If Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, 1895, synced the beginning of film to the end of the workday, then the four hundred commissioned videos at the heart of this project by the late artist Harun Farocki and the curator and artist Antje Ehmann rewind the clock to record the workday itself. The exhibition is divided into three sections, which breaks up the formal monotony of the videos (each is around two minutes and has no edits).
Workers Leaving Their Workplaces in Fifteen Cities, 2011–14, is a semicircular installation by fifteen artists, wherein sixteen monitors screen contemporary reprisals of the Lumières’ aforementioned classic. In the foyer, Farocki’s own formulation, Arbeiter verlassen die Fabrik in elf Jahrzehnten (Workers Leaving the Factory in Eleven Decades), 2006, plays factory-themed clips culled from works by artists ranging from the Lumières to Lars von Trier. Both pieces perhaps hew to the theme a bit too closely, for neither can compete with the riveting cache of footage that streams onto densely hung screens in the main exhibition hall. Produced by hundreds of artists over the course of workshops led by Farocki and Ehmann on five continents, some of these videos depict child laborers, others elderly artisans; some workers are highly paid (such as surgeons) while others might not get paid at all (such as street performers); people make bread in Tel Aviv, cremate pets in Berlin, sell ice in Hanoi.
Despite the show’s global reach, it is remarkably self-reflexive. Participating artists were not compensated—an irony in light of the frequent necessity of the day job. Indeed, while workers might have left the factory in 1895, the show ultimately suggests that today’s workers might simply be punching out in order to punch in somewhere else.
What in reproduction just looks like more formalist painting is in reality a refined form of optical painting. Vibrant, intense, yet modest, six acrylic paintings are presented here, along with two watercolors and five drawings. The first surprise is that the paintings are on canvas, as they’re so smooth they resemble coated panels. The artist, Tom Chamberlain, primed the canvas and sanded extensively till a flat white surface remained, and then applied endless layers of thin paint, creating a subtle dynamic between light and dark and transitions between transparent and opaque.
One such work, Tell Me Again, 2014, shows six horizontal bars, each changing in value from an almost black to a light gray with a barely visible purple seemingly mixed in. The contrast between neighboring stripes also suggests an illusion of depth. Here, as in other paintings, it is hard to pinpoint precisely which colors are used, just as it is impossible to fix one single image with consensus. The instability of visual perception structures the actual experience of these works, with duration thus becoming part of the content. The effect could be compared to flying through dense clouds in an airplane and seeing changes in the thickness, color, light, and clarity of the surrounding atmosphere. In As If, 2014, Not Now, 2014–15, and And So On, 2014, the paint seems to cover and dim a light source radiating from behind. By allowing only brightness to come through at the fringes of his works, Chamberlain creates the paradoxical effect that darkness brings forth light.
For his exhibition “World of Hope,” Yngve Holen presents six identical, industrially produced casings of SOMATOM Force CT Scanners, the latest high-end product of its kind by Siemens. Holen does not present these objects in a neutral way, but dresses them fetishistically with custom-fit black, white, or yellow mesh of stretch fabric, which he produced with Claus Rasmussen. In the Freudian tradition, fetishes are generally understood as supplements, allowing subjects to stabilize their ideals and fantasies. If Holen’s sculptures are commenting on this phenomenon as it relates to technology—a significant topic for many artists of his generation—he is pointing to the fact that the meaning of our ambiguous fantasies and discontents is doubtlessly linked to the fear of death and the desire to maximize pleasure.
The titles of the works are taken from interviews with professionals and stars of the porn industry and with plastic surgeons, which were published in the second edition of ETOPS, a magazine edited by Holen, Matthew Evans, and Per Törnberg. The conversations therein shed light on the fantasies and fears of the actors, who describe their pleasure in becoming objects of desire and the hope of reaching eternal youth and immortality. Obviously linked with the development of human technology, this is reflected in the name ETOPS itself, an acronym for “Extended Range Twin-Engine Operations Performance Standards,” which refers to a freedom for certain aircrafts to fly long-distance routes that were formerly illegal. In Holen’s show, it points metaphorically to the upward mobility of our “hopeful” human culture.
