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exhibition review: complete burning away (the ashes of kurt cobain)

Natascha Stellmach, 'Threat by Crack Hitler, Greece   (in response to Natascha Stellmach's project, Set me free: Who will smoke the ashes of Kurt Cobain?)', 2010  Archival ink on photo paper, Ed.5 + 2AP, framed  30 x 40 cm / 11 3/4 x 15 3/4 in c. the artist, represented by Wagner + Partner, Berlin

Natascha Stellmach, ‘Threat by Crack Hitler, Greece (in response to Natascha Stellmach’s project, Set me free: Who will smoke the ashes of Kurt Cobain?)’, 2010
Archival ink on photo paper, Ed.5 + 2AP, framed
30 x 40 cm / 11 3/4 x 15 3/4 in
c. the artist, represented by Wagner + Partner, Berlin

 

Complete Burning Away (The Ashes of Kurt Cobain) is an exhibition I recently had the privilege of spending a gruelling week installing at the La Trobe Visual Arts Centre, Bendigo. A punishing schedule of painting text from the floor, right over the arc of the ceiling until sometimes three or four am every day was required to complete the massively ambitious partially site-specific project.

Just as punishing however, is the content. Natascha Stellmach received hundreds of unsolicited e-mails when, in 2008, she sent out an international call for six volunteers to join her in smoking the ashes of Kurt Cobain in an undocumented private ritual. The resulting painted text work, Whatever Happened To Painting? reveals a small selection of that correspondence, ranging from threats to her life, to complete admiration, to many ‘what the fuck’s?’ The work focuses on questions regarding the artists motivation in such an act, and indeed the motivation of art in general- what or who is it for, and should an individual be ‘allowed’ to do such things as smoke the remains of a stranger in the name of it? Stellmach does not attempt to answer such questions, but prods you ever farther down the rabbit hole.

In the second room, we encounter the engraved silver cigarette case that once housed the mythical joint that held the supposed remains of the mythical man himself. Its emptiness is an allegorical revelation toward the emptiness that embodies all hero worship. As you gaze upon it, you feel the heavy weight of the hopes we pin on our legends; the fantasy, the little private thrill you feel when thinking ‘part of him was in there.’ This humble cigarette case has been transformed into religious relic, and whether you like it or not, you are indeed the pilgrim who worships humbly before it.

Questions about death, the meaning of personal experience and the individual’s right to achieve catharsis in the way they choose are key themes of the exhibition. We watch monologues in the video of the six volunteers who took part in the smoking ritual, who will smoke the ashes of Kurt Cobain?, set within in a pitch black room. Their messages are both cryptic and revealing; giving you room to imagine ‘what if I were chosen? Why would I do it?’

Stellmach skilfully shifts the focus of the exhibition away from the act itself and back towards the audience. We are presented with a mirror, asking us to examine our own worship of creative individualism, of cult heroes, artists – our presence in a society where scenarios such as the ritualised smoking of a rock star’s ashes become international breaking news that, evidently, means so much to so many – in a time when we often find ourselves struggling to find meaning. Who owns experiences such as this, and who is responsible for them? What do artists owe us, the audience, if anything?

I highly recommend a trip to Bendigo to ask such questions for yourself.

 

‘Complete Burning Away (The Ashes of Kurt Cobain)’, an exhibition by Natascha Stellmach, will be held from the 14 September – 20 October 2013, at the La Trobe University Visual Arts Centre, View St, Bendigo.

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