Robert Grunenberg
JAN ZÖLLER
Jan Zöller and the Fire Spirits (Side A)

I can see clearly from my diamond eyes
I’m going to the mountain with the fire spirit
No one will accept all of me
So the fire will stop
Up through the streets the gunfire of cars
Going to the mountain with the fire spirit
No one will take all of me
So the fire will stop
I will be cheating the whole ritual
I’m going to the mountain with the fire spirit

 

- The Gun Club, Fire Spirit, 1981 

 

There is arguably no more consummate outlaw tune from the post-punk era than Fire Spirit by The Gun Club. Along with The Cramps, The Gun Club was one of the biggest bands to emerge from the U.S. punk scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The band fused the ferocity of punk with the raw, primal spirit of blues, rockabilly, psychedelic rock, and country, bringing a mystical and trashy Southern swamp-inspired voodoo sensibility into play. Jeffrey Lee Pierce, a founding member and the lead singer of the group, was the president of the Debbie Harry fan club at the time. Debbie Harry, lead singer of the band Blondie ,” sang backup on The Gun Club’s second album. The Gun Club also inspired other bands, including Nick Cave’s The Birthday Party and the White Stripes. But unlike Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain, Pierce, who died in 1996 as a result of alcohol and heroin addiction, has not entered mass and pop culture as a “beautiful loser,” but as an “unfinished” man, an “artist’s artist,” revered by other musicians. 

The fact that Jan Zöller covered the song Fire Spirit with his friends, aka THE FIRE SPIRITS, and adopted the song title for his exhibition is not necessarily an homage to the band or to Jeffrey Lee Pierce, perhaps not even to the song. It’s more about the rebellious, uncompromising attitude to life of the psychobilly, goth, and youth culture of the dawning 1980s, or rather, the hardboiled radicalism that Fire Spirit conveys. There is the idea of an art form that does not separate between art, life, and death, that is completely stylized, staged, and constructed, yet profoundly serious and authentic, even magical. The “fire spirit” invoked is, of course, to a certain extent addiction, smack , self-destruction, and suicide, but above all spirituality, vision, and creative energy. 

Fire has always played a central role in Jan Zöller’s work. In 2018, in one of his earliest exhibitions, at the Orgelfabrik in Karlsruhe, he installed a kind of ritualistic, alchemical fire bowl on a broken plaster slab. In his paintings, there has always been dancing, music, play with fire, and rebellion. Mystical fireballs, the “spirit fires” that recur in Zöller’s work, crashed through his paintings or broke through the darkness like light beams, omens of a new world to come. 

In JAN ZÖLLER AND THE FIRE SPIRITS (SIDE A), more than in any of his previous exhibitions, he emphasizes the performative side of his art, the fact that he is not just a painter and sculptor, but uses art to create communal events, experiences, and rituals. These events, which range from the production of works or performances with friends to the realized exhibition and its visitors, simultaneously give the works a charge, provide impulses for new art, create relationships as well as scenarios for the future. Zöller hints at this with the “merchandising” he did for the current exhibition, the posters and T-shirts that announce JAN ZÖLLER AND THE FIRE SPIRITS (SIDE A) like a concert. At the same time, the title implies something like an object, namely a vinyl record that has an A- and a B-side. In the Gun Club days of the dawning 1980s, the A-sides of singles were reserved for hits, the B-sides for rarities for collectors and nerds. For the most part, more experimental pieces or versions were put there. But the title of Zöller’s exhibition, as well as the posters and T-shirts, paradoxically announce only the A-side. As the saying goes, he who says A must say B. The other side of the record, the “artistic” B-song, is invisible, as it were, not realized yet. But there is a hidden hint in one of Zöller’s drawings in the exhibition, a note attached with brown adhesive tape that reads: Oct. 2023, Robert Grunenberg Berlin “Jan Zöller & the Fire Spirits (Side B),” vinyl release, new paintings, new sculptures.

This vision of the future would have been perfectly natural in the past. Today, however, in times of pandemic and climate change, when the world is literally on fire, it seems more like an ironic allusion to everything that has been canceled or upended due to the coronavirus and other catastrophes, everything that cannot be planned well in advance. JAN ZÖLLER AND THE FIRE SPIRITS (SIDE A) is like the first part of a visual, performative concept album for today’s world. A central motif in the show is a huge mural of a burning house painted by Anna Schmidt, an artist who is in a relationship with Zöller. Like a stage set or the surface of a laptop, it serves as a backdrop for one of Zöller’s huge paintings, which is placed on it at the same height as the other large-format paintings in the exhibition, which hang on white walls. 