Revital Cohen & Tuur van Balen’s latest exhibition posits works of art in the age of bioengineered reproduction. The playful and speculative nature of their projects leaves the less-scientifically-informed viewer to wonder what is real and what is a hoax. In Pigeon d’Or, 2011, a series of interventions has been filmed in which biologists work together with pigeon fanciers in order to develop bacteria that will modify the birds to make them shit soap. Sterile, 2014, gives us goldfish that have been engineered so as to hatch without reproductive organs; each of the forty-five specimens was produced exclusively for the artists by a biologist in Japan and is considered by the artists to be a work of art rather than an animal. An unplugged machine that is allegedly capable of replicating this process of fish production is also present here, leaving it up to the spectator to decide whether to turn it on.
Can sense even be made, or does it become the ethical foe of scientific endeavor in this brave age of technogenetic discovery? Finally, Cohen & van Balen rented a factory in China for two days in order to manufacture a completely useless product, resembling a cross between a clothing iron, a cement block, and a radio. The point, however, was its means of manufacture: The artists choreographed an elaborate, jerky, and robotic dance for the workers to perform along the assembly line that would lead to the production of the object. The filmed result in 75 Watt, 2013, is a neo-Futurist ballet for an era in which even our most basic functions are soon to be outsourced.
From 1991 to ’95 in Vienna, the artists Linda Bilda and Ariane Müller published the zine Artfan for thirteen xeroxed and stapled issues, each in an edition of eight hundred. Their intention was to give artists a voice, including in long-form interviews with the likes of Jutta Koether, Martin Kippenberger, Andrea Fraser, and Fareed Armaly, who were all based around Cologne and New York at that time. The seemingly unedited dialogues were also accompanied by hand-drawn illustrations, photo stories, and reviews.
Situated in an unfurnished apartment, this exhibition gives a retrospective and somewhat nostalgic insight into the making of Artfan. Mainly displayed on dark panels or simple frames mounted on walls are master plans for the layouts, original texts and pictures, covers, a draft of the logo, as well as documenting photos, letters—including one addressed to Isabelle Graw from Texte zur Kunst—and other testimonials to their enterprise’s communication and promotion. The show also includes two videos, the subtle commercial Artfan Production, 1991, which documents, in the style of an educational film, the manufacturing of the magazine, and Zu Zweit nach Vorn (Getting Ahead Together), 1995, which was recorded at the bookstore and publishing house b_books in Berlin. The latter shows a slapstick performance by Bilda and Müller discussing their collaboration on the zine that ends with a cake fight, hinting at the challenging responsibility for such an ambitious project and its effects on handling personal interests and relationships before the Internet, desktop publishing, and network capitalism started to set new standards. Seen from today, it’s not a surprise that the issues of Artfan went on to become valuable collectors’ items.
Serving as a sort of sequel to or continuation of her celebrated retrospective last year at Participant Inc., in New York, Greer Lankton’s European premiere consists largely of documentation of her work in an array of formats such as Polaroids, contemporaneous magazine articles, black-and-white photos, and postcards, as well as a smattering of her original dolls, which include likenesses of Divine and Jackie Kennedy. My favorite is Albino Hermaphrodite in a Baby Carriage, 1984, modeled after a hermaphroditic demigod from Fellini Satyricon (1969) but resembling nothing so much as a baby transvestite junkie with a huge erection in a miniature stroller—the perfect gift for an expectant mother. Lankton’s raggedy and abused-looking dolls are lovingly constructed with a dark humor that blatantly defies our era’s fascist protocols of political correctness, which have sadly imposed a standardized reading of her work as melancholy projections of her own transsexual corpus. There’s a morphology here that is far more intriguing than what such an interpretation suggests, and this even comes through in the documentation.
Often becoming works of art in themselves—whether Lankton intended this or not—six untitled photos from 1983 use the restrictions of black-and-white to reduce the dolls’ beings to their starkest contrasts: some are sprawled on the floor, others are propped up in the fading light of day; some look half dead, others long expired, still others merely demented. They could almost be crime scene photos à la documentation of Ed Gein’s own handiwork.
