ROHKUNSTBAU is a series of contemporary art exhibitions rediscovering forgotten cultural institutions around Brandenburg. Initiated by Dr. Arvid Boellert and curator Mark Gisbourne, this year’s ‘XXIII ROHKUNSTBAU: Die Schönheit im Anderen (The Beauty of Difference)’ is at Spreewald’s run-down Schloss Lieberose, a two hour pilgrimage from Berlin. But the trip is absolutely worth it. The exhibition has been curated under the theme of constructing the self through the relation to other, and more widely, celebrating cultural diversity in a time of xenophobia and mass migration. But there is a fine line to balance between acknowledging difference, and reverting into binary thinking.
Indeed, 11 artists are each representing a country, despite their complex living, working, and travelling habits. Each body of work is given its own room to breath, where the stunning surviving features of the Schloss Lieberose provide a stimulating backdrop that both enhances or, at times, appropriately challenges the work. Despite the stated curatorial mission, unfortunately, the excess space also has the effect of preventing dialogue between the separated, diverse artists. The readymade banality of Norwegian/Danish duo Elmgreen & Dragset’s tongue-in-cheek, ‘Too Heavy’, a quite literal lump of pure aluminium weighing down a tensed mini trampoline, is overlooked by an intricate, ornate baroque ceiling of swirling putti and eagles. Scottish artist Andrew Gilbert‘s abstracted mixed media sculptures take the form of imperial British militia, built up from a clutter of low-brow cultural referents of their brutally conquered lands. They stand in a room of intricate dark wood panelling reminiscent of the revered bourgeois home, and remind one not only of the violence of colonialism, but of the intense ideological consequences as well, where certain cultures and practises were deemed as lower, barbaric, and ultimately unworthy; ways of thinking that still very much exist. The disfigured head of a moustached, white militant with his eyes gouged out delightfully teeters on the mantelpiece of the palace’s fireplace.
Belgium-based Pélagie Gbaguidi, born of Benin origin in Dakar, calls herself a contemporary “Griot”, the traditional West African travelling artists maintaining oral histories. She attempts to archive and deconstruct postcolonial histories relevant to her experiences through expressive, immediate drawings of others and of scenes, recalling Surrealist techniques of automatic drawing. An interview with the artist plays in the corner of the room, and demonstrates her intense working process. Gbaguidi’s inclusion is the strongest realisation of psychological actualisation within the curatorial mission, and the drawings leave a deep impression.
Toshihiko Mitsuya, on the other hand, attempts to force a western audience into confronting a perspective of themselves as seen from the cultural standpoint of Japan. While such an approach may satirically point out the exotifying tendencies in the western gaze, Mitsuya’s choice in portraying medieval knights in tinfoil, while technically impressive, falls short of this criticism, and instead, becomes superfluous. The work also suggests a constructed divide between East and West, as separate entities, and ignores blended histories so important in dismantling mythic nationalism. It is, nonetheless, enjoyable to see. While the curatorial mission of integration may not have been realized to its fullest, there is nonetheless a wide array of fantastic work, from artists who have much to offer beyond their identities.