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  • Christian Hain

Oi, that’s Sculpture, innit? “Objects of Wonder - British Sculpture from the Tate Collection”

(Berlin.) As the director of Deutsche Bank Collection’s new art space put it: “The first hundred days of Palais Populaire are over, and even though we’re not in politics, this might be the time for a first evaluation” (then limiting it to trifles like a missing door knob). However, when it comes to numbers, the bank is unusually shy: We don’t learn anything more than “five thousand visitors on the opening weekend” which happened back in October on the occasion of Berlin Art Week, as you will surely remember. If not many among the five thousand came back for a second visit (I did not – did you?), it might be partly the fault of the inaugural show, but is also due to other reasons.

For one, the previous space, located some five hundred metres further west on Unter den Linden avenue, felt more inviting, to the many tourists even who were passing just by chance. All you needed to do was pushing (pulling?) open a door, perhaps being lured in by a poster advertising the latest show. Palais Populaire, the new space, is bigger, more sumptuous and history–laden, but also set further away from the pavement (which seems less frequented here) and worst of all, you’ll need luck to locate the entrance hidden on the side a felt hundred metres into a square/empty lot surrounded by (pseudo-)historical buildings.

As regards politics, take note not only of the obvious - business politics, lobbyism - but consider that the second show at Palais Populaire is a joint venture of DB and Tate, and the British conglomerate is better known for promoting a certain political agenda these days than for anything art (they’ve recently made it official: an artist’s genitals matter more than inspiration, form or content; Tate Britain will not show any male artist’s work in 2019). The partnership between these global players has been established in 2013 and exceeds the generous sponsorship of galleries by banks that we are much used to by art exhibitions in a bank run space. There's logic in it: investing in promising markets, a solid management of the acquired funds, and a reluctance to deal with the unworthy - museums and banks have more in common than you would think. (Can even free/low admission rates and education programmes count as investment in future donors?) However, DB’s gambling –er: investment - branch being persistently rumoured to relocate from Canary Wharf to Frankfurt (or Dublin) soon - repercussions of that Br... thing -, you could be inclined to wonder: Has the cooperation a future still? See: politics all around (driven by business interests, as usual).

The name of the new show – and this time, it’s not the rehash of an earlier London event, but the premier incarnation in Berlin! – is Objects of Wonder – British Sculpture from the Tate Collection, 1950s–Present. All evil 20th Century nationalism aside, for quite a while, Sculpture with a capital “S” was British just as Painting’s passport was (/is?) issued in Germany. When discussing the artistic genre during that era, artists from Henry Moore to Anish Kapoor via the trinity of Ant(h)onies – Caro, Cragg, Gormley – immediately spring to mind. Artists experimenting with new forms and materials, seeking new ways to stand out and distinguish themselves - but who would dare saying, they “brexited the mainstream”...?

Another of those household names, Richard Wentworth, would very much enjoy the Berlin neighbourhood, taking a stroll with his camera in search of more or less geometric, but always: outstanding, combinations of form and colour. Construction works are still going on around here, this most central piece of Berlin is far from finished (the biggest future attraction, a sort of Disneyland castle, being scheduled for opening later this year).

Objects of Wonder’s main advantage over Palais Populaire’s first show might well be the (in comparison!) lesser quality. Not really paradoxical, as back then, the individual artwork was in constant danger of getting lost in the mass, the incredibly high number of blue chip artists with small works on paper proving too much for this (and possibly for any) space. Too much banking, as if exhibiting the contents of those Swiss treasure vaults... The big names are still there, but this time mixed with others known merely to the knowledgeable, and the show is much smaller overall. A different portfolio strategy indeed.

The curators chose a chronological presentation in three parts as you immediately notice upon entering the famous listed staircase, where a Calderish mobile from parts of office chairs (Martin Boyce, Suspended Fall, 2005) hovers above a “The exhibition continues” sign. Still on ground floor, a small bronze man welcomes you to a trip through recent art history. That dwarf is made by Eduardo Paolozzi and his inclusion here hardly a coincidence after the recent retrospective at Berlinische Galerie. The wall text lists Surrealism, Russian Constructivism, and, using a newspeak/PR euphemism but meaning: Primitivism, as major inspirations of British sculpture in the swinging 50s. Exhibits in this antechamber at least as much call to mind Cubism. (Slighly) Lesser knowns like Eileen Agar, Elizabeth Frink and Hubert Dalwood share vitrines with William Turnbull, Henry Moore - as smooth, recognizable and unique as ever -, and Barbara Hepworth - a little shell/basin/stadium with a puddle of blue inside that simply cries “IKB” (she didn’t need to license it, this work dating from 1940 already).

