Fail Better

Film + Video 

1. March to 11 August 2013
Galerie der Gegenwart, Sockelgeschoss

Exhibited Works

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter.
Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Immer versucht. Immer gescheitert. Einerlei.
Wieder versuchen. Wieder scheitern. Besser scheitern.

Samuel Beckett, WorstwardHo, 1983

In the fast-paced modern era – driven by a demand for effectivity and the unwavering belief in progress – there is little room for failure, frustration or defeat. Maximum performance, efficiency and achievement are the things that matter in our success-oriented society. No wonder the American sociologist Richard Sennett once described failure as the great modern taboo. There is a widespread reluctance to talk about failing – above all on a personal level – as this involves admitting that one has reached a limit, a point beyond which nothing will be as it was before. But does the fact of having failed necessarily mean that nothing has been accomplished? The paradox of failure is precisely that every ending can spark a new beginning, resignation can turn into hope: an apparent defeat can therefore provide an unexpected opportunity and lead in a completely different direction.


Marina Abramović (*1946)  Art must be beautiful, Artist must be beautiful, 1975,Marina Abramović (*1946)

Art must bebeautiful, Artist must be beautiful, 1975, 1-Kanal-Video, schwarz-weiß, Ton, 14'06"

Hamburger Kunsthalle

new media collection

In this performance piece, Marina Abramović brushes her hair over and over again with a metal brush and a metal comb. As she performs this action, which becomes increasingly self-injurious, she repeats the phrases "Art must be beautiful" and "Artist must be beautiful". The more she seeks to meet these ideals, however, the more obvious it becomes that this is a futile endeavour: her hair gets increasingly messed up and her face – contorted with pain – reflects the self-inflicted torture. Being confronted with this paradoxical situation forces the viewer to consider the extent to which beauty is a necessary – or in fact a disruptive – element in the 'operating system' of art: is one taken seriously as a female artist if one conforms to ideals of beauty that are applied to women outside the context of art? Is beauty a valid criterion for the evaluation of art? Over the course of the performance, Abramović does not resolve the conflict between the aims she is expressing and the act she is performing; instead she heightens the tension by repeatedly vocalising the expectations until, as she herself says: "I have destroyed my hair and face."

Vito Acconci (*1940)  Turn On, 1974, Vito Acconci (*1940)

Turn On, 1974, 1-Kanal-Video, schwarz-weiß, Ton, 20' 1-Kanal-Video, schwarz-weiß, Ton, 20'

Hamburger Kunsthalle

new media collection

In Vito Acconci's work Turn-On, the artist uses gestures of radical withdrawal and extreme confrontation to challenge the viewer head-on. He turns away from the observer for long periods of time, so that only the hair on the back of his head can be seen in close-up, and the only other information is provided by the increasingly dramatic tunes he hums to himself incessantly. When Acconci turns to directly address the viewer, which he does a number of times, the video piece tips over into the opposite extreme and the artist becomes an inescapable physical presence. However the words he directs at the viewer attest only to the impossibility of an actual encounter. With each new attempt at interaction – however futile it may be – the viewer is thrown back upon himself, in that he becomes aware of the latent aggression in the relationship between the artist and the audience, and is forced to consider his own role in this reciprocal arrangement.

Bas Jan Ader (1942-1975)  Fall 2, Amsterdam, 1970Bas Jan Ader (1942-1975)

Fall 2, Amsterdam, 1970, 16 mm Filmprojektion, schwarz-
weiß, ohne Ton, 19"
Courtesy Mary Sue Ader-Andersen/Bas Jan Ader Estate at the Patrick Painter Inc., Los Angeles

You Toube Video

Bas Jan Ader
Fall 1, Los Angeles, 1970, 16 mm Filmprojektion, schwarz-weiß, ohne Ton, 24"
You Toube Video

Bas Jan Ader
Broken fall (geometric), Westkapelle, Holland, 1971, 16 mm Filmprojektion, schwarz-weiß, ohne Ton, 1'49"
You Toube Video