Visitors to Paul Branca’s second solo exhibition in Berlin are welcomed with a press release printed on wax paper and garnished with a slice of mortadella (Press Release, all works 2015). After exhibiting a series of paintings in Bologna, Italy, last year that depict linked sausages, the artist here continues his painterly research into sausage-like forms and their potential meanings.
In the center of “Piggish” are four oil paintings, Untitled (glyph #1–4). On each, one finds an elegant composition of one or more sausages against a white background accompanied by a monochrome shadow. The sausages vary in their laxity and are made with stipples of luminous colors. Staged as letterforms or symbols, the works illustrate Branca’s interest in the connections between language and object. Understanding sausages as simple stuffed containers in an ambivalent state between hard and soft, they can also be read as a metaphor for the human body. Moreover, they might provide a metaphor for the phallic, enigmatic condominiums currently being built in New York, where the artist is based. In tandem, Branca here also slyly nods to Sigmar Polke’s “Wurstbilder” series from the 1960s and its ironic comment on the trivial consumption during Germany’s economic miracle.
Two paintings made with stretched canvas tote bags (Tote bag painting [nose] and Tote bag painting [palette press]) build another link. The fact that this gallery’s neighborhood, Neukölln, is a paradise not only for hipsters but also for people who like sausages allows visitors to enjoy a humorous local correlation.
Situated on the southern edge of the city center in a disused factory, the current exhibition at District showcases work from the space’s past five years of exclusively female artist grantees and is titled after the on-site studio in which each spent six months working. Not coincidentally, the projects exhibited revolve around issues that themselves seem to be in orbit. In Diving Through Europe, Klara Hobza documents her ongoing explorations of the continent’s canals, rivers, and seas, for a project begun in 2010 with an expected completion date of 2035—by which time part of today’s Europe might actually be submerged, according to the warnings of environmental scientists. Miryana Todorova’s piece Expanded Objects for Shared Living, 2013–15, offered a free delivery service outside an IKEA outlet, in exchange for which customers were asked to have a filmed conversation with the artist during the drive, about home, desire, intimacy, solidarity, and collapse. Katharina von Dolffs tackles the show’s outer-space theme directly: Her elaborate installation revolves around a fictional planet called Grillion, with future dispatches from that faraway place reporting back on Earth’s destruction seventy-three years prior.
The piece in the show that everyone’s talking about is Christa Joo Hyun D’Angelo’s Past Present Tense, 2014–15. This thirty-minute documentary consists entirely of interviews with Germans of color and their allies in the antiracist movement, focusing on the country’s enduring struggles with racism. Even today, the subject of multiculturalism is absent from German school curricula and all but ignored by the mainstream media, despite the visible rise of the country’s minority populace since the fall of the Berlin Wall. D’Angelo probes deep, excavating the key points of a discussion that has yet to take place.
Otto Zitko’s artistic project has been very consistent: He paints lines and he doesn’t need anything else. In this way, his art is a kind of asemic writing. Usually his works are done on walls in interiors, occasionally permanent but often only temporary, which induces a kind of melancholy when one realizes that after the exhibition ends they will be painted over by a dull and oppressive white. But while it lasts, the scene is wild snakes dancing and going mad in an ecstatic orgy, with colors oh so bright.
Here, Zitko offers ten canvases, which are all actually cardboard, dated 2015, and untitled. A good line doesn’t need a title and this artist’s lines are more than just good; their lawless swirls evoke a symphonic percussion you can dance to. The four rendered in black stand out the most. The six others are silver and seem a bit hasty in their spray-painted execution. Silver is just not quite as sexy as black on a white surface, though one of the drippier metallic ones manages to be. To see Zitko’s lines contained in rectangles is surprising—usually they are crazily scrawled all over, though I guess one can’t always make money that way. His marks hardly ever have definitive start and end points. Or, you could say their start and end points are the same, which is to say there are no beginnings and no endings—infinity contained.
