Tina Braegger is a conceptual artist whose work addresses questions related to originality, reproduction, authenticity, repetition, and difference. Since 2016, she has explored these topics through the motif of the “dancing bear,” a bootleg drawing that became an emblem of the American rock band The Grateful Dead in the 1970s. Braegger’s attraction to the bear has little to do with the band‘s music. Instead, her painting practice conceptually engages with how this counterfeit symbol inverts notions of official and unofficial, original and copy. In Braegger’s paintings, as in the concert parking lots that spawned countless variations of this figure, the bear operates according to the logic of the bootleg. The dancing bear absorbs, sponge-like, characteristics that it encounters through the process of its circulation, canonization, and its own fluctuating values—which Braegger addresses in her endless painterly permutations of this figure. As critic Francesco Tenaglia notes, “It is always there, in one form or another, and it defines the way painting reinvents it, reacts against it, ignores it, or digests it. It is a logo, a mannerism, a trigger, and a grid.“
Tina Braegger (b. 1985, Lucerne) lives and works in Berlin and Zurich. Recent exhibitions include Curiosity killed the cat, a two-person exhibition with Sturtevant curated by Udo Kittelmann at de 11 Lijnen in Belgium and a solo exhibition at Neuer Essener Kunstverein. Her works have additionally been exhibited at Kunsthalle Bern; Luma Westbau, Zurich; Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, Oslo; Istituto Svizzero di Roma, Rome; Kunstmuseum St. Gallen, St. Gallen; Fondation Ricard, Paris; Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia; and DAAD Galerie, Berlin; among other venues.
Tina! Where are you? And what’s that tiny bear in the background?
I'm in my dad's office at my parents' house. That's not something I have in my own house (laughs). I gave this to him a few years ago when I was in art school, and he hung it behind his desk, where it still is.
There are a lot of artists who live with their own work, which I've always thought is a little weird.
Yes, that is haunting (laughs).
If you made that in art school, then you've been working with the bears for nearly a decade?
The first time I came across the bear was in 2011. My dad listened to the Grateful Dead when I was younger, but I wasn't aware of the bear until my friends made flyers with it on them, to advertise a party where they were dj-ing, and I thought the bear looked funny. I found different versions of the bear when I researched it a little and I started collecting them. I found new versions online every day from the Deadheads, who uploaded images of T-shirts, bumper stickers, and badges to their webstores.
The piece behind me is the very first bear I ever did. It's an inkjet print on watercolor paper. After that I decided to print on canvas. The images I had collected were small, thumbnail-sized, and when I made them bigger, they got all pixelated. I was working with Photoshop, and there was a filter called the Oil Painting Brush, that I used to re-render the image. But I had a bug in my Photoshop version at that time, and the Oil Painting Brush made the painting look nothing like an oil painting. It gave the picture a psychedelic look, like a visual translation of a chemically induced hallucination.
I did that for one year or so, and when I updated my Photoshop, I could no longer make those 80 x 90 cm paintings because the bug was fixed. I then made a collection of all the bears I've ever printed and put them together in a picture book. The book with the title The Grateful Dead was published in 2013 by Forde.
It's funny to be talking to you because I'm a curator who happens to have the dubious and potentially unhelpful distinction of being really into the Grateful Dead. So I can either do this conversation well or terribly. But I came to the band after moving to California, and they're so embedded in California mythology. I'm curious about your work appearing here in the United States for the first time, and not in Europe, where you live. I assume you've become something of a scholar—you know where this iconography comes from, you've entertained a million questions about it, you've cruised through setlists and album lists to come up with the titles of the paintings.
As far as I can judge, I’d say so far you’re doing rather well.
Somebody once said to me, "You don't have to be into the Dead to be a Deadhead." So, I guess I am that kind of a Deadhead.
What do you mean?
There are many things surrounding the Grateful Dead, but, specifically, it's the bear that I find fascinating. I never listened to the music. And I think making a distinction regarding Deadheads who listen to the music is important, as that is obviously the most important aspect.
You sound a little "Dead-agnostic." Like you'll take or leave the actual band, which is sort of wonderful because you spend your time surrounded by their iconography. How did you get hooked on the bear? I've read that you were interested in it as a symbol, completely divorced from its context that could be sort of played, invented, or re-invented in an infinite number of ways. As you likely know, the Grateful Dead had a relationship with the idea of "open-source" before the internet and with regards to their fan's recording and trading shows. So in a way, you're a Grateful Dead superfan.
I guess so. At one point, after I couldn't continue to make those smaller inkjet paintings we talked about, I started thinking more about the bear and where it comes from. For the first time, I realized a certain disconnect between the name of the band and the colorful psychedelic bear. That is when I wrote a little novel.
For Panart Neuchâtel, Tina Braegger contributed two projects. The first one consisted of murals and drawings, that Braegger created together with students of the School Des Acacias in Neuchâtel (CH). The second part consisted of four outdoor sculptures. From the painted motif, Braegger has developed a sculptural form, luminous versions of the Bear, that are installed outdoors and through their arrangement create self-standing infrastructures on existing ones.