Bas Jan Ader
Broken fall (organic), Amsterdamse Bos, Holland, 1971, 16 mm Filmprojektion, schwarz-weiß, ohne Ton, 1'44"
You Toube Video


Bas Jan Ader produced a significant body of work on the theme of falling. A number of short films from the early 1970s, shot in black-and-white on 16mm film, feature the artist himself: in one, he sits on a chair on the pitched roof of his house, loses his balance and tumbles to the ground; in others he steers his bicycle into an Amsterdam canal or tries to defy the laws of gravity by hanging from the branch of a tree for as long as possible, before eventually falling into a narrow canal. Ader himself made the connection between 'falling' and 'failing', employing the motif of a fall as a visual metaphor for failure, and above all for the instability and precariousness of human existence.


Although Ader's films appear pithy and matter-of-fact, they also contain many complex references. Broken fall (geometric), Westkapelle, Holland, for instance, can be taken as a reference to fellow Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, in whose work the lighthouse at Westkapelle near Domburg played an important role. Here, Ader confronts Mondrian's notion of "repose" and desire to find a "perfect equilibrium" with the exact opposite: through his own act of falling/toppling over, he expresses his scepticism about artistic or existential utopias of harmony, equilibrium and balance.

Bas Jan Ader, In Search of the Miraculous, 1975

The act of falling and the experience of being shipwrecked are two key metaphors for failure, and they also define the work of Bas Jan Ader. In July 1975, the 33-year-old Dutch artist and experienced sailor set sail from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, heading for England. For Ader, this voyage was not only the attempt to break the world record for a single-handed crossing of the Atlantic Ocean – his boat Ocean Wave was the smallest vessel in which this feat had ever been attempted – it was also to be part of an artwork entitled In Search of the Miraculous (1975). Bas Jan Ader did not return from this sailing trip, however, and the work was never completed. Radio contact with his boat broke off three weeks into the voyage, and although the wreck was found off the coast of Ireland a year later, Ader himself was presumed lost at sea. The artist's disappearance turned his romantic search for the 'miraculous' into a parable about human frailty and failure.

In July 1975 the Amsterdam-based gallery Art & Project published a bulletin that had been designed by Bas Jan Ader before he embarked on his fateful voyage. The inside cover shows a black-and-white image of the artist in his boat – a (last) photograph of him taken by his wife Mary Sue as he was leaving. Printed on the back of the bulletin is the score of the shanty A Life On The Ocean Wave. This and other songs were performed by a choir at the opening of the exhibition In Search of the Miraculous at the Claire Copley Gallery in Los Angeles on 22 April 1975.


Francis Alÿs (*1959)  Rehearsal I, 1999-2004Francis Alÿs (*1959)

Rehearsal I, 1999-2004, Installationmit fünf Bilschirmprojektionen (Caracoles, 1998-2004, 4' 20"/ Ensayo I,Tijuana, México, 2000, 2004, 29' 20"/ Perro-Pelota, 2000, 1'50"/ Maqueta parael Ensayo I, 1999, 15' 20"), Farbe, Ton + Dokumentationen

Politics of Rehearsal, 2005-2007, in collaboration with Performa, Rafael Ortega and Cuautémoc Medina, New York City, 30'

Courtesy the artist and Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zürich

In a housing settlement on the edge of Tijuana in northern Mexico, a red Volkswagen Beetle makes repeated – unsuccessful – attempts to drive up a hill. The outcome of this modern, 'motorised' version of the story of Sisyphus is determined by a brass band rehearsing a danzón – when the musicians are playing, the car drives up the hill, but when they make a mistake, break off or stop to tune their instruments, it rolls back down the slope. This creates a pendulum movement whereby the progression of the narrative is repeatedly suspended and the moment of successful completion is further postponed.

