• Christian Hain

Big Fish Eat Little Fish – Artificial Fish Eats All. Philippe Parreno at Martin Gropius Bau


(Berlin.) There it is: The long anticipated, much announced, summer show of Philippe Parreno at Martin Gropius Bau. Outside, climate change is finally making good on promises with temperatures climbing over 30 degrees C (that’s 86°F) almost every day, and museums and exhibition spaces face tough competition from lakes and swimming pools. Most of the time, they loose. But at MGB, people are smart; always on the lookout for new marketing opportunities, they asked themselves: “What if we took the sea to the museum? Everybody would come!” Or, more probably, the idea originated with the French artist himself.

Anyways, a school of helium filled balloon fish can be admired free-floating through (parts of) the exhibition space, transporting us to a peaceful place under the sea, and the more artistic minds among visitors will not even notice that the air has indeed NOT been changed for water (don’t you go playing with the fire alarm to change that!).

Saying this, in the main hall, from where to access the show’s different parts, there’s a pool indeed. And some technical witchery beneath its surface creates concentric ripples like sound waves to imitate fish feeding, although the artist refrained from putting actual goldfish – or piranhas - in. (Animal welfare regulations?) Note: It’s not allowed to sit down and dip your feet – with the weather we have, they might soon be compelled to hire dedicated attendants enforcing that rule.

There’s a danger lurking: Having visited but a quart of the show and finding yourself under the glass dome again, you could think: “Nice, but rather on the small side”, then leave. Bad mistake. Not all rooms are connected, and you’re compelled to pass by the pool more than once, exactly like you would between hotel room and pool bar. And be aware: stepping through certain doors, you can suddenly find yourself out bounds, back at the entrance on the other side of the cash desk, and in the case of Martin Gropius Bau, I’m not a hundred per cent sure, they will let you in again. But the central hall is safe!

People in charge at MGB particularly praise Philippe Parreno’s (yeah, keep ‘em alliterations coming!) Palais de Tokyo solo back in 2014 when he used the entire building, but in Berlin they only trust him with the ground floor – upstairs, there’s still Ana. In summer, where there's water, there’s also – no, not an ice cube maker, and no water gun either, but - mosquitoes and other specimen of the world’s insect population. Gropius Bau is no exception.

When confronted with the soundtrack to Parreno’s films on two man-high panels, you immediately think of those evil but remarkably effective electric traps now banned almost everywhere under WMD treaties: “Bzzz-pht. Bzzz-pht. Bzzz-pht.” Images appear like monochrome, abstractified, drawings of bugs too, interspersed with white noise.

Impressive: The screens are completely transparent when viewed from the back – as usual, MGB disposes of the best, latest, and most expensive, technical gimmicks, they do indeed spend some of the revenues from an outrageous pricing system (in the absence of combi tickets, you need to add up prices for every single show when intent on seeing them all, even if that makes it four times ten Euros – I’ve had visitors from Europe’s most costly capitals refusing to get mugged here in Berlin).

But what is it with MGB, that there’s always an olfactory experience involved these days? This time, it’s less faecal, but a thick, musty smell lurking about the helium fish. They are (mostly) contained in one large room, and the seasoned, honourable, maybe a little stout, attendants who chase and with a fatherly slap on the bottom send back the unruly who’ve escaped into an area where they are not welcome make for an impressive spectacle (they would not exactly disturb in that side room, there’s only an automatic piano playing). In the corners and along the walls, small ventilation holes create a stream of air to keep the fish in constant movement (except from those who got stuck in the ceiling, or migrated to a temporary shelter where they, still undiscovered, live in hiding now). Some resemble piranhas, others seem more harmless, one’s even a bonsai shark. Each carries its suitcase under the fin, a minuscule plastic bag with bolt nuts, screws and scrap metal, but that’s only for weight, they are not steered by magnets or a remote control – no drones in this swarm (nobody rubbed them on his hair to make them stick on the ceiling, either). And don’t be afraid of catching a cold: The breeze is that light, that perfectly adjusted, only balloons will feel it.

