolerance and inclusivity. He would stand for freedom of expression, unbound experimentation, immaterial production, perceptual fallacies, bull-clip avant-garde, the collision of desirable commodities, delusional desires for subversion and the reconfigured boundaries of an inverted world.