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  • Christian Hain

“It Wasn’t Us” – It’s Katharina Grosse, and a Great Installation at Berlin's Hamburger Bahnhof

first published on (Berlin.) Quite unexpectedly, a visitor’s first thought upon entering Katharina Grosse’s single work show at Hamburger Bahnhof Museum might be: “Underwhelming”. That’s remarkable, because the German artist is known - and very well known, being represented by some of the best multinational powerhouse galleries - for art “in your face”, works that are as power- as they are colourful. You’d expect to feel dumbfounded on the spot, and only later brush away some minor doubts about the genuine greatness of what you’ve seen. Not so this time, it‘s different, and indeed the other way round, with initial coldness turning to enthusiasm, and this is not, or not exclusively, the artist’s doing, but owing to the architecture of Hamburger Bahnhof. The erstwhile train station’s main hall (hence the name, that does not refer to tasty meat patties in a bun, but the Northern German city that was once serviced from here) is a gigantesque exhibition space with a magnificent roof construction of black iron, corresponding pillars and windows, that lend it a character of its own. Deciding what to show here can never be easy, as long as you don’t want to go full “d’Orsay” and make it a regular space with moveable walls.

To be fair: Katharina Grosse’s art fits the surroundings much better than Cevdet Eret’s installation (great in itself, but tremendously undersized!) that was shown here last, in autumn 2019. Yet on first sight, architecture still dominates, and smothers, the art without any discernible link between the two. We already perceive some – even many – colours from afar, form a first, imprecise, idea of things to come, but it feels like regarding a painting with too much “social distance”, and that’s a pity. However, soon as you approach, initial doubts vanish, and the fun begins: This installation won’t blow you away immediately - it does with a delay.

Despite being only one work, the show can be divided in three parts: floor, sculpture, and outside. All have been equally painted, or more precisely: sprayed upon with a paint gun, and find themselves covered in kaleidoscopic curls, circles, and curves like a prolific painter’s palette or studio floor swept away into the outer world. The colours scream “graffiti”, but also “kindergarten” – childlike, not childish! -, evoking traces of chalk on the street. By the way: a massive thunderstorm hit Berlin the day before the opening (not really “an opening”, only the first day of public access with obligatory online reservation; there wasn’t any preview or press reception). The curious visitor bows down, touches the surface ever so softly, then raises a finger to the eye, but no: that’s no chalk, these colours are firmly attached – even outside, where the rain fell down. Nevertheless, with every squeaking of our shoes we check again, whether we’ve caught a piece of art under the soles (even if you did, framing and auctioning wouldn’t be a great idea).

As we worry already about the de-installation, a hoarse voice makes us tremble: “Please, don’t touch!”, but it’s not meant for us still crouching on the floor, somebody else got too close to the sculpture. Which is annoying: This art wants to be touched as naturally as it is walked upon, and yet that central part is extremely fragile! “Styrofoam”, someone mutters, and stepping closer, we’re briefly misled into correcting him, “splintered wood, even metal?!”, then agree: Styrofoam. Styrofoam formed to a three-dimensional abstract painting, continuing the floor as visitors do themselves by walking around, adding the colour of their clothes and skin to the “painting” like moving flowers or stalagmites. The more we approach, the better it gets, offering new sights from every angle - Is this the inside of an ice cave or crevasse, and the sun summoning iridescent images on walls brimming with crystals and esoteric gemstones (“feel the hum of the universe in the lapis lazuli, ‘mkay?”), the world seen through a prism or whatever means you prefer to “enhance” your vision, a decent into the multi-coloured maelstrom?

As you should have noticed by now, the installation invites to metaphors and a free play of associations, incessantly so. Do you see a half pipe, splintered spears and hand axes, butterflies in strobe light, is the highest summit in the back reminiscent of a bonnet mascot emanating the “Spirit of Ecstasy” indeed, but also of a fighter jet, or paper plane at least? Silver Surfer? On second, third, umpteenth look, ever new connotations arise, a bird - an eagle perhaps, flying fish, a dolphin emerging from uneasy waters. Suddenly, you catch more maritime vibes, imagine a waterslide, icebergs, high towering waves... All this is “true” and “wrong” at the same time. Katharina Grosse’s painting-installation tests, and stimulates, the onlooker’s proper creativity on an open field of interpretation like a Rorschach test for everyone.

