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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The Sound of Others

I went to see Music From the Ether last week, in the Roter Salon in the Volksbühne building. It was supposed to be a musical performance based around the theremin, the performer being Dorit Chrysler, who the promotional texts described as “one of only a few performers in the world to have mastered” it as an instrument. I was pretty disappointed then to sit through a performance largely based around pre-produced soundtracks playing from a laptop at high volume, and accompanied by her own vocalisations, with the live-theremin layered thinly over the top as texture. The presence of the theremin felt almost as an after thought. This was not totally the case, and there were one or two pieces where the theremin stood alone, or was accompanied by a more discreet backing track; but in general what we were treated to was, I felt, a performer utilising the theremin as a simpllified aesthetic layer to add interest to otherwise competent, but banal music. Dorit Chrysler perhaps less mastered the theremin as an instrument, but rather as an alibi.

Recently I was in Ireland, and visited Project in Dublin, where Irish artist Jesse Jones was showing a newly commissioned three-part film, audio, and light installation piece entitled The Spectre and the Sphere, which centralised the theremin as one of the motifs. In the first part of the piece, Jones films theremin-performer Lydia Kavina playing a refrain from the socialist anthem, The International. The accompanying text draws attention to both Vladimir Lenin’s enthusiasm for the (at-the-time) newly invented instrument, declaring it “the sound and structure of the coming generations”; and to the presence of the theremin in American 1950’s science-fiction movies to indicate the presence of a malevolent ‘outsider’ figure. Jones here was hoping to trace both the shift in attitudes to communism spatially and temporally, but also the inherent otherness associated with the movement (and all its associations) in western culture in the 20th century; and perhaps globally now. The theremin acts as an agent of this analysis in the artwork, not purely because of its specific ties to early communism, but more generally because of the inherent ‘otherness’ we as the audience attach to it.

To return to Berlin, I wonder about the motives of the audience in the Roter Salon (including myself). Had we gone to see a music performance of Dorit Chrysler, or the performance of the theremin as a device, a strange and otherworldly object? The theremin is resistant to is use as a common instrument by the highly degree of fetishisation attached to it. It cannot be simply utilised to create an artwork, a musical piece, or a performance, whose identity has a degree of autonomy from the object that created it. All instruments and media of course make their mark felt on the product of their work. All works exist as the expression of the media and methods that produced them. But whereas most work maintains conceptual and formal elements autonomous of the means of production or expression, the theremin dominates too much in its fetishisation and otherness to allow this. Thinking back, I cannot ever remember a performer really playing music with the device, I’ve only ever seen people play the theremin.

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Dinge nach Katastrophen

Q: Why are artworks things rather than mere products, objects, items, fetishes, and/or commodities?
A: Because of their ‘enigmaticalness’ – their partaking in the great secrets of the World of Things.

Three years ago, I visited a museum for some research. At that time the museum wasn’t running as such, but was simply a collection stored in the attic of another, bigger museum in Berlin. The collection existed under the dust of classic window displays – vitrines as the main process of museological being, with the dust also being part of the scenography – and contained an infinite amount of objects.

With the time I cannot tell which object was the original subject of my interest (a hat maybe?!). During that working period I realised that my ideal in that place was not the museum as such (the museum and the artist here weren’t a couple that were successfully collaborative, in my opinion) but to walk through the archive in an existential way, looking at the inventory, influenced for sure by my own archival-based art practice.

The museum eventually moved in its new location – the pretty trendy Oranienstrasse’s area in Kreuzberg – choosing the setting of a former factory building and existing on the floor above the most influential institution of 1980’s West-Berlin: that is the NGBK – a great mixture of democratic organisation (with non-ending plenum), and a touch of particular West-Berlin Feminism, all collated with socialist good-sense. The Museum der Dinge (Museum of the Thing) opened after a good three years of non-presence in the city’s museum panorama, even though many interventions had been organised in the meantime. Some physical attendances of the museum (during this three year period) were the picnic sessions on artificial turf, using the Werkbund original picnic’s sets, or the Wundertüten (Wonder Bags) you could buy for 2€ in three early 1950’s sandwiches dispensers. The Wundertüten recalled of course the cabinet of curiosities the museum itself tried to suggest, where things simply inhabited the same location, the work of art next to the stuffed animal or other disparate things.

Under the title ‘Der Kampf der Dinge (The Conflict of Things)’, the opening exhibition in the new space chose (mainly due to a lack of budget: a small percentage of lottery money being the only financial support) a simplified systematical museum display with the objects simply put next to each other in massive windowed shelves. Some artifacts still wore labels from the earlier inventory, but the randomness of the display was not superficially ornamented by any apparent classification. It was just like my first visit to the Museum der Dinge, as it was, still under the cupola of the Martin Gropius Bau Museum; that is, with the exception of the light, the dust. Here in the new location it still looked like a depot, or like some antiquity market from my childhood. It actually detuned from the original curatorial challenges that the institute’s main curator Renate Flagmeier had eloquently and creatively managed to establish as an etiquette of the Museum’s quality. Unlike before, I couldn’t find any sublimation in looking at the objects, even as a collector myself.

