What is to be an artist? According to the oxford dictionary, an artist is “a person who creates painting or drawings as a profession or hobby”. Nevertheless this 16th century conception is out-dated, for over five decades, performers and dancers have become artists as well. The complexity of defining an artist only begins here, the artist being an entity changing with the pulse of the world that he inhabits. Marcel Duchamp, the major Artist (with a capital “A”) of the 20th century, inventor of what we know as “ready-made” is a clear example of the evolution of this word. With his Porte bouteille or his very peculiar Fountain, Duchamp redefined the whole concept making the creator an authority, a keen and critical eye, a sort of mirror reflecting the world. Pierre Bourdieu once compared artists to prostitutes affirming that both of them are marginal and acute critics of the society in which they live. Furthermore artists and prostitutes alike despise and depend directly of the bourgeoisie, which makes them as complex as essential parts of the western civilization.
Sebastian Bieniek fits perfectly with this definition of the artist. In a Facebook post where he defended his book, Real Fake, Bieniek revisits the notion of art and artist. What do Charles Chaplin, Frida Kahlo, Marilyn Monroe and Napoleon have in common? They’re icons that have turned into brands. What remains of them is a distorted image, a mere ghost of what they were. Bieniek, and here I quote, suggests that these icons aren’t real, “they are constructions of wishes, dreams and imaginations of billions of people, therefore – because of dreams which they personify and not because of they own – they are what they are. And therefore they are the cultural property of everyone and everyone can do with them whatever he wants to do”. Artists and pop culture icons, even religious icons belong to the same category, they do not represent individuals but embody a common idea, a universal value. The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze is his book The Movement Image explains his theory of the affection-image in which everything is erased through the close-up. This cinematic and photographic feature enhances the universal emotion, it could be sadness, joy or rage, the individual physiognomy is no longer important for the face becomes a whole. This is exactly what happens with icons, they do not represent someone but something bigger than them, a collective desire or a pure reflection. Sebastian Bieniek’s work is nothing but a mirror, sharply questioning our society and more important, the spectator.
What the art world has become and at a wider scale, what the human race has turned into? In 2009, Bieniek dressed himself with a burqa for the Art Forum Berlin, as a result he couldn’t get in. He tried again later, this time without the Muslim textile, no further problem… Later on, he put again the burqa; subsequently he was asked to leave the Art Fair. Sebastian Bieniek shows us the absurdity of moral codes and the hypocritical values that rule our society. Humour, cynicism and satire are the keys elements to understand Bieniek’s work; everything has to be seen through “the looking-glass”. What was the hidden message behind this? A plausible answer to this seemingly pointless behaviour is criticism. Fighting absurdity with absurdity. Art fairs have become synonyms of wealth and power, what the artist stands for is unimportant, for the consumer, the buyer is the real star. Undeniably, art represents capital and it always has been so. In the Renaissance, kings and wealthy families bought and commanded portraits to great artist, then, why such a fuss? For hundreds of years mankind has worked the same way. And here’s when we realise that nothing or not much has changed. The way of the future as told by Howard Hughes is nothing but lies, for human nature has to face the same issues over and over; we are all Sisyphus, mankind is represented by this young men carrying the same stone over and over.
Moreover, human nature is at the very centre of Sebastian’s work. His acclaimed series, the “double-faced” had made him gain visibility, he even was invited to reproduce the double-face concept on the face of fashion models for Jacquemus during the Fashion Week in Paris. What’s behind the double-face idea? It could be our alter ego, the otherness inherent to human nature. With these series Bieniek leaves behind the crudeness and mockery to go deeper into humanity. Which face is real and which face fake? Which Bieniek is the real one, the artist or the one hiding behind?
Furthermore, Sebastian doesn’t please everyone, in his Facebook page and Instagram account the virulent posts and threats abound. Why so? He is unapologetic and claims to be a genius. Nonetheless, we have to keep in mind that art is a game for him, a ludic and constant “mise en scène”. The artist uses mass media tools in order to promote the dialogue between him and his audience, and by doing so he demystifies social networks. The Internet is not an enemy but a device that has to be employed intelligently.
Sebastian Bieniek is a figure moulding to his time. Not only he does that but also has the sensitivity to criticise and point out what’s wrong with us as a civilization. Bieniek seems to renew the image of the outcast Artist who puts ill at ease and gets into everybody’s skin. He’s not of the taste of everyone but surely his work and him don’t let anybody indifferent. Bieniek truly denounces everything that’s wrong without taking care of the result. That’s why I permit myself to call him the last man standing in a sea full of cowards.
Crédits photo : Sebastian Bieniek