Nothing’s Permanent, Memories of a friend.
By Viennese curator and director of Gallery Hilger NEXT Katrin-Sophie Batz (formerly known as Katrin-Sophie Dworczak)
The art world has lost a great talent, his family lost a son, a brother, an uncle, a nephew, a cousin, his girlfriend lost her partner and I, among so many others, have lost a friend. On April 19, 2018 Brian McKee passed away unexpectedly in Istanbul, Turkey where he and his long time partner and fellow artist Ai Kijima had been residing for the past four years with their beloved cat Tamago.
Brian McKee, the artist - a brilliant mind
Brian McKee was born in 1977 in Excelsior Springs, Missouri and attended the Interlochen Arts Academy and Bard College. While at Bard College he studied photography with Stephen Shore, Larry Fink and Barbara Ess as well as writing under John Ashbery whose assistant he was for more than three years. For five years he was the assistant to the photographer Lynn Davis. He lived and worked in New York City/USA, Vienna/Austria and Istanbul/Turkey.
Brian McKee called himself “a visual historian” who ventured to “convey a unique and important view of select aspects of World History” with his photographs.
“Within architecture and landscapes I find my true subject, the detritus of civilization, and seek to explore the way we define and relate to its existence. Although creating precisely composed and executed images I carefully chose projects that have a conceptual meaning and importance beyond their visual interest or beauty.”
For the past 15 years McKee had focused on examining and visualizing a body of work that explored both the current and past social and political atmospheres of countries around the world. Photographing with an 8x10 inch Deardorff plate camera he composed poetic images, which conveyed a complex untold narrative embedded in an immaculate concept, which didn’t only exist for aesthetic purposes. He was fond of ”the idea that houses, buildings, towns and cities provide us with a true understanding of the cultures that inhabited those spaces. At the same time they are a reflection of the social, political and personal atmosphere that created them.”
His signature subject of the rise and fall began 1999 when he photographed Soviet military bases in former Eastern Germany. “Due to circumstances of political and social change, these historical sites were left to decay on a scale that was just as large as the scale in which they were conceived and constructed. I was unaware at the time that (…) the construction and destruction of our various systems of political, social, financial and personal endeavors would be one that I would focus on for the next fifteen years. Since that first project I have built my work around the idea that chaos is something that is never planned within a society, but is nevertheless inevitable. The work in this show represents projects I have done in the former Soviet Union, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, India, Lebanon, the United States and Turkey, the location of my last major project.
What all these projects have in common is the fact that human ideals created the constructs, the borders within which they could exist. At the same time our own ideals, in various ways, lead to the collapse of these institutions.”
McKee’s work ranged from abandoned cities in India and Cambodia, to the Soviet regime and war torn regions such as Afghanistan and Lebanon.
His series The Power Suites (2010) focused on the systematic destruction of nature for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
His last exhibited photographic series ŞOK depicted abandoned or run down sites in Turkey, a country that, for centuries, has been a breeding ground for a variety of cultures, political ideas and ideals, religious beliefs and tumults.
Brian McKee’s artist statement about ŞOK:
“My most recent project ŞOK explores sites conceived and built to further the functions of systems of commerce. They are all structures, now abandoned, and located throughout modern day Turkey. The sites themselves span periods from the 14th - 20th century and stood, throughout their various metamorphosis and evolutions, for the concept of a global market place environment. Due to Turkey’s singularly unique geographic location, partly in Europe, partly in Asia and bordering the Middle East, they represented a concept or system of commerce that was equally unique. They were, in fact, a microcosm for what we today refer to as global commerce. Many of the structures were located along the Silk Route or in major hubs such as Constantinople / Istanbul and here they represented and severed a vast expanse of cultures, societies, beliefs and concepts. They now sit as the detritus of a system they helped evolve and as metaphors for our own rapidly evolving systems of global commerce, where ever it may lead us.“
His last solo show Nothing’s Permanent -which I was in charge of as the director of the gallery Hilger NEXT in Vienna - was a mid-life retrospective and showcased the past 15 years of his career, highlighting his last series ŞOK which he took in Turkey, as afore mentioned. For the first time he also included a portrait -which was very unusual for him since he only ever depicted deconstructed, damaged, abandoned architecture and places in his series. The reason for making this exception was that the old man named Ramadan whose portrait the photograph showed had greeted him on one of his travels with the words “To be or not to be – that is a question” to show off his English skills, slightly misquoting Shakespeare. He was a caretaker of a rarely visited site in Turkey. Brian explained why he chose to include him in his last Hilger NEXT solo show Nothing’s Permanent: “Although I often photograph people during my projects I have never included a large-scale portrait in an exhibition. This is because I have always wanted to separate people from the objects they create. I have always felt that a portrait, within the context of my work, only represents a fleeting glance at a moment in time, whereas the architecture and buildings I photograph (continue to) exist on a more monumental scale.” In this case though the man himself was a landscape, his wrinkled deeply tanned face telling the hardship, labor and story of his life.
