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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On Quotations

 

Plan Werkbund exhibition 1914

Werkbund Ausstellung Cöln, 1914, exhibition plan

Many dislocations, replacements, translation processes and relocations can be observed at this year’s berlin biennale. A good third of the works shown are somehow related to a strenuous site-specificity, if not made for the space, then referring to the space in its larger sense (geographical location, historical parameter, etc.); one is the sculptural installation of Goshka Macuga engaged into a specific critique of history-making. History-making; as indeed she is reconstructing one-to-one exhibition displays designed in the 1920s and 1930s within the framework of the Werkbund (German Organisation of the Art and Crafts, created to support the German industry via German artists and craftsmen) exhibition by Mies van Der Rohe, the architect, the predominant male figure of the Neue Nationalgalerie, and his professional and private partner Lilie Reich, rarely mentioned in official history of course.

The biennial curators’ decision not to include title and names of the artists within the exhibition may cut off the questioning Macuga would like to highlight, but could focus on the tensional tradition of self-contained artwork versus the concept-form rhetoric. One of the structures she presents is a cute glass furniture, designed for a less sexy purpose: the display of different kinds of glass. The two other pieces are big frames responding fairly enough to the steel and glass structure of the museum itself, with some textiles draped on them: the textiles to quote directly Lilie Reich, the textile designer from the Bauhaus, educational product of the Werkbund.

A dialectic Goshka Macuga uses endlessly is the one of titles, titles that are only given in a vague exhibition leaflet. Here, these are referring to many aspects of the Werkbund, and of course its major figure, Mies van der Rohe. But I doubt every viewer could actually relate to them directly. The two glass and steel frames ornamented with textiles hold the title “House of the Woman”, that refers to a 1914 Werkbund exhibition in Cologne. The organised group of designers and artists decided to have a pavilion within this exhibition showing exclusively works by the female members of the Werkbund, and be designed by the few members themselves; segregating within their gender, rather than discipline. While the title of the glass structure is referring to an exhibition organised 1934 by the National-Socialists called “German Folk, German Work”. This exhibition took the same vocabulary than the Werkbund, and even asked the former members of the Bauhaus (dissolved by the Nazis as well as the Werkbund 1933) Matin Gropius, Mies van der Rohe and Lilie Reich, to design the exhibition of this ideological event. For sure I could go further into the theory behind all this, or through one of my readings of German history and the picking-up of cultural figures; but I would rather focus on the processes of reconstruction and relocation, frequently observed in art spaces.

To quote the biennale itself: the Polish artist Paulina Olowska is reproducing b/w reproductions of original paintings, while the Portuguese artist Pedro Barateiro is placing into Berlin’s urban landscape relics of what used to be glorious communist daily-life infrastructures. Further than being a trend on the art market, this use of reconstruction could be understood as being a strategy of semantic storage, which is the process of transcription. Macuga is only playing on the visual level of the Werkbund by commissioning young German designers for the textiles. She creates a vocabulary made out of spaces between communicative and cultural memory, and what has been lost within these blanks. While the cultural memory usually operated in the written form, to be understood by individuals of a certain social framing (generation-wise), the communicative memory used very simple procedures of first-person communication, that is mainly in telling. The natural process from the communicative to the cultural is mainly a one of writing, of sourcing, of referring on paper, of quoting. This process is the same than the one used by many artists at the Neue Nationalgalerie: Macuga is quoting the author of an object by reproducing the object, jointing bits and pieces of memories into an historical reconstruction. Then the sculpture acts as medial, as an image-medial tool of memnotechnique that becomes the transcription itself.

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Icelandic Love Corporation at Ard Bia Berlin

The Tent Lady's Hospitality
The Tent Lady’s Hospitality, video still, 2008, Icelandic Love Corporation

It is said Heinrich Boll’s love-letter to the west coast of Ireland, Irisches Tagebuch (1957), brought innumerable numbers of Germans to the region in the latter part of the last century to “play truant from Europe”. Different, but commonly pervasive myths about the particularities of place, draw innumerable artists and cultural practitioners from all over the world here to Berlin. One of the new arrivals is Ard Bia Berlin, a sister-enterprise of Ard Bia gallery in Galway, from the same region of Ireland that Boll once wrote so lovingly of, albeit now a radically different place in all meaningful regards.

Ard Bia Berlin offers a studio residency which has attracted a large interest from Irish artists wishing to practice in the city for a short length of time. In addition the space hosts a gallery exhibition programme, currently showing the work of the Icelandic Love Corporation, who are momentarily also resident in the studio apartment. The show is entitled The Tent Lady’s Hospitality, and is structured into two parts. In one gallery room, an installation; the other hosts a single video work representing a staged performance. The Icelandic Love Corporation’s practice has a strong performative dimension, and Arb Bia Berlin’s co-ordinator (Rosie Lynch) informs me that for the opening weekend they performed in the first gallery space. I won’t attempt to write of their performance background, largely because I am frequently non-plussed by performance in general – or more correctly, fairly ignorant of both the history of the form, and personal experience of good examples – but also because I am more interested in the fact that I missed that aspect of the exhibition.