The stools in an improvised cinema also appear “alive”, a herd or a swarm frozen in movement (or maybe sawed off elephant’s feet) and entranced by the – blank - screen. It stays black whilst over menacing film music and gurgling water a computer voice is talking about “semi-conductors”, then asks: “Who is master, who is slave?”

- HAL, that you?

Crossing through the atrium once again, you discover another screening room, back to back with the first, and the same soundtrack is playing here, only now with images (computers don’t care about an information’s medium). A galaxy like van Gogh’s night sky, a fish in close-up that is not a coelacanth but looks like one, a little.

Elsewhere in the show: a radio play narrated by a Rosetta stone, a large grey one stood before more stools (another school of stools?), and contrary to the film(s), this is in German only.

Truly alive is the yeast culture that with the help of many cables got connected to a complex machinery and, so they claim, “controls the whole show” by some scientific hocus-pocus. They might refer to the shutters arrhythmically opening and shutting in every rooms, domotics gone wild. This turns out to be Parreno’s leitmotif: Cyborgisation, computers on the rise, AI (A”I”) taking control over the biosphere and transforming – not terra- but “HD-forming” - our human habitat, old school bio, sheepish, life so very trustful, so very unsuspicious, right up until it’s too late and the mighty microchips rise to power (mwahahaha; evil laugh). Slowly, almost imperceptibly, A”I” is taking over, and why shouldn’t it: It’s all the same and only logical, human cultures and their stories a thing of the past.

Artificial “Intelligence”, big data, creation natural, biological, or technical. And artistic. A co-show of Parreno and his compatriot Loris Gréaud could be fun after what the latter recently sold at Hetzler Gallery on Gallery Weekend.

Jars, test tubes, but no brains inside (Lovecraft), nor homunculi (Goethe), just a yellow liquid that could be urine samples and really is that yeast culture (we suppose). In the end, all it does might be to provide some electricity, and I bet you could come up with better things to produce from yeast (beer being one, donuts, and pretzels!, another). In a way, Parreno turns the building into a “living” organism, the state owned and managed MGB a modern Leviathan (props to T. Hobbes).

And what kind of art will they cherish, our revered artificial heirs? A monochrome white diptych could be the answer, sterile, clinical, rational, technocratic, inoffensive, dead. Or maybe a flickering white plexi glass wall of light? Parreno added both. The room with the cyborg yeast is only on first view homely decorated, with flowery wallpapers for the today’s microprocessor, but on closer inspection it’s too regular, too repetitive for a human soul, every pattern a I and every blank a 0.

Others rooms are left empty, life has moved out and nothing but moving shutters remains.

To lighten things up, some space has been reserved for those drawings we already know from the films in the atrium, on paper this time. Some are more figurative, others hardly recognizable, but all motives “biological”: Insects, landscapes, roots (am I wrong in seeing HR Giger aesthetics?) and woods, a meteor or the Big Bang, all monochrome and very sombre. When in New York, Philippe Parreno stays at the Waldorf Astoria - there’s one in Berlin too, good to know for the art groupie among you -, as seems safe to infer from indecipherable notes on the framed sheets of a hotel notepad. Could a computer have written them?

The show is nameless as befits our future (and besides, names create identity, identification, individuality, all those something–ist things of the past). An artificial piranha kisses a goldfish on the lips, there’s your peace on earth. Insects, fish, eight-billion-people, swarm animals best suits a technological society. There must be no differences among the swarm, the colony. MGB names “life”, “time”, “in- and outside” among Philippe Parreno’s main topics. Today, our creation myth is “scientific”, and “true” (but this time!). So what?

Isn’t it fitting: Even MGB’s exhibition photos look more Photoshopped than is good for you, with that typical cold, and dead, digital, aesthetics.

Philippe Parreno, 25 May-5 August, Martin Gropius Bau

World of Arts Magazine - Contemporary Art Criticism




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