Friday, May 6, 2011

What is Out There Waiting

originally published in Border Crossings issue 116

What is Out There Waiting: 6th Berlin Biennale
Curated by Kathrin Rhomberg

Not quite a statement, nor explicitly a question, the theme chosen to frame the 6th Berlin Biennale is at once ominous and open-ended, conjuring visions of the underrepresented, the oppressed, or the ignored lurking in the distance, waiting to be uncovered. Despite the temporal and spatial dislocations the exhibition’s title implies, curator Kathrin Rhomberg claims that young artists are thinking less and less about the future, choosing instead to reinvestigate 20th century concerns. Her biennale seeks to addresses this “new historicism” by presenting works that direct their gaze away from the formal and self-referential concerns of contemporary art and “outward, at reality.” As Rhomberg told Artforum’s Anthony Byt, “it became urgent again for me to ask: Is there a relationship between art and the present moment, and if so, what does it look like?”

A challenging question, to say the least, and one that cannot easily be answered, even within the parameters of a mega-show like a biennale, the very structure of which is poised to respond to contemporary issues. According to Rhomberg, what defines our current moment, or at least the things she would like to direct our attention toward, are art practices that engage with social, economic, and political “realities.” Wisely framing reality in the plural, Rhomberg is also concerned with the attendant gaps or cracks in reality, the distance between how things seem and how they are. Implicit in this question is how the invisible becomes visible, and how anything, whether an individual, collectivity, idea, or act constitutes its own visibility. Indeed, the production of reality is one of the strongest themes to come out of Rhomberg’s thoughtful, though at times maddening biennale.

In her attempt to take on such a slippery idea, Rhomberg strikes a modest tone, limiting the exhibition to forty-five artists and moving the bulk of the biennale’s six exhibition venues away from the bustle and noveau-glitz of Berlin’s Mitte to Kreuzberg. An air of seriousness pervades What is Out There Waiting, which eschews the spectacular site-specific works often commissioned for biennales in favor of more subdued, if not ramshackle installations and a curatorial tempo that tries to be deliberate, but instead often comes off as stilted and heavy handed. The work itself is predictably austere. After dutifully marching through the exhibitions six venues, some hidden on side streets and in unlikely locations, viewers may find themselves wondering, “is this what reality looks like?” The exhibition halls at Kunst-Werke, the biennale’s flagship institution feel practically empty, while visitors to the exhibition’s largest venue, a crumbling former department store on Kreuzberg’s Oranienplatz, are subjected to documentary video after documentary with little space to absorb the information contained therein.

An unfortunate by-product of this approach is that the works seem to seldom speak to each other. Indeed, the strongest relationships that emerge between works are often the most literal, like Renzo Marten’s Episode Three and Mark Boulos’ All That is Solid Melts into Air, though thankfully this does not diminish the seriousness or impact of either. Boulos’ two channel video juxtaposes the frenetic trading floor of the Chicago futures market with the artist’s interviews with resistance fighters in the Nigerian River Delta, where the local ecosystem has been decimated in the interest of foreign oil companies. Between outlining how “no bullet, no knife, no dagger can cut him” and telling the artist never to come to see him again, an elderly Nigerian man sternly commands Boulos, “make them remember us,” a not so subtle reminder of both the complexity and responsibility inherent in image making. This thread continues in Episode Three, Renzo Marten’s controversial 90 minute video which suggests that poverty, like any other resource, it is something that is bought, sold, traded, and exploited. Under the guise of a self-obsessed gonzo artist cum journalist, Marten’s stages a number of community meetings and trains local wedding photographers to document their own misery for profit. The Congolese may be poor, Martens reminds them, but they at least have their poverty itself, which they are giving away for free. To this end, Marten’s introduces a blinking neon sign reading "ENJOY POVERTY" half way through the film as both a directive to the Congolese, as well as a not-so-subtle indictment of Western consumption of "third world" poverty.