Wer wagt mit mir ein Tänzchen, der wird sich verrenken, (He who dares to dance with me will contort himself) Braegger's first institutional solo exhibition, mixes new paintings with selected older works in a dense, for some even confrontational hanging. This, however, gives special emphasis to the individual painting’s embedding in its serial framework – after all, each of Braegger's paintings is, in a sense, a realization of the concept, ranging from minimal executions to complex painting excesses. It thus becomes apparent that the Marching Bears are not, or not only, an excuse to paint. At the same time, they mark the contradictory nature of the idea of wanting to paint something new in a medium that has the weight of its own long history hanging like a millstone around its neck. This awareness of history is also present in Braegger's paintings, only that she manages to make the heavy look light.
We are not going to need clones,
because we all are going to be clones.
The beasts are fine, I saw two of them earlier, jumping around in the back garden of the studio.
In 1979 the American musician, Iggy Pop, released his album New Values including the song Curiosity in which the singer famously used the line “Curiosity Killed the Cat”. Based on the idiom that is usually a warning to either not ask any more questions, or to stop trying new things, it is often used to discourage someone from doing something. Mostly to discourage a line of questioning. Curiosity and repetition may appear as a connection between two artists from different generations and backgrounds. This thoughtfully put together presentation explores the idea of originality and repetition as well as transformation and representation in our image culture. This exhibition is advised to be seen more as a coupling than a marriage.
For Sturtevant (1924-2014) recreating iconic artworks by her favorite artists of her time, was an observation of new situations in the art world she was curious about. Since the sixties she has been reinventing artworks of very close contemporary American artists such as Andy Warhol’s Flowers and Marilyns as well as Jasper John’s Flag. Over the course of her long outstanding career, Sturtevant lived in New York and Paris, where she spent most of her time creating work spanning from painting, photography, installation, film and video focusing on authenticity and originality in a world of increasing influence through mass media. Based on her rigorous and unwavered conceptual thoughts, Sturtevant developed the most radical œuvre of her time that even today has the powerful influence on a new generation: killing expectations about the representation of art to access space for new thinking.
Tina Braegger (1985) creates mainly large-scale paintings of the iconic Grateful Dead bear. The Grateful Dead bear, colorful and psychedelic, is the unofficial logo of the Grateful Dead, an eclectic rock band of the 60‘s formed in the bay area of San Francisco. By accident, a bug appeared in her photoshop, which has changed this bear to a motif Braeggerhas been working with. Since then, she explores the image of the bear as a reference system through every medium: she has blown it up, warped, distorted, pixelated, fragmented, deconstructed, cut up and reassembled the motif in countless variations, using it like a modular kit or a framing device, a structuring logic to follow the same set of rules over and over again. Braegger has been admiring Sturtevant’s conceptual attitude towards art. Both of the artists started to look at an existing image and reinvented it new. The parallel connection between these two artists is the reproductive method and the ongoing curiosity to continue against all odds. Tina Braegger as well as Sturtevant explore the relationship between original and originality in order to kill all rules in arts but never curiosity. Where does it all lead?
In the exhibition Ich werde hier sein im Sonnenschein und im Schatten, which borrows its name from a novel by Christian Kracht, the dancing bear undergoes significant shifts in scale and perspective, appearing in fragmented and enlarged form over a number of different canvases, some of which nod to art historical precedents like David Hammons or Sturtevant. Braegger’s own interest in the dancing bear doesn’t emerge from the robust iconographic universe surrounding the Grateful Dead, but it’s worth noting that within this culture the dancing bear was constantly reappropriated and redesigned—changing appearance, context, and form. There was little, if any, distinction between official and unofficial use. In fact, the bear inverts notions of official and unofficial, original and copy. It circulated as a counterfeit long before it was licensed for authorized merchandise—the grateful dead bear is perhaps the “original copy.”
explore, which is less about the catch than the obsessive chase.
Isole Faraguna, On A Pink Planet, Good Will Hunting, Dead Dolphin and Praise Shadows. In a prancing, marching pose and with an enraptured smile, five life-sized bear figures are hanging on the wall. From head to toe, they are decorated with cultic body painting and hippiesque motifs – flowers, sun, moon and stars or ghostly silhouettes in a trance. On a blue, golden or whitewashed ground they appear like cutout-relics of a jerky collage animation. It would be fatal to dismiss them as camouflaged clones, as they are way more than that – ancestor-like doubles, ecstatic super-egos.
Out of the depths of the Deadhead fan blogs, these reincarnations of the psychedelic rock band The Grateful Dead (1965-95) are elevated to linchpins of a collective and personal identity and ultimately to patron saints for Braegger. Their names, appropriated Instagram pseudonyms, are firing paradoxical narratives and phantasms, which can be credulously held on to: fictional islands as heterotopic places of otherness; the painful search for benevolence in a cynically hard world; the shock image of a dead sea mammal on the beach as the transcendent experience between death and resurrection.
When projected onto the totem animal, they bring something parodistic into play. What becomes of a revolutionary myth in times when subculture has long been turned into the glamorous sublime and where a steady ostentation of virtuosity makes a mockery of the fanatic? It is precisely this metamorphosis from the niche cult to the omnipresent – borne by the nexus between the idol and her followers – which, above all, culminates in one thing: Pop that is less ironic than it seems.