In his videos, actions, and paintings, and with the idea of the band THE FIRE SPIRITS, Zöller conjures up the notion of an almost Masonic brotherhood in which work, art, and ritual are one. For Zöller and his friends, designs, architectures, and songs are a kind of thought construct in which ideas, friendship, and utopias manifest themselves. But the relaxed, almost stoned, anarchic high of his earlier paintings has vanished. While youthful crows used to loll around in bathrooms like squatters or bathe in broken fountains and tubs, Zöller’s world is now harder, drier, sharper. The fountains that stood for all sorts of (broken and interrupted) cycles of money, creative energy, communication, and relationships, are gone, everything watery has disappeared. Flames are flickering all over the place; things are burning. The FIRE SPRITS crows are wingless, stuck in stiff, paint-stained blue-collar pants, lining up in classic band formations as if for a photo or about to begin a stage show. At the bottom of the hems of their pants, they seem to be making sparks with their feet. Or perhaps they’re already on fire, like Tyler, the Creator in his video for EARFQUAKE (2019), in which he sings about the end of a relationship, of an entire world, in a blond wig in an incredibly tragicomic performance, setting the junky retro stage decor and himself on fire with a smoldering cigarette. 

The not only performative, but also choreographic quality of Zöller’s paintings becomes increasingly perceptible, the sensitivity and tremendous subtlety with which his flatly painted, reduced works create movement and depth with just a few lines and gestures. It is striking how he puts the recurring “characters” populating his paintings—the birds, tools, trouser legs running around—into myriad roles with very few painterly gestures, almost musically staging them. He proceeds in a similar way to today’s pop stars and rappers, who do not commit themselves to one medium, but concoct entire worlds out of sounds, films, and designs. They tell their stories and personal mythologies with art figures, concept albums, and elaborately produced video clips that play out visual and musical themes in ever-new surreal configurations. Zöller does this with the same consistency, but in a regressive, deliberately outsiderish “lo-fi” version, using classical artistic means (painting, drawing, and sculpture) as well as experimental DIY processes. This includes the bronze sculptures, which with their FIRE SPIRITS lettering are reminiscent of homemade trophies or merchandising figures that have been enlarged and cast in bronze.

The refinement that turns the figures into precious art objects is based on an 

 “ignoble” aspect, an inclusive concept of art. Zöller and his friends insistently work amateurishly, as a community of autodidacts and inventors. The fixtures and objects the produce are mostly intended to be temporary, existing for the duration of an exhibition as hybrids between utilitarian objects and works of art: tables, shacks, benches, walls. Ultimately, the forms Zoller uses for his bronze casts are also such hybrids, glued together from the cardboard packaging of the stretcher frames of his paintings. On the bronzes, you can see the imprints of the adhesive tape and the cut edges of the cardboard. 

It is precisely such temporary, ephemeral experiences, the non-material, the non-saleable, that Zöller’s art addresses—the B-side that is not there yet, the almost secretive community of friends who collaborate on the projects. There is an emblematic, half-high, absolutely non-barrier brick wall that the FIRE SPIRITS have put in a passageway. You look from one exhibition space into another, as if through a window or onto a stage. You have to decide, as in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, whether to climb to the other side, perhaps with someone’s help, or sit on the wall with others for the time being. Then there’s the huge Marshall amplifier in the back room, from which Zoeller’s version of the Gun Club piece booms at irregular intervals, like a gong ending an educated middle-class meditation. Zöller’s exhibition installation makes it unmistakably clear that the interaction between the works and the visitors, the creation of communal experiences, is just as much a part of the work as the paintings and sculptures themselves. 

JAN ZÖLLER AND THE FIRE SPIRITS (SIDE A) speaks of the surrogate character of the established art world and art market, which, while making people addicted to works, stories, NFTs, and other life experiences, cannot satisfy their actual needs for community and creativity. At the same time, this criticism is meant to be ambivalent, because in the end, of course, there are Zöller’s works, which are additionally fraught with meaning. You may not be a FIRE SPIRIT, but you can look forward to the songs and the albums. You can’t be so young anymore, so addicted, so in love, so visionary, such a punk that you die from it. You can’t not give a shit about all that—your fantastic  house, your great job, the same old parties, the openings and business lunches, the kids’ tennis lessons. You can’t go to the mountains with the Fire Spirit. But you can put a FIRE SPIRIT sculpture in your backyard, with traces of that freedom, that anarchic desire, cast into it.

Zöller plays masterfully with the often wafer-thin difference between surrogate and authentic experience. If you view this pessimistically, you might think: “Yes, in capitalism everything is commodified in the end, stiff, like the jeans of the FIRE SPIRITS. In the end, it’s all just proxy action, a kind of cargo cult that only serves to make these art totems even more desirable —even the dreams of alternative  communities, of an inclusive magical art that touches our souls. It’s nice that Jan Zöller presents this in such a multilayered way.” But if you look at Zöller’s work a little more open-mindedly, more optimistically, you might also say this: “Perhaps this is a start. Perhaps I should take this seriously, and not just see it ironically. Perhaps I can break out of the cycle, or at least try to change the existing conditions. I can start doing this here and now. There is also the experimental B-side, which is not known to us yet—perhaps a spiritual revolution, a FIRE SPIRIT revolution, the beginning of real community. Perhaps I’m on that B-side, too, no longer cut off and isolated, but part of the world that’s going up in flames  right now.” 

“This exhibition is supported by NeuStartKultur & Stiftung Kunstfonds with an artist grant from the Ministry of Science, Research & Arts Baden-Württemberg“!