Jochen Gerz was born in 1940, in Berlin. In 1958, he enrolled at the University of Cologne as a student of sinology, German, and English studies, and in 1962 transferred to the University of Basel to study prehistory. Soon his interests shifted from literature, concrete poetry, and journalism to the fine arts. From 1967/68 on, he worked with complex and irritating text-picture-arrangements, using language as his working material (Statische Texte (Static Texts) and Pieces). In the late 1960s, his first works were shown in a public context, and from 1972 on, he did videos (Rufen bis zur Erschöpfung (Calling to Exhaustion), 1972; Ti amo (I Love You) 1985) and Performances. Since 1984, Gerz has collaborated with his wife, sculptor Esther Shalev-Gerz. In 1990, he taught at the University of Saarbrücken, and in 1994/95 was professor at the Academy of Visual Arts, Leipzig.
In his work, Gerz critically engages with the picture, with history, and with conditions of public space, his use of a plurality of mediums becoming his most convincing approach. He belongs to those artists who concretely refer to political and social conditions, to the illusory world of the mass media and the pretenses of objective perception, artists, who, despite serious criticism, want to actively intervene in contemporary social processes. In projects that are mostly realized as collaborations, Gerz focused on historical themes that had been neglected or were specifically contested – for example, ways of coming to terms with the German past in the 1960s/70s, phenomena of racism, or the contemporary occupation of public space by private enterprise. Already in one of his earliest works, done in 1968 and entitled Kunst korrumpiert – Attenzione l’arte corrompe (Art Corrupts), Gerz attacked artistic space and thus public space via text and image. With the Dachau-Projekt(1974) he searched for continuities of National Socialist diction in the contemporary culture of exhibition, directing his gaze at the mediation of the Holocaust in the public memorial of Dachau and at the relation between the exhibits and history.
In the early 1970s, Gerz started to concentrate on the genre of the self-portrait. Through the mediums of photography and video, he asked basic questions as to the significance and the effects of picture and image. For example, he staged the covering and the emergence-as-picture of his own portrait through versions of photographs that he had painted over (Auto-Porträt, 1971). He also played with the ideal and the disillusioning self-image in the spatial / video installation Der Kopf der M. (The Head of M., 1977). Moreover, his contribution to the Venice Biennale of 1979, a huge four-part wood construction entitled Die Schwierigkeit des Zentaurs beim vom Pferd steigen (The Difficulty of the Centaur when Descending from His Horse) that is also part of the series Griechische Stücke (Greek Pieces), became a means of self-assurance. The artist lived in the history-laden monument for several days. At the same time, he put the object of cultural tradition itself up for discussion, subjecting its meaning to irony, and positioning its claims in a contemporary context.
Gerz’s memorial projects take up a specific place in his work. At this junction of art and public space that is perceived as much more unmediated than artistic mediums, galleries or museums, the artist invested in communicative exchange. The Harburger Denkmal gegen Faschismus (Harburg Memorial Against Fascism), located in Harburg, a district of Hamburg, and created with Esther Shalev-Gerz in 1986, is supposed »to belong to a new type of memorial that replaces the short-term empathy of the viewer with a lasting co-authorship and co-responsibility« (Gerz, 11/14/1997). In the unusual memorial, passers-by are invited to personally sign the anti-fascist statement that is part of the memorial itself.
With the project 2146 Steine – Mahnmal gegen Rassismus (2146 Stones – Memorial Against Racism, 1990 — 93), Gerz used public space as a medium. At the Schlossplatz Saarbrücken, 2146 cobble stones were inscribed with the names of Jewish cemeteries and were inserted in the ground upside down. As with theHarburger Denkmal, where the inscriptions added were successively sunk in the ground, this project is also based on the idea of a culture of commemoration that, while invisible, is still connected to the imaginary memory and demands spiritual empathy. Moreover, in the Bremer Befragung (Bremen Inquiry, 1990 — 1995), Gerz asked a number of citizens basic questions about art and demanded their participation in the choice of a theme as well as the realization of an artistic project. It is the exchange with the audience as well as the desire for its co-authorship which remains a decisive moment. Since 2002, Gerz has been involved in realizing his public »Rechtsbibliothek« (»Legal Library«) that is being created at the Platz der Grundrechte (Place of Basic Rights) in Karlsruhe and again relies on questioning the audience.
The Actions described, the Environments, and memorials in public space, dmonstrate Gerz’s provocative understanding of art, one that demands communication and exchange and, moreover, grounds itself in the processual emergence of the work. Since the 1990s, the artist has also made use of the internet (The Plural Sculpture, 1995; The Berkeley Oracle, 1997 — 99).
Since the 1970s, Gerz has published numerous writings on art (for example, »Die Zeit der Beschreibung« / »The Time of Description«, 1974 — 83; »Life after Humanism«, 1992; »Gegenwart der Kunst« / »Presence of Art«, 1996. His works have been shown at numerous international exhibitions (for example: Venice Biennale 1976; Documenta 1977/1986) and at solo exhibitions (Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein, 2003; Kunstmuseum Thurgau, 2004; Akademie der Künste, Berlin, and ZKM, Karlsruhe, 2005).
From 1967 until 2000, Jochen Gerz lived and worked in Paris. He then moved to Ivry-sur-Seine.
Performances, Installationen und Arbeiten im öffentlichen Raum: Jochen Gerz –
Werkverzeichnis, hg. v. V. Rattemeyer u. R. Petzinger, Bd. 1: Performances, Installationen und Arbeiten im öffentlichen Raum, Nürnberg 1999
Res publica. Das öffentliche Werk 1968 — 1999: Ausst.-Kat. Museion, Museum für Moderne Kunst, Bozen, Ostfildern-Ruit 1999
Gerz, Esther u. Jochen: Das 20. Jahrhundert, Essen 1996
Jochen Gerz: Ausst.-Kat. Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Köln 1988
Jochen Gerz: Texte. Bielefeld 1985
Schwarz, M. (Hg.): Jochen Gerz. Foto, Texte, The French Wall & Stücke, Ausst.-Kat. Badischer Kunstverein, hg. v. M. Schwarz, Karlsruhe 1975