LOOKING AT YOU LOOKING AT ME
Reflections on the work of XOOOOX in 2022 by Alice Goudsmit
Man’s deepest gazes are for empty space.
– Paul Valéry
There is an undeniable emotional level in the works of XOOOOX. This might seem a radical point of entry into the work of an artist best known for his black and white stencils in urban space, featuring fashionable objects, luxury labels, beautiful young women provokingly placed into odd situations in the littered urban space of post wall Berlin in the 00s. The stencilled faces are often accompanied by the fat lettering XOOOOX, like speech or thought bubbles, adding a possibility of communication to the otherwise speechless figures sprayed into an iconic but short life of silence. Stencils are the most rapid form of intervention in the street and also the ones most easily repeated; they are devoid of the artist’s handwriting, seriality being its hall mark. The stencil, visually and con- ceptually linked to Pop Art, breaks with the often emotional and always gestural signature style of Abstract Expressionism. Then how is the work of XOOOOX emotional? The answer is to be found in the question of space, space being a core subject in the work of XOOOOX and one of human kind’s most fundamental needs. Space enough to move freely.
ICONS. IDOLS. AVATARS
Here’s looking at you, kid. A famous quote by Humphrey Bogart, saying a final goodbye to Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca”. This sentence probably takes its fame from the melancholic bitterness within all things inevitable. Here’s looking at you becomes a formula for memory turning the act of just seeing into a speech act, turning the reality of the now into the memories of the future. A mem- orable image is created there and then, an image of a woman looked at from a distance, an image to remember. The image is created in the act of speaking: I see you. This image belongs to the viewer, the person speaking. The image is Humphrey Bogart’s to keep. But the woman is gone.
Here’s looking at you, looking at me. Confronting the extreme beauty of the stencilled women in the work of XOOOOX, the feeling of distance is predominant. This is an image to remember, an image to repeat perpetually, but not an image to keep. They are looking back at us. Here’s looking at you. But who is talking? The letters “XOOOOX” give a hint about a possible relation, a persona addressing us from beyond the image. We are thus somehow in a relation: at the mercy of someone or something other than ourselves, not having the control we like to attach to speech: here’s looking at you … looking back at me. From behind dark sunglasses. From underneath the wide-crested hat or a curtain of hair. We can acquire the image, we can buy it, it is a consumer good. It is a fashion object. But in no way can we possess or just grasp the person behind it. Not the girl, not the hyena, not XOOOOX. Instead, we might have to worry whether we ourselves have become the objects in this game of glances. The women looking at us are not real, they do not listen to us, saying NO, they crave the attention and they give it back a hundredfold, staring without blinking, longer than any human possibly can. So they are not human. XOOOOX’s mastery is not to portray people, not to paint icons, not to create new idols. These eyes looking at us looking at them belong to avatars.
Avatars are deities or non-human alter egos able to move around in virtual or heavenly spaces: places no real person can go. They have super powers and multiple lives. They appear again and again and again. There’s joy in repetition, Prince said. But there is also pain. Repetition is the con- dition of our lives. Anything goes. This postmodern mantra has developed into the somewhat dysto- pian: everything has gone. Gone there, seen that. Took a picture. Posted. Re-posted. Ad infinitum. But with an army of avatars, we can go anywhere, XOOOOX shows us how. The avatars become commentators of his practice, his corrective and continuation at the same time, being the media of transportation of urban street art into the gallery space. Suddenly these avatars appear in a new surrounding, starting a new level of the game by doing so.
FROM JUNKSPACE TO THE VOID
They are still here looking at us, looking at them: The women in the work of XOOOOX, the models and the hyenas. All these, all his avatars. But they are not the same as they where in the 00s when they first appeared in the streets partaking in the conquering of the fallows of Berlin, witnessing the ruins left behind by a systemic breakdown after the wall, nourishing the high speed genesis of junk- space. The city has changed, and we have changed with it. There has been a massive increase of debris, of man made material covering our streets. The junkspace the city has become is manifesting by making hacks or interventions impossible. The automatic incorporation and instant multiplication of urban images is the virus of junkspace. More is more. Is more. Is more. This is the pain of repe- tition. XOOOOX still intervenes, still hacks, still sprays, but he does it on other surfaces, moving or ephemeral backdrops. Like the van driving away with his signature. And the beautiful model behind the plexiglass of an advertising column, for a short while adorned with a XOOOOX-moustache, not minding the childishness of the gesture, not minding anything. These interventions are gestures of sadness and irony, giving up in the face of the commodification of urban life in junk-city.