A car stopping and starting on a hill, a boy kicking a plastic bottle along a street, a dog endlessly fetching a ball – all of these actions portrayed in the works of Belgian artist Francis Alÿs lead nowhere; they seem to be stuck in permanent 'rehearsal' mode, curiously sufficient unto themselves. Alÿs, who has lived in Mexico City since the late 1980s, places the magic and metaphorical potential of constant rehearsal and futile endeavour at the core of his artistic practice. But does the execution of an action, the implementation of a plan, really represent success? Or should we imagine – as Albert Camus concludes in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) – that Sisyphus is in fact happy in his endless task?


John Baldessari (*1931)  Teaching a Plant the Alphabet, 1972John Baldessari (*1931)

Teaching a Plant the Alphabet, 1972, 1-Kanal-Video, schwarz-weiß, Ton, 18'

Hamburger Kunsthalle

new media collection

John Baldessari's video piece presents a kind of teaching situation in which he himself assumes the role of teacher and a small potted plant is his 'pupil'. Baldessari holds up a series of flashcards depicting the letters of the alphabet, saying each letter out loud a number of times before he moves on to the next one. The plant, needless to say, does not respond. This educational exercise is clearly doomed to fail from the start. Nevertheless, the artist resolutely performs his task despite its obvious futility. Here, it is the very failure to accomplish a goal that provides new insights, above all by exposing the artificial nature of language and its underlying structure as a system of signs. Why else would the pot plant prove to be such an unsuitable subject for Baldessari's experiment?

Guy Ben-Ner (*1969)  If only it was as easy to banish hunger by rubbing the belly as it is to masturbate, 2009Guy Ben-Ner (*1969)

If only it was as easy to banish hunger by rubbing the belly as it is to masturbate, 2009, 1-Kanal-Video, Farbe, Ton, 16'30"Courtesy the artist and Konrad Fischer Galerie, Düsseldorf/Berlin

Guy Ben-Ner established his international reputation with a series of short films that are both bizarre and philosophical; in these works, which often involve members of his family, he relates his own life as an artist and father to major characters from works of world literature (including Moby Dick and Robinson Crusoe). Although Ben-Ner's children are now grown-up and no longer take part in his artworks, If only... is also closely related to the artist's own life. It revolves around his midlife crisis, which has prompted a reflection of his life to date. This takes the form of a road movie in which the main character (played by Guy Ben-Ner) and his travelling companion (Joe Thompson, the director of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art) embark on a meandering journey through time and space by plane, car and tandem bicycle. The traffic accidents they experience en route are stoically endured and do not hinder them from continuing their endless trek. Here, Ben-Ner has interwoven his own biography (including his recent divorce) with famous quotes from literary classics and travelogues (e.g. Cervantes' Don Quixote; Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince; Verne's Around The World in Eighty Days). Like characters in a Beckett play, the protagonists are unable to complete anything; the execution of their plans is postponed indefinitely. Against all the odds, however, the journey of life somehow goes on.

Tacita Dean (*1965)

Disappearance at Sea I, 1996,
16 mm Filmprojektion, Farbe, Ton, 14'

Courtesy the artist, Frith Street Gallery,
London and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York &Paris

Disappearance at Sea I is the first part of a trilogy of works by Tacita Dean that are inspired by the mysterious story of Donald Crowhurst, an English businessman and amateur yachtsman who failed tragically in his attempt to sail around the world in 1968. The film alternates seductively beautiful shots of the revolving beacon of a lighthouse and images of the sea horizon in the evening light. Marking the outermost point of the mainland where it meets the endless expanse of the sea, the lighthouse is an important human aid in terms of spatial and temporal orientation – and one that could probably have saved Crowhurst's life as he drifted on the open sea, developing an obsession with time that eventually led to insanity. Tacita Dean's magical images create an expectant atmosphere for a strange story that revolves around hubris and human failure, longing and loss.


