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Published in «Meditated Vandalism» 

Exhibition Catalog

«Gen Atem, Meditated Vandalism,

Solo Show at Kolly Gallery 2014»

Essay by Julien Kolly, Gallery owner

Zurich Switzerland, 2014

On Meditated Vandalism

The term Meditated Vandalism brings together opposites, each with their own respective narratives: contemplation on the one hand and aggressive‑ ness on the other. These two contrary poles have also shaped Gen Atem’s career. At the same time, his artistic practice has shifted from public space into exhibition space. Meditated Vandalism is the result of his development over the course of four decades, from graffiti writer to established artist, from street fighter to Zen Buddhist monk.

Gen Atem, who began painting on subway cars and walls in 1982, is one of the pioneers of Europe’s writer scene. Under the pseudonyms Genius, Gen, and Gen-U-One, he developed his own personal style, experimenting with such means as paint rollers and powder pigment, unconventional at the time, in order to disseminate his name. Meticulous preparations were required for him to be able to execute an action in only a few adrenaline-packed moments.

Gen Atem responded as a sprayer and political activist to the public’s lack of understanding for his activities by appropriating the pejorative designation vandalism in the mid-eighties, naming his newly founded crew Attacking Vandalism Criminals and proclaiming vandalism as a new art form. This is because graffiti, seen from a legal point of view, is vandalism—that is, an action involving the deliberate destruction of or damage to public or private property. The courts do not differentiate between marring or defacing something and creative artistic activity. The term vandalism itself origi‑ nated in the late eighteenth century. Coined by Bishop Henri Jean-Baptiste Grégoire in the face of the iconoclastic destruction of Christian art and the murders left in the wake of the French Revolution, the term references the Sack of Rome carried out by the Vandals. However, most historical sources are in agreement that the taking of Rome played out in a comparatively orderly fashion, proceeding with‑ out blind destructive rage. Both examples demonstrate that vandalism is always linked to power of interpretation. Graffiti directs its explosive force against symbols and attacks notions like the inviolability of property—conveying, even in its simplest form, resistance against established norms.

In the case of the politically motivated throwing of paint bombs or the spraying of graffiti—the origins of Meditated Vandalism—the crucial moment is when a non-conformist position bursts out into everyday life. Unlike the visit to a cultural institu‑ tion, one encounters works and vandalism on the street without expecting it. Even when artistic aspirations are in fact behind such actions, its provocative intention is essential. This provocative undertone, which is discharged during the brief moment in which the action takes place, is still visible in Gen Atem’s recent works, along with the aspect of meticulous preparations.

Graffiti is a system in which skills and knowledge are mainly handed down personally. The New York artist Rammellzee was Gen Atem’s mentor from 1986 to 1994, and together they created a sprawling cosmos by further developing graffiti writers’ obsession with the alphabet. They produced three-dimensional alphabet sculptures and futuristic costumes made of refuse and performed multimedia-based battles between letters and writers. Since then, Gen Atem has worked with stagings that combine painting, music, and performance with the objective of transporting urgency and overstimulation into interior spaces as well.

After this experience in New York, Gen Atem turned to the study of Buddhist philosophy, calligraphy, and meditation. While meditation firstly denotes the observation of an object or immersion in oneself, it also points to the mystic area of higher knowledge. The necessary quietude, but also the aim of gaining a better understanding of both the world and one’s own self, likewise corresponds to the concept of the white cube—the neutral white walls characteristic of so many museums and galleries. Exhibition spaces have become in‑ creasingly ascetic in design since the late nineteenth century, almost coming to resemble monastic cells. This has given rise to a situation in which external influences are kept to a minimum as far as possible in order to avoid interfering with the contemplation of the individual works of art. The transition from street and public space into the art system consequently also implies a completely different mode of reception. Gen Atem takes advantage of this charged relationship when he meditates on the subject matter of a new picture in his studio that is both bare and full of paint splatters. His immersion comes to an abrupt end when he starts throwing the paint he has at the ready.

In this way, artworks veering between contemplation and agitation are created for the white cube, deriving from Gen Atem’s biography and simultaneously reflecting an art-historical tradition. In 1920, Francis Picabia dripped ink on a sheet of paper, at the top of which he inscribed the work’s title, La Sainte Vierge (The Blessed Virgin). Em‑ ploying minimal means, Picabia succeeded in circumventing the notion of the Immaculate Con‑ ception and thus provoking the citizenry of Paris. On a formal level, this opened up a new field for the painting of the emergent Surrealist movement, in which artists increasingly relinquished control over the application of paint. The avant-garde in art endeavored to develop new pictorial worlds by means of chance and the unconscious. “Dessin automatique”, a form of subconscious drawing in which the hand moves at random across the paper, was intended as a means of overcoming aesthetic, societal, and personal conventions. Escaping the horrors of World War II, many European Surrealists found refuge in New York, where they encountered a generation of young American artists who appropriated their concepts and, in doing so, created a new stylistic direction. Jackson Pollock’s Action Painting combined gesture, randomness, and the act of throwing with the understanding of painting as pure color effect, while Mark Rothko emphasized vibrating color fields, creating, with his Rothko Chapel, a meditative place that proclaims an agnostic mysticism.

Provocation, by contrast, was at the core of the events organized by the participants in the Viennese Actionism movement, which sought to confront the authoritarian structures of the nineteen-sixties by deliberately breaking taboos. Their happenings encompassing blasphemy, blood, sperm, and excrement not only brought the artists fame and prison sentences but also enabled Hermann Nitsch’s Splatter Paintings, in which the emotional eruptions of the actions found a permanent form, entering into the collections of major art institutions.

Like Pollock and Nitsch, Gen Atem also comprehends the act of painting as a ritual in which energy is discharged and conserved in the form of a painting. And as with Picabia, the result—the shapeless spot—symbolizes the resistance against norms and conventions. To this end, Gen Atem first stands in silent contemplation before the empty canvas in Meditated Vandalism, approaching the subconscious before the completed work at last invites the viewer to interact with expression, form, and emptiness.

Rémi Jaccard, DPhil
August 2016