Junkspace is a look-no-hands world according to Rem Koolhaas. This is an answer, a path also given by XOOOOX, becoming dominant in his recent works, giving greater importance to his abstract paintings and drawings, the “hands-on” works challenging the digital seriality of junkspace.
The two major lines of work pursued by XOOOOX are the stencils on the one hand, aesthet- ically in a direct lineage to his first works on the street. At the same time XOOOOX works in what at first glance seems to be a contrasting field of abstract art, creating partly large scale paintings and series of drawings in black and white or with a very reduced number of colours. This practice refers visually to the tradition of Abstract Expressionism, explicitly articulating the bodily imprint and gesture of the artist in the work, celebrating the individual expression and the relation between the subconscious and the gesture. Despite this aesthetic frame of reference, the abstract works of XOOOOX also allow a different interpretation. Being works that comment and accompany the sten- cils, the interest has to lie on the interrelation between these two groups of work. Both styles have roots in two contradictory trajectories in modern and contemporary art. The stencil, working with the infinite and partly mechanical reproduction of the image develop copying from Pop Art, while the abstract works on the other hand have their visual analogies and roots in the above mentioned Ab- stract Expressionism, but also quote aspects of Art Brut and Arte Povera. This goes especially for a third group of works, the installations and assemblages of found materials, mainly metal and wood.
Despite the obvious differences, one thing is central to XOOOOX work as a whole. It questions itself perpetually by means of this duality. And one subject is the turning point of this self-reflection: XOOOOX work, stemming from the street, is always about space. The first and primary space being the urban environment, the second, as an answer to the impossibility of visually effective urban intervention, became the gallery space. Here, the avatars live on, multiply, changing their powers and their looks. In 2022, they are no longer unharmed. They no longer strive for perfection, though nonetheless beautiful. Some of them have scars. Some seem to almost cry, rusty metal tears. Some of them appear in colourful photographs, stepping out of the graphical reduction of the B/W-Stencil.
The streets, urban space, has now become an object of longing, its reminiscence to be found in the copper sheets replacing the canvas of the stencils and in objects made of materials floating the urban junkspace. The avatars looking at us now are flickering in double exposure or upside down, we are still not able to fixate them. Frames capture their beauty and imprison them to be immortal and zombie-like at the same time. Avatars of XOOOOX, now the symbols of continuity, when on the streets they used to live a life for the moment only. This change is ironic, stencil work being about fast practice and rapid choices. Works meant to disappear, to linger only in the memories, minds and photographic records of passers-by. Here’s looking at you. This change in setting from the street to the gallery was a choice reflecting the mastery of XOOOOX. Instead of fighting a hopeless battle for visibility in junkspace, he lets his avatars tell us about this loss of space and their own narrative within it. Opening thus the eyes towards the voids, the emptiness and space to be found in the ab- straction, where no one is looking back at us. No one speaks and no answer is needed. We enjoy the relief of silence, pausing the junk-noise.
We are accustomed to images/forms, and visual bombardment has already caused us to forget the meaning of these images and forms – consuming them as commodities; the form can recover its meaning when it faces darkness; in the darkness, through other qualities we arrive at an image based on our own experience and imagination. – Abbas Kiarostami
The cosmetic is the new cosmic, with this sentence Rem Koolhaas ends his analysis of junk- space. The cosmetic is left to the avatars and we look for the cosmic within the expandable infinity of hands-on-abstraction. Abstraction by XOOOOX is a practice, a movement of the hands, not a romantic movement of the soul or a method of meditation. Ten years ago, in 2012, Ilaria Hoppe wrote about free movement in urban space, defining the works by XOOOOX.
In 2022 we must look for the free movement in the space offered by XOOOOX and his avatars, looking at us looking at them, believing in the change of forms making movement a possibility, and in the voids of hands-on-abstraction, opening outwards into a space free of junk.
• Aliabadi, Reza: The Empty Room, Toronto 2020 (Valéry p. 87, Kiarostami p.1) • Hoppe, Ilaria in Wolbergs, Benjamin (ed.): XOOOOX, Berlin 2012
• Koolhaas, Rem: Junkspace, Massachusetts 2002