Currently the gallery calendar is situated between October’s Artforum art fair and the upcoming holiday season. There were an unprecedented number of parallel art fairs (five) running alongside Artforum this year and the activity in the city was intense. So while the galleries catch their breath, I visited some of the many institutional venues where there seems to be a science-related trend. Whether it is indicative of our cultural moment or just a more lucrative approach to funding is yet to be seen. But there is certainly the potential for crowd-pleasing displays.
Carsten Höller, Soma, 2010, installation view
While it really is refreshing to smell reindeer shit upon entering a state museum, Carsten Höller’s ambitious exhibition, Soma, doesn’t become much more than a scenographic exercise. The exhibition is constructed as a live, ongoing experiment inspired by the myth of soma, a hallucinogenic libation promising enlightenment and access to the divine sphere that is described in the Rigveda, a founding manuscript of Hinduism. Höller’s research indicated that the best way to ingest soma is apparently by drinking the urine of reindeer that have been eating a particular psychoactive mushroom. The elaborate installation includes live reindeer grazing amidst a large strip of wood chips that is divided down the middle in Hamburger Bahnhof’s expansive hall. One half of this majestic group are participants in Höller’s elaborate experiment, while the neighboring reindeer find themselves in the control group – but all are part of the spectacle. The exceptional visuality of the experiment is certainly worth checking out but it is only a select few who get the real psychoactive experience. Patrons can pay 1000euros to spend the night in the large mushroom pod suspended in the middle of the hall, complete with free access to the magic urine.
Susanne Kriemann, Ashes and Broken Brickwork of a Logical Theory, 2010, detail
Simultaneously, Höller is exhibiting “psychedelic” reindeer sculptures at the Schering Foundation, a venue dedicated to interdisciplinary work between art, science, and society, no less. There is even a prize for a Berlin artist whose work explores the interface between art, science and technology, administered by the public utility Gasag: as of this year the artist selected presents an exhibition at the Berlinische Gallery. 2010’s winner is Susanne Kriemann, whose quasi-archeological/ethnographic installation, Ashes and Broken Brickwork of a Logical Theory, is comprised of photographs set in relation to sly architectural interventions. Links between archeology and modernity are drawn using archival photographs of Mesopotamian desert digs (which happened to be taken by crime novelist Agatha Christie), aerial photos presented on tables, and Kriemanns’ own photos that include Becher style documentation of modernist housing in Damascus. Near identical buildings are photographed in varying light, provoking an uncanny response in the viewer that is accentuated by a subtle yet continuously changing colour shift in the overhead lighting. While Kriemann’s network of associations and connections is stimulating, the links feel tenuous and the actual effect is a bit underwhelming.
Willem de Rooij, Intolerance, 2010, installation view
At the New National Gallery, Dutch artist Willem de Rooij also takes the ethnological turn, but with very different results. What is interesting here is that de Rooij uses the exhibition to draw from the collections of related Berlin institutions; his only addition being a museum-like display case to present existing objects in a new relationship. The display effectively juxtaposes two cultural systems, constructing incisive connections between a group of 18th and 19th Century Hawaiian feathered artifacts and a 17th Century Dutch painter who exclusively portrayed birds. Both groups of objects were constructed to represent those in power and the often-violent paintings evoke a sense of territoriality with a lush elegance that is countered by the fierce beauty of the masks and garments. It is not only the predictable post-colonial matrix of associations but also the sophisticated craft and sensuality of the two sets of artifacts that allow the viewer a space for imagination. However, while the gravity of the disengaged museological technique is essential to the critical approach, it also ensures, like in many institutions, a limited effect.
László Moholy-Nagy, Composition Z VIII
At Martin Gropius Bau, a different history is evoked: the increasingly examined years of early modernism. This history is no better personified by László Moholy-Nagy, whose skill in diverse media made him one of the first multi-media artists in the 20th Century context. The exhibition, Art of Light, focuses on his photography, paintings, photograms, and other media including early films. The exhibition provides the context for his light modulation machines, unfortunately not exhibited here, but reveals the extraordinary aesthetic theory that focused on an integrated totality and not a single medium. Moholy-Nagy’s faith in industrial culture and his refusal of both aesthetic or social hierarchy made him an artist often overlooked in art history but it is precisely these qualities that make him worthy of continued study.
Kika Thorne, Singularity, 2007
Modern era ideals, such as those of Moholy-Nagy whose work embodied egalitarian politics and constructivist aesthetics, are extended in the recent work of Kika Thorne. Her installation, Singularity, precisely fills the modest showroom at ZK Gallery. Updating the modern legacy with contemporary materials including Lycra and common hardware, Thorne’s installation is reminiscent of an autonomous form by an artist such as Noam Gaubo, but is actually based on a cosmological model and can be cleverly adapted to fit a variety of contexts. Thorne has installed this stretch-to-fit work in numerous public and gallery contexts, each instance offering a renewed relation between form, space, and experience.
Karla Black’s work at Capitain Petzel refers to a later period in 20th Century art history, namely Abstract Expressionism and Actionism, where the architectonic consequences of modernism are oddly reversed. Made of delicate materials such as plastic, paper, and cellophane, her work flops and sags without no support to resist gravity. Her surfaces are teased into fragile spatial relations, embodying a particular temporality that can often only be achieved as site-specific installations. The exquisitely poised assemblages are extended by a variety of humble pastes and powders, from plaster to lip gloss, turf, and toothpaste to concealer, moisturizer, and even spray tan. Black says that these materials are traps for viewers to blunder into awkward gender debates. Often the treatments are not able to dry, thereby extending the sense of vulnerability. Black, in fact, seeks out these raw moments, influenced by Kleinian psychoanalysis that prioritizes material experience over mere language.
Rodney LaTourelle lives and works in Berlin as an artist, designer, and writer. His writing on art and architecture has been published in numerous periodicals and artist catalogues. His installations have been exhibited internationally and his work is included in collections such as the National Gallery of Canada and Musée d’Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean, Luxembourg. LaTourelle’s recent exhibitions include Neo-Plastic Vice (Shawinigan, Quebec) and Model for Inner Expansion (UQAM, Montreal, and National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa). He is Akimblog’s Berlin correspondent.
Hamburger Bahnhof: http://www.hamburgerbahnhof.de/exhibition.php?lang=en
Carsten Höller: Soma continues until February 6.
Schering Foundation: http://www.scheringstiftung.de/en/activities/arts-and-culture.html
Carsten Höller: Rentier im Zöllnerstreifenwald continues until January 8.
Berlinische Gallery: http://www.berlinischegalerie.de/index.php?id=883&L=1
Susanne Kriemann continues until February 1.
New National Gallery: http://www.smb.museum/smb/kalender/details.php?objID=25030&lang=en&typeId=10
Willem de Rooij: Intolerance continues until January 2.
Martin Gropius Bau: http://www.berlinerfestspiele.de/de/aktuell/festivals/11_gropiusbau/mgb_aktuelle_ausstellungen/moholy_nagy/mgb10_moholy_nagy_start.php
László Moholy-Nagy: Art of Light continues until January 16.
ZK Gallery: http://www.galerie-zk.de/index_en.html
Kika Thorne continues until December 17.
Capitain Petzel: http://www.capitainpetzel.de/exhibitions_13.html
Karla Black continues until December 22.
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