Testing Aesthetic Analysis

Art Transponder, the gallery and project space dedicated to contextual and social-embedded art, opened last week an exhibition by the art group Reinigungsgesellschaft (‘Cleaning Association’ or possibly ‘Purification Society’). Promoting themselves as operating in the spaces between art and social reality, for this exhibition, the group has drawn on research time within the German consumer rights body, Stiftung Warentest, a product testing organisation and watchdog. As a subject rarely (if ever?) the focus of art research, I was interested to see the results, but unfortunately I have to say, most of the exhibition didn’t really grab me. I was particularly put off by the dominant presence of graphic collages and flow charts produced in a cheap, ill-thought-out digital manner. I might of been convinced of their relevance in mirroring the visually-impoverished language of corporate power-point presentations, had the artists followed through on this logic in their final display decisions… what we get instead are wooden frames and (bizarrely) passe-partouts. Maybe this is a coy nod towards the clash of aesthetics when operating between art and social reality, but I just didn’t get the point of the framing.

Not to be all negatively critical, there was a series of works which I very much loved, if exactly because of their well-chosen simplicity and lack of any framing or stylisation. Presented at the rear of the gallery space were three video loops (two on monitors and one as a projection) recording some of the real product testing protocols carried out on chainsaws. The machines are filmed in profile retrained or forced by various mechanical grips, armatures and springs. Repetitively sent in convulsive spasms of action either through release from some holding mechanism or into forced contest with their own safety breaks, the efforts and reactions of the chainsaws are meticulously measured and documented – with the engineers’ actions documented in turn by the artists (both figuratively and literally… in one video an occasional anonymous arm enters stage right to adjust or reset a mechanism). Denied real agency as functional tools, the mechanical beauty derived from both the materiality and actions presented by the chainsaws during these product tests, relates the objects instead to the history of kinetic sculpture. To read them more psychologically, the videos depict the restraint, domestication and observation of raw aggressive energy… a movement from a presence of fear, to that of remove and aesthetic contemplation. We could argue then perhaps that the videos are related primarily to the older history of artistic preoccupation with the sublime.

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La vieillesse

Recently I visited the actual NGBK’s exhibition, that reflects on the social topic of oldness, or old age, or  getting older under the title “Ein Leben lang / All your life”. The exhibition grouped international and generation-wide artists, mostly working with the documentary aspect of photography or installation. It wasn’t a thunderstruck topic, as it has been subject to much discussion, medial attention and societal consideration these last decades, but it was as a set, a visually interesting show, that also fed my actual eagerness of seeing art exhibitions.

Some photographic works got my attention, unfortunately Peter Granser’s Sun City serie of photographs of the well-known American pensioners city had a unfortunate feeling of déjà-vu, but Canadian artist Donigan Cumming and his photographic work Pretty Ribbon depicts an astonishing mention of strangeness and eccentricity of the documented protagonist. Posing in her interior, staging her old, almost inert body in unusual situations, this obviously tired body shifted into disconcerting beauty, that sometimes remembered the documentary Grey Gardens.

Through the exhibition, I remembered an early lecture of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Coming of Age, an obligatory passage for my philosophy class that kept me detached and almost insensitive, in other words, too young. For sure, I thought, once I will try to read it again but I hardly managed to go further than the bookmarks I inserted when I was 16. I may have now some consideration about ageing, but then mainly concerned with an elderly acquaintance or relative and a general fear of syndromes that now have names, in other words, it is not the getting older that scares me but the the decrepit of a mind and its death. This paranoid status alongside the syndrome of getting old was not really depicted by the artists, but the potential of the exhibition also resided in this position.

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Control: Drawing and Re-Drawing

Larissa Fassler, Hallesches Tor (2007)

The current show at Wendt + Friedmann Galerie, entitled Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, reflects upon the experience of living in a foreign country, surveying the work of eleven international artists living and working in Berlin, and one German artist now based in New York. As such it was in part a survey of ‘here’ (Berlin/Germany), looked at from a position of those in motion towards it (spatially/culturally), with many of the eleven non-German artists deploying different artistic strategies of orientation to embed themselves within their new home.