Rineke Dijkstra (*1959)

Ruth Drawing Picasso, 2009,
1-Kanal-Video, Farbe, Ton, 6'36"
Courtesy the artist and Jan Mot, Brussels/Mexico City

A schoolgirl's gaze focuses on something outside the frame of the camera, then drops back down onto the pad of paper in her lap as she attempts to sketch what she has just seen. The title of Rineke Dijkstra's video informs us that it is none other than Pablo Picasso whose work the schoolgirl (Ruth) is copying. She apparently belongs to a group of pupils on a museum visit who have been instructed to create their own work of art based on an exhibited piece. Ruth's concentrated efforts are visible on her face and are also perceptible in the sound of her pencil moving across the paper. Although her posture, and the fact that she is frequently distracted by things going on around her, give the impression that she is not finding it easy, her eyes keep returning to the exhibited artwork and she repeatedly puts pencil to paper in the attempt to complete the set task. Dijkstra's video arouses our curiosity about Picasso's work and also about Ruth's version of it – although we are fully aware that no matter who it is done by, a copy can never be anything but a translation.


Tracey Emin (*1963)  Why I Never Became a Dancer, 1995Tracey Emin (*1963)

Why I Never Became a Dancer, 1995, 1-Kanal-Video, Farbe, Ton, 6'40"
Hamburger Kunsthalle

new media collection

Tracey Emin shares intimate personal memories with viewers of her video work Why I never became a dancer. She talks about growing up in the seaside town of Margate, her awakening sexuality and how her youthful curiosity was exploited by older male partners. She describes how, driven by a desire to escape the monotony of small-town life, she entered a local disco-dancing competition. However her long-held ambition to compete in the British Disco Dance Championship in London was thwarted when a group of local men – most of whom she had slept with – humiliated her by loudly chanting "slag" during her performance. Emin subsequently chose a different path and trained as an artist, and it is in this guise that she stands up to her former tormentors at the end of the video. Just before she starts to dance in front of the camera in the culminating scene, her off-screen voice announces: "Shane, Eddy, Tony, Doug, Richard ... this one's for you."

Jeanne Faust (*1968)  Interview, 2003Jeanne Faust (*1968)

Interview, 2003, 1-Kanal-Video, Farbe, Ton, 8'12"

Hamburger Kunsthalle

new media collection

At no point during Jeanne Faust's Interview does one have the feeling that either the interviewer or the interviewee are fulfilling their roles in the way one would normally expect them to in this situation. Rather than engaging in an open conversation, they confront one another in an oppressive atmosphere marked by mutual distrust, patronising behaviour and deliberate attempts to expose the other party. The interview is over before it has really begun. Precisely because it does not follow the normal course of such conversations, we learn more about the operating mechanisms of an interview than we do about its subject – Lou Castel, an actor who has worked with Rainer Maria Fassbinder and Philippe Garrel, among others. The near-perfect failure of the encounter makes it seem quite artificial and raises doubts as to whether the conversation really does break down or if the exchange is merely being acted out. Here, an interview that Jeanne Faust had already conducted unsuccessfully with Castel has indeed been restaged and thereby subjected to the artist's analytical gaze. The ruptures that manifest themselves in this re-enactment expose the hidden mechanisms of the classic interview situation.

Peter Fischli & David Weiss (*1952; 1946–2012)  Der Lauf der Dinge, 1986-1987Peter Fischli & David Weiss (*1952; 1946–2012)

Der Lauf der Dinge, 1986-1987, 1-Kanal-Video, Farbe, Ton, 30'

Hamburger Kunsthalle

new media collection

You Toube Video

You Toube Video

In their celebrated video piece Der Lauf der Dinge, the artist duo Fischli & Weiss present everyday objects that appear to have taken on a life of their own. In a chain reaction, one object sets another in motion, whereby the artists' influence extends only to the arrangement of the objects, not their actual movement. The dynamism unleashed by the ordinary objects in this video playfully reminds of the consequences that can result from a seemingly simple action, the full repercussions of which can never be foreseen. Here, occurrences that at first appear to be accidental turn out to be necessary in order to keep the film going. In this way it becomes possible to find positive qualities in the absence of external control, and an apparently unconnected whole is revealed as having an inherent consistency – a fact that may be of some consolation to viewers with respect to their own lives, over which they can never have full control.

