Susanne Sachsse with Xiu Xiu
I WAS A FORMALIST PENSIONER. AN ANTIOPERA
At a time when the German Democratic Republic privileged Socialist Realism as a civic and artistic duty, the late Kurt Streubel was, as the title of this exhibition suggests, a devout formalist stubbornly painting Constructivist abstractions. His insubordination didn’t stop there. At the ripe age of 31, Streubel demanded—and amazingly, received—a “formalist pension” of 200 marks per month from the East German government. In 1970, Streubel planned a libretto, a text for an opera—if it can be called that, as the text was further metamorphosed into graphics. Those “texts,” critically and politically engaged with his time, are picked up by German artist Susanne Sachsse and American experimental music group Xiu Xiu’s installation at Participant Inc, “I WAS A FORMALIST PENSIONER. AN ANTIOPERA.” Sachsse, who met Streubel in 1981 at age 16 and later became his studio assistant, draws on Streubel’s work to reflect on formalism and politics, as well as cultural transmission.
The installation takes the form of 21 horn loudspeakers arranged linearly across both walls, which channel the viewer toward a massive, concave speaker at the center. The audio Xiu Xiu contributes is sometimes shrill, sometimes whirring, and alternatively ominous and trilling, with crescendoing minor chords underwritten by a heartbeat-like pulse. The sound seems to undulate as one passes each speaker, zigzagging through the accompanying text, narrated in a low, droning monotone, sometimes sung, sometimes plosive (“dot dot dot dot,” a mechanical voice intones). “on the left the meat is anemic raw,” goes one refrain. “on the right it was roasted.”
On the other side of the central speaker, a set of shelves cut right triangles out of square niches. Inside are nestled a series of objects: a set of orange-toned texts, ambiguous cast white objects, and video screens playing, presumably, pieces of Streubel’s original plan for the libretto. On the floor, a jumbled mass of stuffed white-and-black jumpsuits designed by Streubel—whose mother was a tailor who studied fashion design—is crushed by haphazardly placed television screens. One plays a video of Sachsse and Xiu Xiu dressed in the same black-and-white checkered overalls, engaging in what they term “formalist frolics.” They walk to and from a desolate gas station, and sit before a red-tiled storefront that reads, “FRESH AMERICAN.” —Lisa Yin Zhang
An earlier version of this post suggested there were 27 horn loudspeakers paired with 40 text-projecting mini slide viewers. The current installation no longer includes the mini slide viewers—they were omitted from the installation—and the number of horn speakers was reduced to 21.
Susanne Sachsse, I WAS A FORMALIST PENSIONER. AN ANTIOPERA, 2021. Photo: Richard Gabriel Gersch.