No one will believe me when I insist that when I went to live in Barcelona in 1975 there were no tourists. Tourists went to the beaches. Sometimes, bewildered, they came into the city on a bus, but they did not spend the night. Recently, one of the planners of the modern Barcelona remarked that he and his colleagues had got everything right – the city traffic, the ring roads, the port access. But the problem now was the people. Tourists are the new marginalised in Europe – they eat the wrong food, they barely get any sleep, they don’t know the language and they have to queue for hours in ghastly airports. They look shocked and sad as they walk the streets.
This is the universe in which Franz Ackermann, who was born in Germany in 1963 and grew up in a small town in Bavaria operates. Just as artists of the past learned what the light was like over a remote landscape, or what the smile of the Virgin could do, Ackermann hits a city hard. He is brave with paint and imagery, attempting to capture or dismantle the whirl of an urban space.
There was a time when a painting offered relief from the world, or an idealisation of our predicament; we went to a painting for comfort. Ackermann’s noisy palette is having none of that. His work could have been invented by Marc Auge’s book about non-places or some texts by Roland Barthes. It is oddly empty and lonely as well as being brash and frenetic and speedy. It competes with the unfamiliar busy airport, the crowded shopping centre, the mad disco, the rush in a taxi from one venue to another, the hangover in the morning. It depicts in its swirls and its fragments the competing feelings that life is pure excitement in a big city at the weekend and the wondering on Monday if it was all worth it.
The problem with the work is both what it says - which is something we know already - and what it looks like - which is often unworthy of a second glance, even if it has high voltage and huge energy. Some of the canvases are a mess. It is clear that they are meant to be a mess, that Ackermann, with a single banal idea in his mind, wants to let us know that urban spaces are not pretty, that our experience in the city has no core, no centrality or meaning, that the world, especially as manifested by tourism and travel, is full of an awful lot of swirling, misleading and inauthentic signs.
Thus the video game, the cartoon, the map gone mad, the nervous system on a screen, the unfinished image, the edgy photograph, the architectural fragment all make their way into Ackermann’s iconography. Despite the busy harshness of his vision, his noisy insistence on reflecting modern and post-modern experience, there is something oddly and unusually sentimental about his art. This emerges very simply in how he paints, how he allows the emotion to exceed its cause in his brushstrokes, his palette, the shrill texture of his work.
Under the influence of certain drugs, this is what you really want from a disco, and thus it seems a bit mean to ask a painter to go easy on the noise, the thinness of the variation, the searing (and maybe I should say satisfying) energy of the sound. Maybe there is a need for a high-priest of the weekend away, an artist of the snatched glimpse of an urban scene from the taxi, the painting with the sense of being trapped in the modern world, the gallery which tells you of the fragmented nature of contemporary experience.