Adrienne Gantenberg’s Kookbat Circus: Subjectivity in Multimedia Explorations

By Dani Kang

Perfection -- an idea that is packaged, sold, and devoured as a commodity that one must own to live a life of value and fulfillment. This hunger for perfection erases the raw messiness of what it means to be human with all its flaws and passions. Yet, artist Adrienne Gantenberg creates works of art that transcend time to archive and preserve this rhetoric of the human experience, dedicating her aesthetic to express the inner workings of what it means to be a human being with all our contradictions and affect. So, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, and all those in between -- sit back and enjoy the eccentric collection of the subjective aesthetic held within the dark whimsy of the “kookbat circus”. 

To enter this refined chaos that is the artistic mind of Adrienne Gantenberg, one must first venture through the fairgrounds of her past. Though raised in the suburbs of Chicago, Gantenberg has woven into her life the culture of Macedonia from her mother’s side. Her connection with textiles, weaving and sewing was nurtured through watching both her mother and grandmother engage in this tradition ever since she was a young girl. Watching the women in her family keep this tradition alive, from regularly making their own clothes -- such as wedding dresses and halloween costumes --  to helping Gantenberg craft her own bags in high school, it sparked a creative passion in her. This experience and exposure would inspire Adrienne later on to leave the path of art education to pursue fashion design. “I love that about… cultural heritage,” she says, “but especially the female heritage and how sewing… [is] traditionally female work.” Gantenberg got to work using such traditions and repurposing them, taking on those traditional feminine practices while also incorporating her own personal artistry to create an original aesthetic.

Adrienne performing The Bearable Burden of Being, Costume Performance Art Piece, Concordia University

Gantenberg was also inspired by surrealism and surrealist artists such as Salvador Dalí, but credits expressionism as the large foundation of her work. She cites the work of Judy Chicago and the feminist interdisciplinary installation that can be seen in “Dinner Party”, Yayoi Kusama’s bold use of colours and polka dots, and the career of Egon Schiele. Schiele use of expressive lines and coarse constitution that made up the distorted bodies of his characters, engraved onto the canvas with a pure intensity and uninhibited nature that reflects the emotional landscape of the human mind, lays the groundwork for Gantenberg and her own exploration and ultimate recreation of the subjective human existence. Created with the core aim of repurposing ideas and materials, as well as finding life in many modes of media, her art embodies the feminine aesthetic in all its bewitching reality.

Similarly to the film theory of “the female/feminine gaze”, the feminine aesthetic focuses on the raw emotional expression of not just the lived female experience, but the lived human experience as whole. It does not pertain to a singular category of gender or sexual orientation, but rather as an emphasis on the intense emotional life of the human experience and its affective value, which its audiences are encouraged to explore and embrace. Gantenberg answers the call for art to move away from technical perfection and towards the internal life of its subject: a messy tapestry of flaws and ambiguities, where contradictions coincide and intertwine. Furthermore, she stages this depiction of the human psyche through a myriad of art forms, from theatre costumes to film, textiles, sound, video animation -- but, most notably, through painting and collage. “I just like the rawness of it,” she chortles while discussing the process of mixing paint and paper. “It’s messy… it’s not necessarily about making it look pretty… It’s about the emotions that [the composition] expresses… this chaotic collection of a bunch of things happening at once.” Channeling this emotionally intense and off-putting, rough and chaotic, kitchy yet refined vision of human emotions, Gantenberg thrives in a medium where flaws and contradictions coexist in messy harmony. 

“I just like the rawness of it...It’s messy… it’s not necessarily about making it look pretty… It’s about the emotions that [the composition] expresses… this chaotic collection of a bunch of things happening at once.”