Several characteristics were embedded in the exhibition; and my resentment also switched easily from one to the other: auction house, archive, laboratory, cemetery, folk history museum, collection, memorial, a local (bar), gallery of lost souls, etc. Nevertheless many of the total collection’s artifacts were not present in the actual exhibition. For example, in the collection group ‘Things after Catastrophe (Dinge nach Katastrophen)’, several typewriters deflagrated by bombing during WWII, majestically moving from a daily-life object to a relic in its most religious sense, as being prescribed now with an aura. The museal typewriters were not shown in the exhibition but remained for me as simple mystic memory frames.

In these narrows alleys land-marked by shelves, between which I moved incredibly fast, again and again, the exhibited objects, devoid of the usual museal aura, required instead the subjective alternative on my part, to define them with some tangible quality, to reflect some thingness.

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The Real Thing

(after the title of Midnight Oil’s 2000 album).

Brutal Youth, 2008, Daniel Guzman
Brutal Youth, furniture, door, plastic bones, record covers;
How to make a monster?
, ink on paper;
both 2008, Daniel Guzmán

“The responsibility and the autonomy of the citizens should be developed through a socio-cultural animation, through culture, arts and even education.” So was the idea of the Houses for the Youth and the Culture (Maison des Jeunes et de la Culture, MJC), an early post-war phenomenon in France, whose idea was to give a new (cultural and educational) frame for young people; in order to accompany them from the early ages until their majority. The concept of this year’s mediation programme of the berlin biennale is not far removed from this socialist-democratic idea of arts and culture, and goes even further in its utopia: in its belief in communities that create themselves through the getting together in an exhibition space, in constituting an assembly, in other words a democratic forum.

According to the concept of the mediation programme, mediation should be seen as “a vehicle of transformation (…) were a whole range of agents could contribute to the assembly of artworks and audience”, as written on the biennale’s website. For the third time I have been through the exhibition of the biennale with 16 year-old teenagers for a two-hour format of “investigations”, a format thought to focus or attentionate certain aspects of the exhibition in à la carte manner. None of the participants of such investigations have most-likely been in a museum before, or could even distinguish the term “contemporary”. Nevertheless they all came, maybe more forced than actually interested, as part of the obligatory art course between one class on the baroque, and another on trompe-l’oeil.

According to the format, the teenagers would become specialists or experts of the exhibition space, because they would get the opportunity of looking at art “differently”. But there frustrated the first attempts of the teenagers. How can the one obtain information if none is given, or the details have to be decodified? How can the one understand a code, if the mechanisms of the codification are not to be referred in any of their own experience?

In the aftermath of these difficult times spent with teenagers, I could join this experience to a special tour made for the former singer of Australian environmental rock-band Midnight Oil – Peter Garreth, now the country’s Minister for Environment, Heritages and Arts. As I felt in that case also totally out of space in a world of embassies and politics (or the rockscene in Australia, even though my link to Daniel Guzman’s ‘Devo’ piece was almost perfect here), this experience is similar to the one with teenagers as I must attempt to refer to their peculiar cultural contexts, or understandings of the art space, which usually differ much from my own background.

For most of the visitors of such art events – I would not talk about the art tourists, but a public that is not familiar to art, but believe in it as a tool for education and culture (as the post-war communist government in France believed) – the works shown have to deliver something immediate in order to be caught – usually a visual hook. I am here talking about these famously known maxims of “approachability of art”, or “access to the art world”. The general attitude towards an art exhibition is to enjoy the work, instead of attempting to value it. A methodical approach in counter-point to this attitude could be a one of finding references in a known context, in order to transpose them to the new art context. Moving one tool of value from one socio-cultural frame to the other.

For the teenagers I would ambitiously try to make them think about which degree of contemporariness an artwork should offer, in order to be understood in our societal context. After one of these investigations, one of the teachers told me – profoundly embarrassed that none of her pupils reacted to one of my most provocative attempt to make them talk – that it is difficult for teenager to get access to contemporary art as it is extremely detached from reality or their lifes. Right. If I would consider this comment, I am then floating in an area in which I’m trying to define some new criteria in the exhibition. Still as my role as a mediator, I have to adapt within the different groups of people coming to see “art” and choose the good card. In that case I could try to come back to some pseudo-pedagogical capacities gained through two years experience of “teenagers-workshoping”, speaking the infamous social worker language: a patronising attempt to speak the teenagers lingo, a excruciating experience for all concerned.

Through these experiences there is at least one thing that assures me about the exhibition itself and the mediation programme. Neither is actually ready to operate a dialogue between the audience, the work shown and those with knowledge. It is not necessary to refer to Plato’s shadows within the democratic forum (this year berlin biennale is entitled “when things cast no shadow”), but for sure sophism does not work with teenagers either.

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