For the installation simultaneously contains aspects of the tableau, the mise-en-scene, and qualities of the relic. There is a here-ness in the considered materiality of the objects that inhabit the space: inflatable balloon-chairs reminiscent of 70’s Spacehoppers, a mirrored medicine cabinet that seems to hold both a dress (or tent?) repair-kit and a disposable camera, a bizarre crocheted pair of leggings on the wall. A silver tea set and serving tray is positioned in the centre of the room under a fabric canopy, whose gaudy red and white striped patterning is repeated on all the walls. There is a distinct creepiness in the (literally) rose-tinted perfection in the space, and its allusion to old children’s film and television. In fact, something about it reminds me distinctly of the 1968 film Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang, and I look over my shoulder half-expecting the Child-Catcher to come though the door. I remember how my own childhood fear of the film arose not just from this isolated character, but also the entire creepy, colour-co-ordinated, and garish claustrophobia of the fictive Vulgaria.

On closer inspection, the silver tray of the tea set reveals the inscriptions of an Ouija board.

My co-presence with the objects is temporally disrupted by a sense of the to-be-ness and the there-ness within the installation. There arises, via the theatrical composition of the space, a notion of being in a place awaiting activity: a kind of empty anticipation. Simultaneously there is a sense I am witnessing the aftermath of something: an action, a performance. I remember a critique of Roman Signer was that his sculptures were merely relics of his far more potent actions. I don’t see this dynamic as a devaluing mechanism. I think there is richness in the dissonance between objects being both contemporaneous and residue. But there is certainly a tangled but forceful feeling here, and it is synthesised from my sense of having missed a thing (an event), the relentless ubiquity in the stylisation of experience, and the childhood references strongly present.

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Wunderkammer

Lars Laumann’s video work Berlin-Muren (2008), was without a doubt one of my favourite pieces in the Berlin Biennale. Even still, I always had certain reservations about it, which were confirmed by my developing unease while watching the artwork.

Laumann’s 27 minute long video traces a part of the life of Riitta Berliner-Mauer, who professes physical and emotional love for the Berlin Wall, to the extent that in 1979 the two were ‘married’. Berliner-Mauer has objectophilia – the sexual love of objects, which she calls objectúm-sexuality. In the video she discusses in depth her complex sexuality, her belief in the existence of a soul within objects, and the history of her relationship with the Berlin Wall, including her devastation in 1989 when the wall was largely demolished. She goes as far as to mention having sex with the Wall, which she claims is not masturbation, as masturbation involves objects of fantasy: which do not have souls. The video piece has prevalent characteristics of the documentary, or perhaps more specifically, the confessional. For the voice is always Berliner-Mauer’s (except for a brief segment introducing a second individual with objectophilia who shares her love of the Wall), and in fact her entirely off-screen narration is derived almost totally from the text of her own website. This fact perhaps complicates my initial reservations: are we being invited simply to laugh at the subject?

I must say that my initial reactions were to chuckle, laugh outright, or watch in amused disbelief, along with most of the audience it seemed. While I had the benefit of prior knowledge about the video’s origin, I’m at least sure some of the other audience members took this for a fiction; a spoof. But our collective amusement made me more than uncomfortable as I left the constructed screening room at the Skulpturenpark. At its root, the sense perhaps of participation in a soft exploitation. Actually, for me at least, Riitta Berliner-Mauer comes out of the work in a highly sympathetic light. Its hard not to like her, even if she puts her passion for the Wall’s survival before the lives of those who it helped oppress and divide; but as she argues, it was not the Wall’s fault – it did not ask to be built anymore then you or I asked to be born. In the end, she seems simply as a person with highly unusual aspects to her lifestyle, but who is unashamed to talk of it, and in result is tolerant of difference and individuality.

So what role then has the artist, and what role the audience? Does the subject’s collaboration in, and complicity with the artwork, mean she is not being exploited for entertainment value? It could be said Berliner-Mauer is the primary creative force here. She is the creative agent of her own fascinating character, and the scriptwriter of the artwork’s narration. Laumann is the recorder, the connector, the framer, a silent commentator maybe. An exploiter? I’m not so convinced: at least not one of Riita Berlin-Mauer. I can see that he is merely highlighting (as he often does in his work) contemporary culture’s own fascination with the perpetual wunderkammer that the Internet provides – the emailed youtube videos, the strange and amusing websites passed between co-workers and friends, the windows into lives of social Others. What role have we here then, the art audience – the freak-show gawkers?

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