Incendiary and far from condescending irony, Sturtevant’s “Krazy Kats“ are the bears’ kindred spirits. Originally created by Herriman and artistically digested by Fahlström – Sturtevant in an unwaveringly fertile process catapulted them from copy to original. The hunting of the bears internalizes that emancipatory gesture. It is precisely the mysterious aura of these figures that grows with its reproduction and distribution in the protected and yet porous space of art. Thus the illusion of its uniqueness survives. One might even
imagine that there the bear pictures perform what is at once one oldest phobias and oldest hopes of man – developing autonomous life and, like Byzantine icons somehow giving the impression of having emerged in a divine way.
Elisa R. Linn
Solo and duo exhibitions
Wer wagt mit mir ein Tänzchen, der wird sich verrenken, Neuer Essener Kunstverein, Essen
Curiosity killed the cat, with Sturtevant, curated by Udo Kittelmann, De 11 Lijnen, Oudenburg
Vom Bordstein bis zur Skyline, Weiss Falk, Zurich
History of The Grateful Dead, Friends Indeed Gallery, San Fracisco
Ich werde hier sein im Sonnenschein und im Schatten, Société, Berlin
The Dead Don‘t Die, Meredith Rosen Gallery, New York
The Other Dream Team, LUMA Westbau, Zurich
I used all my sick days, so I called in dead, Charly M, Berlin
Zu Besuch bei den Träuschlingsverwandten, Weiss Falk, Basel
Mummy Junction, Catbox Contemporary, New York
Tina Braegger, Artissima, Weiss Falk, Turin
The Great Fool Braegger, Weiss Falk, Basel
A Greater Being, Passenger, Pristhina
Wer wagt mit mir ein Tänzchen, der wird sich verrenken, with Marta Riniker-Radich, Forde, Geneva
The Grateful Dead, Everest, Zurich
Sea within a sea, Max Frisch Bad, Zurich
Just another freak in a freak kingdom, with David Shrigley, Walcheturm, Zurich
Paint-by-Numbers, Eva Presenhuber, Zurich
l’art dans la vie, Panart Neuchâtel, Bern
Lust for Life, Edward Ressle Gallery, Shanghai
Lose Enden, Kunsthalle Bern, Bern
Duna Bianca, Dittrich & Schlechtriem, Berlin
Felix Art Fair, Kenny Schachter, Los Angeles
No Joke, Milieu, Bern
La Thune, Smallville, Neuchatel Vivace, Balcony, Lisbon
Weiertal Biennale, Weiertal Hidden Bar, Art Basel, Basel
Apparatus Interruptus, Gussglashalle, Berlin
Trust-Camp CLUB, Essen
Pingyao International Sculpture Festival, Pingyao Hidden Bar, Art Basel, Basel
Neuer Norden Zürich, Kunst im öffentlichen Raum, Zürich
Caro Niederer – Good Life Ceramics, Kunstmuseum St. Gallen From Berlin With Love, Instituto Svizzero, Rome
Tina Braegger & Kaspar Müller, Shanaynay, Paris International, Paris
The dilly girls, RETO, Zurich
dead among the dead!, Ellis King, Dublin
Wow Tides, Mavra, Berlin
G.I.F.T., curated by Chus Martinez, Tank, Basel
Mother, an invitation by Anette Amberg, Le Foyer, Zurich
Life is a bed of roses. Un roman, curated by Stéphanie Moisdon, Fondation Ricard, Paris
Smoothie Conference, curated by Annina Herzer and Amy Granat, Jenifer Nails, Frankfurt
+, curated by Hacienda, 1857, Oslo
Europe, Europe, Hacienda at Astrup Fearnley, Oslo
Courting Aporia, curated by Lola Kramer, Gebert Stiftung für Kultur, Rapperswil
How to solve a problem like Maria?, curated by Lola Kramer, Chez Rosenkranz, Zurich
Elevation 1049, curated by Olympia Scarry and Neville Wakefield, Gstaad
New Theater Auction, New Theater, Berlin
The Book Boutique, Galerie Weiss, Zurich
Chewdays Bar Berlin, Chewday's, Berlin
It’s all in the detail, Kunsthaus Baselland, Basel
Unrealized projects in art, organized by Hans Ulrich Obrist, DAAD Galerie, Berlin
X-Malerei, Helmhaus, Zurich
Standard operating procedure, curated by Piper Marshall, Blum & Poe, Los Angeles
Drawing congress, Istituto Svizzero, Roma
First among equals, Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia
Berkshire art festival, a la fortune du pot, Race Brook Lodge, Berkshire Hills
Swiss Institute auction, Swiss Institute, New York
The cosmic is the new cosmetic, Studiolo, Zurich
Eins/1/I, Sinka + Weiss, Zurich
Times Square show, curated by Marlous Borm, Times Bar, Berlin Amerika, América, Amerique, Mark and Kyoko at Cleopatra’s Berlin
Meet me at the bottom of the poem, New Jersey, Basel