The Local View ? Neighbourhood Cinemas and Alternative Film Projects

Many small neighbourhood cinemas invested in the future. The digital options for showing films are opening up new vistas for alternative projects. Not all of them are legal.... more more

GoetheInstitute

03/04/2006

In the slush puddle of existence

The 4th berlin biennale of contemporary art steers clear of all that big contemporary exhibitions show all the time. By Hanno Rauterberg

The first page shows loss, the second, disaster. Then comes death exile suffering collapse pitfall enemies unease repression nakedness wilderness coffin horror malediction geworfenheit danger apocalypse emptiness suicide. And then "schweinwerferlicht" (light thrown by a pig, a misprint of "scheinwerferlicht" the light of a spotlight - ed).

Schweinwerferlicht, page 177 of the short guide to the berlin biennale for contemporary art – you won't get a better Freudian slip. The exhibition truly sheds light on all things jettisoned and swinish, wallowing in all the slush puddles of existence, wallowing in the depths, in the darkness. And the short guide lays it all out for you, page by page: loss disaster death schweinwerferlicht.



Andro Wekua: Boy O Boy, (2005-2006) Installation view. Photo: Uwe Walter


This sounds like the great depression and is... a huge surprise! For once, there is a complete and welcome absence of everything that all big contemporary exhibitions show all the time. No colourful arbitrariness, no dry mountains of facts, and also none of things that made Maurizio Cattelan famous. He curated the Biennale together with Ali Subotnick and Massimiliano Gioni, but is an artist by profession, an ingenious trickster and fool, who loves the grotesque and is a master of spectacle. He once crushed a sculpture of the pope under a meteorite. And his wax Hitler is the size of a schoolboy, kneeling at prayer. His has steered clear of all that here.

The Biennale is not out to bolster that which is quite strong enough at the moment. The race for bigger, faster, dearer can be run at auctions and fairs, where art currently brings in absurd sums, and it's all about trends, glitz and glamour. Berlin's Biennale wants just the opposite. It wants art to mean something, it is seeking closeness to life, it's is looking for things that last. It goes to church.



Kris Martin: Mandi III, (2003) Installation view
Photo: Uwe Walter


It is one of those Berlin brick churches, and inside, immediately above the portal, hangs a big black box by the Belgian artist Kris Martin. It looks as if it's been stolen from the airport, a departures and arrivals board, the display discs clattering away. But no letters appear, no numbers, no message. Just a rattling silence, nothing more. So it begins, the procession of futility.

Twelve stations await the art pilgrim, who sets off from the Johannes Kirche, wanders across Berlin's history, straight ahead through through the conditio humana, meeting mourners, child-bearers, breakaways, crazies, the abused, the screaming, the dying, and finally finds himself standing in a graveyard, without ever leaving Augustraße.



Former Jewish School for Girls in Berlin's Auguststraße. Photo: Uwe Walter


No Biennale before has ever pulled off such a show. It leads us from the sublime to the private, from the private to the public museum, from the museum to the dustbin. Along the 900 meters of the Auguststraße, the doors open to old stables, a dilapidated Jewish girls' school, a portacabin, an artist's apartment, a run-down ballroom. And the mood is different at every stop, new experiences lay in wait. That art's on the agenda too, is almost secondary.

At this Biennale the curators are the artists. They open doors to the unfamiliar, they show us the world in new combinations. They lead us into weathered places that tell of yesteryear, when Auguststraße was still called Armesündergasse or Poor Sinners' Walk, when the refugees from Bohemia and Rhineland-Palatinate lived here, many of them prostitutes and petty criminals, and when the Jewish hospital was built in the mid 19th century. The Biennale could relate all these stories, or those of the deportations or from life in the GDR or the convulsions after the Wall came down.

But it doesn't want to go into any of these stories. Auguststraße is merely a supply station where art is fuelled with aura, and with the credibility which so lacking at fairs and museums. Aside from that, Berlin is for the Biennale-makers no more than a "backdrop for a story which ideally, could take place anywhere". The locations of the exhibitions are mere "metaphors" for the end of humanity.

This is an enactment of a sort of neo-existentialism, and were it not for the raw columns and the enchanted buildings, you could quite easily mistake the Biennale for an offshoot of the Neue Nationalgalerie where the huge "Melancholie" exhibition is currently showing. Or even a branch of the Berlin Flick Collection which set out with strong existential leanings. It is no coincidence that two artists who were centre stage there are represented by two biting key works in the Biennale: Bruce Nauman and Paul McCarthy.

Nauman shows a labyrinthine perspex rat cage surrounded by a host of TV monitors in which a rat appears fleetingly, followed by a man who is thrashing the life out of a sack of sand with a baseball bat, so loudly, so frenziedly that you soon lose sight of which one the prisoner is.