While political engagement is one of the leitmotifs of the exhibition, also expressed in the protest videos of Minerva Cuevas (Mexico) and Bernard Bazile (France), politics and history are at their richest and most expressive in works that are less explicit. After navigating the prescribed entrance to the exhibition through Kunst-Werke’s basement, visitors are greeted by a few live hens and a large wooden structure created by the biennale’s youngest artist, the twenty-four year old Kosovo born Petrit Halilaj. Entitled The places I’m looking for, my dear, are utopian places, they are boring and I don’t know how to make them real, the work is created from reconstructed beams from his parents’ home. A minimal and poetic construction, the work is an evocative blend of the personal and political, and one of the exhibition’s few doses of charm and humor.

Three to Watch

Originally published in SOMA's travel issue

The only constant about the artistic landscape in Berlin is that nothing stays the same. Sure, there are common practices in the city: a rich culture of artist-run project spaces, hybrid/mixed-used venues and an unusually high concentration of artists who regularly DJ. However, mostly due to the financial precarity of earning a living here, it’s a city on the move. A large percentage of artists and cultural workers “based” in Berlin keep their studios and offices here while largely earning their income outside of the city.

In recent years, Berlin has become an international crossroads of sorts.

Although the financial incentives to work here are limited the city still possesses a magnetic draw for young creatives, hosting a large, semi-migrant community of young international artists who come here post-MFA in search of an affordable and relatively peaceful place to develop their practice.

Not everyone stays, but the influx and efflux of creative energy combined with the capital’s cultural legacy and strong base of institutions, exhibition spaces and adventurous cultural producers has made Berlin a dynamic hub for contemporary art. SOMA is pleased to introduce three emerging artists whose influence is felt both in Berlin and beyond.

Ariel Schlesigner, Untitled, (Bicycle Piece), 2008

Ariel Schlesinger | Oxford’s English Dictionary defines reverse engineering as “the reproduction of another manufacturer’s product after detailed examination of its construction or composition.” The Israeli, Berlin-based artist Ariel Schlesinger repurposes mass-produced objects to startling and poetic effect. Working with everyday materials like bikes, printer paper, rolls of masking tape and tea biscuits, Schlesinger’s subtle interventions create a mundane sort of magic: two cookies twist in a gentle embrace, a repurposed lighter is transformed into a gaslamp and a paper cup is torn to reveal liquid still contained inside. After two solo exhibitions with the Berlin and Ljubljana-based gallery Gregor Podnar, the artist has been included in a string of solo and group exhibitions throughout Europe. His auto-destructive Untitled (Bubble Machine) is included in the upcoming exhibition Under Destruction at the Swiss Institute in New York City in late June, the artist’s third exhibition in the United States.

Petrit Halilaj, The places I’m looking for my dear are utopian places, they are boring and I don’t know how to make them real, 2010

Petrit Halilaj | At the 6th Berlin Biennale, the work of the 25-year-old Kosovar artist Petrit Halilaj’s installation stood out for its subtlety and scale in an exhibition full of heavy hitting political art. A number of rooms at Kunst-Werke were dedicated to the young artist’s work, including his massive installation The places I’m looking for, my dear, are utopian places, they are boring and I don’t know how to make them real, which greeted visitors in the museum’s entry hall. Made from reconstructed beams, the wryly-romantic work was an outsize replica of his parents’ new home, its half-finished quality simultaneously evoking the ruins of their prior home, which was burned to the ground in the Kosovo War. Halilaj’s participation in the Berlin Biennale made critical ripples: Centre Pompidou curator Christine Macel selected him as her pick for Artforum’s Best of 2010 and The Places I’m Looking for… featured prominently in the lion’s share of critical responses to the Berlin Biennale, quite an accomplishment for the exhibition’s youngest artist. Halilaj will present with Chert Gallery at Art Basel’s Art Statements, a section for solo presentations by emerging artists, and will open a solo exhibition at the Kunstraum Innsbruck in September.

