by Dagmara Genda // May 4, 2022
A Gallery Walkabout through Mitte Nord is admittedly more like a gallery marathon, considering the distances separating Karl-Marx-Allee and Alt Moabit, but with a bit of sunshine, a good bike and, most importantly, interesting art, even the most grueling of stretches become a walk in the park. Of particular note this year are the works of Russian artists to be seen on this tour: painter Sanya Kantarovsky is featured at Capitain Petzel and multi-media Russian-Austrian artist Egon Kraft at alexander levy. Considering the dispersed calls for boycotts on Russian artists and athletes because of their country’s invasion of Ukraine, any exhibition or event featuring them is hard-pressed not to include or be a statement about the current conflict. Indeed this was the case for the two featured artists, though they went about it in very different ways.
Sanya Kantarovsky’s ‘Center’ presents a series of melancholy paintings of pastel-grey landscapes populated with mournful folded figures, skeletons or scattered human organs. The pictures have a somewhat Scandinavian feel to them, evoking comparisons to the prints of Edvard Munch or to the bare Swedish landscape in Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1986 film ‘The Sacrifice.’ In the artist’s twilight-tinged world, skeletons wind their fingers through their own veins, which fall like ribbons onto barren ground, a woman hugs her torso while staring at a brain placed in her lap, its disembodied spinal nerve trailing over her thigh and curling at her feet. In yet a third painting, a face exists without a head, its skin spreading like soft pudding across an invisible surface. In his “Artist’s Note,” Kantarovsky names one of his influences, Philip Guston, who said in light of the Vietnam war in the 1960s, “What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything – and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue.” In the airy, light atmosphere of Capitain Petzel there is a similar disconnect between the art world and, as the artist writes, the “criminal fratricide, perpetuated by a source of power defined by its contempt for human life.” He calls this the curse of his birth land, which is also his personal curse to bear. If his pictures are testament to how he carries this weight, I’d say he does it by contemplating his own death, which is depicted in rosa-tones, still flushed with the memory of a beating heart.
In stark contrast stands Egor Kraft’s ‘Lies, Half-Truths & Propaganda [The Bad, the Worse, and the Worst],’ which bookends my tour but should be mentioned in the same breath as Kantarovsky. The new work is a continuation of his research on independent and serverless technologies that “make it possible to verify the authenticity of still and moving images.” Developed with the collaboration of other artists and technologists, including those in Ukraine, the artist theatrically presents a blockchain-based toolset to record the extended metadata of captured footage. Still and moving images are registered and stored in a forgery-proof format as soon as they are captured so as to create a public evidence archive. While this technology typically has no specific “look,” its necessary materialization in the gallery endows the exhibition with an appropriately cryptic, cyber-punk ambience.
Kraft’s exhibition premieres in alexander levy’s new space in Moabit, where, until recently, Gregor Podnar had his gallery before moving to Vienna. The space is now shared with the Berlin offshoot of LEVY in Hamburg, who concurrently presents a classic program of works by Meret Oppenheim, Man Ray and Daniel Spoerri. Additionally the unique subterranean rooms are also in full use, including a semi-secretive narrow corridor circling the underground perimeter of the venue.
A sure to be polarizing stop on the Mitte Nord tour is Ai Weiwei’s exhibition, ‘the pleasure of home,’ presented in his emptied Prenzlauer Berg apartment and hosted by neugerriemschneider. Ai reaped a lot of criticism for an inflammatory interview with the Berliner Zeitung in 2020, shortly after he left for England, in which he called Berlin the ugliest and most boring city there ever was and his students at the UdK lazy. Now, for Gallery Weekend 2022, Ai’s self-described “modest,” as he wrote in the Berliner Zeitung (Jan. 28, 2022), apartment is being used, officially at least, for the first time in two years. Unofficially the realtor charged with selling his home secretly rented it out as a site for films, parties, product-launches and other commercial events. Ai discovered images of the familiar interior online, but with colorfully repainted walls, new furniture and a happy gaggle of strangers. From April 29 until May 14, you can also step into Ai’s former Greifswalder Str. apartment to view a selection of work, including documentary footage of make-shift refugee camps in ‘Human Flow’ (2017), as well as a series of intimate family photos, such as pictures of Ai playing with his son. The presentation of domestic bliss coupled with the realtor’s cynical misuse of the apartment dovetails easily into current events, from the housing shortage in Berlin, to the most recent migrant crisis caused by the war in Ukraine. This makes the exhibition seem somewhat out of touch with reality, considering that “the pleasure of home” is something an ever increasing amount of people are denied. While the photos may be sweet, and the artist’s comments on the west and capitalism might be on the mark, the actual experience of Ai’s life-turned-into-art, especially now that he lives in both Cambridge and Portugal, simply comes off as navel-gazing.
Though not officially part of the Mitte Nord route, Konrad Fischer’s Bruce Nauman exhibition, ‘Practice,’ can be visited on the border between north and south. The former transformer-station-turned-gallery is not always the easiest of spaces to work with, but it serves the powerful simplicity of Nauman’s newest video installation well. ‘Practice’ (2022) is a narrow one-channel black and white projection that shows the artist’s finger tracing lines across a heavily-marked wooden table. At the same time the camera swings left and right with the movement of the hand, creating slightly disorienting effect with the shift in perspective.
The work bears a resemblance to Nauman’s early output, namely ‘Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square’ (1967-68) made two years after completing his MFA. In ‘Practice,’ however, the artist traces an X, a decision influenced by his readings on Canadian colonial history, specifically on the signing over of land rights. In this particular history, the representative of Siksika First Nation undersigned the exploitative agreement with a simple X. The video thus functions as a meditation that goes beyond Nauman’s early concerns with repetition, minimal gesture and process. ‘Practice’ not only refers to process, but also points to the effort to become better.
In fact the need to “do better” seems to be a common thread in these highlighted shows, even if it is not always convincingly played out. Some artists explicitly address injustice, while others struggle with their responsibility and the role of their practice within it. Every gesture, they imply, has a role to play in a wider socio-political context.