On Morag Keil at Eden Eden, Berlin

— Nicholas Tammens

Morag Keil, Would you eat your friends?, Real Fine Arts, New York, June 28-July 27, 2014, invitation image

Morag Keil, Would you eat your friends?, Real Fine Arts, New York, June 28-July 27, 2014, invitation image

passive aggressive

Morag Keil’s passive aggressive at Eden Eden comprised of a single video file, displayed in sync across the gallery’s six rooms on six screens. Played back on a standardized model of flat-screen, mounted on the northern wall of each room, the video showed a montage appropriate for our attention deficit culture. The work consisted of an iPhone video of motorcycles parked on the streets of Berlin; animated television advertisements; audio snippets of the reality TV show Big Brother; video-game fan videos; and an animation of a winking femme-looking eye (recalling a painting once exhibited by Keil at Real Fine Arts). In her press release, Keil remarked on the subject of motorcycles, saying “I was thinking about objects or images that embody desire or fantasy and to me a motorbike is a kind of cheesy, semi-macho idea of fantasy. A machine that embodies an idea of desire, but also in itself is like a body.” This video, like much of her work, comments on what is being sold beyond the immediate use value of her subject, and how this exchange might be construed. Here she alludes to the ways in which the body, and all the manners in which it is generalized, is immediate to advertising’s manufacture of desire. It is a credit to the industry, that a machine can be anthropomorphized for sex appeal, or an animated animal (like those inhabiting the adverts that interject passive aggressive) can act like a person in a bid to veil an ideological message, no matter how coarse. In its content, this video finds sociopolitical significance in the body as site and in its anthropomorphic representations; in the installation, this query is extended to the mediation of this content, and to the physicality of the viewer.
The title of passive aggressive was described in its press release as “a balance of two approaches in the video and installation, bouncing from passive to aggressive and not sticking with either one.” It’s an intentional prescription, that mounts a frame for reading the work, one which points to a polarization between passive and aggressive tones (either in earnest, or in the unease that it may be a too literal reading). If we’re willing to entertain the title’s conceit, the installation aggressively foreclosed the spectator’s assumed passivity and subjected its viewer through intervening in the architecture of the galleries. It did this via the gesture of repetition as the same video was encountered over and again, in each successive room. This preempted habitual viewing habits, aiming to cancel disinterest in a way that might produce discontent. In a contemporary art climate, where the liberal viewer expectantly awaits video work to perform for his or her limited attention span, the aggression of this repetition could be misconstrued as deliberately boring. But in troubling the passive circulation of the viewer and overturning his or her expectations, this work sought to harness an engagement with its content beyond the poverty of measuring qualitative judgements by “likes.” It is a move that is aware of how viewers act and form evaluative judgements, not only in galleries, but in relation to media in general.


In an interview preceding this exhibition, Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen commented
on the work of Keil and Georgie Nettell—a frequent collaborator—saying that the artist’s work possessed “a certain sense of passive-aggression, something ‘bittersweet’[1].” This latter term is a curious elaboration of the initial description. Self-assured and secure. Fischli and Olsen’s adjectival addition recalls an inheritance of the cozy safety of the bourgeoisie. We might ask whether the gendered presumption of the curators’ interpretation needs to be underlined. But even if we don’t, Keil’s title still does a sure job of negating its content.
In truth, these artists are not naive to what is codified in their work, and I would be hesitant to say that the “wrong reading” is not something they have left untended. Both artists often find recourse in gestures that are “aggressive” in tone, with a preference for appropriation that looks to subversion for its allegorical negativity. Take, for instance, Keil’s Flour Babies, a transvaluation of an educational tool for teenagers laden with ideological baggage; or her hand-drawn reproductions of PayPal advertisements that parody the style of “cute, kooky pen drawings”[2] used by the financial company to humanize its product; or Nettell’s paintings that stage provocations between decor and tradition of the historical avant-garde by the redesign and reframing of motifs (more on this later). And although negation may be a hinge for this work, there is a degree of irony in its title that is not totalizing—as the press release indicates: “not sticking with either” approach. With real sincerity, there is also a detectable amount of self-criticism, an indication that Keil is attentive to when, for what, and how one may be expected to perform the role of artist within the expectations of a field that has fastened notions of “criticism” and “self-reflexivity” to the functioning of its commodity forms—material or otherwise.
Whether or not this title is wholly appropriative of Fischli and Olsen’s comments, or directed as a reproach, these associations cannot be thrown out when looking at Keil and Nettell’s previous work. It operates on the presumption that reception is a plural, constitutive element in determining a work of art’s value and meaning. This is to say that the suite of values that are behind those little patriarchal slips, are the prerequisite for the negative attitude of their work. Such a shared attitude underwrites the work of both artists. As a world-view, it seeks to be palpable and invites identification—wishes for viewers who are complicit in their motives, affirming and reproducing a community that can find what is legible to it.
When this is apparent in the work of Keil and Nettell, it indicates an awareness of how the reception of the work of art functions socially—how a work is evaluated and given meaning by the networks it circulates in, how it operates within the institution of art as a “social field”—and additionally, how it produces judgements that may affirm shared critical dispositions and reproduce tastes. Pierre Bourdieu informs much of these understandings, who wrote that the subject of the production of the artwork is not the producer but the entire set of agents engaged in the “social field.” Yet in recent decades, such understandings have become all but tacit to the generations of artists that have succeeded from critical analyses of the institution of art—in practices influenced by, or involved directly in institutional critique.