Amir Fattal’s exhibition “Mesopotopography” deals with moments when art becomes the catalyst for or victim of cultural conflict. Through an animated video; a fabric tapestry; a series of untitled prints made from an industrial dust known as carborundum, raw pigment, and lacquer on aluminum; and 3-D prints utilizing the sand-colored carborundum, Fattal reflects on how the Arab news media has documented the decimation of sacred and historical monuments in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and North Africa during the last twenty years. To this Israeli artist with Iraqi origins who now lives in Berlin, questions of cultural ownership, authorship, and memory are personally pertinent.
His principal concern however is with the origins of images disseminated through purportedly objective news media in the Arab world. For Fattal, the key question is: Whose voice tells what story? For example, Coverage, 2015, consists of thirty-six vibrantly colored pieces of silk printed with Al Jazeera’s logo. Displayed covering a wall of the gallery, the inviting and dynamic squares of yellow, blue, and green silk represent an Arab identity and perspective and could be used as headscarves or prayer mats. But similar colors appear radioactive and unnerving when pigment is mixed with the industrial dust in his 2015 series of untitled prints depicting explosions set off and documented by ISIS. Nearby are visually softer but equally powerful works, friezes made out of carborundum. The three pieces in this series depict a synagogue and tomb in Iraq, but the tan, powdered medium makes them resemble sand castles. This poetic contrast underscores the fragility of artifacts that can be wiped out by the tides of history.
Nathalie Du Pasquier’s current exhibition serves as a miniretrospective with a focus on her works on paper. Those who only know of her from the Memphis Group will likely expect to find an aesthetic similar to that of the 1980s po-mo interior-design mavericks, whose furniture was once described in The Guardian as a “shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price.” While the show will certainly help viewers discern her individual contributions to the overall Memphis look, the focus is rightly on the development of Du Pasquier’s independent artistic work, rather than her design sketches, over the past thirty-five years.
There is a cartoony otherworldliness to these pieces that is unmistakably rooted in science fiction. A series called “Objects for the Electronic Age,” 1983–84, is rendered in loud, funky technicolor that screams of the decade in which they were in fact made, though on closer inspection, the objects are far from futuristic—they’re vases and fruit bowls. Elsewhere, the ink-on-paper drawing The Big Game, 2006, is a surrealistic take on the artistic process. A window in the back of the artist’s head, depicted in the foreground, contains a chimney. On the blank white surface before her are spread various household wares and toys including a treasure chest, a couple of reflective surfaces, some obtuse and indecipherable objects, a miniature rocket ready to blast off into the void—everything one needs to get the game started. But what are the rules?
In a world that treasures and rewards gestures of good will—and I am talking about the art world here—Renzo Martens is one of the few artists who puts his money where his mouth is. When an artist shows a work about poverty in underdeveloped nations in typical art-world locales such as New York, Berlin, or the Venice Biennale, the effects—such as the generation of capital—are only felt in those places; it does nothing to benefit or appease the suffering of the distant subjects of the work.
Through his Institute for Human Activities, Martens has worked to establish an artists’ colony on a former Unilever plantation in the Congolese rain forest. For this unabashed gentrification project, Martens intentionally employs that contentious tool of the neoliberal economy in an environment so desperate that it could only profit from it. The initiative provides an infrastructure for fostering plantation residents’ artistic talent in order to supply them with the living wage and basic necessities they currently lack.
This exhibition consists of figurative sculptures by six of the artists from the Congolese Plantation Workers Art League: Dionga Bismar, Mathieu Kasiama, Cedrick Tamasala, Jeremie Mabiala, Thomas Leba, and Daniel Manenga. As logistics forbade the transport of the original clay sculptures, they were re-created from digital scans by professional chocolatiers in Amsterdam using raw cocoa harvested on plantations near the settlement. Deeply allegorical and rooted in local mythologies as well as the artists’ personal narratives—Tamasala’s How My Grandfather Survived (all works 2015) dramatizes his grandfather’s alienation from his native culture after succumbing to a Belgian missionary—the sculptures’ rich and sweet smell filling the space indicates a source of significant artistic and spiritual wealth.
