Phil Collins's Video Installation Shows Lengths We'll Go to Just for a Feeling

gopnik phil collins
Jean Vong/Courtesy of Shady Lane Productions, Berlin and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York

The only problem with the latest installation by the great Berlin-based artist Phil Collins is that it doesn't come with an amazing Ginsu knife; it hasn't got any "buy two get one free" deals; you don't get a bonus zirconium ring, even if you call before 9 o'clock. Other than that, Collins's take on home-shopping TV, recently unveiled at the Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in New York, is as gripping and strange as anything on offer in this autumn's new season of art.

This Unfortunate Thing Between Us, consists of two camping trailers—what Collins and his fellow Brits call caravans—rolled into the gallery and kitted out with all the pleasures of an English vacation. They come with a supply of "crisps," lime cordial, and, most especially, a flat-screen TV to while away rainy days by the British seaside. Gallery-goers are invited to curl up and watch the custom programming Collins has prepared.

gopnik phil collins
One of the caravans screens the first night’s hourlong program; the other presents the next day’s broadcast, during which three regular Germans take their place in one of the three experiences. Jean Vong/Courtesy of Shady Lane Productions, Berlin and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York

Over two nights in 2011, on primetime in Germany, Collins broadcast TUTBU TV, a custom-made shopping channel that had all the trappings of a normal one—fast-talking host, slim spokesmodel, a bank of telephone operators—except that what it sold was utterly original. As our sleek host puts it in the subtitled video of the broadcast screening in the caravans, "With the endless electric blankets, gardening tools, upholstery cleaners, and fake jewelry, one need of customers has sunk into the background: the need for experiences."

That is, instead of selling consumer goods, TUTBU TV offered viewers a chance to participate in one of three experiences that the host claims to be Germans' favorite fantasies: "Interrogation! Porno! Death!" For the "low, low price of just 9.99 euros" you can buy the chance to be grilled by actors dressed as Stasi agents ("Reach for your phone now!"), to perform in a costume-drama porn flick, or to wake from a coma and berate the neglectful relatives standing by your deathbed.

gopnik phil collins
Collins’s take on home-shopping TV is gripping and strange. Courtesy of Shady Lane Productions, Berlin and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York

One of the caravans at Bonakdar screens the first night's hourlong program, during which the three experiences are "sold" to the television audience. Actors do trial runs of the interrogation, the porn (a foursome), and the hospital scene, while a bank of operators takes customers' calls.

Collins's other caravan presents the next day's broadcast, during which three regular Germans, chosen by Collins from among the hundreds who've called in, take their place in the same three fantasies. Gerd Radeke, a middle-aged man from Bremen, gets a grilling from the Stasi about his first love affairs and almost breaks down. A bearded youth from Berlin ("I've always wanted to know how people had sex in earlier times") chooses to play the part of a bewigged Jane Austen maid who pleasures her mistress while a strapping stable boy and a redcoat have sex nearby. An elderly Berliner named Klaus Funke tells his assembled family—most are actors, but a few are clearly relatives, weeping real tears—what jerks they have been.

gopnik phil collins
Klaus Funke berates his assembled family—most are actors, but a few are clearly relatives, weeping real tears—from his deathbed. Ivana Kličković/Courtesy of Shady Lane Productions, Berlin and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York

One of the standard lines about art is that it's less about the objects artists make than the experiences those objects provide and what they mean to their viewers. Collins seems to have taken that cliché at face value. His latest artwork seems like pure experience, divorced from consumable aesthetic goods. It's also guaranteed to mean something to its viewers—in this case, those who've bought said experiences and the wider audience witnessing them. But offering up experiences rather than objects doesn't pull art out of the world of consumption, and I think that's part of Collins's point. As our smarmy host peddles his goods, we have to figure that he's supposed to stand for an artist—even for Collins himself. And there's no doubt we're in the presence of art, rather than of straight commerce or entertainment, because Collins inserts so much artsy weirdness into the broadcast: fright wigs, goth makeup, other avant-garde details worthy of Mike Myers's "Sprockets" routines. "Let's find out together what teleshopping can do," is TUTBU's tagline, as though it's exploring a new art medium, the way abstract painters were once told to explore the limits of acrylics.

So even as we art-world sophisticates enjoy the wit and circularity involved in Collins's gallery installation, we are forced to recognize that we are no better than, or much different from, a couch potato in a cheap trailer, teleshopping for a garden hose.