Now we might imagine a real estate broker looking to furnish a new development—a relative outsider to the critical discourse of contemporary art, but with the refined disposition towards Eames chairs and bold abstraction that is indicative of a certain “international” aesthetic sensitivity. We are reminded that all taste harbours an instrumental function. Then picture an imaginary encounter by this character with Keil and Nettell’s Punk is not Dead It’s Different—a collaborative presentation exhibited as part of the Frieze London art fair, where they produced a group of works that imitated furnishings common to the idealized
commodity interiors of real estate showrooms or Airbnb advertisements. The point of this encounter is to illustrate that the tension of these works is the soft risk that they may be mistaken as the gaudy decor of commodity art (if encountered by a viewer not properly equipped to identify its critical edge). In a space that awaits the performance of a parlance common to both gallerists and real estate agents, the artists drew attention to the set-like qualities of art fair booths at art fairs through a parodic gesture. Adjacent to this, we can take note that the possibility of parody being mistaken as sincerity is what gives it the force of social criticism. Here Keil painted common furnishings in copper paint—a chair, a guitar, a sideboard—and urinated on them as a stroke of authorship transformed by the oxidation process into domestic pastiches of Abstract Expressionism. By repeating Warhol’s gesture in the Oxidation Paintings—albeit with a labor not outsourced to assistants but performed by her own female body—Keil’s gesture has as much to do with a feminist critique of the so-called autonomy of modern art, as the way in which this concept supports the imbrication of private property, authorship, and a social division of labor that resists identifying work in the domestic sphere as productive labor.
The authority of this gesture was comparable to Nettell’s contribution, where she produced “abstract” designs by a procedure of cropping and rasterizing jpeg files of Hermann Nitsch splatter paintings—appearing not dissimilar to the commodity art available at Ikea or Walmart. In their execution, Nettell assumed a managerial position, contracting their production to a screenprinter who printed the designs in neutral decorative hues on a standardized pre-dyed cotton ground. Understated in scale and referentially domestic in size, these paintings addressed the ideal stated in scale and referentially domestic in size, these paintings addressed the ideal dimensions of painting-as-commodity form; as a parameter historically and materially determined (in reference to the architecture of European middle-class homes, and economically justified by the facts of commodity distribution). It is to their credit that we are sure that these paintings are just as much an object as they are painting.


In writing of feminist practices of the 1970s that engaged with what could be seen as specifically domestic content, Helen Molesworth has written that “What has not been fully appreciated are the ways in which this usually ‘degraded’ content [domesticity] actually permits an engagement with questions of value and institutionality that critique the conditions of everyday life as well as art.”[3] As we have noticed already, the grammar of Morag Keil and Georgie Nettell includes a reciprocity between the public and private through the transvaluing of, or drawing reference to, preexisting content. Much of both artists’s work is in reference to the home: what underpins its functioning; what it reproduces; what is elided in its representations; what property relations, social dynamics, aesthetic dispositions, and imposition of gender standards are hidden by its private nature. It handles the task of bringing the domestic sphere into question, a task that points to its role in reproducing the productive relations of society; the bleed of work into all spheres of life since the 1970s; and the ways in which this has fundamentally changed the privacy of the home.
This is at the surface of Keil and Nettell’s collaborative video The Fascism of Everyday Life, where both artists give tours of their London share houses in a pastiche of MTV’s “Cribs.” What realism there is to this work is in this way absolutely social in its intention, as the artists expose their shared living arrangements and search for the average valuations of property in their areas on a real estate website. This exposure of private life to an evaluative public is predicated on it being a way of living all but too common for artists living in big cultural centers (for some of us, it’s immediately recognizable, almost to a point of banality). As a video, it enacts this in its form, imitating the now paradigmatic way of distributing and watching television (even reality TV) via the internet. Its parodic gesture is emboldened by an introduction imitating British reality TV, showing a montage of idealized monogamous homes and their familial relations. As a document, it repeats a gesture of Keil’s, where she photographed her living arrangements in relief of the type of representations of interiors common to real estate advertisements (for instance, see Would You Eat Your Friends? at Real Fine Arts). Recalling the microaggressions of shared kitchens and the emanations of brittle and temporary democracy, it seeks its affected meaning by identification.
The imbrication between the home and the social life of the art world is further underlined in Nettell’s photographs of interiors. Appearing like grainy real estate images to advertise rental properties, Nettell’s photos in Opportunity document the interior—usually living room—spaces of the families of other artists (mostly from upper-middle class backgrounds). Like Louise Lawler’s photographs of private collections, these photographs seek to be decoded while retaining their fundamental datum in secret—the names and the addresses of the occupants remain absent. These mostly British/European homes display certain aesthetic sensibilities and document the site where their artist children received their cultural inheritance. Here cultural capital is plainly in view, and its reproduction is coexistent with the reproduction of the family and its class status. Origins remain speculative. In literally reproducing and commodifying the images of these homes—while managing to “take the piss” out of Vogue Living—Nettell underscores her own implication in a set of relations that reproduce cultural capital and seek to find its expression in exchange value on the market. Giving us the sense that implication is the lesson of this work, it aims to make visible the socioeconomic dependence between the private life of the art world and its public surface.
These artists pose acute questions relevant to what it means to live in opposition to the normative pressures of society while continuing to make art (a task that almost seems exhausted at times). Yes, the work is often aggressive, frequently negative (for good reason). But it is not without a wily and alleviating humor. When it approaches realism, it is confounding—an expectation that we should have for art when it handles the everyday. This is where living happens.

  1. [1] “Domestic Battlegrounds; Morag Keil and Georgie Nettell in conversation with Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen,” Mousse, issue 54 (Summer 2016).
  2. [2] Ibid
  3. [3] Helen Molesworth, “House Work and Art Work,” October, 92 (Spring, 2000), pp. 71-97.