Formations of the Meaningful
Just in time for Gallery Weekend, the seasonally affective disorder of the long Berlin winter finally seemed vorbei (a word, meaning “over”, which Goethe has Mephistopheles call “a stupid word”). The sun was shining and the consensus seemed to be that the art was “good” – accompanied with a kind of non-specific relief. What it means is: yes, working in the art field didn’t feel so frustrating, or morale so low, as sometimes in the past year. There was finally again something at stake. Gallery Weekend is not and never can or will be the standard bearer for a revolutionary First of May, but a dialogue between art and that other world outside is once again starting up, and some older projects and positions are coming into clearer focus.
1. Christopher Williams at Capitain Petzel
Cut-out sections of exhibition display walls from previous shows were as much part of this exhibition as images that are instantly iconic through their technical perfection, such as the redheaded girl from a children’s modelling agency on view here. The press release was an open letter to “Model No. 1740” with fragmentary sentences opening the field of photography onto the contemporary system of representation as a whole: “As if I told you / To focus is to assert a preference for one surface over another. For every fragment of the word, a fragment of the camera. A model is a representation of a system.” The thrill of the show came not only the confluence of scholarship, spectacle, and self-reflexivity, but also the drive behind it: the sense that we’re making and looking at art because it still has power to reframe what we see and how we look, both intellectually and politically. The relationship between work and context means that when the exhibition talks about itself it is also talking about everything else. One of the questions it gave you, quite literally, to ponder was: how much does artistic production itself function “as advertising for the order under which it was produced”?
2. Anne Collier at Galerie Neu
This show of cropped and rephotographed images of crying women on the covers of historical LPs was beautifully installed, but seemed to sidestep rather than illuminate the problems it sought to address: a photograph of a crying woman remains a trope of a male-centric image culture that has only become more powerful through the advent of the Internet. How can you make such images work against themselves? Is rephotography (still?) sufficient to create criticality?
3. Jochen Lempert at BQ
How can a black-and-white photograph of a ladybird on a bicycle handlebar or a taxonomy of people emerging from behind a tree in a park be so powerful? There is a patience and a slowness to this German photographer’s view of the world that results in a curious kind of beauty. The one work I kept coming back to was a butterfly next to a flower, behind it a mobile-phone camera, behind which is a man looking at the camera. It sidesteps kitsch, perhaps in the refractions of the gaze, as Lempert’s camera focuses tightly on the butterfly and the man looks onto the screen with what looks like a comparable commitment to capturing what’s special about such a moment. The tenderness of the work holds within it a strange remnant of the sublime.
4. Stephen G. Rhodes at Eden Eden
On the other side of town was a show that took a clear stand against the idea that art’s effectiveness is related to its capacity for embodying clarity, order, or elegance. The messier underbelly of conflict and chaos was transformed into an immersive postapocalyptic installation. Even the floor was sloping, with noisy machines, beams of wood obstructing your passage through the gallery under a Paul McCarthyesque figure. You bumped into works, and it was irritatingly loud, thanks to vibrating metal plates supporting miniature tableaux of, for example, an action figure sitting by a long-gone-out fire. With a video of a Pegida march (the German acroynm stands for “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West”) and a complicated subtext about Frankenstein, it was a kind of psychogeographical trip bringing together the setting for Robert Altman’s Popeye in Malta, the disappearing wetlands of Louisiana, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and the refugee crisis.
5. Verena Pfisterer at Exile
Pfisterer (1941–2013) retreated from active involvement in the art scene to become a therapist in the mid-70s; the highlight of her second show at Exile – which was not officially part of Gallery Weekend – was a series of films made shortly before that turning point, showing her sculptures “in action”. She was obsessed with crucifixes. The gallery space included a kind of upholstered red pouf with a yellow crucifix sprouting from the top of it. Among the films is a curiously modern unboxing of one of her stuffed crosses in its custom-made container. A hand – perhaps the artist’s own – repeatedly squeezes it, evoking a stress ball and a rosary at once. Her late recognition has to do not only with the misogyny of the art world of the time, but also with how she was never convinced by the career of being an artist. In a 2009 interview she describes artists as “idiots of the system” whose complicity prevents them from “for example [doing] social work … [or] being against a dominant social trend.” Art, she says, is incapable of “analysis and enlightenment.”
6. Between Bridges
If Christopher Williams stands for exactly this idea of art as capable of both analysis and enlightenment, Wolfgang Tillmans is trying to take a stand. A few weeks before the opening of his show at Galerie Buchholz, which thematises his studio as a site of production, he has transformed his exhibition and project space Between Bridges into a forum for organizing within the art community. These positions are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and within the ecosystem of Berlin galleries and institutions it is a welcome commitment to encouraging politics back into an art world dominated by the decorative. The current crop of shows makes clear that this can sometimes work even in the context of a de facto affirmative, celebratory event such as Gallery Weekend.
Alexander Scrimgeour is an editor at Spike. He lives in Berlin.