Anna-Sophie Berger: The Fool at Sea at JTT, New York

By Jeppe Ugelvig

Anna-Sophie Berger, Freedom (designed by Claudia Berger), 2018, iron, tin, lead alloy, plastic, 5 × 8 cm. Photo: Charles Benton. Courtesy the artist and JTT, New York

The figure of the artist is in peril: revealed as a co-opted producer of speculative value under neoliberalism, thriving on the commodified gesture of transgression, her game is up. Instead, she must act like a professional fool, a jester: half-entertainer, half-trickster, she offers fleeting moments of wisdom and deception, dressed in borrowed harlequin robes. This appears to be the suggestion of Austrian artist Anna-Sophie Berger, whose interrogation of postconceptualism’s vocabulary displays epistemological depth as well as formal brilliance. Her exhibition at JTT gathers works from the artist’s recent span of production, and speculates the complex process of how commodities are made, appear and become coded signifiers within and outside the charged space of art.

A variety of assemblages and assisted readymades sparsely populate the gallery with an almost parodic cleanliness, evoking the familiar fashion of “contemporary art”. Of these, it is the small, wall-based Freedom (designed by Claudia Berger) (all works 2018) that most precisely examines the logic of the objet trouvé. The work consists of a pair of tin-owl earrings designed by the artist’s mother for the high-street fashion retailer Topshop, back when tin owls constituted a microtrend within fashion accessories (initiated by Prada, if you don’t remember). To avoid copyright issues, her mother added small necklace locks to the side of the owls’ bodies, a cheap and readily available material in Berger’s mother’s factory (which closed shortly after this production), acquiring a charge of capitalist realist cunning. The irony of the jewellery line’s name – ‘FREEDOM’ – is only accentuated when presented as art by Berger in the white cube. Who creates, and to what ends, in this process of appropriation and resignification?

Such a chaotic game of semiotics happens everywhere in our encounter with production, exchange and consumption, Berger shows. In onion, a colour photograph depicts a yellow onion whose skin has been embellished with mysterious Chinese symbols in ink: the meaning of the signs remain unclear to the viewer, as well as to the European artist, who discovered it in a Chinatown vegetable stall. But this strategy of aestheticised disassociation and untranslatability (a trope of much art and culture) follows a completely formalised logic, and, in Europa Hölzer, Berger inverts the process. A matchbox cover featuring a depiction of the EU flag is reproduced photographically: what would pass as a nonmotif in a European context suddenly acquires an air of exoticism in the space of a New York gallery (particularly in thinking of the symbol’s recent appropriation by nihilist fashion brand Vetements).

Indeed, the artistic gesture exists in close proximity not only to the riddled logic of the joke, but to the meme, and the trend. Sincerity is the most treacherous of all positions. Several loaded symbols in the exhibition – a silkscreened NYC Parks and Recreation logo, a repurposed steel box commonly used for the disposal of charcoal briquettes in parks – seem to advance towards some kind of larger political argument (the production and distribution of public space, the press release offers); such a concretion, however, contradicts the diabolical undoing of the artist-as-social critic that many of the exhibition’s other works strive so skilfully towards articulating. Berger’s hand works best when revelling, not in the possibility, but in the feebleness of art’s vocabulary of critique. Jeppe Ugelvig

Anna-Sophie Berger: The Fool at Sea at JTT, New York, 4 March – 15 April

From the May 2018 issue of ArtReview