David Keating and Larissa Fassler are two artists in the show which utilise methodologies of tracing and re-drawing as familiarisation aids. Keating’s work was simple, the presentation of two large sheets of paper, one of which was a page from a local German newspaper, while the other was a precisely executed ink and watercolour replica, but with all the text translated into English. Made physically manifest here is the process of reading a foreign language text with which you are familiar, morphing it in your mind as you read into the language of your mother-tongue. The replica Keating manufactures represents the ‘silent voice’ that runs at the back of our minds as we read, we translate, or we compose a text.

David Keating, Translation (2006)

Fassler’s sculptural work appeared to be a simplified, scale-model depiction of a series of conduits or tunnels. The exhibition text confirmed my guess that it represented a subway tunnel, more particularly the various entrance stairwells of the ‘Hallesches Tor’ U-Bahn station. The artist re-built this purist model of the spatial aspects of the station’s complex arrangement of entrance spaces after first engaging on a programme of her own measurements and observations of the real space. This slightly obsessive act of observation and familiarisation reflects also a less intense, but no less satisfying, desire to have mastery of the local transport system, as a badge of success in making a new city your home. My near total appreciation of this work (both sculpturally and conceptually) was undermined slightly by the unnecessary addition of a small digital clock display (representing train times) and recorded sounds (of the station itself I imagine), which served to point the work towards theater.

Both artists deploy stategies of drawing as methods of incorporation, taking elements of the unfamiliar new spaces and cultures, analysing them and representing them according to their own methods of control. Keating’s drawing displays in a very literal way (actual language translation) the cognition processes that mediate our relations to all texts, of bringing the information into a sphere of our pre-existing knowledge, of resisting the ‘otherness’ of the text. Fassler takes the bodily experience of being in strange new space and, totalising her material knowledge of it, later inverts the relative scale of her body and the space to ensure her dominance of it. Mini power-plays are contested through acts of drawing. So as to feel at home within the city, they are ensuring the city feels at home within them.

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A bit of matter and a little bit more

Same location than the previous Monodramas, but different setting.

Two or three floors up in the ‘House of the Children’, that has been refurbished and standardised into European luxury standards, is the private collection of Axel Haubrok to be visited, again only on Saturday. The hallway, the elevator that offered a quick look into some marble nouveaux-riches interiors, the instant lightning system, the digital buttons on circular shape, everything was set up to wonder and somehow confuse between the facade of these Stalinist relics and the new interiors.

Haubrokshows less, as the actual show is called, is until this Saturday, the best installed exhibition space to be seen in all Berlin. Under a survey exhibition on less material/more concept, less shapes/more white, I situated myself two floors above Bureau Müller, again in a white and empty space, here slightly bigger and without a real window opening. Almost a perfect white cube.

It took me a while to actually recognize the work, and for once since months I wondered myself being interested in the information sheet the visitor can find, after listening to a singer, performing Tino Seghal’s This is propaganda, 2002. An acoustic moment that gave me a reference point within the exhibition space’s geography.

A series of slides, white chocolate on canvas, photographs, brass plates, a sheet of paper crumbled into the wall, a postcard, some clocks, a circle on the floor, a woman singing and some buttermilk. Nothing particular, nothing spectacular, but I enjoy the professionality of this ultra-contemporary art collection, without having to go to some other art metropoles, and without expecting too much from a financial shark such as Axel Haubrok.

Let just hope that this area won’t be called the new Mitte on the capital’s weekly magazine…

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Stan Douglas’ Monodramas

“I’m not Gary” : Stan Douglas, Monodramas (1991)

On the ground floor of what used to be the House of the Children on Strausberger Platz, a small office with a wide view on the Karl-Marx-Allee and its left-overs pedestrians has been used recently as viewing point for contemporary art. Opened on Saturday only, to allow former communication director of Skulpturprojekt, Documenta 11, the KW and of the coming Kwanju Biennale, to work in his homonyme Bureau Müller, the office is just white and empty. Indeed it reminds of some more glorious time on this alley, that marked not only the border between Mitte and Friedrichshain, but that rhymed with Soviet-Realist buildings from Stalinist style, opening though Karl-Marx-Allee, in other words the starting point of the newly conceived GDR.

