Exhibition // XX. Rohkunstbau “Revolution”

Article by AJ Kiyoizumi in Berlin; Thursday, Jul. 10, 2014

Many elements must be aligned for the Rohkunstbau project to exist. The Brandenburg exhibition, now in its 20th year, has hopped locations since its inception in an empty construction hall in Spreewald. For the second year now it has called the Schloss Roskow in the Havelland its home, still owned and lived in by the von Katte family. Curator Mark Gisbourne and others have been careful to secure local support, making the exhibition a site-specific exhibition worth the travel time.

The show’s tradition lies in a group of artists’ various interpretations of a theme, such as this year’s “Revolution.” However, the theme follows Gisbourne’s curatorial narrative, most recently based in Richard Wagner‘s four-part opera, The Ring of the Nibelung. The opera is an epic, depicting a power struggle between gods and the like. In this story, world domination is the common goal, which reminded the curator of “eternal return”: basically, the well-worn adage that history repeats itself.

Taking a seemingly traditional piece of culture as a jumping-off point and combining it with a mix of 12 contemporary artists in various media enlivens ideas that may seem a bit archaic and distant.

The castle as a setting caters to this dialectic. Though located in the small village of Roskow, it once served Prussian nobles. The aristocratic moulding on the exterior displays authority; the small size keeps it approachable. The location near Potsdam also provided a front-row seat in witnessing a divided and contentious Germany. Described as in a “deep sleep,” it’s clear that the castle isn’t used only as a gimmick to get people to the show, but serves as an object to be scrutinized as well.

Gisbourne questions: “Can art any longer be in any sense revolutionary?” The theme is addressed more abstractly than expected, which also makes for a better show than expected. Some of the first pieces seem to take the theme a little too literally, and result in unnuanced work that is quick viewing and a good gateway, but not as compelling as some of the works in the side rooms. Erik Schmidt‘s impressionistic paintings feature scenes from the Occupy Movement in New York. Faces are indiscernible, and in this way, we see a stencil of almost all street protests in recent history. But in the use of whites and bright colors, Schmidt’s reproductions from media-distributed scenes are a bit lacking in humanity.

These paintings are juxtaposed with the surreal works of Rupert von Kaufmann, which show a dramatization of internal strife and intuition. In the largest room, the diptych painting “In der Nacht” (2013) takes up a corner above a fireplace. Sculptural figures on the deck of a ship seem to look to the moon, sharks flop on the deck, dribbles of yellow bursts bring the only color to the canvas of grays. Gisbourne said that the piece was hung above the viewer to comment on art’s “elevated” purpose: it can depict the inexplicable ideas and emotions that cannot be described with words.

Many of the other highlights of the exhibition take the idea of revolution in terms of perception and prejudice. Nevin Aladag‘s series of six metal sheets riddled with pockmarks obviously suggests the aftermath of a machine gun shoot-out, but the two golden hammers lying in vitrines have stiletto heels as their points of contact. This concept was first used by the artist in her performance “Raise the Roof” in 2007, in which four stiletto-clad women listened to their Walkmen through headphones and danced on top of a city rooftop on the former border between West and East Berlin. As a Turkish-German artist, Aladag’s discourse surrounds the liberation of a hybrid personal identity by, as she says, “contrasting cultural tropes of tradition and modernity.” Identities are now hyphenated and collaged, hierarchies are refused. This method is evident in her piece, “Paravent/Social Fabric #3” (2013), which features what looks to be a collage of Turkish textiles and prayer rugs, only many of them are not even produced in Turkey. This displacement challenges our notions of authenticity, especially in regards to tradition.

Further on, the works of Ion Sur seem almost devoid of human contact, yet need human interaction to activate them. The abstracted pieces feature sound and movement sensors connected to the abstracted polka dot works and empty silver frames hanging on the walls. As viewers enter the room and approach the works, the circles fluctuate in front of you, so slightly that it seems to be only a mild hallucination or optical illusion. The method of viewing subverts the static, painting-on-a-wall set-up that has forever dominated art.

The term of revolutionary art is difficult to define. There are multiple meanings of revolution, as demonstrated with Smada Dreyfus and Lennaart Van Oldenborgh‘s video art piece that revolves 360 degrees. On one hand, a cycle means renewing already-established norms. On the other hand, our idea of political revolution means rejecting the accepted norms.

Markus Keibel‘s ash paintings and sculpture take this complication one step further. In a complex analysis of transformation, he has taken ashes of German encyclopedias and distributed them in glass tubes and dripped them onto two large canvases on the second floor. The spectrum of the speckled tubes are on display in the garden out back. His examination of the use of fire — used to destroy the books and create the glass tubes — and its symbolism in religion, importance in human civilization, and endless connections provide an inversion of the tradition in artistic material and process. Instead of a symbol of censorship, this act is instead a “formation of a new discussion site for the questioning of our changed reading behavior in the digital age.” He cremates the past organization of history, realizing that the digitalization of volumes such as encyclopedias have changed an essential way of how we function. While satirizing the past acts of book burnings by dictatorships, he turns it into a contemporary discussion of how we distance ourselves from the medium of books.

Gisbourne’s questions surrounding revolution and art have no definitive answer in the exhibition, but the dialogue presented tackles the enormous theme in smaller pieces. We see artworks that engage with the theme from worldwide perspectives, whether from the beaches between Tel Aviv and Jaffa or Tibet. The unique part about “Revolution” is its ability to unify through variety: the twelve participating artists present different media and interpretations, yet are united by the site-specific installation of their works at the Schloss Roskow. Many exhibition spaces seem to be removed from the world, as a neutral zone for browsing. But with Rohkunstbau’s projects, we are encouraged to remember our surroundings at every turn.

Additional Information

XX- “Revolution” – GROUP SHOW
Exhibition: Jul. 06 – Sept. 21, 2014
Schloß Roskow, Dorfstr. 30, 14778 Roskow (click here for map)


AJ Kiyoizumi is a writer living in Berlin.

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