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Bananas for Berlin. Aping Culture at HKW

(Berlin.) I know exactly what you’re thinking: Germany, an institution called “House of the Cultures of the World” (Haus der Kulturen der Welt, we tried to preserve the name’s clumsiness in translation; it really sounds that bad in German too), lost in a grey concrete bunker of Speer’ian dimensions and an exhibition called Ape Culture (Kultur der Affen, literally “Culture of the Apes”). We sense avid Guardian/HuffPost/Daily Mail readers kindling the stakes, for this cannot be anything else than a bad racist “joke”.

Or can it? Too much has political correctness perpetuated the abject equation (After all, these days it’s hard for a teacher to talk about evolution theory in class, or only in terms of, “We all descend from apes – all of us except of Kofi and Peter of course, no please, don’t tell on me!” Thank you do-gooders, for creating the mental link that led to this introduction.) Now, to cut it short: This show is indeed about hominidae - chimps, orangs, bonobos and co.

The exhibition design is not exactly appealing with a central block of panels caring about the science and smaller spaces for art and film. The didactic part sets in in the 18th Century, leaving out all earlier traditions, and even the Renaissance/Baroque obsession with monkeys and apes painted in human pose.

The whole concept seems not thought out to the last. The decision to start with the birth of modern science would be justified with an exclusively scientific exhibition telling about the history of scientific ape research, about the birth of all the modern –gies from b(io) to z(oo), and nothing more. Remember, it’s “Culture of the Apes”, not “Apes and/in Culture”. But then there are large parts concerned with human-ape relations and apes in human culture, “culture” now in the narrow sense of cultural affairs – arbitrarily restricted to the past 300 odd years. There are even movie extracts from 2001 to Planet of the Apes (the original, meaningful, series, not the dumb trash remake from recent years). And it’s astonishing how much ape (or monkey, we’ll just forgo the distinction) related human culture is left out. We would wish for the larger context of the “uncanny ape”, the “Unbehagen am Affen” that is not tackled here. A large part of the fascination for our hairy cousins is caused by the embodiment of the wild side of man, or rather its projection onto them. It partly explains their place in medieval iconography as an allegory for all things evil; a feeling from which sprang a tradition in mass culture leading right to Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841) and cheap B-movies like Link (1986) and Congo (1995) in (almost) our days. And closely connected the superhuman tradition from Hindu god Hanuman to King Kong. But back to the show.

We find a lot of information, from the first modern scientific descriptions to Charles Darwin, local hero Ernst Haeckel and 20th Century psychology, from Clarence Ray Carpenter researching ape sociology in the 1930s to Louis Leakey’s “Trimates”, the original Gorilla Girls Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Biruté Galdikas. And thankfully, there are only few images from scientific torture camps. Patrons are taught how Western research was long time bound to a (post)colonial perspective “in search of the own origins”, without giving concrete examples for this mechanism. (Those among us with a penchant for classic horror literature might feel reminded of Lovecraft’s Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family, 1920, where genealogy drives the protagonist to suicide after realising the “missing link” in his own family was not quite human.) Japanese research is presented as free from the colonial perspective, not for any differences in the own imperialistic past, but because of the presence of monkeys on its doorstep. Japanese scientists thus were the first to acknowledge cultural transfer in ape communities (culture defined as every socially learned behaviour, what was called a meme before the internet took over.) The HKW then gives three definitions of culture, that could seem anachronistic in today’s context (we’re only one target group, never forget): - a behaviour learned by members of a certain group, - that is a unmistakable collective practice together with - a distinct system of symbols shared by group members. It remains unclear, whether there are distinct ape cultureS or a global one.

More and more panels follow. There’s Koko the talkative gorilla (although it needs to be said, that her accomplishments have much been tainted by severe accusations from female caretakers leading to a process some years ago, search the internet and you will find detailed information. Her inacceptable behaviour definitely negates every personal achievement, right?). How the monkey business of science has been used to talk about human society, and how this has been disputed successively in terms of racism and gender roles. It’s all very academic, especially the language used makes it clear that this show is not aimed at the broad public. This is also why small slips are more annoying than they would be otherwise. Sorry for nit-picking here, but the section on “Empathy” counts collective yawning as a proof for empathy which seems about the worst example imaginable. Even in humans it’s more an automatic reflex than any feeling into the other person – if your brain tells you to “breathe, there’s not much oxygen around” in reaction to the subconscious perception of somebody else’s yawning, this is not the same as to empathise with “poor Joe who needs some air” – opening a window would be empathic, co-yawning is not. And, btw, dogs yawn to say, “me cool, you cool, everything’s cool”, voluntarily telling others there’s no danger in a situation – that’s closer, but no real empathy either.

On the other hand, it’s interesting to learn that “unempathic” research has been discarded recently, because it would “lead to asocial and pathological behaviour” itself. Finally, we find Peter Singer and friends arguing for changing human rights to primate rights, and defining ape culture as a primate subculture. An American lawsuit ended in November 2014 with the decision an ape could “not be granted rights as he couldn’t take social responsibilities in turn”. We don’t know about this specific case, but cannot imagine any judge (not even in the US) being that stupid. Most probably it’s only a wrong representation of the case by HKW, otherwise permanently disabled humans would have been legally stripped of human rights.

All this introduction to the show takes not only the largest part of our review, but of the show itself. Hardly any visitor will stay a lot of time with the remaining parts after having spent an hour at least with those panels. It’s a pity, as there are some nice works like Pierre Huyghe’s Human Mask, a film observing a monkey in drag. What looks at first like a human child, turns out to be a monkey wearing a white mask. An equation that is not fair towards the monkey who is definitely smarter. It has something to do with a Japanese restaurant where such a masked primate was trained as a waiter (taking away a young artist's job?), and the press release also mentions Fukujima as an influence but here we cannot quite follow.

Masks are also essential to Anja Dornieden and Juan David González Monroy’s film The Masked Monkeys. What starts out as an interesting documentary on monkey theatres on Java (the island, not a software written in) sadly culminates in an epileptic assault, a staccato of image and light that’s way too long and annoying. The (few) visitors who endure this part are “rewarded” by some New Age Live Well gibberish straight from a 2.5€ self help book. It really started well.

Klaus Weber’s multiplication of a classic sculpture follows the reversal of man and monkey roles with nonhumans watching their reflection in the human mirror, and Damián Ortega‘s hand with tools cites less Edward Scissorhands than Arnold Gehlen (“Man as a defiscient being” forced to culture for survival). Marcus Coates and Volker Sommer present Shared Traits in a questionnaire on the wall, it seems to imply that in man and monkey alike individual variants are more important than biology. And there’s more, from a film with dominatrixes talking about their clients - the wild side of man - to some unnecessary paintings (after all this is Germany, so I guess there has to be at least one in everything art related.).

Ape Culture is a nice show with some flaws, most of all the indecisiveness between culture and science. Art lovers won’t enjoy the prevalence of text, and science fans won’t look at the art. The show does its best to emancipate non human primates, maybe they're right and it’s time for ape-ism to take the reins (though “apist” somehow doesn’t sound right). But, following the general trend, don’t we need to rename apes in the course of this paradigm change, has not “ape” become offensive?

“From Chimpan-A to Chimpan-Z”. To visit with: the missing link, your Yeti friend. Dr. Zaius.

Ape Culture, 30 April-6 July 2015, Haus der Kulturen der Welt Berlin



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