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  • Christian Hain

Art'n'Eels, Bugs'n'Chips. Stoschek's back.

(Berlin). Julia Stoschek Collection has opened a second show in Berlin, and this time you’re not expected to read a book or watch a film prior to visiting. Having said that, and having finally read Simulacron-3, via its film version the inspiration to JSC’s World on a Wire, it was actually quite good!

The new motto is Jaguars and Electric Eels, and no, that’s not “e-E-Types” but the animals, actual ones, in art. Back in 1853, a newspaper chose that same title for an excerpt of Alexander von Humboldt’s travel journals. Alexander von Humboldt went down in history as the good German, a European explorer who still day is revered in the regions he discovered, or better: explored. This particular voyage led him down the Orinoco in Venezuela. The show’s idea is “nature vs. art(ificiality)”, they might have had a talk with Schering Foundation recently, or is the dichotomy just the latest fashion?

Both domains, of nature and not, shall be emancipated, we’re told: “humanity still occupies the centre stage, but nature revolts”, and electric eels compare to engineered power stations. Yes, and fur compares to acrylic, so what? That’s what technics most often does: imitate, and “enhance”, nature. Keep in mind, Jaguars and Electric Eels is not really a curated show, all works have been bought by Ms Stoschek at one point or another, and with altogether different motives. The concept has been added only now.

A quick glance at the artist list reveals many familiar names with artworks from the past fifty years, all shown on three levels including the newly furbished cave (no bar down there, like at KW). To say it right away: The show is too large, too many works feel lost in the building. On the upside, the catalogue reserves a double page and more for each, you may read about everything you’ve missed later. That catalogue takes the form of a newspaper printed on cheap paper, it’s for free yet more seriously styled than Omer Fast’s at MGB.

The opening happened a while ago already, shortly preceding Berlinale, but Jaguars and Electric Eels will be on “until autumn” – so tells the catalogue without any more precise information –, and let’s be honest, I had to watch too many films lately to finish this review. Coincidence or not, the show at Stoschek’s is (almost) all about film too.

On the opening night, they welcomed quite a lot of visitors. Some came expressively for Donna Huanca’s performance (on that Saturday only). I said it before, and I won’t hesitate to say it again: Every successful performance has nudity and/or violence. This one was no exception. From what they had announced, I was expecting a remake of Yves Klein’s Anthropometries with an artist using naked bodies for a brush. It turned out to be (slightly) different: Two ‘performancesses’ indeed appeared covered in paint, and almost nothing else. But they did not paint, only danced, or moved, slowly around not a pole, but Plexiglas panels. “Should of brought that trench coat with the deep pockets.”

They did it for four hours, with the occasional break. Body painting can be beautiful, and the same is true for non-permanent tattoos. That does not necessarily make it Art.

This was happening upstairs where also Martin Howert’s polar bear appeases humanity with its paws raised to the air. It’s small and thin, starving and sad. “That political?” Having read the catalogue: No. Not really. It’s not what it seems. The bear not actually surrenders, but opens his arms to a welcoming embrace. The sculpture is part of a larger installation (sold in parts?) that is based on a classic German children’s novel. Refreshing in more than one respect.

Before you arrive up there, you’ll probably have visited the ground floor. The show starts with a running dog on a cinema screen. That’s Sturtevant, or rather: a Sturtevant (Finite/Infinite, 2010). The feminist artist died two years ago at the age of ninety, and, yeah, with dogs there are hardly differences between males and bitches. The repetition is great. Running, never reaching, achieving, a thing. Keep on, living. It’s still a running dog - “Who’s a good boy/girl?” A more sculptural work by the same artist features a heap of screens, and a mash up of images from different sources, plush bulldogs, Chihuahuas, animated cartoon characters, and more. Looks like a music video without sound, or many mass cultural snippets to form a piece of the world. (Coming to think about it again, could it be the veteran artist took indeed inspiration from this 1999 music video?)

Not all explorers are still well reputed. Robert Peary is a more controversial figure. Having initially succeeded in convincing everybody he was the first to reach the magnetic North Pole in 1909, his claim has come under fire again. His then rival Frederick Cook – they fought a fierce legal battler over the question who was first - now is even judged the more respectful in his dealings with people(s) he met on the road. Peary only fathered some children in the ice.

Artist Isaac Julien complains about Peary reaping all the fame, to the detriment of other members of his team who up to the last leg included a black man, Matthew Henson, and five eskimos. So far, it sounds like the story of Tenzing Norgay, Sir Edmund Hilary’s sherpa and fellow Everest climber. You cannot say, they’ve been completely forgotten though; in 1991, somebody even tracked down Peary and Henson’s Northern sons and brought them to the US.

Isaac Julien’s film installation is dominated by different shades of blue. We see under-ice images, a frozen church, and an androgynous black person walking through an apartment or along icescapes. Sometimes all three screens go – black. Or white. There is a fundamental issue with art like this. If it tries to erect a monument, it fails. Nobody watching will get what it’s about, nobody will even learn Matthew Henson’s name without reading about the background. And nobody will rewrite history books for this artwork. If art aims to fulfil a purpose, if it follows a political agenda, it needs to be measured in terms of effectiveness. Besides, it’s all on Wikipedia already.

Bill Viola also explores frozen time, e.g. in his green Reflecting Pool with time lapses. Read more about it here.

