Conversation Piece:
Florian Graf’s Roles


In the films Subversive (2009) and Air (2010) Florian Graf acts an urban "action artist" called Olf Graphenheim. Olf’s work in the former film consists in cleaning graffiti, so the inversion of what one would normally think of as subversive, and an act that makes something disappear rather than producing an object. The ardent Olf, although entirely credible, only exists thanks to Graf performing a fictional artist who in turn parodies the “real” one who is acting him. In his various projects, Florian Graf insinuates himself into situations, using the “purposefulness without purpose” of art to make boundaries between disciplines and places permeable, to turn barriers into connections, thus prompting his viewers to question their assumptions and re-envisage the world in new and unpredictable ways. 

As well as action artist, Graf has played other characters, such as a Second World War soldier in the photo-series Orkney Conqueror (2007), where he explores the relations between landscape, memory, and the representation of history. In photographs he shows himself in a trench-coat solitary amid the wind-blown ruins of  military installations. Thus he simultaneously inhabits another historical moment, and turns it into a romantic fiction where the picture at once evokes and substitutes itself for the lost and foreign past, showing the falsehood of precisely those representations that we use to gain a sense of history.

Another role Graf has taken on is the salesman at a fictional estate agency that had a real existence in 2009 in Cumbernauld, a “new town” in Scotland that was praised when it was built in the 1960s to take the over-spill of population from Glasgow, but has since become a byword for urban decay and the associated social problems. For his project U(r)agency Graf used parodic advertisements, to explore ideas and fantasies around property---, such as the desire for security, or the relation between public and private---, in a way that evokes, behind the devastation of the present, the pleasures of the landscape garden with its follies and prospect views.

It is not only the artist, but also objects and buildings that perform roles. Relations of human beings to space and time have changed profoundly in an epoch of global migration and rootlessness. In Presumptions (2008), Graf photographed architectural structures as if they were hovering over a rocky, mossy seaside landscape, or over a port. The hovering implies rootlessness in quite a literal way. Graf’s work often plays on the contrast between the view from above—the overview that is supposed to know the situation as a whole---, and being embedded in a particular locale or situation. Part of Edinburgh CloseUp, a project Graf initiated in 2008 with two friends at the Edinburgh Art Festival, was Watch Out, an architectural intervention in a street in Edinburgh called Advocates Close, where Graf built a small tower on a wall. This evoked the idea of the overlooked, in two senses: an overview, and something easily missed. The affectation of power is punctured by a structure that is at once grand and diminutive.

Graf often inverts the supposed relation of active subjects andwith passive objects. For his project at Art Chicago 2010, Waltzing Walls, Graf had three freestanding walls constructed, on which he placed pictures, which perambulated the fair with the help of an assistant concealed inside. Notices were distributed throughout the fair as if from a desperate dealer trying to find these errant sculptures, and giving a contact number that connected with an answering machine in Graf's space, that played back the responses of the audience. The walls, normally "background" to the art, were active, an interruption of the activity of buying and selling art-commodities: for a while the market became a carnival. 

Through Graf’s interventions, boundaries become permeable and traversable. The site-specific installation College Support (2009) was a hollow square column that passed through the various floors of the Edinburgh College of Art. The column had a small door at the bottom, making the viewer feel like Gulliver in Lilliput.  The scale was reversed when the viewer looked down from a balcony, catching a glimpse of the top of the head of a child, as if the child were trapped—constricted and prevented from developing—by the walls of the column. So the project bears witness to a fundamental ambiguity: Is the art school a form of facilitation or a constraint?. This reflects back on architecture too: iIs the building there to meet needs, or to inspire the imagination? There is a further twist: tThe column refers to the structural element in a building, yet it is a work of art in the sense of being without purpose—it supports nothing. And it is precisely this aesthetic purposelessness that allows the column to make the connections that it does.

In The Folly of De-Fence, a project for the Kunstverein Binningen in 2010, Graf displaced the wooden lattice fence around the garden of a private house so that it no longer served as a defensive boundary, but rather evoked a gate, reminiscent of the entry to a ranch in a movie Western, or acted as a way of making connections in space as if in an abstract painting. The role of the fence becomes that of a folly, both crazy, and an architectural element without function that becomes a source of amusement and a stimulus to conversation. Graf’s art is utopian not by projecting a future that is different from the present, but by making the present different from itself. 

Michael Newman is Professor of Art Writing at Goldsmiths College in the University of London, and Associate Professor of Art History, Theory, and Criticism at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He has published books on the artists Richard Prince (2006), Jeff Wall (2007), and Seth Price (2010), as well as numerous essays on modern and contemporary art.