The eclectic mix continues in the next, much larger, room with e.g. Anthony Caro but also Michael Bolus (enlarged/abstract egg and yolk?!), Turnbull’s wife Kim Lim, and Rasheed Araeen, enjoying the liberties – and will for deconstruction - their predecessors, and general historical change, had won. Never-ending experiment, research, playfulness, dominate the following decades and also PP’s basement. David Medalla (who, by the way, was born in Manila and educated in New York before moving to London in the 60’s – where does cultural appropriation begin?) thus proved, how foam bubbles may not only hide beauties, but are imbued with peculiar aesthetics in their own right. The arbitrariness of these Cloud Canyons No 3: An Ensemble of Bubble Machines (Auto Creative Sculptures)‘s every new embodiment is almost conceptual. That is an important point concerning those insular artists: Where many of their continental peers on both shores of the Atlantic followed the fashion of the day and try to make the matter vanish altogether, dissolve it in words, they clung on to handcrafted objects, to something factually done. The living bubbles (no, not that Bubbles as sculpted by Jeff Koons much later!) almost make you overlook Stephen Willat‘s sooo Seventies space ship interior on the opposite wall: blinking fields of light without rhythm or purpose (Visual Field Automatic No. 1, 1964).

Shortly later, even the most open-minded visitor wonders about the definition of sculpture beinig at work here, and whether they had not better clarified it beforehand. The borders with other forms of art – and not only the obvious: installation - are blurry. You’ll find photo works by Alex Hunter, Rose Finn-Kelcey, Helen Chadwick, and Bruce McLean. Sculptures? Documents of such? Or –al at least? (Mapplethorpe’s not British, definitely the sole reason for his exclusion.) Gilbert and George, who famously declared themselves the sculpture(-s?), have more works - three videos on one screen, and a book of self portraits - in show than any other artist. But the Chapman bros (sorry, London: bruvs) are apparently considered mere installationists, and therefore absent.

Richard Long’s rocks on the floor made from slate that looks like wood get joined by photographs of his land art: rock formations (you know that internet meme “saw the craziest rock formation” with a photomontage of Chris, Kid and The Rock? Note: Not every play on words is art). Were he not a US citizen, you would wish for Robert Longo’s “sculptural” drawings to complete the ensemble.

In a survey show of British Sculpture from the 1950s onwards, visitors most certainly expect to see some typical Gormleys: oversized, a little “Lego”-like, bodies whose pedigree include Giacometti, and Craggs: blurry columns with plateaus, likewise related to human beings. Instead, we get different works of both artists (yes I am aware, how “historical” Cragg’s object circles are).

If you feel like it, go and play a prank on cultured Berliners, whispering “Dearcon is back, at Palais Populaire!” in the UBahn. Hardly anyone has never mixed up British sculptor Richard Der- with former head of Tate Modern and a Berlin theatre from whence he’s been unceremoniously been chased away, Chris Dea-con. (There might be a typo in here.)

And upstairs, finally. A medical doctor’s puzzle by Damian Hirst – not the infamous pill board/medical chest, but diverse body parts from plastic (do reassure me: is that black torso and head currently okay, or gollywog-bad?) confronts Helen Marten’s rather cryptically titled Guild of Pharmacists on the opposite wall. A priestly gown with elements of heraldry by Anthea Hamilton, a chair with tits by Sarah Lucas - excuse me, but that is the name: Cigarette Tits (Idealized Smokers’ Chair Chest II, 1999) - of which the most interesting part is arguably the paper sign: “Please don’t touch”, a cell/cage/shopping cart like metal cradle from Mona Hatoum (the symbolism is obvious, I guess), and an object that shares some resemblance with a slatted frame free-floating under the ceiling, also metal and made by Phyllida Barlow. The single Kapoor in show is here, too, and finally a trademark work: a seemingly bottomless light blue satellite dish on the wall. Personally, I liked Eva Rothschild’s broom/whip hovering in the air (by magic or suspended from invisible wires... but I’d rather wager on the wires).

Now what do we make of all this, and more? Progress? Evolution? Trial and error? Sculpture and the human shape itself have been subjected to multiple transformations throughout the past decades and still do, sometimes their image is more recognizable, and sometimes less. Sometimes, there’s (political) meaning, sometimes there’s not, sometimes it could be all about pure form. All in all, a nice overview but nothing ground-breaking. Maybe another presentation would have made it (even) better, thematical not chronological.

In Palais Populaire’s lobby/cafeteria, you can discover a children’s drawing on the wall, executed not by the CEO’s offspring but an attendant of the company kindergarten (open to all, I think). A new “artwork” will regularly get chosen and go on display here as well as on the bank’s social media channels. Oh, and where in the former space you would always get the Deutsche Bank Art Calendar for free by the end of January, this year it’s still on sale. Maybe wait a little longer with your visit.

Objects of Wonder – British Sculpture from the Tate Collection, 1950s – Present, 1 February-27 May 2019, Palais Populaire

World of Arts Magazine – Contemporary Art Criticism



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