Annika Yi brought a wired, waxen, sculpture with a digi clock inside that goes wrong. Her film The Flavour Genome is more impressive. A tiger-lion chimaera, caterpillars crawling over diamonds, experiments, graphics, people doing weird stuff, and food. Formulas, or names of chemical elements appear inscribed into nature (water is Dihydrogen Monoxide), man is master by description. It’s the old idea, language was invented to ban the world in magic. But the film tells a SciFi vision of genetical engineering (once more, you need to read the catalogue to get that). Just ignore the 3D glasses, once more they add nothing relevant. It’s even better without, and slightly blurred effects.

Encyclopedia Pictura make better use of 3D in their stereoscopic box. This is really a music video. No, it is! The clip to Björk’s Wanderlust (2008), created by a graphics firm, finds its place in an art show. And why not? Images from Indian and other mythologies appear, as the heroine travels on a river, and through (a) life. I like Björk. I like India. Maybe you do, too.

Simon Martin filmed a strawberry frog in its natural habitat - not. What he did was to hire a bunch of programmers who created an artificial strawberry frog living – no: make that “existing” - in its artifi-natural habitat. It seems stunningly “real”. If anything, it’s too clean, too perfect. Excuse me for talking about myself again, but I once took a photo of a common fat, brown, garden toad, with an all but professional camera. Zooming in, you could distinguish a family of parasites residing on the toad’s back. And its legs; and its head. That much dirty detail hardly a simulation includes. Instead, Simon Martin adds orchestra music, jungle sounds, and text screens. The latter describe situations in places, interiors often including (classic, modern) artworks. They read like introductions, a first sentence, “It was a dark and stormy night....” like. Yep what is real, what is life, what a story, what &c.

Doug Aitken’s Blow Debris looks more like Mad Max meets The Blue Lagoon, or a Playboy photo shooting under a motorway bridge. And on the beach. In the end we see a reversed Golem, a person falling to dust, must be a metaphor. No, seriously, the film is nice. It’s about a commune in the American desert and something anti-capitalist.

Cyprien Gaillard had a solo show in Julia Stoschek Collection’s Düsseldorf headquarters when looking out the hotel window, he noticed a parrot population on high street. Reason enough to invite an experienced wildlife filmmaker and document the flock in slo-mo. That street, Königsallee ("King’s Alley"), well: that city, is (in)famous all over Germany as the embodiment of tasteless bling, and the birds could well be a marketing stunt. But no, they escaped from their cages long ago, and chose to permanently settle in the cold. Not having come of their own accord, but forcibly abducted, or born in captivity, they seem not a possible metaphor on modern migration, but historic slavery, maybe. Maybe it’s just green birds on a grey German sky.

Cyprien Gaillard is otherwise known for his polaroids of ruins. At JSC, we see Ryan Gander in his studio, bent over a table with polaroids, he too has a lot. Flowers hide his face, because the artist persona is irrelevant.

But back to birds: You ever watched that eighties comedy franchise Police Academy? The best part was Michael Winslow‘s voice skills. Looks like he reincarnated as a bird, and now imitates the sounds of his biosphere, chainsaws included. Kader Attia filmed it, also in captivity. Maybe better explain this: Mimesis as Resistance documents the Australian Superb Lyrebird's astonishing courtship habits to prove, I quote: "nature's absolute superiority over culture". Wait, what?

Maybe Julia Stoschek discovered Guan Xiao’s Weather Forecast at Jeu de Paume when she went on a shopping spree in Paris last spring, then realised his gallery resides in Berlin. Or was it the other way round, and she networked that French show into existence? Anyway, let’s just repeat “hypnotizing, rhythmic, snakes, explosions”, and add: “nature and technics”. You can even learn about geography from this, indirectly: Google the artist, and mistype her name as “Gun Xiao weather forecast”. Chinese won’t like it.

If you are a collector, you want more of an artist’s work, even sculptures, the Chinese is doing both. Her installation at JSC seems a bit lost, a Buddha on a trepied, a Mayan(?) bird god, giant USB sticks and speakers don’t integrate well into the surroundings. Light is an issue, grey/white sculptures hardly ever look good before grey/white walls.

Nancy Holt and RobertSpiral JettySmithson wading through a Swamp, parting bamboo, or willows, wheat? – something brown and green - until they reach a clearing is not that interesting. As they err through the unknown, you listen to their voices and remember Blair Witch Project.

Another artist plainly refused to use labels or anything else that would allow to identify him, and believe me: it’s better this way. The anonymous shows small monochrome videos, a taxidermied ocelot, and blue balls (Koons?!?) on a negative image (wait, was this the video, not sure about my notes here). Also a sculpture: a foam mat. Who would not disown this?

Much better: Manuel Graf‘s Gründer (i.e. Founder), a chair with a screen on the seat that shows digital images. Brilliant! A virtual image of the backrest changes to hallucinogenic forms and creatures. The catalogue says, there’s a link to Hunter S. Thompson (actually, they only mention Fear and Loathing’s film version as if it were an original creation, revealing a rather embarrassing lack of knowledge). The chair is in 19th Century Gründerzeit style, an era of German/Austrian design, but the term “Gründer” today commonly refers to a start upper, a tech entrepreneur. The hybrid idea, the link between different times and realities, is evoked right from the start (another duality: title-work).

At one point (I think, it was in front of Ben RiversOrigin of the Species), a visitor remarked drily: “Insects, again”. It wasn’t me. But I understood. There are lots of films documenting bug life. All in all, Jaguars and Electric Eels is a great show. Mostly, there's only one artist per room, turning it into a collection of solo shows.

I wonder, if and why Stoschek does not own anything by Pierre Huyghues?!

Jaguars and Electric Eels, 4 February-"autumn" 2017, Julia Stoschek Collection

World of Arts Magazine – contemporary art criticism



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