The fascination around Dieter Roth is not so much about the work he produced but the model of artist and making that he put forth, which I have come to think of as one of “vehicularity.” For Roth was an automatist in the true sense of the word—an artist who was always working at every waking hour, fueled by a seemingly limitless source of energy. Automatism is relegated by a vicious self-programming of the body-mind machine, wherein body yearns to take precedence over mind in a privileging of motion and making over cerebral stasis. For Roth, this yielded a joyously and intentionally bad art that was a by-product of his vehicle’s constant movement, whether it be across a canvas or the landscape of Europe, where he kept several studios.
This exhibition, which focuses largely on the role of music in Roth’s output, is fittingly massive, taking up an entire wing of this institution. Like his visual art, Roth’s music was cacophonous and improvised. He took music lessons when young but resisted virtuosity and sought a space of total freedom via noise and intensive duration, often in collaboration with his children or other artists on a full range of instruments. In addition to rare as well as more widely released recordings of music played on headphones, player piano, and speakers, a visitor can observe an assortment of notebooks, works on paper, video recordings of selected Roth concerts, and sculptures incorporating music or musical instruments—as in Cellar Duet, 1980–89, made in collaboration with his son Björn. A messy wall-mounted sculpture that incorporates synthesizers, violins, cables, and audio cassettes, the excess of it all is very much in keeping with the artist’s forward momentum.
Not just a historical overview of war photography, but a distillation of 150 years of photojournalistic documentation, artistic reflection, and conceptual mediation, “Conflict, Time, Photography” presents the medium’s engagement with the both the physical effects and social aftermath of conflict and war, via the works of sixty-one artists.
This exhibition’s strength lies in its organization of images not by chronology but rather by the amounts of time elapsed between conflicts and their subsequent depiction—beginning with the immediate, such as Adam Broomberg & Olivier Chanarin’s The Day Nobody Died, 2008. Traveling as embedded journalists during the Afghan war, they exposed a strip of photographic paper to the sun. The grainy, blue, panorama-like result, with its cloudy explosions of red and brown, evinces the complex semantics of the photographic image, while provocatively flouting the military’s censorship of images.
Produced months after the US dropped atomic bombs on Japan, Matsumoto Eiichi’s photograph of a charred silhouette on a wall in Nagasaki—left by the corpse of an incinerated soldier—suggestively dialogues with Albert Renger-Patzsch’s and Margaret Bourke-White’s images of bombed German cities and Jim Goldberg’s installation uniting text, photographs, and drawings of scarred refugees.
The more time elapses, the more immediate documentation is replaced by acts of allusion and recollection. Chloe Dewe Mathew’s series “Shot at Dawn,” 2013, revisits, nearly a century later, sites where British, French, and Belgium deserters were killed during World War I. Her pictures sensitively capture early-morning landscapes of clearings and fields. Only wall labels bearing the soldiers’ names allude to what photography cannot reveal, while insisting on remembrance.
With its white walls, this latest installation of “Decoding Fear” seems the negative image of the show’s first iteration at Kunsthaus Graz, where sundry objects, texts, and projections were displayed in a dark space. In either iteration, the gallery spaces have felt as sepulchral as the immaculately white, minimally furnished twin cabins at the heart of the show. These simplified, abstract reproductions of the hermitical dwellings that Henry David Thoreau and the “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski constructed at Walden Pond and Stemple Pass, Montana, respectively, are an essay in contrasts, for all their outward similarities.
The inspired, provocative pairing of these two reclusive figures, who both embody attempts at self-sufficient living, plays throughout. Practically every item on display is confronted with its double, starting with a handwritten page copied from Thoreau’s 1854 Walden and one from Kaczynski’s journals, placed at the exhibition’s entrance. In the video Stemple Pass, 2012, four static, half-hour shots of a lush mountain valley in the Sierra Nevada across the seasons, with a replica of Kaczynski’s log cabin built by Benning in the foreground, have their exact counterparts—right down to the videos’ duration—in the lingering shots of a faithful copy of Thoreau’s cabin, in Benning’s first showing of Concord Woods, 2014.
Are Kaczynski’s antitechnological writings, by turns lucid and chilling, the flip side of Thoreau’s dream of self-reliance? By emphasizing the similarities between these two figures—one worshipped, one reviled—Benning appears to suggest that their games of survival stem from the same anarchic and very American impulse.