Ceal Floyer (*1968)

Butterfly Effect, 1998
1-Kanal-Video, Farbe, Ton, 18"

Courtesy the artist and Esther Schipper, Berlin

Ceal Floyer uses minimal means to maximum effect in this subtle video piece. The title is a reference to chaos theory, which asserts that the flap of a butterfly's wings can trigger an unpredictable chain of reactions. In an era when the greatest possible rationalisation is sought for every action – even the very smallest –, the notion of such a lack of control can be deeply unsettling. Viewed from this perspective, anything that lies beyond human power represents a threat that must be eliminated using every possible means. When one watches the video, however, the expectation generated by Floyer's title is not fulfilled: the flight of the butterfly across the screen leads to... nothing. Or more precisely, it leads to the repetition of the very same butterfly flight, due to the looping of the 18-second-long video sequence. This uninterrupted repetition of an event with no obvious repercussions strikes a rather conciliatory tone and serves to dispel fears that the smallest change might cause things to slip out of our grasp.


Annika Kahrs (*1984)  Strings, 2010Annika Kahrs (*1984)

Strings, 2010, HDV-Video, Farbe,Ton, 8'20"

Courtesy the artist and Produzentengalerie, Hamburg

A string quartet performs Ludwig van Beethoven's quartet in C minor, Op. 18, No. 4, which was composed around 1800. At the end of the first movement, the four musicians swap places and instruments; they repeat this action four times, until each of them is back in their original place with their own instrument. During this game of exchange, the fine art of combining four individual voices into a homogeneous, harmonious whole gradually falls apart. The confidence and virtuosity with which the musicians play their own instruments increasingly gives way to uncertainty, wrong notes and other mistakes. Nevertheless, a willingness to explore new avenues and accept the possibility of failure is required if one wishes to create something new and extraordinary, which is why the basis of artistic creativity should be an open-ended, searching process rather than the goal-oriented fabrication of a product. As the American artist John Baldessari once put it: "Art comes out of failure. You have to try things out. You can't sit around, terrified of being incorrect, saying 'I won't do anything until I do a masterpiece.'"

Steve McQueen (*1969)  Deadpan, 1997Steve McQueen (*1969)

Deadpan, 1997, 16mm Filmprojektion übertragen auf Video, schwarz-weiß, ohne Ton, 4'35"Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York

The term Deadpan – the title of Steve McQueen's 1997 film – is used to describe a deliberately blank, impassive manner of expression; here it refers specifically to a famous scene in the silent movie Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), where Buster Keaton is standing with his back to a house when the building front suddenly collapses all around him. He emerges unscathed, however, unperturbed by the surrounding chaos and protected, as it were, by his naivety and innocence: a window opening has miraculously saved him from being injured or buried by the falling wall. In McQueen's piece, the protagonist is filmed from below, giving him a monumental appearance; the artist himself plays the central role in a drama where the world collapses and man registers this fact with heroic calm and unsuspecting stoicism.

Bruce Nauman (*1941)  Anthro/Socio (RindeSpinning),1992Bruce Nauman (*1941)

Anthro/Socio (RindeSpinning),1992, 6-Kanal-Videoinstallation (3 Videoprojektoren, 6 Monitore), Farbe, Ton, 27'43"

Hamburger Kunsthalle

new media collection

You Toube Video

Bruce Nauman's video installation Anthro/Socio (Rinde Spinning) bombards viewers with a disturbing mixture of overlapping sensory impressions. Three projection screens and six monitors show close-up images of performance artist Rinde Eckert's head rotating around its own axis. Echoing this spinning movement, a series of loud and insistent vocal demands are interwoven to form an unbroken loop: "Feed me / Eat me / Anthropology", "Help me / Hurt me / Sociology" and "Feed me / Help me / Eat me / Hurt me". These demands would require some kind of interaction between the performer and the spectator, with all the subtle depths this may imply. However, just as we are unable to focus properly on Eckert due to the multiple projections that compete for our attention, he is equally unable to make any real contact with the outside world. Instead he constantly revolves around himself, with the result that his words sound like a hopeless invocation. Yet however impossible these demands may be, the desire to have them met never seems to wane, and this is what drives each new attempt.

