Article by Jack Radley in Berlin // Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017
We are fascinated by infinity because we are not infinite. The loop, unlike us, never finishes, and neither does our fascination with the self-contained circuits of our world, from the hyper-saturation of internet GIFs to the endless rhythms of techno sets. Spanning art, film, architecture, music, literature, and cultural history, ‘Never Ending Stories’ at Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg explores the loop in both space and time. From Sisyphus and Siddhartha to the “political merry-go-round” of Donald Trump’s negative feedback loop, this textbook-like approach to the theme is exhaustive. While the exhibition successfully convinces us of the ubiquity and importance of the loop, it often feels like its display of works (or reproductions thereof) merely presents examples that support a thesis, rather than encouraging closer examination of the objects in the museum space.
To hammer home the ubiquity of the loop in our everyday culture, the museum displays everyday examples as readymades, although they were not intended to be critical works of art for an exhibition. A looping digital fireplace, as found at the Motel One in Hauptbahnhof Berlin, provides no warmth in the lobby of the museum but attempts to conflate art and life. The museum wallpapers the covers of ‘Brigitte’ magazine, the largest woman’s magazine in Germany, around this digital screen. These covers advertise its annual second issue with different iterations of ‘The New Brigitte Diet’, reminding us of the endless cycle of wanting to lose weight and the infinite fads that promise to help. The museum’s attempt to act as artist feels like an author quoting herself in a dissertation: these works feel more appropriate for textbook illustrations because their original context—such as the scale and tactile experience of magazines—has been transformed to increase visual appeal.
But the loop is not just conceptual. Ever since we have probed our temporal experience in the world, we have investigated the physical properties that seem to transcend this. Max Beckmann’s ‘Café Interior with Mirror-Play’ explores the infinite perspective of the café mirror, recalling the optics of Manet’s ‘Bar at the Folies-Bergère’. We struggle to distinguish artist, subject, object, and interior space in a mise en abime of crude brushstrokes. The exhibition’s greatest success lies in its ability to bring rare and iconic works under the same roof: the boundlessness Beckman achieves in paint, Yayoi Kusama realizes in a corporeal installation.
Kusama’s ‘Infinity Mirrored Room – The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away’ visualizes a seemingly endless world of lights and our own reflections, accelerated interminably into the future. This work appears on the cover of virtually every ‘Never Ending Stories’ advertisement; Kusama’s mirrored rooms have become so pervasive across social media, many visitors will flock to the museum space to take and post photographs in endless loops of self-obsession. In this way, Kusama’s mirrors more directly recall Narcissus’ pool than Beckmann’s café. While Kusama captures the physicality of loops in only sixteen square meters, Gregor Schneider tackles this concept in five hundred.
Schneider’s installation, ‘Bad (Bath)’, creates a labyrinth of 21 barren bathrooms, each filled with the same doors, light switches, and showers of the dreariest motel you can imagine. Schneider proves that quantity can actually affect quality. After repeated entrances into these rooms, whose one-sided door-handles push us forward, we start to notice the subtleties between them: the dirt on the floor, the application of wall paint, the brilliance of lighting. The architecture of the room accentuates the differences that our brains pick up. We struggle to visualize the original room and forget how deep in his installation we stand. Schneider creates and affects memories through the pace of our familiar physical experiences.
Despite its expansiveness, the exhibition still manages to give depth to many facets of our closed-circuit experiences, as in its section on Ouroboros, the legendary snake that bites its own tail, which feels like a complete exhibition in its own right. While the enlarged digital print of Dalí’s 1936 ‘Autumnal Cannibalism’ stuck to the wall feels like the result of an unsecured loan, the museum proves that infinite cycles of life and death in the digestion of the world have transcended Ouroboros’ ancient origins. A video that is both hard to watch and to look away from, Rob Mott’s documentary ‘(Original) Suicide Snake Eating Itself’ evidences this model in reality, while metaphorically Tony Morgan/Daniel Spoerri’s 1968 ‘Resurrection (Beefsteak)’ traces human shit from meat to cow and back. These works analyze our consumption as loops in an exhibition that simultaneously helps us consider our consumption of loops.
‘Never Ending Stories’ claims to be both exhibition and research project, firmly rooted in “art history extended to include visual studies and a global cultural anthropology”. However, a rendering of Apple’s Norman Foster-designed ‘Spaceship’ campus does not reveal much more on the museum walls than in a Wired article on our cellphones. Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Loved’ is better enjoyed in headphones at home, and the writings of Julio Cortázar are better comprehended when read curled-up in a library armchair. The intended works of art in the exhibition are powerful and provocative, but Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, in a balancing act of creation and curation, juggles many examples that are better suited for its comprehensive catalog.