In his videos, actions, and paintings, and with the idea of the band The Fire Spirits, Zöller conjures up the notion of an almost Masonic brotherhood in which work, art, and ritual are one. For Zöller and his friends, designs, architecture, and songs are a kind of thought construct in which ideas, friendship, and utopias manifest themselves. But the relaxed, almost stoned, anarchic high of his earlier paintings has vanished. While youthful crows used to loll around in bathrooms like squatters or bathe in broken fountains and tubs, Zöller’s world is now harder, drier, and sharper. The fountains that stood for all sorts of (broken and interrupted) cycles of money, creative energy, communication, and relationships, are gone, everything watery has disappeared. Flames are flickering all over the place; things are burning. The Fire Spirits crows are wingless, stuck in stiff, paint-stained blue-collar pants, lining up in classic band formations as if for a photo or about to begin a stage show. At the bottom of the hems of their pants, they seem to be making sparks with their feet. Or perhaps they’re already on fire, like Tyler, the Creator in his video for EARFQUAKE (2019), in which he sings about the end of a relationship, of an entire world, in a blond wig in an incredibly tragicomic performance, setting the junky retro stage decor and himself on fire with a smoldering cigarette.
The not only performative but also the choreographic quality of Zöller’s paintings become increasingly perceptible, the sensitivity and tremendous subtlety with which his flatly painted, reduced works create movement and depth with just a few lines and gestures. It is striking how he puts the recurring “characters” populating his paintings—the birds, tools, trouser legs running around—into myriad roles with very few painterly gestures, almost musically staging them. He proceeds in a similar way to today’s pop stars and rappers, who do not commit themselves to one medium but concoct entire worlds out of sounds, films, and designs. They tell their stories and personal mythologies with art figures, concept albums, and elaborately produced video clips that play out visual and musical themes in ever-new surreal configurations. Zöller does this with the same consistency, but in a regressive, deliberately outsiderish “lo-fi” version, using classical artistic means (painting, drawing, and sculpture) as well as experimental DIY processes. This includes the bronze sculptures, which with their FIRE SPIRITS lettering are reminiscent of homemade trophies or merchandising figures that have been enlarged and cast in bronze.
The refinement that turns the figures into precious art objects is based on an “ignoble” aspect, an inclusive concept of art. Zöller and his friends insistently work amateurishly, as a community of autodidacts and inventors. The fixtures and objects they produce are mostly intended to be temporary, existing for the duration of an exhibition as hybrids between utilitarian objects and works of art: tables, shacks, benches, and walls. Ultimately, the forms Zoller uses for his bronze casts are also such hybrids, glued together from the cardboard packaging of the stretcher frames of his paintings. On the bronzes, you can see the imprints of the adhesive tape and the cut edges of the cardboard.
Jan Zöller and the Fire Spirits (Side A) speaks of the surrogate character of the established art world and art market, which, while making people addicted to works, stories, NFTs, and other life experiences, cannot satisfy their actual needs for community and creativity. At the same time, this criticism is meant to be ambivalent, because in the end, of course, there are Zöller’s works, which are additionally fraught with meaning. You may not be a FIRE SPIRIT, but you can look forward to the songs and the albums. You can’t be so young anymore, so addicted, so in love, so visionary, such a punk that you die from it. You cannot not give a shit about all that—your fantastic house, your great job, the same old parties, the openings, and business lunches, the kids’ tennis lessons. You can’t go to the mountains with the Fire Spirit. But you can put a FIRE SPIRIT sculpture in your backyard, with traces of that freedom, that anarchic desire, cast into it.
Zöller plays masterfully with the often wafer-thin difference between surrogate and authentic experience. If you view this pessimistically, you might think: “Yes, in capitalism everything is commodified in the end, stiff, like the jeans of the FIRE SPIRITS. In the end, it’s all just proxy action, a kind of cargo cult that only serves to make these art totems even more desirable —even the dreams of alternative communities, of an inclusive magical art that touches our souls. It’s nice that Jan Zöller presents this in such a multilayered way.” But if you look at Zöller’s work a little more open-mindedly, more optimistically, you might also say this: “Perhaps this is a start. Perhaps I should take this seriously, and not just see it ironically. Perhaps I can break out of the cycle, or at least try to change the existing conditions. I can start doing this here and now. There is also the experimental B-side, which is not known to us yet—perhaps a spiritual revolution, a FIRE SPIRIT revolution, the beginning of a real community. Perhaps I’m on that B-side, too, no longer cut off and isolated, but part of the world that’s going up in flames right now.”
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