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  • Christian Hain

Block the System. The Rene Block Collection at NKBV and Berlinische Galerie

(Berlin.) True, we’ve been talking about Guns’n’Roses lately, and reading today’s headline, those of you still in early nineties mode might have mixed up NBKV with NKOTB. It’s not. NBKV - Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (New Berlin Art Club) - is yet another art centre in Berlin. Free to visit, it co-hosts a retrospective of no artist, but dealer and collector Mr Rene Block.

Most Germans are familiar with a Mr Block who rose to wealth with a Steakhouse franchise that now has branches in every major and not so major city, but that’s not he. (Although that other Mr. Block, Christian name Eugen, also shows art, or should we say: “art”, in a Hamburg hotel he owns and manages on the side). Rene Block, the collecting art dealer, or the dealing art collector, for his part opened a gallery in 1960s’ West Berlin, being one of the first to sell art of the Fluxus movement. He proved influential to the careers of Beuys, Vostell and Polke among many others. Some say, Rene Block would have been the Malcolm McLaren of Fluxus, if only George Macunias had not invented it a couple of years before his taking the stage.

At about the same time when Rene Block was at his peak, people were cheering for a far-more-famous-than-successful German boxer with the nickname “Der schöne Rene” (“Rene the Handsome”). Rene Block embraced the antithesis, he fervently defended everything not handsome. His artists did not care about visual aesthetics, the idea was everything. Now, if we were artists, we’d be allowed to put it short: “Fluxus was mindfuck”. Being serious art critics, we need to corroborate this claim with source material. We choose Urban for that. The perhaps a tad dubious reference provides us with this handy definition of the beautiful term: “an idea or concept that shakes one's previously held beliefs or assumptions about the nature of reality.” That’s great! Just exchange “reality” for art and you get Fluxus. Today’s exhibition has a Ben Vautier’s work that reads: “Since Duchamp, a cigarette butt will do. Since J Cage, the sound of a fly will do. Since Fluxus, Nothing will do.”

Yet, far from promoting a nihilistic nothingness, most Fluxusists (Fluxusians?) had a sharp political agenda of globalized anticapitalism. Fluxus was about producing, not the produce, about “creating not the creation”. Now, if you take a closer look, and like being the spoilsports, you might find this is actually a very capitalistic idea: who cares about the use of a consumer good as long as it sells? - A lot of today's internet services don’t even need to earn any money at all for to earn a lot of people a lot of money. Keep the machine going, create/produce but never stop for a minute to behold the results. Autopoiesis, baby. In the end, the market soaks up everything, ideas not excepted.

Nevertheless, the Fluxus creations that we’re left with today are great works of art.

It comes as quite a revelation to see that once there was an open-minded, innovative dealer – and much more important: buyer - scene in German art. Hardly anyone in the industry will disagree when we say, “the Germans” buy nice things to decorate their homes, but they don’t like to be challenged, and their barrier to challenge is set rather low. Despite the praiseworthy initiatives of late, collecting art is not obligatory to social status as it is more often in the US – on the contrary it might even be dangerous and earn you the reputation of a blockhead who is spending his money (a synonym for throwing it away). The national spirit is more about being down to earth and to follow the herd, even in the elites. Nor is General Public as open-minded as his French counterpart for instance. Mainstream media share the plebeian views on contemporary art, and generally would write “art” for everything that’s not figurative painting, expressionist preferably (this, btw, is a phenomenon almost worthy a PhD thesis: condemnation by quotation marks, our favourite example being “fans” for the most fanatic football hooligans). If they would deem contemporary art worthy of their attention at all, that is. On the other hand, German artists regularly reach international fame outside the classic German discipline, the only possible explanation for this being rebellion. The historical image of desperation and art going hand in hand is a German invention after all.

Now rebellion is an attitude, that hardly any dealer shares. Because buyers don’t. Enter Rene Block. A man who challenged the system, admittedly at a time when “challenge the system” was the word of the day, and itself fashionable – and even profitable - mainstream. Welcome to the 1960s/70s.

NBKV resides in the “Catholic Courts” office block where other tenants include the “Catholic Bishops’ Conference”, the “Hotel Aquino”, and a Wine merchant. In the backcourt resides PAX Bank. The exhibition has one of Pierro Manzoni’s tin cans filled with excrements, Merda d’artista. We imagine a rejuvenated Mr Block rubbing his hands with a smile, mumbling “excellent”. He’s the one non-aesthetic German collector, the anti-Würth. Here’s Marcel Brodthaers, the two Georges – Maciunas and Brecht, Robert Filliou with a Telepathic Machine, and Tomas Schmitt did Something to Frame (Etwas zum Einrahmen: a brown piece of paper featuring nothing but these very words).