Paul McCarthy: Bang-Bang Room, (1992) Installation view. Photo: Uwe Walter


And McCarthy also shows a cage, a huge one, that takes the form of a living room, nicely wallpapered, and which suddenly erupts. The walls veer off, doors slam, the very emblem of security has gone off the rails.

The Biennale is not otherwise so energetic. It has its shrill moments with some early Otto Mühl bloody outpourings. Otherwise it focusses on quieter works. There's a lot of drawing, pale and diffuse. And black and white photos are popular, as are blurred photocopies, or installations of tea bags and clay figures and screwdrivers. The artists plunder photo albums or the fridge, they wallpaper dividing walls or the floor, fragment of ideas here and there, vague associations, but no more. After all, the world is without rhyme or reason, so why should art be otherwise?



Anri Sala: Time after time, 2003
Video still


But there is a lot of concentrated work at the Biennale, particularly in the video rooms. Anri Sala shows a horse standing by the side of a motorway at night, one hoof raised anxiously, lorries thundering by every now and then, ominous and honking. The horse remains, the threat remains, the camera remains, nothing happens, only the automatic focus struggles for contours in the darkness.

The film maker Reynold Reynolds also shows paralysis, but of a much more laconic type. He films a burning house, fire in the fridge, in the bed covers; the inhabitants flick at the flames as they would mosquitoes with a newspaper. As if the danger were not dangerous, as if they had long grown accustomed to death.



Reynold Reynolds with Patrick Jolley: Burn, (2001) Film stills


This feeling – that everything is irrevocable, it's fate sealed – infuses the Biennale. It is a mood which all three curators worked very precisely, very consciously to create. They wanted to show, so they state in the catalogue, "that we are living though a protracted, uninterrupted, tragic end."

You may well wonder about al this whispering fatalism, especially because Cattelan and his friends are well known for dressing up in all sorts of guises. Only a few months ago, they slipped into the role of the New York mega-gallerist Larry Gagosian, illegally opening a gallery under his name. Now, you might assume, they have donned the existential abyss. But whatever their motivation – their production has a very perfidious side.



Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni and Ali Subotnick. Photo: Jason Nocito (2004)


Anyone who sees a place like the Jewish girls' school only as a "metaphor", philosophising sweepingly as this Biennale does about loss and fear and tragedy, is making a mockery of the real loss, the real fear which existed there. It generalises that which cannot be generalised. The architect of the school, Alexander Beer, did not die an art death, he died in the Terezin concentration camp.

It is "time for art to beat a retreat and to hide away inside itself", the curators write in the catalogue. And obviously they mean a retreat from history. Okay, so there's Robert Ku™mirowski's meticulously handicrafted model of a section of railway track on the floor of the old assembly hall, with a goods wagon sitting on top of it, portentously evoking the deportations. And there is the Klezmer band which Jeremy Deller hired to play a hymn to the Biennale. But the Biennale offers little more than this sort of remembrance folklore.

It opens up the conditio humana to discussion, without inquiring about historical backgrounds, it denies itself the political. And this is the difference between the Biennale and another canonical exhibition in Berlin recently, the big Goya show. Goya's theme was also man and his dark and animal sides. But his art always had a political edge, it was agitational. But the Biennale curators clearly sneer at such a thing, they enjoy bitching about people who refuse to accept the inflationary rents or the gallery invasion of Auguststraße. You can't change anything with this sort of argument, the catalogue says.

Evidently Catellan and his friends really mean it when they say "the end is near". This is the only way to explain the retreat to the ego. This is the only way to understand why they open up wonderful spaces of the everyday and yet remain absent from them. As if they were people in a burning house – everything is on fire and they await their doom elegiacally.

The berlin biennale for contemporary art runs until May 28, 2006.

*

Hanno Rauterberg is an editor of Die Zeit.

The article originally appeared in German in Die Zeit, on March 30, 2006.

Translation: lp

Get the signandsight newsletter for regular updates on feature articles.
signandsight.com - let's talk european.

