Article by Madeleine Morley // Apr. 8, 2015
DEVOUR! is an exhibition spread across Berlin and Leipzig, a series of talks and screenings and art pieces that interrogate the idea of ‘social cannibalism’ in late-modernist architecture. It takes its name and thinking from the 1928 ‘Anthropophagic’ manifesto by Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade, which essentially called for a new national identity. In it, with gusto and surrealist vigour, Andrade conjured and then reclaimed the figure of the Brazilian cannibal as a symbol for a new epoch, a movement that would devour European culture – as well as the images of its own inheritance – in order to produce art free of the colonial past. The idea was “against all importers of canned consciousness”, and architecturally, modernism became the ‘canned good’ to be devoured, regurgitated, and repackaged.
With this cannibalistic metaphor in mind, Curator Marta Jecu‘s meticulously researched exhibition brings together historic material and contemporary artwork that responds to or documents the effect of post-colonial architecture on local communities. In delving into the lives lived inside the greying blocks and high-rise towers of late-modernism, Jecu establishes the way in which the culturally loaded spaces begin to harbour new political and social meanings.
With a copy of Andrade’s manifesto, I enter a darkened room at my first stop of DEVOUR! at the Freies Museum near Kreuzberg. A projected video plays, depicting a man running through the streets of Brazil carrying a cardboard copy of iconic modernist buildings above his head. The artist, Jordi Colomer, momentarily embodies the building as our attention and gaze fixates on him: instead of the glimmering structures appearing to us as the Utopias of modernism’s myth, the incongruity of the local context becomes blatantly apparent.
Moving from this open-space into a narrow corridor, a series of doors open up into small rooms that showcase work by various artists. One room contains a telling record by Matias Machado of the changes undergone in a quarter in Cordoba, Argentina as a result of private interests, and another is an installation by Pedro Valdez Cardoso that explores colonial encampment structures in Central Africa. Whether intended or not, the spatial setup of rooms is effective, evoking the long, repetitive corridor spaces of large, purpose-built modern housing. In the same way that inhabitants colour these spaces with their individual lives, the different artists similarly respond in diverging ways to the effects of post-colonial architecture. Individually, the works are of anthropological interest, and together, they contribute to Jecu’s greater dialogue.
Two particularly memorable films play in two of the rooms, A Survey of Modern Architecture in Tanzania by Jord den Hollander and Africa Shafted: Under One Roof (Ponte Building, Johannesburg) by Ingrid Martens. The documentaries consider the effects of modernism in Africa, where local architects in the 50s and 60s collaborated not with European designs, but with imported solutions from Brazil. In doing this, the architects addressed for the first time a sense of locality, which was radically different from the implanted European models from previous years that ignored geographical context. Two other films play after these, but as the works are full-length movies, there isn’t time to watch the entirety of Jecu’s curatorial choices.
Although it’s not possible to consume all of the films and projects on display in both Berlin and Leipzig, the things you miss become like footnotes to the exhibition, information to be looked up and thought about later. The breadth of sources and ideas available throughout DEVOUR! can be overwhelming, but the exhibition should be thought of as a spatial reification of a dense, provocative book, not necessarily there to be read all in one go.
Leaving the Freies Museum and trekking to ZK/U in Moabit to see another part of the show begins a new chapter of DEVOUR!. The pieces continue to probe and unravel notions of the effects of late-modernism on communities, showcasing projects by local activists that attempt to re-think their surroundings. On the way out, still clutching Andrade’s manifesto, the monstrous grey slabs of a building site neighbouring the gallery seems like an accidental installation that echoes the shows notions of ‘social cannibalism’: it’s yet another incongruous block, a structure that affirms the exhibition’s continued global relevance.
Madeleine Morley is a writer and editor from London. She studied English literature at Cambridge University (2013) and is currently in Berlin working on her MA thesis on 20th Century architecture and design for the Courtauld Institute of Art. www.madeleine-morley.tumblr.com