The much-anticipated 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art brings a veritable treasure trove of internationally recognised curators, artists and artworks to renowned institutions across Berlin. The KW Institute for Contemporary Art is no exception. While visitors will certainly be captivated by the works on display in the main galleries, there are two spaces in the KW Institute that are easily overlooked due to their unassuming location and humble outward appearance. Installations by American artist Josh Kline and Canadian artist Shawn Maximo are hiding in plain sight behind unmarked closed doors, waiting to reward those curious enough to take the plunge and try the handle…
Buried deep in the bowels of the gallery in a grim, vaulted cellar is an installation of Josh Kline’s controversial video work, ‘Crying Games’. Produced using open-source face-substitution software, the video features a cast of actors posing as George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and Tony Blair. These individuals have been singled out for scrutiny as the key political figures whose policies and military campaigns shaped and defined the 2000s, the violent repercussions of which continue to be felt today. By digitally manipulating the faces of his actors, Kline presents the political leaders as broken people, irrefutably damaged by the terrible weight of their role in government-sanctioned war crimes. Filmed in succession, the group appear to be housed in adjoining cells in solitary confinement. Dressed in grey prison-issue jumpsuits and sitting on the bare floors of bare prison cells, the once proud and dignified leaders are mere shadows of their former selves. Regardless of the viewer’s own political views, it is disturbing to see the faces of these usually stoic and unshakable leaders crumble into tears of anguish and self-loathing.
Viewing the video in the cramped and claustrophobic cellar, it is easy to imagine the motley crew imprisoned deep within this personal purgatory for all eternity with only their dark consciences for company. The emotional anguish of the group elicits sympathy in the viewer and, despite the nature of their crimes, it is painful to watch another human being tear themselves apart with such unbridled emotion. However, Kline is quick to ensure that the installation serves a greater purpose than simply recasting reality and forcing words of remorse into the mouths of wrongdoers. The digitally crafted masks occasionally flicker without warning to reveal the true face of the actor working beneath the artifice, at once reminding the viewer of the crocodile tears (‘crying games’) that are being displayed. The cracks in Kline’s fantastical mea culpa raise poignant questions about the way technical innovations impact the human experience, particularly when emotional manipulation is at its centre.
Hidden in a tiny room off a stairwell, Shawn Maximo‘s immersive installation work ‘#3’ merges public and private spaces in order to explore the changing nature of personal boundaries in the social media age. Simultaneously acting as an intimate space for private relief and a social hub for public engagement, the installation features a hybridised bathroom-kitchen (complete with squat toilet, hand towels, toilet paper and sink) alongside a scattering of comfortable floor pillows and, to the viewer’s surprise, a large wall-mounted flatscreen television. The interior decoration of the space has been rendered with such attention to detail that the visitor is momentarily convinced that they have in fact entered a real bathroom, a feeling that is only remedied once the more unusual aspects of the space have been realised.
The screen acts as an information hub and plays a continuous live feed of digital content relating to the Biennale, which can only be accessed within the confines of the installation. The photographic forest scenes adorning the walls and ceiling around the squat toilet and floor cushions serve to accentuate the sense of retreat that the bathroom provides, the installation both figuratively and literally transporting the viewer to a place far removed from the gallery or even the confines of the city itself. Visitors can choose to make their experience of the installation a private one by locking the door or engage with the social element of the space by making themselves comfortable on the cushions, thereby becoming a force of change in how other visitors view and relate to the work.
Conventionally a space for personal and intimate acts, the domestic bathroom is often the one room in the home that can be locked and where the need for uninterrupted privacy remains unquestioned. Despite the permeation of social media and digital technology into most areas of our daily lives, the bathroom is perhaps one of the last remaining frontiers of near-total privacy and one which most people are unwilling to expose, regardless of the other ways they might expose their thoughts, bodies or lives to an unknown audience. The title of the installation, ‘#3’, directly references the common American euphemisms that surround bathroom usage. In addition to the functional activities associated with ‘#1’ and ‘#2’, Maximo suggests a third function for the bathroom, that being the addition of social and informative elements within the space. By reinventing the bathroom as a multipurpose space for washing dishes, using the toilet, resting, socialising, and seeking information, Maximo draws attention to the barriers that divide public and private spaces while also questioning the solidity of these taboos in the future of interior architecture.
Caitlin Eyre is an Australian freelance arts writer living and working in Berlin.