Stop Making Sense

Christian Jankowski's lack of common sense has gotten him far

Sep 18, 2002 at 4:00 am
The day before Christian Jankowski gives a multimedia presentation of his work in Washington University's Steinberg Hall, he considers a subversive act. On the back of a postcard, he has written various ideas about what he could do to enliven the staid format of the artist's lecture. He chooses one: collect money from the audience, then send someone out on a mission to bring back takeout from Taco Bell.

"What do you think?" he says in his German accent, grinning widely. "I think I'll do this one."

Jankowski does not send out for tacos the next evening, but he still delivers a talk that includes elements such events too often lack: humility, engagement, uproarious humor.

The 34-year-old video artist has emerged as the art world's pre-eminent trickster. Tall and handsome, with golden hair and a Eurofashion-thin frame, Jankowski realized early in his art career that he was much too affable and gregarious to hunker alone in a cramped studio.

"After a while of painting, I realized it's not my style being in the studio," he says, sitting with legs crossed on the lawn near Steinberg Gallery, where his exhibition Targets is on display. "Suffer in the studio to make an artwork, and then you work all the night, drink a lot of hard drinks and then you go almost destroyed to your bed. Then, the next morning, it's as if a miracle happened overnight: There is the painting.

"For me, it is more surprising working with people."

The people he works with are both inside and outside the art world, or art "system," a word Jankowski prefers to use instead of "world" or "culture."

"I'm influenced by different systems," he says. "I like existing formats and breaking formats, reflecting formats -- and infiltrating somehow. I only start thinking and working on a project as soon as I understand the system I'm in."

In "The Holy Artwork," for example -- which is part of the Wash. U. exhibition -- Jankowski rises from the congregation of a San Antonio, Texas, church, only to collapse at the pastor's feet. Harvest Fellowship senior pastor Peter Spencer then delivers a sermon on the meaning and significance of "holy art."

"We're not creators, we're creative," Spencer -- dapper in a sport jacket, his beard trimmed to a stylish goatee -- explains to his congregation. The one creator is God. Jesus was God's paintbrush. "God created us to enjoy his creation -- that's love."

The camera occasionally shifts to show the congregation, which for the most part appears interested; then to Jankowski, recumbent at Spencer's feet; then back to the pastor, who concludes his sermon with a prayer: "Thank you, Lord, for creating video."

"The Holy Artwork" was the hit of the most recent Whitney Biennial, although many reviews commented on the New York art crowd's interpretation of the work as an ironic jab at televangelism.

Spencer, who has posted reviews of "The Holy Artwork" on the Harvest Fellowship Web site (, has only good things to say about his collaboration with Jankowski and the work: "I think the ultimate irony is that the piece was put up and there was a communication from a worldview that is not normally seen in the art world. The art world expects a Christian worldview to be at odds with the art world's, and that's a sad thing that's happened in the past several years.

"Christian's a grand guy," Spencer says from his San Antonio church, "just one of those guys who knows exactly where he's going but at the same time colors outside the lines. I came from an art background. My degree is in advertising art and in fine arts. I was a professional illustrator for years, worked in film and TV. It was an interesting combination."

Jankowski says he talked to approximately 30 pastors in San Antonio before finding Spencer. The artist had been commissioned by ArtPace to create a site-specific work. Jankowski arrived in San Antonio with a concept inspired by a Spanish Baroque painting depicting a painter sleeping at the foot of his canvas. An angel holds a paintbrush, completing the work.

"I thought, 'What a wonderful collaboration,'" says Jankowski. "Imagine this artist waking up and seeing his holy artwork. This painting really touched me because it has some humor. It was really self-reflected from the medium. You have a painting in the painting but not painted really well," he laughs.

"But it doesn't make a stupid joke about religion. You can completely get it as a miraculous thing, which you find in good artworks or in spiritual moments that are divine."

In falling at Spencer's feet before the congregation, Jankowski gives up the artist's responsibility to the canvas -- or, in this case, the video image -- and allows the angels to take over.

Jankowski sees the humor in the work, but he shuns the ironic stance that has prevailed for at least the last decade of contemporary art. "That's easy, in a way, I think. I don't want to judge other artworks, but it's too easy. You already have a clear opinion if you're already ironic -- that's easy. It's so easy to have common sense, for instance, to say there is something very strange about televangelism.

"But that doesn't lead you a step further, I think. But if you lose the control, if you don't know exactly what the artwork wants to tell you, or the meaning of it -- that's the moment you have to start thinking yourself and you don't come down to common sense."

Jankowski has benefited from his lack of "common sense" throughout his career. He grew up in a small town in Germany. When it was time to apply to colleges, Jankowski kept getting rejected because he didn't know the difference between graphic arts and fine arts. When he eventually visited Hamburg and the Academy of Visual Arts, he saw students walking about in paint-splattered clothes and figured this was more like it.

But he was rejected from the academy as well. He attended classes anyway, he says, because "the professors get paid. Why don't they teach me something?"

In 1992, Jankowski entered Hamburg supermarkets armed with a bow and arrows. Friends with a video camera documented Jankowski taking aim and shooting frozen chickens, cereal boxes and yogurt containers.

The same year Jankowski created "Die Jagd" ("The Hunt"), he produced "Shame Box," the documentation of which is on display at Steinberg. Jankowski approached people on the street and asked them about shame. Those who chose to participate sat in a storefront with a framed text. A bearded man in his late thirties or early forties, dressed casually in jeans and tennis shoes, sits warily in the window, holding his testament: "I am ashamed of my re-education as a real-estate agent."

With these works, Jankowski finally got into art school, upon which he was told by his professors that he was far beyond the average student and should just go be an artist.

That's what he's been doing for the last ten years, and his work has grown along with international recognition. During his visit to St. Louis, he lists the exhibitions ahead: Seoul, Vilnius, a piece commissioned for the Carnegie in Pittsburgh, Rome, "a big show in Athens -- Athens and Mexico City are very interesting cities for art at the moment," he says.

As much as it seems that he is at ease infiltrating "systems," Jankowski admits that the possibility of failure always makes him dawdle. He completed "The Holy Artwork" the day before the opening at ArtPace. "You always have to fight with your own schweinhunde -- in German, 'your own dog inside yourself.' You fight with your big dog."