ALICJA KWADE
Self-portrait

Alicja Kwade has had her genetic code analyzed,
yielding some 259.025 pages of information. She
has compiled individual sections into files that
have been rendered into NFTs.

Alicja Kwade has had her genetic code analyzed,
yielding some 259.025 pages of information. She
has compiled individual sections into files that
have been rendered into NFTs.

»Gegebenenfalls die Wirklichkeit« (Where Applicable, Reality) is the last entry in the blockchain provisionally called Art History.

In 2001, her resemblance to a photograph in the newspaper showing a woman with her hair up was so glaringly evident to Alicja Kwade that the young artist decided to send it to her mother without comment. “A beautiful picture of you,” her mother replied. Identification complete.

Ich ist eine Andere, 2001, 2 black-and-white photographs,
© Left image: Esther de Jong, Right image: Alicja Kwade, each 15 × 11 1/2 in

For Alicja Kwade, this found photograph marks the beginning of her ongoing artistic exploration of what constitutes a human being. Yet her questioning of the self is anything but an obsessive exploration of one’s own sensations and states. Alicja Kwade is a conceptual artist: she questions principles from a distance. What social constructs dictate our understanding of who we are and who others are? What commonly held understandings make us believe that someone is who they are? That her first work on the subject, Ich ist eine Andere (2001) functions via resemblance, i.e. a visual impression, seems only logical.


In 1871, the poet Arthur Rimbaud wrote the phrase Je est un autre (I is another): It was his idiosyncratic way of describing the artist's capacity to transcend himself. In the same year, the physician Friedrich Miescher published a discovery he had made in cell nuclei. An acidic substance he called nuclein, after the Latin “nucleus”: nucleic acid (DNA).

What we are made of – from the point of view of a sculptor – is also a question of material. Until the 19th century, people still assumed the “theory of the four humors” based on an idea from antiquity that man consisted of the elements fire, water, earth, and air. In the meantime, we know that there are 24 chemical substances, including oxygen, carbon, phosphorus, copper, and bromine. Alicja Kwade worked for more than six years to get hold of the individual substances, some of which are toxic and not readily available. In the year 2020, she filled these elements individually into ampoules and called the work Self-portrait.

Selbstportrait, 2021, 24 vials with the essential elements of the human body, 1/2 × 24 1/2 × 2 in
[oxygen (O), carbon (C), hydrogen (H), nitrogen (N), calcium ( Ca), phosphorus (P), potassium (K), sulphur (S), sodium (Na), chlorine (Cl), magnesium (Mg), iron (Fe), fluorine (F), zinc (Zn), silicon (Si), bromine( Br), copper (Cu), selenium (Se), manganese (Mn), iodine (I), nickel (Ni), molybdenum (Mo), chromium (Cr), cobalt (Co)], 31 
© Image Roman März

The self-portrait has a long tradition in art history – an exploration of the self by means of art, an elaboration of the artist's individuality. In Alicja Kwade’s work, it is just the opposite: a portrait of everyone. “With many people, it’s already an exercise in shamelessness, when they say I," wrote Theodor W. Adorno in Minima Moralia in 1951. A little later, scientists James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA, the double helix. A discovery that threw humanity into a radical process of abstraction: The information about us is stored in ourselves as an abstract ornament, as a technically sophisticated stacked code.

Alicja Kwade stacks what are probably the most meaningful stores of personal information, cell phones, as a double helix. In her “Principium” series of sculptures, she assigns a column to a particular person, which then corresponds to their respective body size. It was only a matter of time before Alicja Kwade convinced someone of the actually forbidden process of extracting her own genetic material.

The relationship between material and information is a theme that runs through Alicja Kwade's entire oeuvre. She habitually disrupts closed systems in order to break them down into their individual components; to turn their signs upside down, and ultimately to put such assertions into perspective. For her, the block-chain as a new circulation channel for art is also primarily a construct to be investigated, which she then challenges through her artistic concepts. From the outset, she sees the character of the blockchain – sequential, indelible information assigned to a single work/image/file – as analogous to DNA, which belongs to a single individual as a chain of information.

Principium (detail), 2020, patinated bronze, 64 1/2 × 6 1/3 × 6 1/3 in
© Image Roman März

Consequently, she sells her own genetic material, after having first printed it out and made it available to visitors of her exhibition to take away, as an NFT. Such data is so private that people are not even allowed to have it on themselves; ergo, Kwade gives it away, piece by piece, into the numerous hands of strangers. Together, they have the full information, the entire code. In doing so, she continues to rewrite a tradition. Where Applicable, Reality is at its current entry in the blockchain called Art History. In the early 1960s, artists began to create lists, notations and archives as art.

From today's perspective, it’s no coincidence that Agnes Martin started painting fine grids in 1964. Roman Opałka wrote the number 1 on the upper left corner of a canvas in 1965, and consequently filled entire canvases with numbers, which didn’t stop until his death in 2011. On January 4, 1966, On Kawara created his first Date Painting, in the same year Hanne Darboven made her first Konstruktionen drawings on millimeter paper in New York. It is exactly the period in which the rules for deciphering the human genetic code are discovered.

Overestimating individuality is a characteristic of human nature. In order to determine mutations, a universally valid reference DNA was created in the 1970s, to which all values have since been compared. Alicja Kwade had her variations printed in bold letters when her own genetic material was identified. According to the logic of capitalist exploitation of the art market, to which she now hands over her DNA, those sequences with visible mutations should be the ones with the highest resale value. But Alicja Kwade has never been concerned with highlighting what makes her her. To the contrary: The amazing thing for her is that 99.9 percent of us are the same.