Present Future: Tina Braegger
History of the Grateful Dead, Volume One (Bear’s Choice)
In the cold late spring of 1967, following several months in which she’d been unable to work—paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act—Joan Didion took a trip to the epicenter of the disorder. She traveled to San Francisco and spent a few weeks in the city’s Haight-Ashbury district. In the preface to her 1968 essay collection titled Slouching Towards Bethlehem, like the essay about her time in the District, Didion frames writing as bearing evidence: of the atomization she was witnessing; of proof that things fall apart. Her essay describes the United States of America as thriving according to traditional metrics, but actually in crisis: “It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children…” And San Francisco, she notes, “was where the missing children were gathering and calling themselves ‘hippies.’” The late 1960s counterculture, as portrayed in the vignettes of Didion’s first-hand account, was a swirl of conflicting lifestyles and ideologies.
“In the Park,” a member of the band the Grateful Dead complained to Didion, “there are always twenty or thirty people below the stand ready to take the crowd on some militant trip.” Later, while Janis Joplin performs in the nearby Panhandle, some street theater–activists show up and incite the crowd of high people with a political agenda that is largely unclear, even to members of the group. Still, Didion speaks for the activist set when she writes that “the peculiar beauty” of the political potential in the District “was that it remained not clear at all to most of the inhabitants.” In the national media, too, “the tensions of the District went unremarked upon,” yet Didion operated on the assumption that “we were seeing something important. We were seeing the desperate attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a social vacuum.” The kids themselves were evidence, according to Didion, of the thoroughly atomized nature of American society. What she meant by that is somewhat vague, and she leaves off simply by stating that it was more fundamental than “Vietnam, Saran-Wrap, diet pills, the Bomb.”
About a decade younger than Didion, and writing in 2006, rock music critic–turned–cultural critic Ellen Willis explained how breakup outlived the Counterculture: “The very nature of the cultural rebellion provoked a backlash.” Whereas “economic security had encouraged cultural experimentation and dissidence” in the 1960s, the 1970s ushered in economic austerity in part as a “moral corrective” for “Americans’ hedonism, profligacy, and excessive expectations.” Even some on the left, Willis concluded, had long harbored “deep doubts about the legitimacy” of values such as equality, freedom, and pleasure. It may seem confusing when some of those who participated in that original moment turn away, at times completely, from those radical politics and cultural politics. And others have argued that the counter-cultural spirit ended up serving accidental ends, contradictory politics, and consumerism. But what seems like a disconnect may have been the reality all along: what Didion called atomization—a general breakup, which was mirrored in the conflicting responses to it that one could see and hear and write about.
On the reverse is a drawing by Tina Braegger, vectorized by Marietta Eugster and colored by Teo Schifferli. It depicts the Grateful Dead’s famous ‘dancing bear’ motif, which first appeared on the back cover of their 1973 release History of the Grateful Dead, Volume One (Bear’s Choice). Some degree of disconnect could be said to underlie Tina Braegger’s paintings, prints, picture book, and hand-sewn polyester flags made in its image. What do Braegger’s bears have to do with that history, that scene, those politics? And yet, what exactly does the motif, or even the band, have to do with them? The dancing bear carries with it certain connotations—which may not be as accurate or as monolithic as we imagine—and in drawing this imagery forward, Braegger is pointing up degrees of disconnect as well as introducing further facets to it.
