The flagship exhibition for Berlin Art Week, Stadt/Bild (Image of a City) was commissioned by the governing Mayor of Berlin and the Senate Chancellery – proof, if it was ever needed, that the city of Berlin’s interest in navel-gazing extends to the highest reaches of authority. It spans four different institutions, each taking a different strand of the theme as its starting point, but the most expansive exhibitions take place in the KW Institute and Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle.
Yes, the show is about cities in general, but Berlin is inevitably the utopia to keep in mind, if nothing else, because its perimeter surrounds you as you enter the exhibition. This is a notion that the curators of the KW’s show (Welcome to the Jungle) want to throw out of the window. The entrance to the show is through the basement, where visitors must walk through maintenance rooms to create an intermediate non-space between the city and the art. Visitors are first confronted by Marianne Vlaschits’ colourful display of phallic blowup palm trees, trompe l’oeil human cardboard cutouts in provocative poses, plastic fruit and unlabelled cosmetic bottles. It’s a fitting entry point for the exhibition as a whole, which considers exiting the city as an exit of our conscious minds: the jungle’s potential as a space for a wilder, more fantastic and more destructive life, just like in the Guns N Roses song.
The first half of the exhibition deals with the creation of the jungle as the Other, whether that takes the form of a desert, tropical island or deserted buildings. Even the oldest city has had a human mind at work on it; in this sense, they have been consciously rationalised. By contrast, irrational spaces give us the option of exploring selves beyond this. The subconscious is unavoidable in Ulu Braun’s two-channel video projection ‘The Park’ in the gallery’s main room, where more surrealist imagery weaves around itself: two screens facing each other panorama around the eponymous leisure space, where isolated characters repetitively, compulsively caress each other, drink beer, or run aimlessly in circles. There’s an unmistakeable gif-ness to their movements, which are neither premeditated nor out of control. It simply happens.
Between the mirroring planes of this work is Klaus Weber’s ‘Sandfountain’: an urban monument overflowing with grains of the distant desert, or the beach. The sand is shifted down the fountain’s layers by the air pouring from the fountain’s stone-carved gremlins’ lips, pushing sand from tier to tier like a coin-pushing machine in a casino.
These explorations of the subconscious’s expulsion from the city are the strongest point in the show: particularly Julius von Bismarck’s video work ‘Landscape Painting (Jungle)’ (2015), which depicts a group of painters whitewashing a jungle’s leaves, before repainting them in various shades of green. Alice in Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts’ command to “paint the roses red” inevitably comes to mind: another othered place, refashioning reality through artificial means.
It is when the exhibition gets to its second, murkier, half, that what we’re looking at becomes less clear. While the downstairs gallery room creates a clear link to place and situation, upstairs, the exhibition stares into the abyss of the subconscious itself. Without the anchoring of cities, the object of our attention dissipates. Camilla Wills’ ‘Dictated from Bed’ (2011) takes a mostly urban approach to visuals, while the audio is a monologue, presumably from the artist’s subconscious. Murkier still is the connection to Loretta Fahrenholz’s ‘My Throat My Air’, a surreal film in which everything is both literally and metaphorically a child’s game. As you exit the show, you have to walk past the entrance you walked in through. But the circuit you’ve traversed is unclear – perhaps that’s the point.
At the DB Kunsthalle, things become a lot more literal. Ownership of the city is what’s at stake here, a struggle that was emphasised when I visited by the pro-life march, surrounded by riot police happening outside the doors. I’m asked where I’m going before I enter the gallery doors, in case I am some kind of troublemaker. The responses of pointing, “kunst” and “Galerie” finally get through and the staff unlock the door for me. If the city is in dialogue with its residents, as the curatorial text just inside the doors stated, Berlin was shouting at me.
The title of this strand of the exhibition is Xenopolis, referring to the city’s position as a “free zone” that belongs to no one. Yet, as citizens, we persist in the historical notion that they represent a country’s core: where its national spirit lies. This reading of cities is at odds with our globalised world, argues curator Simon Njami: after all, cities can now be home to anyone with an Airbnb account. If we all “belong” in cities, how can anyone really belong?
Loris Cecchini’s, ‘Monologue Patterns’ (2005/15), transparent mobile homes filled with cacti, are instantly striking on entry. Interior and exterior are confused – the mobile homes let our eyes in, only to find that the outside has made its way inside, albeit in the form of houseplants. The main room houses another makeshift structure, this time to contain Laurence Bonvin’s film of the “temporary relocating area” Blikkiesdorp, which sits on the periphery of Cape Town. Many of its inhabitants were forcefully moved there before the 2010 World Cup, and yet the slow panning camera shows pride, organisation and community: makeshift homes that are nonetheless carefully demarcated and tidied. The message is clear: people themselves create the image of a city.
In both of these more extensive exhibitions there’s a preponderance of video works, requiring visitors’ frequent stops for headphones. In this sense, the art space becomes even more like the city outside than perhaps is intended. Plugged into new ways of experiencing, the image of a city seems to be as much about shutting off from space as it is about creating engagement with it – relational aesthetics, where is your god now?
Here, the works on at the Berlinische Galerie and Neue Nationalgalerie offer more involved perspectives on space in the city. Allan Kaprow’s ‘Fluids’ takes the form of stacked, regularly-sized ice blocks, that create a boxed space, which melts as time goes on. This work from the “father of happenings” is also turned into various “versions” for Berlin Art Week. Ahmet Öğüt, for example, added a crate of bottled water, labelled “One Ordinary Happening” outside each of the Stadt/Bild locations, being given away for free. The water, of course, disappears, as time goes on, just as in the Kaprow original.
Berlin’s redevelopment into what it is today has always been a controversial subject: how does a city reform its identity after being divided for so long? Arno Brandlhuber is a critic on architecture and urbanism, and has long been opposed to the Hauptstadt’s “critical reconstruction”. With this in mind, he went through the Berlinische Galerie’s archive, along with architect Florian Hertweck and designer Thomas Mayfried, to create the publication The Dialogic City: Berlin wird Berlin. Much of the archive’s material is also on show, but this is intended as a comment on the publication itself, rather than part of the work. It’s an atypically backseat position for the national museum of the city.
The range of different approaches shows something of what a city could be to contemporary art today, but none of them quite sum it up. Just like the city itself, it’s stronger together.
Group Show: Welcome to the Jungle
Group Show: Xenopolis
Allan Kaprow: Fluids
Brandlhuber+Hartweck, Mayfried: The Dialogic City: Berlin wird Berlin
Exhibition: Sept. 16 – Nov. 08, 2015