There are photos of Allan Kaprow’s happenings and Nam June Paik with a collection of Time Magazines to each of which he's added a personal headline (personal and public sphere, society and self). There’s Richard Hamilton and Dieter Roth with a cooperatively created quadryptichon (Bathers, 1969) and Remy Zaugg with pseudophilosophical gibberish. There's more, much, much, more (no Flux[us] Capacitor, though).

Just as anybody else, Fluxus artist could not make tabula rasa and start from scratch. They are proud of their forefathers, of Dada, Merz, and Duchamp, even Magritte makes a cameo in Dieter Roth’s Hut (Hat, 1965) and Nam June Paik’s meat chopper with the inscription “But Fluxus says this is a TV set” (speaking of its title: This is not TV).

There is one Gerhard Richter painting though. High treason, counterrevolutionary tendencies, put him up against the wall? Not really: Most collectors of conceptual art own exactly one painting, and that’s a Richter. Richter’s alright, Richter does pretty pictures that question the essence of pretty pictures.

In the year 2000, Rene Block was living in Australia, as we may deduce from a letter/work sent to him by On Kawara: “I am still alive”. Today On’s switched off, but thanks to this show we know that Rene Block is still alive and kicking at an age when other art dealers retire to a Chalet in the Swiss Alps to enjoy the private care of some Polish nurses. His latest fascination lies with Turkey (Kebab not Thanksgiving). Several samples at NBKV serve to raise the market value of this new field of business. Eh, sorry, what we wanted to say is that they exemplify the continuation of Fluxus concepts in multicultural contemporary art. Nasan Tur thus took a photo of a graffito reading Time for Revollusion (2008). A Fluxistic play on words, stating an anachronism or a necessity?

The video Road to Tate Modern by Sener Özman and Erkan Özgen has the artists - or hired actors? - playing at Don Quixote in Anatolia, wearing Western suits and fighting traditional windmills. It’s ok.

The Block Party continues at Berlinische Galerie, where you’ll find even more shows to see for your entrance fee. Despite Nam June Paik’s Thinker thinking in the hallway - probably the most valuable piece of the entire Block collection -, the exhibition has mostly documents, photos, posters, articles, and only a few genuine artworks. It’s more of a walk-in catalogue, a research space adding to the more pragmatic part at NKBV. In the end you’ll reach a video booth with screenings of, amongst others, Joseph Beuys’ I like America and America Likes Me, the legendary performance with a coyote who had a longer lifespan than the hosting offshoot of Rene Block Gallery in New York. There’s also the wizards of Öz, Erkan Özgen and Sener Özmen with The Road to Tate Modern again (technical question: does Mr Block own two editions, or is one of these a pirated copy?).

As mentioned above, there’s more to see at Berlinische Galerie. Not necessarily Eli Cortinas‘s videos that are impossible to understand without studying a long text (one more artist who should’ve written a book instead), but for example the photo show This is us. For his series The Actors (2007), Michael Schäfer portrayed inmates, eh: pupils, of an “elite boarding school” that is not explicitly named but we'd be astonished if it’s not Salem, Germany’s Eton. (Indeed a curious, for not to say inspiring, coincidence it carrying the same name as the American city with the glorious autodafé tradition.) For the camera, the children of the rich and mighty are playing the roles that will soon be their own, wearing suits and well: suits. With Swiss watches, hair gel, and just everything that spells c-- -apitalist of course. Art about codes and traditions, and indeed interesting.

Dunja Evers’ monochromes are another highlight of this excellent group show.

There’s also a Max Beckmann retrospective at Berlinische Galerie, because Germany. And upstairs you’ll find Art in Berlin 1918-1980, with some second-rate works of first rate artists but also the other way round. A nice crash course in 20th Century art history in Berlin and beyond. We’ve decided to give you only the notes we took during the visit, completely unedited. Maybe you'll retain other things from your visit:

“Berlin Secession, Lesser Ury, photography, architecture with Otto Bartnung (Model for Sternkirche church), Many Russians, Cubism, El Lissitky: Proun Room for the Great Berlin Art Exhibition 1923, Naum Gabo: Model for Constructed Torso 1917/18, Tatlin, a fake Delauney by Otto Freundlich, Many Russians, 1922 Iwan P...(sorry we cannot decipher this): Still Life with White Bottle, John Heartfield: Dad 1919/20.”

All shows run seamlessly one into the other, the gallery’s architecture centering around a large staircase is perfectly used for once. You should visit Berlinische Galerie soon, and NBKV too, even if it’s more than just a few blocks away.

Ich kenne kein Weekend. Aus Rene Blocks Archiv und Sammlung,

NBKV, 16 September 2016-24 January 2016

Berlinische Galerie, 16 September 2015-15 February 2016



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