“Although my work is spread across vast time periods, geographic locations and cultures, there is one theme that I always attempt to work with. It varies from project to project in its complexities but to put it simply I quote the author Chinua Achebe when he says "Things Fall Apart". It is a simple way to put it, but in the end my main body of work examines how we see this over and over again in all cultures and all time periods. Even when a culture abandons a place, it leaves behind its remains and through these remains we see a common thread, that there is always a decline and that socially and politically we create and we destroy, we rise and we fall. In the end nothing is permanent.”
In 2015 he was working on an abstract photographic series named OTHERS, which were unfortunately - at least to this point - never exhibited.
“In all my work I have used photography to examine the frailty of various structures and concepts with the idea that these all exist with a conception, growth and collapse. As I continue to explore these issues it's not that I think collapse is inevitable, instead I think the necessity for something new is always inherently guaranteed. "OTHERS" is a continuation of my explorations into the collapse of structures yet this time focused on photography itself. Though there is one main difference within the work of "OTHERS" in that I am merely observing the process as it happens and not arriving at it after the fact. Instead I am attempting to construct my own possible outcome. In "OTHERS" I have captured the passing moment of the analog held firmly in place by the grip of the digital.”
In the past two years he mostly directed his creative energy to screenplay writing, returning to his origins and ceramics.
His screenplay “The Walls of Constantinople “(2017) is a historic love story whereas his
2018 screenplay “NO FEAR” is about a Vietnam vet who enters a PTSD program just to collect the extra benefit money only to find out that he has more problems than he thought. He is in the program with his best friend’s son, who just returned from Iraq, and as the Iraq vet begins to heal his emotional wounds the Vietnam vet falls deeper into a state of despair and mental break down he thought he had recovered from long ago.
The birth of a friendship
I met Brian at the beginning of my art career in 2007 at an art party in Vienna (Austria) when I was still the assistant of the former director of the gallery Sabine Jaroschka (back then hilger contemporary which later moved to a different location and became Hilger NEXT). I immediately liked him – for his witty humor and charm. I met the artist behind the photographs that I had seen at the gallery but not yet worked with. During Art Basel (in Switzerland) in 2007 I first got to work at the booth and sell pieces from his series STRUCTURAL MEMORY. Back then I instantly fell in love with his photographic language and imagery. His works had the aesthetic quality of painting. The multi-layered context of the pieces unfolded the longer you looked at them and saw past the initial impulse of enchantment by the beautiful composition.
We traveled to many art fairs together, went to crazy Miami rooftop art parties, shared philosophies about the art world and the world in general. As a treat he would also upon request share making of stories of his photographic series where many times he would put himself in dangers way. As his best friend and artist Barbara Sophie Nägle put it “he lived his life to the fullest” without regrets, always with his heart and soul in it.
It is impossible to distill the essence of our friendship and the full experience of knowing Brian McKee – not only as an artist, but even more importantly - as a friend. We often view the person and the artist separately. But in the case of Brian his artistic self wasn’t a brand, a mask, a label but a manifestation of his person. The way Brian committed and immersed himself in his projects was the same way Brian committed himself to and cared for his friends.
Artist. Friend - the human behind the lens
Brian wasn’t ‘only’ a very talented photographer but also an enticing storyteller, a poet, a philosopher, a wise man, a playwright, a sculptor (ceramics) the best (and most knowledgeable) in New York City and Istanbul anyone could ever hope for, a generous friend and so much more than the afore mentioned things. It pains me to put this in the past tense not yet having come around to understanding what it meant – a world without Brian McKee in it.
In 2013 I included Brian McKee’s work in “Cash, Cans & Candy”, a Street Art project I had created and curated for the gallery Ernst Hilger’s exhibition space in Vienna’s 10th district. In its first edition I wanted to show the wide range of that (back then not yet so established in the mainstream art world) art movement – which encompassed also works which were referencing Street Art or paying tribute to it. Brian McKee’s TERRA NOVA series fit right into it. The TERRA NOVA series were taken in Miami, USA during his residency at the Fountainhead Studios. He re-contextualized the murals and graffiti pieces that he encountered in an abandoned factory and translated them into his own artistic language.