Someone else would be better qualified to write about the Dead’s relationship to that historical context and what’s communicated by their widely-circulated iconography. What do specific motifs stand for? How do they interrelate? And what new or skewed meaning have they gained in the past five decades? What I can tell you is that there are five official postures in the original dancing bear motif, as drawn by Bob Thomas. The smiling, striding, cartoon teddy bear is normally shown in a lineup (or a circle) exhibiting slightly different variations; five slightly different poses in its open-armed stride. The bear itself is defined by a heavy outline indicating fur on its legs, back, ears, and one arm. The outline also draws a funny kind of scarf or mane around the bear’s neck. Over the years, fans of the band have redrawn the motif in countless ways with different colors, patterns, and even accessories, but Braegger’s paintings tend to stick to the original motif. They take the iconography of the Grateful Dead bears as the structuring logic for formal incident, meaning oil paint on stretched canvas. Braegger has often used the words ‘The Grateful Dead’ in titles, and she’s at times referenced songs by the band, but her appropriations are otherwise pretty devoid of context. Both the evocative band name and the rather arbitrary, colorful bear motif speak for themselves; viewers are left to fill in the gaps.
Braegger first showed bear paintings in early 2017—one in her exhibition A Greater Being at Passenger in Pristina (April–June) and five at the gallery Weiss Falk in her show The Great Fool Braegger (May and June). Between the outlines, her bears are patterned over with flowers in some places, suns and moons in others, as well as stars and clouds. In terms of disposition, you could maybe call those first six paintings ‘sunny’. A bit later, Braegger showed another bear painting at Kunstmuseum St. Gallen, then one at Paris Internationale as part of a project organized by Shanaynay, then one at Istituto Svizzero in Rome.
Beginning with the one in Paris, and clearly visible in the ones at Artissima 2017, the paintings changed. For one thing, the colors have largely been replaced with black and shades of gray or silver, blue, or purple. You could maybe call them ‘dour’. Or ‘gloomy’, or maybe ‘graphic’ or ‘bold’. Each of these four new bears also have names; these paintings have titles: Fool’s Gold, Blood Stone, Onyx, and Tiger Eye. They’re named after gemstones. Some of the bears are also flipped upside-down or side-to-side. These kinds of details are why some people would call these paintings ‘versions’. Some would call these details ‘differences’. But Braegger says the aspect of repetition is more important than the subtle changes. One could also talk about how the paint is flat in some places, scumbled in others, or about the mottling of the sun in this one, the effect of the metallic silver background, or the way this color advances or recedes next to this other one.
Instead of going into too much formal detail, which you can anyway see when standing in front of the paintings and to a greater or lesser degree in images of the paintings—instead of going into too much detail, I’ll finish by mentioning the novel Braegger published in 2016. It’s called The Grateful Dead. Its subtitle is A Diary of Gabriel Krampus, because it’s the story, written in the form of some thirty journal entries, of a man and his wife in the year 2059. Already then, the man says, 44 years had passed since his wife decided to bury herself up to her neck in sand on a remote island, where they live. In the prologue, dated 2067, he doesn’t say she’d left her position. There’s a lot about the novel that one could go into, but I’ll just note that you can read it somewhat as a metaphor. Also, the bear motif is discussed at one point, on page 61: “‘Tell me more about that bear,’ [Esmerelda] begged my wife. And my wife told her that the motif of the bear goes back to ancient Egypt and ancient Greece and the Romans. It was also known as the Indian god Akasha.” It continues, but I’ll stop there.
I’ll also mention that the book has extensive, multi-level footnotes that the reader gets lost in at times; you lose the thread of the plot before arriving back at the surface of the primary text. But then if that happens, you’re holding a book, and its pages are glued together, so you can go back and see where you left off. The book also has a title and all those little framing devices that we take for granted. It too, the novel, fits into Braegger’s years-long and ongoing body of work that sometimes manifests itself in the image of colorful, dancing bears and that she sometimes gives titles that are iterations of or wordplays on ‘The Grateful Dead’. And there is almost certainly more to come in that body of work, more paintings for one thing, so don’t worry if you get lost in the details. There’s the framing devices, and the structuring logic, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the idea behind the band’s name, even if they came up with it when they were thoroughly turned on—meaning elsewhere, out of it—is that the dead, in a way, maybe, never sleep.
Installation views, Tina Braegger – Artissima, 2017
Photos: Renato Ghiazza
Courtesy of Weiss Falk and the Artist