Cem A., the Creator of the Popular Meme Account Freeze_Magazine, Is Taking His Viral Art Offline

In2020,Cem A., the admin behind the popular art meme account Freeze_Magazine, found himself in his childhood bedroom in Turkey. He’d recently graduated from a prestigious university in London, and was trying to find a gig that would put him on the path to starting a career in Europe. Then the pandemic hit.

“I thought if I worked hard enough, did everything at once, I would have a chance to stay in Europe, and work in this field,” Cem A. told ARTnews, speaking in 2021. “Then I realized it was actually never possible. There’s a lot of discrimination in these institutions, but someone from my background has no chance to even be discriminated against in those institutions because I can’t even legally work for them.” 

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A lot has changed since then. With over 150,000 followers, Cem A. managed to create his own opportunities by balancing his relatable content with intellectual insight in the form of memes. The account has led to gallery shows, lectures, and curatorial gigs for Cem A., who now serves as artistic adviser for the newly founded documenta Institute in Kassel, Germany, having previously worked on Documenta 15 as a curatorial assistant.

“There have been some interesting twists and turns in these last years,” Cem A. said in a recent interview. “I don’t know if what I expected in college is even relevant anymore. I feel grateful that now I’m in this position to overcome those boundaries and do projects that operate in a space that isn’t really filled by artists.”

Cem A.’s artistic interventions are usually done outside the official exhibition spaces of an institution. In collaborations with the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark, the Museum Wiesbaden, and the Grimmwelt Kassel, Cem A. has found a way to tap into his evolving inquiry into how to bring memes offline.

In his 2021 solo exhibition, “The Party,” at the Berlin-based gallery Weserhalle, Cem A. displayed memes done in the Wojack meme format: a loner in the corner of the party who is trying to feel superior to the people having fun around him. In Cem A.’s memes, Wojack says, “They don’t know how to curate a meme exhibition” and “They don’t know we’re in a white cube.”

These are the kinds of memes that Cem A. has posted to his Instagram page. Now, they made it into a gallery. But since then, he’s moved on from this kind of work.

“I’m interested in not replicating memes in a physical space, but creating physical extensions of them, a physical echo of a digital phenomenon,” Cem A. said. He’s put off by painters who painstakingly recreate existing memes in oil, for example. Instead, he uses the language of memes in order to engage with an audience without just copy-pasting existing formats or images. While this is a different direction from “The Party,” these new works still contain the same vulnerability and humor of his more well-known memes.

Projects such as one created for the Berlinische Galerie, which at the time was closed for renovations, exemplify the sensibility. Cem A. created a series of signs that were hung up in the Berlinische Gallery’s vicinity explaining why the museum was closed. Each work was constructed to look like a typical German tin sign, with text reading “The Museum is closed due to…” One read completed that phrase with “an oat milk shortage,” another with “inaccessible Art Language.”

The collaboration was casual, done without the normal back-and-forth between artists and curators or the use of formal exhibition spaces and the press releases and communications that usually entails, so Cem A. was able to operate outside the expected boundaries of the museum.

“We didn’t announce the project until two weeks after we started [putting up the signs],” said Cem A. The public was left wondering who exactly had put these signs up. “It allowed me to do paradoxical things from the voice of the museum, and the audience notices this because usually the museum’s tone is extremely neutral, correct, and didactic, which I find very hegemonic, actually. Suddenly, subverting that official voice activates something inside people. At least, that was my hope.”

Reactions to the signs varied. Some left angry comments on the museum’s Instagram posts, expressing confusion, while pictures of some of the works went viral. A sign that read “The Museum is closed due to the Artist’s Ausländerbehörde Termin” (immigration office appointment) was particularly popular online in a city known for its expat community, its intense bureaucratic procedures, and Germany’s growing anti-immigration sentiments.

Other artists engaged with a loose style known as institutional critique have done similar projects, using their work to highlight—and parody—the inner workings of museums. Cem A. views his memes as existing within that same vein, whether he’s collaborating with institutions or posting on his Instagram page.

“As an artist or art worker, you’re put in a position where you’re expected to criticize the institution that you are vulnerable to, for financial reasons, personal reasons, etcetera,” Cem A. said. “In the case of memes, you speak to the audience directly. You contribute and also learn from the public consensus, and try to have an impact in that or be impacted by that. My hope with these projects is to continue doing that, with institutions when I can.”

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