”Brian spent a month at the Miami-based Fountainhead Residency. As he did wherever he went, Brian fully immersed himself in the local scene. One of my best memories of his time here with Brian was the time he spent with our son Galt at the abandoned RC Cola factory in Wynwood. Galt took him into this area, which was fenced off and full of graffiti and tags. Brian saw its beauty and allure, and created a great photographic series - the TERRA NOVA. “
— Kathryn and Dan Mikesell, Fountainhead Residency, Miami/USA
"We first met Brian at an art fair in New York. My partner at the time saw Brian's work at the booth of gallery Ernst Hilger and bought the first of what would be many pieces added to his collection. As we do with most of the artists we collect, we quickly became fast friends with Brian. His gentle, positive demeanor was marked by a childlike naîveté sometimes. Through his art, he could somehow motivate people to change the world. The kind of naîveté that hasn't been beaten down by years of evolving into a cynical, sceptical adult. Two other very dear memories were of the different times we crossed paths around the world. I remember him visiting us in our home in DUMBO (Brooklyn) in May one year. During this visit, I was surprised by my partner with a very precious photograph of Brian's for my birthday. It is of an abandoned Russian barracks that has a poster-like mural peeking through peeling paint and it is of the San Francisco skyline (Vanishing Point #36). Since I grew up in the Bay Area, this was a very personal piece to add to my collection. We also were together at a fabulous party at Dan & Kathryn Mikesell's (Fountainhead Residency) beautiful home during Art Basel Miami. Brian had done the residency program with them. Each time we met, it was always a pleasure. His sweet and enthusiastic demeanor for all things art and photography was a constant joy. My last and most beautiful memory of Brian is totally representative of his generous, kind nature. I received, unexpectedly, a package in the mail. Upon opening it, I found the most amazing multi-colored ceramic sculpture. A terrible loss for his partner, his family, the art world and society. A deeply creative and caring soul reclaimed way too soon."
— Megan Browne, Irish-American collector based in Belgium
The attempt of last words
And now I would like to give the artist an opportunity to end this eulogy with his own words. “In the simplest of terms, my work over the last fifteen years attempts to ask the question, “How close are we with respect to the fine line that separates order from disorder.” Perhaps more important is the question of how and when do we know that we have crossed this invisible line. I certainly cannot answer such a complex question but I have spent many years exploring this topic. I have attempted, to the best of my abilities, to visually present points in history in which this invisible, yet very real line has been crossed and the subsequent results. In the end, no matter how much we attempt to stabilize the world that we live in, once again we have to realize that “Nothing’s Permanent.”” (Brian McKee, 2016)
The series (photography)
2006 Vanishing point
2008 Structural memory
2010 The Power Suites
2012 Terra Nova
Shows – a selection
2016 Nothing’s Permanent, Hilger NEXT, Vienna, Austria
2013 Cash, Cans & Candy - Edition I, curated by Katrin-Sophie Dworczak, Hilger NEXT and HilgerBROTKunsthalle, Vienna, Austria
2012 SEX, DUIs and VIDEOTAPE, curated by Claire Breukel ,Site/109, New York City,USA
2012: Selected Work 2002-2012: HilgerBROTKunsthalle, Vienna, Austria
2012: TERRA NOVA: The Columns Gallery, Seoul, South Korea
2010: The Power Suites: Vogt Gallery, New York, USA
2009: STRUCTURAL MEMORY: Nusser & Baumgart Contemporary, Munich, Germany 2008: STRUCTURAL MEMORY: hilger contemporary, Vienna, Austria
2006 : URBANUS : The Columns Art Center, Seoul, South Korea
2006: URBANUS: Galerie Stefan Ropke, Cologne, Germany
2006 : Two Projects: S.M.B.- DETRITUS: Schweinfurt Stadtische Museum, Schweinfurt, Germany
2005 : URBANUS : hilger contemporary, Vienna, Austria
2005 : URBANUS : Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York, New York
2005 : RE-BUILD-INGS : Gallery Arnes y Ropke, Madrid, Spain
2005: Brian McKee and Trevor Amery: Galerie Birthe Laursen, Copenhagen, Denmark
2004 : DETRITUS : Nusser and Baumgart Contemporary, Munich, Germany
2004 : Recent Works : Galerie Bonomo, Rome, Italy
2003 : DETRITUS : hilger contemporary, Vienna, Austria
2003 : DETRITUS : Galerie Poller, Frankfurt, Germany
2002 : Fotografie aus New York : KunstRaum, Essen, Germany
2001 : Soviet Military Bases: KunstMarkt, Krefeld, Germany
1999 : SITES : Olin Building at Bard, Annandale, New York
Collections – a selection
Martin Margulies Collection, Miami, USA
The Sagamore Collection, Miami, USA
Sammlung Sanziani, Vienna, Austria
Collection of Munich Re, Munich, Germany
The author of this text
Katrin-Sophie Batz (formerly known as Katrin-Sophie Dworczak) is a curator based in Vienna, Austria director of Hilger NEXT gallery and curator of the exhibition series Cash, Cans & Candy – a Street Art project by Gallery Ernst Hilger. The first edition entailed 50 national and international artists such as Faith47, Shepard Fairey, FAILE, RETNA, Brian McKee, Ai Kijima, PERFEKT WORLD and many more. She has been with the gallery since 2006 and became director of Hilger NEXT in 2013.