At some point, we discover Styrofoam steps leading nowhere or to imaginary temples – aren’t these colours evocative of Tibetan (RIP) sand mandalas, too? Which reminds us: Caution, steps. Not those in the middle of the sculpture that you mustn’t touch for their own safety, but others on the floor of Hamburger, perfectly camouflaged by the paint. Contrary to custom, there are no warning signs, and if you only have eyes for the art, they’ll take you back to reality with a bang.

Outside, the colour explosion continues, art spreading like an infection into the neighbourhood, a virus, or happiness and laughter that can be quite infectious too; only the trees have been exempted unlike in earlier Grosse-installations. The world itself serves the artist for a canvas, no museum doors could contain this tsunami fed from Brobdingnagian colour barrels. Better don’t try the reverse, getting in here for free, as some did indeed: the wardens are watching.

For a moment, we’re lost: Is this not, where the Rickhallen (“Rieck Halls”) are supposed to be, an annex to the museum that will soon be demolished because Hamburger has only used it on loan for over a decade, like the collection shown in there? Has the demolition already taken place?! But no, we’ve only never been here before, in the backyard behind usually closed doors. There’s also a large metal framework, a trellis yet without plants – might be art, and even a cafeteria by the canal! Things you learn... It must be mentioned though, in the gutter we find colourless bits of Styrofoam, that’s not exactly environment friendly. As for the Rieckhallen, they’re still standing, right there on our left, the outer wall painted up to a point some fifty metres away (I’m really bad at estimating distances), they now resemble a playground for ghetto kids with graffiti walls to write and tag on legally (doesn’t that take all the fun out of it? Nothing beats the pleasures of seeing “your” whole car in the wild, or so I’m told). Here too, everything is legal, and in perfect order - it’s Germany after all. As far as the artwork reaches, not truly the whole wall has been painted, every “no parking” sign has been carefully excluded, and there are a lot. They’re probably needed to keep the new neighbours at bay, some (potentially expensive, for Berlin standards) condos vis-a-vis seem already inhabited, while more are still under construction.

There could be some protest involved: How better to manifest your claims to these halls that you would love to keep for a long time still,

possibly on a “permanent loan”, i.e. forever, just like the collection they host and which its owner, Mr Flick, has already threatened to take away to Switzerland, than by putting them in focus with a huge installation? Smart move.

Overhearing a group bent over where the multi-coloured floods have come to a halt, and stepping at their side, we notice it too: A transparent film spans all over the wall (up to here), and Grosse has only worked on this - there is still hope, the wall won’t come down anytime soon! Great for the cleaning brigade, potentially great for Grosse’s gallery/ies - will the film go on sale one day?

If in the open-air enclosure you’ve dropped the facemask, don’t forget to put it back on when returning inside (as we did more than once). There, reading the exhibition title again, “It Wasn’t Us”, we wonder, and not only about the grammar: Who’s that - “us”? The artist and her assistants (/royal we)? “Higher beings commanded...” or what was the name of that canonical Polke painting again? Having imagined a maritime context before, we now think “petrol”, and not little streams of rainbow running down the street in heavy rain, but an oil tanker’s wreckage in arctic waters, glistening death on a sunlit surface - we definitely did that, “we” as in “humanity”. Still beautiful. She cannot possibly mean that. No, rather those skate kids at it again – “Graffiti? What graffiti?!” Or an artist’s own, running around the studio, throwing over pots of paint... (About time, that lockdown ends, isn’t it?)

Katharina Grosse’s art puts a smile on your face, and at least you hope, this is true for everyone, even though you cannot see the other patrons’ faces for their masks... Hers is a colourful world, and somehow clownish, in a positive way. Talking influences, we’ve mentioned street art more than once, also think Pollock, next level, and Grosse won’t drip: she pours. Like with Abstract Expressionism’s founding father, there’s little chaos and coincidence involved, and much elaborate planning instead. She probably couldn’t avoid to think big: “Grosse” literally means “(the) great”, as in “Catherine/Katharina, the”, although she chooses to pronounce it oddly different - her parents obviously didn’t want her to suffer any inferiority complexes. Now imagine, she’d chosen – or been allowed to? maybe it wasn’t artistic choice, but budget limitations and monument preservation laws - to use the entire station hall instead of merely a third, not stopping short at walls and even the ceiling!

Katharina Grosse, It Wasn’t Us, Hamburger Bahnhof, 14 June 2020-10 January 2021



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