John Bock: Dead + Juicy at The Contemporary Austin

By Caroline Elbaor

Dead + Juicy (still), 2017, HD video, colour, sound, 59 min 46 sec. Photo: David Schultz. © the artist. Courtesy the artist, Anton Kern Gallery, New York, and Regen Projects, Los Angeles

Dead + Juicy
, John Bock’s new film and exhibition, highlights the bizarre and near-perverse elements that have characterised the German artist’s work since he came to prominence during the early 1990s. The film, clocking in at precisely one hour, is a circuslike delve into Bock’s view of Texan culture as seen through the lens of the state’s capital, Austin.

Bock’s interpretation is rife with what appear to be misguided ideas of Texan archetypes mined from the state’s long-maintained mythical aura, one that lends itself to fairytales filled with Southern belles and gun-toting cowboys who wistfully recall the days of Texan independence over a bottle of Shiner Bock, and then, three whiskeys later, remind themselves of their right to secede. The film portion of the exhibition, which was shot entirely in South Austin, sees our hero – a barber named Lisa – travel to various locations throughout the city, including: the backyard of what one might assume is a suburban household (we see outdoor furniture, a freestanding grill sizzling with steaks, and parental figures, one of whom is inexplicably covered in a plastic mask, the other in a Jackie O-like ensemble); a traditional barbershop, the sole Texan particularity of which is a taxidermy rat (though Texans traditionally prefer to stuff big-game items); and a wooded swamp –one of the rare exactitudes in this film, as the Hill Country and its many lakes make for tree-laden, marshy terrain.

Austin, however, is known for it liberal tendencies and an affinity for live music that dares venture from the country genre. It is arguably Texas’s cultural epicentre, surrounded by fanatically conservative areas like both a reject and self-proclaimed rebel – a role not unlike the one Bock’s adopted hometown of Berlin plays in Germany. The problem is that Bock attempts to address contemporary America, and its cartoonish political situation under a conservative administration, through an extreme depiction of a Texan city that is the exception to the state’s right-leaning norm. The result feels undercooked, not due to a lack of ambition, but out of ignorance of the subject matter.

Throughout his artistic oeuvre, Bock is known for performing nonsensical lectures, after which the props from these gibberish-filled talks are left behind as exhibited art objects. The artist has continued in the same vein here, but the aforementioned items used in the film – the grill, a red barber chair, a vintage record player – do little to complement it, and fail to stand on their own. 

In the accompanying text, Dead + Juicy has been billed by the artist as an ‘uncanny musical’, though I would argue that the description suits neither the film nor the object-based exhibition. Admittedly, Bock’s latest commission is indeed strange, but this eccentricity is commonplace for the artist, a repeated trait that only serves to heighten this particular exhibition’s overall absurdity. One does not leave feeling unsettled or mystified by an intellectually stimulating strangeness; rather, the dominant sense is one of exhaustion over continued nonsense that feels, at times, intentionally bogus even for the artist himself.

John Bock: Dead + Juicy at The Contemporary Austin, 23 September – 14 January

From the March 2018 issue of ArtReview