Attraction and Repulsion in What it All Means

James Voorhies on Eran Schaerf at Zwinger Galerie, Berlin
TEXTE ZUR KUNST #88, “The Question of Value,” December 2012


A keffiyeh is a traditional Arab headdress made of a square scarf, originally worn by farmers to guard against blowing sand and high temperatures. Its houndstooth and checkered patterns gained increasing political charge around 1968 in Europe when students of the left picked it up as a sign of solidarity with the Palestinians, and a symbol for their own anti-imperialistic protest. Its political significance had even greater visibility in the late 1980s when Yasser Arafat donned it repeatedly in his performances before the press. The Palestinian scarf became a statement of resistance and nationalism, a visual reminder of the fragile socio-political scenario in a geographic region where lines are drawn by governments to determine how people live – in fact, how they perform. In Germany, the keffiyeh continues to be part of leftist dress code (although also some Neo-Nazis have co-opted it in order to camouflage themselves in street demonstrations and because they associate it with an Israel-critical/anti-Semitic position); and today, on a brisk day walking down the street in a fashionable Western metropolis – say Berlin – sometimes a keffiyeh can be spotted. But its political significance is diluted, reinserted into another scenario as fashion adornment by wearers who may have no idea of its meaning or its past. In his performances, publications, radio plays, photographs and installations, Eran Schaerf interrogates the transformation of meaning and the identity of objects, images and places after they are filtered through mass media, consumerism and communication technologies. Therefore, it is no surprise that the artist is also attracted to the keffiyeh and its history.

The work of Schaerf, who was born in Tel-Aviv and trained as an architect, inhabits various forms of production, distribution and exhibition making that often recast objects of visual and material culture into different situations. In his previous works the red and white keffiyeh has, in fact, been seen dangling carelessly from a Prada handbag in the 1997 photograph “Silhouette I” and in the semi-fictional text “Scenario Data #32” written by Schaerf in 1999 it is used as a blindfold in a kidnapping with an Israeli special unit dressed in Palestinian disguise. Not unlike a prop in a multi-part cinematic series, the keffiyeh makes another appearance in his latest solo exhibition “Echo Chamber (Lakoste spielt keine Rollex)” at Zwinger Galerie in Berlin. In the sculpture “Club Wear” (1997/2012) it veils a small handbag, hanging on a vertical chain with other bags of traditional floral patterns and basket material. They are installed like a street-corner kiosk that sells cheap fashion goods and knockoffs. The work “Bas Boss Schack Schuka” (2004/2012) is installed next to “Club Wear”. It, too, is an assemblage of bags on a vertical chain. Some of them, however, are the plastic and paper kinds from mainstream retail sources, such as Hugo Boss. Placing the keffiyeh adjacent to big consumer brands, Schaerf acknowledges its reconfiguration into yet another commercial fashion product, a chic accessory. Both works are in front of the gallery’s large, street-facing window, reinforcing the commercial place of art within the same insatiable consumer appetite for retail shopping.

Eran Schaerf, “Club Wear” (1997/2012)

Eran Schaerf, “Club Wear” (1997/2012)

While the keffiyeh has seeped into more mainstream use and its visual message weakened, a recent design of footwear by the German sportswear company Adidas is highly charged with political and historical connotations. JS Roundhouse Mids is a pair of sneakers with bright orange plastic chains and shackles made to fit around the ankles of its wearers. Debuting on the Adidas Originals Facebook page prior to actual market release this summer, the sneakers designed by Jeremy Scott caused an outrage on blogs and social networks by critics who compared the shackles to those used to restrain slaves in the 19th century in America. In his sculpture “Roundhouse” (2012) Schaerf examines the political significance of this fashion design and the online reaction that ensued (with more than 2000 comments in a single day, the reaction ultimately made the company cancel the production of the footwear). “Roundhouse” confronts visitors at the entrance to the exhibition. It has bunches of loose-leaf photocopy paper tied together with neon orange shoelaces, all attached to a chromed chain that hangs from the ceiling. One group of paper slips has a black-and-white reproduction of the image of the shoe that Adidas posted on Facebook; pages in another group are mostly blank, except for a comment culled from the blogosphere by a user named Toneo 5pts who wrote: “Simply put, I’m an African American. These shoes are so #$^@! Fresh! Even if they have some slavery connotations what difference does it make?” A tattered roll of crowd-control tape hangs from the bottom of this assemblage. Instead of the usual black-and-yellow “CAUTION”, it has a solid black background with white Adidas logos on it. The tape is both a practical weight for stabilizing the work and a visual metaphor of the extraordinary effects corporations, design and advertising have on consumers, such as Toneo 5pts, on corralling their political beliefs.

Eran Schaerf, “Club Wear” (1997/2012)

Eran Schaerf, “Club Wear” (1997/2012)

Schaerf’s exhibition also features a series of wall sculptures. Objects such as automobile hood ornaments, fashion logos and key chains – Mercedes, Renault, Diesel and Volkswagen – dangle from elastic cables shaped into large speech bubbles, like those in comic strips. These ubiquitous forms usually reserved for quotes, however, are completely empty here. “Scenario Data #50 (Mercedes, entchromt)” (2001/2012), one of these wall pieces, has a bulky Mercedes hood ornament stripped of its chrome plating that the artist picked up at a Jerusalem market. Hanging from this lackluster, brass-colored ornament are shiny gold objects that look like cock rings and dainty bracelets. A stretched cable installed overhead connects the wall on which this work is installed with an opposite wall, convincingly uniting everything in the room into a single conversation. Unlike artists such as Josephine Meckseper whose individual installations with glossy department store vitrines aestheticize the intersections of art, politics and consumer desire, in a sense readily telling its critique to spectators, Schaerf shows it to them in this exhibition by staging recognizable symbols from consumer culture in scenarios of ambiguity and confusion. Comparable to what Thomas Hirschhorn achieves in the juxtaposition of spectators with his immersive installations of fashion apparel, advertisements, mannequins and logos, Schaerf positions us in a way that draws on our attraction and simultaneous repulsion in luxury brand names. We have a desire for expensive things. We want to own them because they identify us. Schaerf inserts just the right balance of familiarity and uncertainty in this echo chamber that pulls at these uneasy libidinal desires and asks us to fill in the blanks and determine ourselves – not unlike the keffiyeh – what it all means.

Eran Schaerf, “Echo Chamber (Lakoste spielt keine Rollex)“, Zwinger Galerie, Berlin, September 8–November 3, 2012.

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