Reading Rämistrasse #23: Aoife Rosenmeyer on Der erschöpfte Mann at the Landesmuseum Zürich

Just a year ago the Landesmuseum was home to «Indiennes: Stoff für tausende Geschichten». That exhibition illuminated countless aspects of Switzerland’s entanglement in colonial trading and the social and political repercussions of the textile industry, materially (apologies) furthering mainstream understanding of the subject. What now can be learnt from or about the exhausted man? Or the exhausted image of man?

Start of Der erschöpfte Mann exhibition with Laocoon sculpture in foreground

The show draws a narrative arc from flawed classical heroes Laocoon and Achilles, by way of armoured knights and heroic martyrs, to men broken by the machine of war. Then, post-WWI, certainties of male identity are dismantled, leading to confusion as well as new imaginative possibilities. Its conclusion is the blurring of gender borders from the 1960s onwards. Seen as a whole, simple – and restrictive – models of manhood are complicated in the 20th century, and by the 21st we have become accustomed to a more multifaceted image of masculinity. This, the fourth exhibition at the Landesmuseum by guest curators Stefan Zweifel and Juri Steiner, is not about the everyman, but the headline act and the supposed exemplar. And despite a survey of so many centuries, little changes.  

If this were an exhibition about sheep, not finding goats would scarcely be cause for complaint. There can be sheep without goats. There cannot, however, be men without women even if, as mooted here, «men make the world in their own image». Der erschöpfte Mann largely overlooks women, when they pop up it feels designed to bait: the opening chapter has Arnold Böcklin’s horrified head of Medusa to illustrate the male fear of castration; soon after, in the section on chivalry, an excerpt from Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac cuts from the joust and its male audience to the rump of a woman being washed by servants. After that, with the brief and welcome exception of Hannah Wilke’s striptease through Duchamp’s Large Glass, women disappear until the Sphinx brothel serves as inspiration for de Sade. (Nonetheless an explanatory text shortly after maintains that sex only became a commodity in the 1960s.) What’s worse than their paltry representation, is that female artists are not even granted the right to perceive men till we’re more than half way round. At that stage there’s a great counterpoint to the opening classical Laocoon from Maria Lassnig and some tabloid humour with tuberous stuffed tights from Sarah Lucas, whose work has to carry a lot of weight. Did Allen Jones’ chair, a woman bent to shape, really need to be exhumed to make the point of how crass men might be?

Andy Warhol photograph of a Pieta sculpture

In the penultimate gallery, photographs of transvestites and hermaphrodites in bars and circuses alongside self-portraiture by Claude Cahun or later Urs Lüthi demonstrate an alternative to the monolithic male entity, and allow for a degree of sexual self-determination. David Bailey’s shot of young Mick Jagger haloed by a fur collar suggests that today’s pin-up of septuagenarian fertility has a sensitive side too, though it’s alongside a sparring Muhammad Ali. Is this all the room for manoeuvre men are granted? The closing statement, like the opening, is a classical sculpture: Hermaphroditus lying dreaming, while around their head are filmic visions of what they could be. Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan in Todd Hayne’s I’m Not There, Johnny Depp in Cry Baby or Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Adrian Piper and Tracey Moffatt’s less mainstream alternatives are tucked into a corner, overshadowed by Richard Prince’s drooling observations of actresses.  

Last room of the exhibition, with Hermaphroditus sculpture and Richard Prince Lindsay Lohan film

In an exhibition heavy with icons and light on lived experience, men are kept at an arm’s length in their leading roles. If there is something beneath the surface, and of course there is, the presentation keeps it out of reach. Very little substantial information is provided about pieces beyond how they fit into the exhibition narrative, and works are instrumentalised to form that storyline. Take Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s film ZIDANE: A 21st Century Portrait which, in combination with Laocoon, provides the striking overture to the exhibition: despite its prominence, the film, which follows former French international Zinedine Zidane for the duration of a football match, is reduced to a two-and-a-half-minute clip during which the midfielder is sent off and walks off the pitch. The dynamics of a football match and Zidane’s skills are skipped and a hatchet taken to Gordon and Parreno’s time-based study of media and representation. Another example is Asif Kapadia’s documentary biography Senna. To illustrate man being the victim of the technology he developed, the feature-length film is reduced to Ayrton Senna’s fatal crash. Senna is crucified and decontextualized to make the point.

There is undoubtedly some intelligence in the assembly of this exhibition and some humour too. But between mediation that falls short, shoe-horning exhibits into an uncertain narrative and a conclusion that is astonishingly superficial and dated, the show does men few favours. If man is exhausted, still he will rise – but hopefully not from these old ashes.

Der erschöpfte Mann, Landesmuseum Zürich

16 October 2020–10 January 2021

Images: a view of the exhibition, copyright: © Swiss National Museum; Andy Warhol, Pietà relief sculpture, 1976 / 1986, copyright: Musée national d‘art moderne/Centre de création industrielle © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / 2020, ProLitteris, Zurich; a view of the exhibition, copyright: © Swiss National Museum.

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If art criticism is losing ground, we must act. That’s why we created space for criticism – Reading Rämistrasse – on the Kunsthalle Zürich website and publish reviews of current exhibitions. What is published here does not represent the opinion of the Kunsthalle Zürich. Because criticism has to be independent. Feedback or questions? Email   

26.11.2020