Painting competition hosted by Leila Pazooki and Galerie Christian Hosp in Dafen, China

Leila Pazooki| Imagine Manet’s Olympia, her gaze direct as ever. Only this Olympia has none of the original’s brazen directness or nudity, instead she is clothed in what looks like a strange black jumpsuit. Leila Pazooki’s Aesthetics of Censorship, an ongoing research project that documents the censorship of art textbooks in her native Iran is only one facet of a multi-disciplinary practice that explores the elision and transformation of cultural, aesthetic and geographic borders. Pazooki’s neon work Moments of Glory struck a chord with critics at the recent art Dubai, spelling out a catalog of clichés familiar to non-Western artists and curators like “the Iranian Jeff Koons” and “Japan’s Andy Warhol.” The artist’s most recent project, Fair Trade, explores the relationship between artistic production and its reception in a globalized art world. Currently on view at Galerie Christian Hosp in Berlin, the exhibition presents the results of a painting contest the artist held in Dafen, a Chinese village home to factories where local artisans churn out copies of art historical masterpieces for hire.

Alongside a recreation of the London National Gallery’s room 17a, Fair Trade includes 100 copies of Lucas Cranach the Elder’s 1537 painting, “Allegory Of Justice,” ranging from meticulous replicas to childlike renderings. Look closely and on some you’ll see impressions from bubble wrap on still-wet paint.

Based in Berlin

Based in Berlin
originally published in SOMA's travel issue

With hundreds of exhibition spaces and over 6,000 professional artists, Berlin has grown into one of the most attractive destinations for artists and art lovers in the world. It is no surprise, then, that the city is funding a large-scale temporary exhibition to demonstrate the “treasures the city has to offer.” What’s debatable is whether this show is actually a move towards the kunsthalle locals have been demanding or merely an attempt to sweeten Berlin’s public image at the expense of its cultural producers. At this point, it remains to be seen. But the debate is fierce.

Opening on June 8th, based in Berlin will feature works by 80 artists living and working in the German capital, and is organized by a team of five up-and-coming curators overseen by curatorial hotshots Klaus Biesenbach (MoMA), Christine Macel (Centre Pompidou) and Hans Ulrich Obrist (Serpentine Gallery). Six weeks of talks, performances and workshops will accompany the controversial exhibition, which is set to take place in an empty studio building on the brink of demolition. Site specific architecture will be created for based in Berlin by the renowned local firm Raumlabor, including a modular structure consisting of containers, trucks, prefab houses and other elements.

EYEOUT Rhineland

Accurate, Insider, Up-to-date. Founded by curator Jan Winkelmann and art collector/software developer Ivo Wessel, EYEOUT offers an unparalleled view into some of Europe’s most dynamic art scenes. From museums to blue chips to out-of-the-way project spaces, EYEOUT will help you find what you’re looking for and even what you don’t know you’re looking for.I was pleased to join the EYEOUT team once again for their guide to the Rhineland.

You can find more information here.

Kunsttips von EYEOUT - EYEOUT Art Events

Originally published in the May issue of Mitteschön
Art Tips from Eyeout
Jesi Khadivi

Sterling Ruby
8 April – 28 May, 2011
Sprüth Magers

Beautiful, brutal forms dominate Spencer Ruby’s installations. I Am Not Free Because I Can Be Exploded Anytime is no exception. Taking its title from a collaborative work by Jenny Holzer and the graffiti artist Lady Pink, Ruby’s current exhibition at Sprüth Magers includes painting, collages and sculptures that evoke the claustrophobia and paranoia of America’s cultural obsession with freedom. The main exhibition space is dominated by a palette of reds, whites and blues that alternate between vivid and restrained hues. The formal qualities of the works on view mirror this tension, ranging from brightly colored, organic fabric and fiber-fill hanging sculptures to more somber plinths and spray painted works on canvas. Peacehead, a spray-painted bronze sculpture of a collapsed peace symbol, perfectly encapsulates the exhibition’s mood of a nation’s optimism deflated.