For viewing Stan Douglas Monodramas, some 30 to 60 second video conceived in 1991 like advertisements, commercials or other entertaining soap operas and broadcasted 1992 on Canadian TV, I sat on M.Müller desk, that for the exception of the dark color, melted perfectly in the empty room. Soon I got annoyed by the office seat, being too small for actually sitting properly on it, or is it simply that I am not familiar with the ergonomy of such designs? The lamp was a bit dusty, and I was facing the street, so that every curious visitors of this warm Saturday afternoon could contemplate the office, and this small person on that huge desk, watching not only a black TV, but gazing through the window to the street, observing almost from a mirador the hazard of this avenue. The voyeurs to be merged.

On the desk, the only object of the entire tiny but empty office, stood a picture of M.’s wife and son – to be recognised for being sometimes on some Artforum tabloid pictures for her engagement in some Western Germany institutions. The attempt to recreate a familiar environment could not be totally achieved, as the emptiness of the room irritated me. But the akwardness of sitting on someone’s desk I knew, watching some art on the precious tv-format, wondering if he is really taller than I am, was a concept that seduced me. For sure it followed this art-voyeurism, coinciding then with Douglas’ position towards (medial) consumption, here the consumption also to be arty.

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Art Day-Trips

I have been to two art events recently which I felt had a “day-trip” aspect to them, in that they involved a certain commitment of time and effort to travel to a never visited before aspect of the city. I think the sentiment above reflects more (my) lazy neighbourhood-centrality, something that can easily set in while living in a big city, more than it describes anything about the actual remoteness of the exhibition localities.

The first was 48 Stunden Neukölln (48 Hours Neukölln), a weekend art and culture ‘festival’ in one of the poorer, largely immigrant, quarters of the city (but in which hype about possibilities for artist-colonisation have recently reached fruition). It was organised by the local city-area ‘Kulturamt’ and showcased the many locally based artists and other cultural-producers in various studios, galleries and off-gallery sites throughout the neighbourhood. Two such off-gallery sites which spring to mind are a church altar, and the top level of a multi-storey car park – however the locating of the work is the thing to returns to memory and not the actual work itself. In fact, none of the work I saw in this event I felt was any good. Not one piece I can think of that stands out as worth a mention here. The best mention would go to the well-intentioned efforts of the local Kulturamt itself in organising an event the attempts to utilise art as a draw for people to a part of their city they may never of ventured to before, and for a short space of time, to activate comprehensively the local base of cultural producers. It is just a pity that this same base of cultural producers was unable to meet the challenge, and actually contribute some high-quality art.

The second event, Palm Fiction, organised by the White Elephant Collective, was a temporary two-week exhibition (with a bar and music stage) in a large former palm-oil warehouse near Ostkreuz. A handsome and dilapidated old building, the site is one where planned development into luxury apartments has been forestalled, and again artists take a moment to utilise the space. So it is transformed into a short-term site of cultural display, that which once-upon-a-time was cog in the exploitation of colonial trade, and presently is left fallow as the building’s speculator/developer awaits a favourable upturn in the trade winds of the property market. A charged site then, ripe for semiotic and critical exploitation, but again no one really steps up to the challenge I feel. Okay, there are brief aesthetic and conceptual acknowledgments of industrial and trade history, or our various relations to far-off destinations, but it is so dispersed in its intentions and soft in its delivery (and not to mention, in the main, badly produced, installed and curated, but lets leave that out for the moment), that it all washed very thin. I feel an opportunity was missed by the artists chosen to exhibit, to really explore collectively the mechanics of exhibition-making while embedded amongst a rich network of power relations and re-evaluations (colonial, property, cultural-tourism). Instead what was presented I think was a desperate scramble by the artists for individual moments of site-specifity, and to wildly varying degrees of success.

Two nice days out then, with interesting locations in Berlin, but a pity the postcards weren’t all that good.

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Resumption of Service Announcement

Sorry for the many weeks of interruption, but we have been busy as the proverbial Bee lately, working hard on our own projects instead of reviewing (criticizing) the work of others.

Normal service will resume now….

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