Bruce Nauman, Slow Angle Walk (Beckett Walk)Bruce Nauman (*1941)


Slow Angle Walk (Beckett Walk), 1968, 1-Kanal-Video, schwarz-weiß, Ton, 56'

Hamburger Kunsthalle

new media collection

There is a curious uniformity to the elaborate movements and postures Bruce Nauman performs for over an hour in front of the camera in Slow Angle Walk (Beckett Walk). This sequence of repeated body movements appears all the more absurd in that – despite requiring an obviously exhausting balancing act – it does not seem to have a specific objective. Another disconcerting element is the fact that the camera, which has been turned through ninety degrees, seems to be filming the artist walking up or along the vertical face of a wall. Nauman's choreography pays homage to the awkward gait chosen by Samuel Beckett for the characters Watt and Molloy in his novel Molloy. The longer one watches Nauman performing these actions, the more apparent it becomes that he is walking up and down within a precisely defined area. His efforts seem like the attempt to find meaning in actions that are performed within the framework of an inherently pointless undertaking.

Christoph Schlingensief (1960–2010)  Siegfrieds Sturz, 1999Christoph Schlingensief (1960–2010)

Siegfrieds Sturz, 1999, 1-Kanal-Video, Farbe, Ton, 14"

Hamburger Kunsthalle

new media collection

This (very) short film sequence, which is played on a continual loop, shows an actor falling down some stairs during rehearsals for Christoph Schlingensief's theatre production Die Berliner Republik oder der Ring in Afrika. The incident takes on a symbolic significance due to the title of the video piece – Siegfrieds Sturz (Siegfried's fall) – because in the same year Schlingensief also launched his project Deutschlandsuche '99, the attempt to find Germany's "new Siegfried". Just as this search "for the prototypical German hero" seems like a hopeless endeavour, the actor's fall likewise dispels any heroic aura he may have had. The viewer waits impatiently for the looped sequence to reach some kind of conclusion, but its constant repetition transforms it into a long-awaited reconciliation with the moment of failure. A year later, Schlingensief formed his own political party, Chance 2000, which led to the motto "Scheitern als Chance" (Failure as an opportunity) becoming a familiar phrase. He described the project as follows: "When I deal with losses confidently I get new antennae, I become more alert. As a step in this direction, our project redefines wealth: it is the awareness of what is lost."

Gillian Wearing (*1963)  Prelude, 2000Gillian Wearing (*1963)

Prelude, 2000, 1-Kanal-Video, schwarz-weiß, Ton, 3'57"

Hamburger Kunsthalle

new media collection

Together with Drunk and I Love You, Prelude forms a trilogy of films by Gillian Wearing on the subject of drinking and alcoholism. While filming Drunk, Wearing got to know a street drinker called Lindsey, but before she had completed this piece, she learned that the woman had died of cirrhosis of the liver. This meant that in Prelude the artist was only able to use footage of Lindsey that she had already shot. It is not surprising, therefore, that these impressions of her, which are replayed in slow motion, already seem like memory images. They are accompanied by a voice-over spoken by Lindsey's twin sister, who describes the cold, heartless funeral, their mother's lack of affection for Lindsey and the grief she herself feels as the surviving sister. An air of melancholy pervades the piece, which vividly portrays the painful and laborious process of grieving. Despite her sense of loss, Lindsey's sister is able to reflect upon and gain insight into their family relationships, their mother's character, and what she will remember about her twin.