Meet the Most Irritating Artists on the Planet

Swiss artist Olaf Beruning and his collaborator Brian Kerstetter bring their post-Borat exhibition to the Haifa Museum of Art.

Galia Yahav
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Olaf Breuning, 'The Protesters,' 2014.
Olaf Breuning, 'The Protesters,' 2014. Credit: Courtesy of Olaf Breuning and Metro Pictures New York
Galia Yahav

“I know tons of celebrities,” Brian Kerstetter tells the camera, just before he is filmed posing with wax mannequins of Barack Obama, Andy Warhol, Brangelina, Oprah, Woody Allen, Julia Roberts and others. He dresses up as a monkey, sprays graffiti, celebrates at a party and speaks at a class reunion, puts on a rooster costume, tries to drink champagne with false teeth, takes part in an Occupy Wall Street demonstration. “The problem is that I don’t know whether I’m the 1 percent or the 99 percent – I was never any good at math,” he says.

Kerstetter is the star of the three “Home” movies made by Olaf Breuning, a Swiss-born New York-based artist. Breuning’s exhibition “Groups” is now on view at the Haifa Museum of Art (closing March 8), as part of a first – and apparently last – series of shows by the new curator, Leah Abir. (She has been fired after less than a year on the job, in a move that stirred a furor in the art world.) Along with the trilogy of short films, each less than 40 minutes long (and all available on Vimeo), the exhibition includes staged photographs, pasted on the walls like wallpaper, of groups and communities bearing a tribal look that play on prevailing stereotypes.

In the films, Kerstetter, an actor who is Breuning’s collaborator and friend, becomes a narrating guide or storyteller, tourist or anthropologist looking for esoteric attractions, life on the margins and adventures of a “Third World thrills” kind. The perfect groupie, he insinuates himself into all kinds of situations and subcultures, mostly in prankish disguise, unraveling their external marks of identity and status, absurdly showcasing their dress codes, customs, traditions and styles; in short, stripping them down to their essentials.

In “Home 1” (2005), homeless drunks carrying bags, beer cans and bottles push a supermarket cart through a parking lot. People in ghost-like sheets kidnap a group of girls who have just taken hallucinogens. Another group, wearing white, sprays shaving cream all over in a frenzied home party; people with long hair, equipped with beer, cigarettes and disguises romp about wildly, high as kites.

Krestetter, dressed like a rapper in cap, hood and gold neck chain, meets a gang in a dark underground parking lot, and they drive to Amish country, where they seize a young man in a straw hat, strip him naked and cover his head with an E.T. mask. He runs from them across fields; they’re in hot pursuit. Kerstetter is in an affluent bourgeois home – wallpaper, tapestries, chandeliers, a piano, a decorated Christmas tree. The stained undershirt he wears, along with his bristles, beer and junk food make it plain that he’s a bad boy. He rattles off stories about things that happened to his friends, dramatized in short clips. For example, he tells us, one of his friends drank champagne in a Jacuzzi at a ski resort, looked around, and thought to himself, “There must be something more than this.” He then threw up into the snow, the puke forming the words “I exist.”

Works such as this by Olaf Breuning, entitled 'Primitives,' will appear in his solo show at the Haifa Museum of Art.Credit: Olaf Breuning

In “Home 2” (2007), Kerstetter, in a cap, is a kind of cartoonish tourist or moderator of an old-fashioned nature program. He is filmed with a “local” in a place he calls a “jungle,” and comments, “Here’s a prime example, he looks like a man.” He gives out money to children working at a refuse site in Papua New Guinea. “I don’t need this money anymore,” he tells them as he scatters the bills, pushing neo-liberal political correctness in our faces. The image recurs in one of the photographs on display, “20 Dollar Bill” (2007), in which the boys hold up the bills for the camera, smiling.

Again he’s the prankster: placing an opossum on his head, dancing in tribal costume, walking barefoot on hot coals. In a village of blacks, he puts on a gorilla mask, has fun with women vendors in the market and lugs a huge cluster of bananas on his back, threatens a Japanese man wearing a kaffiyeh and a Bedouin robe with a pistol, gets into the shot wearing tribal gear as tourists take pictures, and in general does all kinds of stunts that the Israeli artist Tamar Hirschfeld, with her “Schwartze” persona, would envy.

“His eccentric personality and his vast excitement regarding the local traditions that are perceived as obvious expose the artificial nature of their cultural portrayal,” Abir, the curator, writes.

By the time we arrive at “Home 3” (2012), the picture is quite clear. Kerstetter is one of the more irritating people on the planet: hyperactive, swallowing his words, arrogant, playing the pothead artist, doing his shticks. And there’s nothing more embarrassing than watching other people’s shticks. Especially when it’s someone who’s as jumpy as Kermit the Frog and drives you nuts with his play-acting.

This is exactly what Breuning is talking about: this vacuous fellow, the tourist-ethnographer, the sated-frustrated white man who is romping through the global desert, only to discover that the world is already very small and inauthentic. The humor is exploitation and vice versa. All the expressions by now have become poses; all the poses have become touristy; all the touristy gestures have become scenes from a movie; the movies are a commercial for something else. The commercial is a parody of this empty character. This is utter post-Borat art, in which the normative and the exotic are intertwined and inter-derived – we are all pseudo-others.