 
More articles

When soft power fails the acid test

Wednesday 14 March, 2012

Western museums are opening their halls for huge state exhibitions in collaboration with non-democratic regimes. The British Museum is currently hosting an exhibition on the Hajj which is funded by Saudi Arabia and reflects the royal family's position on the ritual. Should an institution dedicated to secular learning accommodate such religiously doctrinaire exhibitions? Yes, says Malise Ruthven in the New York Review of Books blog, who evidently believes in the conciliatory effects of such cultural politics. Tagesspiegel author Nicola Kuhn sees the new "Roads of Arabia" exhibition in Berlin's Pergamon Museum more critically. Image © National Museum, Riyadh
read more

Art in circles

Wednesday 7 March, 2012

TeaserPicFrankfurt's Städelmuseum has just opened its new subterranean contemporary art extension, the culmination of a radical overhaul of the building and its collections. Hans-Joachim Müller ventures down below the surreal domed lawn and is left to meander through a refreshingly idiosyncratic retrospective that turns its back on received ideas about the progress of art. (Image:exterior view of Städel extension by Norbert Miguletz)
read more

Hokusai and the quest for perfection

Tuesday 20 September, 2011

The Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin is currently hosting Germany's first major retrospective of the legendary Japanese artist Hokusai, featuring over 430 exhibits, many of which have never left Japan before. It is hard to believe that such incredible diversity could stem from the hand of just one artist, but it is the product of a lifetime's dedication. By Katrin Wittneven. Image: "Onikojima Yataro and Saihoin Akabozu"© Katsushika Hokusai Museum of Art
read more

Who's afraid of Ai Weiwei?

Tuesday 12 April 2011

German museum director Martin Roth, who has just organised the exhibition "The Art of Enlightenment" in Beijing, belittles the attention focused on Ai Weiwei. His response to the arrest of the Chinese artist is alarming and clearly shows how marketing takes precedence over ethics in the world of culture. A commentary by Rüdiger Schaper.
read more

Protected by pictures

Friday 6 November, 2009

TeaserPicAi Weiwei - the modest megalomaniac, the relaxed rebel. Hanno Rauterberg met China's most interviewed man in the cellar of Munich's Haus der Kunst, where the artist was preparing to turn the place into a battlefield.
read more

The aesthetics of notation

Monday 4 May, 2009

TeaserPicAn exhibition in ZKM Karlsruhe explores the enormous range of artistic processes that exist between the moment of conception and finished work. By Kathrin Peters
Image: Dieter Appelt "Partitur" © 2009 ZKM
read more

Inflated phrases

Wednesday 28 May, 2008

When matter leads to immateriality and transcends the actuality of the object, we are reading a text about art. Notes on the crisis of criticism by Christian Demand
read more

Coincidence and illumination

Wednesday 19 September, 2007

Cologne Cathedral looks back at a long and eventful history. The inauguration of Gerhard Richter's stained glass window for the South Transept adds a new chapter, bright with 72-colour, frame-breaking abstraction. By Petra Kipphoff
read more

Poison in the air

Thursday 19 July, 2007

Now, as the last eye witnesses are dying out, totalitarianism is tempting a new generation to warm their hands in its fire. From Bernd Eichinger, Jonathan Meese and now Tom Cruise, is there no letting go of the Führer? By Georg Diez
read more

Summer of political art

Thursday 21 June, 2007

Both the Venice Biennale and the Documenta in Kassel have taken the dark side of modernity as their theme. Looking at how the two mega-exhibitons do battle, Hanno Rauterberg prefers Kassel's investigation of evil to Venice's concession to it. (Untitled, from the series Spring-Sow-Plum-Scene, 1996, mask 6, 2003. © Aoki Ryoko)
read more

Art on the cutting edge?

Thursday 14 June, 2007

Is today's art no more than the fashion of the day? Are there only niches in art, each with its own cutting edge? Brigitte Werneburg asks what contemporariness means in a world where the lines are blurred between fashionable art and artistic fashion.
read more

Art to the rescue

Wednesday 6 June, 2007

In a disused dockyard in Rostock, the "Art goes Heiligendamm" initiative has put the final touches to its G8 intervention. The preferred topic among the artworks is borders and overcoming them. Aside from that they deal anything that's good: information, documentation, irony, utopia, anti-consumerism. By Irene Grüter
read more

The unofficial documenta list

Thursday 3 May, 2007

Probable, silent, public, inofficial - there are many categories of participant in this year's documenta. What's lacking are the official ones. Because the exhibition organisers are keeping tight-lipped about what artists have been invited, we are left to guess, speculate, hope and dismay. By Ludwig Seyfarth
read more

Wurm holes everywhere

Wednesday 11 April 2007

Dada is back. Erwin Wurm is the great grandson of the Surrealists. The hilarity and hidden meanings of his stagings and sculptures unsettle and get under your skin. To coincide with a major retrospective in Hamburg's Deichtorhallen, Werner Spies visited the artist in his studio in Vienna.
read more

Smiles permitted, grins less welcome

Thursday 29 March, 2007

The art of glimmer and of deception. Seminal works show the roots and origins of the Op Art movement in an exhibition at Frankfurt's Schirn Kunsthalle. The dynamic of black and white fields meets snuffling electric motors. And a bachelor machine makes jokes and winks. By Ulf Erdmann Ziegler
read more