Mie Olise Kjaergaard
Afflicted Fallout
29 April – 10 June , 2011
Duve Berlin

In 1941 the physicians Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg met in Copenhagen to discuss the question of the nuclear bomb. The meeting ended poorly, with Bohr storming out in fury. Mie Olise Kjaergaard’s fascinating exhibition takes the historic meeting as its subject and includes eleven gestural oil paintings that interpret the architecture of the building where the two acclaimed physicists met. Keeping with her intriguing research based and multi-disciplinary practice, the new body of paintings is accompanied by English translations of letters Bohr never sent to his estranged friend and colleague, along with a sculptural work that is also the key to find the location in Berlin where the artist planted Henbane and Belladonna, the two plants most likely to survive after an atomic bomb.

Alon Levin
End to the Grand Gesture
29 April - 18 June , 2011

Alon Levin’s large-scale wooden sculptures reference modernist utopias and social theories about space, progress and growth. Order and its disruption are guiding interests in the artist’s practice and the conflict between the two generate a palpable excitement in the his work. As Levin says himself, “somewhere among the ruins there is the potential for the authentically new.” In his anticipated second solo exhibition with Klemm’s, Levin will create an wooden installation filling the entire gallery space, whose exact details are kept under wraps until its debut at Gallery Weekend.

The Spectacular of the Vernacular

The Spectacular of the Vernacular
originally published in Kaleidoscope issue 10, Spring 2011
view in original context here

Distinctions between high and low have become increasingly difficult to pinpoint in recent decades, the channels between the two poles now more porous and nuanced than ever before. Building upon a history of large-scale exhibitions examining the relationship between the spheres of fine art and mass culture, Walker head curator Darsie Alexander’s exhibition “The Spectacular of the Vernacular” takes Mike Kelley’s observation—“the mass art of today is the folk art of tomorrow”— as its inspiration. Unlike exhibitions that have explored similar themes, “The Spectacular of the Vernacular” is not burdened by the weight of proving the relationships between the two spheres. Focusing on works made after 1970, the “The Spectacular of the Vernacular” explores a period of art in which the influence of mass culture is often taken for granted. The exhibition addresses how mass culture is experienced and addressed in daily life, as well as the appeal its forms have held for artists over the past four decades. In order to examine the scope and breadth of the influence of vernacular and consumer culture on contemporary art practice, Alexander brings together works that range in aesthetic and medium, engaging with humble, handmade, and folkloric iconography, as well as the sleeker sides of spectacle and commerce. With nearly forty works by more than twenty artists—Lari Pittman, Marc Swanson, Rachel Harrison, and Shannon Ebner among them—“The Spectacular of the Vernacular” presents both sides of the vernacular encounter: the nostalgia of roadside attractions and the cheerfulness of the carnivalesque.

Jessica Warboys

Originally published in Kaleidoscope issue 10, Spring 2011
view in original context here

Jessica Warboys

In the words of critic David Lewis, the work of Jessica Warboys “walks a tightrope between presence and disappearance.” Working across a range of media that includes sculpture, performance, and film, Warboys explores the psychological space created by objects and mis-enscène. With an emphasis on narrative and the evocative role that objects and processes play in the construction thereof, Warboys’s work toys with the totemic quality of her materials, placing their physicality at the center of a web of associations and metaphors. This is seen most clearly in her partnering of materials and elements. Warboys often uses found objects and harnesses natural forces as part of her process. For a technique she calls “sea painting,” the artist immerses canvases into the sea, allowing the waves and wind to trace their impression upon the canvases’ surfaces. Warboys connects her sea paintings and cyanotype photograms to her broader practice through their spatial and temporal relationship to performance or, in the artist’s words, “improvised gesture.” The career of the thirty-four-year-old London- and Parisbased artist is rapidly picking up speed: in 2011, she can be spotted in “Satellite 4,” an exhibition at Jeu de Paume curated by Raimundas Malasauskas; “Madame Realism,” a group exhibition in Maastricht’s Marres Centre for Contemporary Culture, curated by Lisette Smits; Dublin Contemporary 2011; and at the Crédac in Ivry-sur-Seine this spring