Puzzled Man with Supposedly Large Brain, 2020, paper collage, acrylic, and ink on canvas

Encompassed under this aesthetic is a more political framework of feminist themes, unveiling feminism’s riveting empowerment as well as its dangerous underbelly. Gantenberg’s collage of poems and visual art in the collaborative 2020 poetry zine “The Sexual Encounters of Caterpillars” encapsulates the delicate topic of sexual encounters of young girls and women -- from its wonders to the dangers, the false promise of safety, the shattering of the mind, and the double life that they are forced to live before, during, and beyond the moment of encounter. The innocence of a sheltered little girl and her (self)destruction becomes centered as a work of art. “I’ve used the element of chaos in my aesthetic to [portray] the feeling of destruction: a lot of ripped up paper, the messy texture, like the paper is being manhandled,” Gantenberg says. “But also wanting to maintain an innocence and purity… representing young [womanhood].” This singular work of art is only one example of Gantenberg’s theme; the world and its people are chaotic and rough, but it can also be pure. One does not exist without the other. Dirty and purity, dark and whimsy all coexist to piece together the feminine aesthetic wherein the inner life is emphasized over  picture-perfect normativity.

Dirty and purity, dark and whimsy all coexist to piece together the feminine aesthetic wherein the inner life is emphasized over  picture-perfect normativity.

In the Bedroom, 2020 (From the Sexual Encounters of Caterpillars)

Gantenberg’s vision bears resemblance to the mission of Montreal-based contemporary circus Cirque du Soleil (Circus of the Sun) to bring to life the juxtaposition of the vintage-rough circus and the clean and high-art style of the avant-garde. Whimsical, Gantenberg describes. Grunge mixed with a weird imagining of the fantastical which questions not only gender binaries through a creative level of androgyny, but also brings to light the trivialities of strict binaries in any form of expression with the performers’ imaginative use of their bodies. “It’s like an ultimate art form: the body, the whole visual aspect of the spectacle,” she says, lost in awe. “For me, just being able to convey something without words -- that’s why I make art… There’s just a quality, an emotionality that comes out in the creation that doesn’t need the words.” The circus and Gantenberg’s aesthetic work to critique the trapping of the body into a social order that becomes obsessed with categorization of humans into easily regulated commodities, depriving them of the imperfections of what it means to be human. They simply want to feel, and revel in the uninhibited truth of what makes human beings humans: the messy workings of the human condition. It brings about a new age, the age of the freak show.

What is a Woman?, 2020, paper collage, watercolor, gouache, and ink on paper

This “freak show” found life within the upcoming “Kookbat Clown Opera” under Gantenberg’s brand Kookbat Creations launched in April 2020. She describes the project as a process-based experimental film, “an absurdist performance,” exploring the emotional landscape of human growth. Additionally, it encompasses a myriad of different art traditions: opera singing, costuming, an experimental soundscape utilizing abstractions of operatic voice, stop motion animation. The name “Kookbat” represents the pinnacle of Gantenberg’s theme -- the unapologetic expression of the kooky, batty, and weird. The brand itself embodies the patchwork aesthetic, as it exists as a space for her to explore a number of different things without tying herself down to one specific medium. The opera becomes a collage of art itself, and the brand becomes a trademark of the feminine aesthetic to show how it comes to depict a universal psychological performance on the subjective human experience.

In a time and place where perfection is the norm rather than an ideal, and many voices are silenced for not fitting into this model, artist Adrienne Gantenberg explodes across the art scene with enough unadulterated passion to fight against this rhetoric. From costume design to collages and zines, Gantenberg utilizes a myriad of media to piece together a story often silenced: the messy and hidden inner workings of the human condition. This untold story takes form in her unconventionally raw and eerily mesmerizing aesthetic whose images linger behind its audiences’ eyes long after they’ve gone to bed -- a ghost made to haunt a body who forgets more and more of its heart with every passing day. Along with her upcoming “Kookbat Clown Opera”, Gantenberg is currently working on “Bach by Bach”, a music video and sustainable costume art project created by her and her collaborator Max Davis. Johann Sebastian Bach’s costume for this project will be made from repurposed trash (such as used wires and chargers), building on her passion for reuse and sustainability in art.

You can find Adrienne’s work on her website or on Instagram.