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Kunath at Modern Art Oxford

Daveen Koh

Raymond Moody’s Blues
Friedrich Kunath
Modern Art Oxford
21 September to 17 November 2013

Friedrich Kunath is living his Californian dream. He has created visions of “sunshine and noir [1]” for his first UK solo exhibition—a maze of sculptures, paintings, and films which oscillate between sedate sweetness and ominous whimsy. The Los Angeles-based German artist has, essentially, turned Modern Art Oxford’s Upper Gallery into a sun-drenched tennis court: the sculptures are scattered about a tattered net, taken from the court which Kunath frequents. On a nearby wall hangs a massive mural depicting a fluorescent court and ubiquitous palm trees. There is a palpable sense of play about the room, for everything converses with everything else: the comic duels with the tragic, German romanticism fuses with surrealism and pop.

Many sculptures are small moments magnified. They are absurd, beguiling and often simply beautiful. A poised seal balances a polyhedron from Albrecht Dürer’s 1514 engraving Melencolia on its nose. A burnished, sand-filled, metre-long shoe cradles a grinning orange. An accompanying shoe is one step ahead. Against a wall, a red-tipped match leans languidly; its blackened twin lies limply on the floor, metres away. Two otters, serenely holding tennis balls, prop up a fading Barbra Streisand vinyl record with their grimy feet, which are those of a human. The record has, of course, been precisely chosen:

We’re children
Needing other children
And yet letting our grown up pride
Hide all the need inside

This fairy tale world moves and charms. It is reminiscent of endless summer days, the sort popularised by the Beach Boys and their colleagues, who have inspired much of Kunath’s work. The exhibition induces a curious nostalgia in the viewer for things which are not being remembered, but experienced for the very first time. Or perhaps this is not at all puzzling. For though the sculptures embody recollections and dreams that are clearly Kunath’s own, they also capture a grown up’s memory of growing up. Kunath’s sculptural environments are existential playgrounds. Like tennis, questioning what everything means is a game that people can play well into adulthood, with varying degrees of success. This allusion may be linked to Kunath’s suspicion of happy endings. His paintings, in particular, are rife with references to memento mori, even to the point of overstatement. In one case, the familiar skull lurks beneath cheerful streamers on a fiery canvas; elsewhere, it shines in the remarkably reflective shades of a tennis player; and in another, swipes of black carve the hollows of a skull in which a pair of stately dogs reside. The overall effect is jarring in a show so awash with elegance.

The exhibition title is also incredibly helpful. Raymond Moody’s Blues references the psychologist who coined the term “near-death experience” and the 1960s band the Moody Blues. Both were fond of linguistic gymnastics that Kunath might appreciate: Moody authored the best-selling Life After Life (after which Kunath christened his courtside mural) while the English band released a classical music-inspired album entitled Days of Future Passed.

It is no surprise that music, in a variety of genres, is charismatically present at Kunath’s show. In the 2012 film You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Crazy, which uproariously concludes the exhibition, Kunath plays an aging artist who spends his rather solitary days sailing, playing tennis, and contemplating nature. To discordant string music, the artist flounders about a swimming pool in which a bewildering assortment of objects drift—fruits, telephones, and a toy piano appear. The film’s soundtrack, jittery at times and lush at others, is the response of members of the Calder Quartet [2] to an assortment of flashcards Kunath inscribed with words describing emotions. The temperamental, dramatic music elevates the myth of the artist as a romantic soul to farcical heights: in one scene, he tenderly rubs noses with a sculpture of an orange. As these images recur on various scales in different media, fantasies and what we perceive to be reality amalgamate. We are left all at sea.

Recognizing this unsettling chaos, Kunath is sad but also optimistic. Near the entrance are two televisions, set back to back. A pastiche of home videos—sequences of the seemingly inconsequential—plays on one screen. A child, clutching ice cream cones in both hands, gradually discovers how to open a door. The other screen broadcasts what could pass for a melodramatic screensaver. The sun emerges, reddening the sky. Seagulls soar and vanish into the curve of the blinding sun as Mark Kozelek’s “Around and Around” hypnotizes:

And I love to see the morning as it steals across the sky
I love to remember and I love to wonder why.

Perhaps, then, it is in wonderment that we can find respite. But this exhibition is not about answers. Kunath immerses us in our own questions and memories, and creates a space in which we can, for a moment, think. It is as if he is saying: the ball is in your court.

Daveen Koh [3] is reading for an MSc in Visual, Material and Museum Anthropology at Wolfson College, Oxford.