- Christian Hain
KW Institute Makes Sense (does it?)
(Berlin.) We will not stop visiting KW Institute, despite almost every Berliner telling us how much better it was years ago. True, their shows are special, and it’s cute how they focus more on writing smart(?) texts than on the art itself, but you usually discover one or two artworks that are worth the visit.
The latest show at KW is about surface and meaning. And they define “surface” quite different from what you’d expect. This is not about surface as the outer - visible/tangible/... - part of a body, the only thing we perceive and that determines our judgement/understanding of (the meaning of) that body, nor is it about Platonic ideas, the surface of shadows on our cave wall. No, KW claims, Western tradition were based on the dualism life <-> death that translates into surface <-> unknown/infinite beyond, with a strong prioritisation of the latter (in their words: “the horizon and what lies beyond it, the infinity of the universe and, ultimately, death.” – here we have at least two definitions of surface already: marking a local or a temporal frontier).
To KW, surface – they occasionally call it “emptiness” - is the world we experience (reality), and body – its complement/opposite – all sorts of otherworldliness: “the works in this group exhibition examine whether, and how, meaning is brought about without recourse to metaphysical explanatory models”.
Our first question is how this could be an exclusively “Western” point of view, in “Eastern” belief samsara, the circle of life, death and rebirth, is nothing but an illusion - a surface covering the truth. Actually, we cannot think of a single religion that would value the physical “surface” above the spiritual “beyond”.
Second question: Apparently, the curators (or whoever writes these texts, they are unsigned) have a limited understanding of “metaphysical”, probably believing it a synonym for “religious” or “spiritual”. Then why don’t they just say, “We show secular art”?
They don’t define “meaning”, either. If they seek analytical description only, it’s evident that everything carries “meaning” to the recipient (“this is a painting”). But even this easily leads on a slippery slope to ontology, a branch of metaphysics. Another domain of metaphysics, of all that is not surface, finds expression in the question “why?”. In a rationalized world, art could potentially inherit the position of religion and tackle those final questions. Science can only ever answer “what” and “how” (for example, psychology can tell you what, statistically, means “happiness”, and how you may reach it. But never why you should). Indeed, not one artwork here addresses the whys of the world.
Third question, why don’t they even stick to their concept?
As the show proceeds, KW constantly gets mixed up in different notions of surface and meaning. Just like a book (or a DVD, obviously), Secret Surface is divided into chapters, each introduced with a text. Here’s an extract from the “Prologue”:
“Secret of the surface introduces the surface as a site of the production of meaning, and examines the perceptual patterns that charge material and images with meaning. The works in this area connect the desire for transcendence with a fascination for surfaces and how they feel. Knowledge of one’s own death as a central challenge of human existence is addressed here along with religious, spiritual and everyday reference points. ...”
Suddenly, surface is treated as a physical entity, not the world but something in the world. And there’s artists addressing “religious (and) spiritual... reference points.” What was that definition of “surface”, and the exhibition’s aim again? - “contemporary works by artists that do not set up any kind of spiritual afterworld alongside unsatisfactory reality, but conceive of emptiness as a driving force in itself.” Ah, yes, of course, thank you.
The “prologue” includes several videos, one showing a thin material that changes colour and patterns while being fingered by an unseen human. Dots emerge, evolve and vanish. We first suspected artificial, computer-generated, images, and later read that it’s actually a squid’s skin. Surface, yes. But meaning?
The video addressing death features a long range shot of an island, a finger of the same size (perspective!) pointing at it, and we listen to the words “That’s where the dead go” (in an adorable British accent) repeated over and over again. Put the world in perspective, the other sphere seems much closer and at the same time much farther away than it truly is. Language is restricted to the surface, and mythological images try to touch beyond. It’s called Island of the Dead (Beth Collar, 2014), and we liked the eponymous George Romero movie better (interesting topic: the zombie wave on the surface of a world that denies death and everything not quantifiable). Many visitors will miss this prologue altogether, it being hidden away in a dark side gallery where you will desperately search for labels identifying the artists; Easter’s approaching.
Apart from all problems with these texts in detail, there is the other, more fundamental, one of text not accompanying but prevailing over art. Having read the above quoted paragraph, do you still feel the need to visit, or do you know everything about the show by now? Do you have actually any idea of the art? Or, on the contrary, don’t you have a frigging clue what all this could be about?
The simple truth is, while writing is an art (and philosophy a mental one), visual art is per definitionem unwritten. To try and press it into too narrow a definition, to overload it with too much meaning upfront, mutilates it. It's not as if KW’s texts pre-existed the artworks, in which case the resulting exhibition could have been at least to some degree homogenous. They did not ask artists to “do something about surface and meaning, oh and we don’t like that religious stuff, how's it called again: 'metaphysics'”. No, first there was art, then came the doctors with the straight jacket. The works in this show cannot possibly fit the texts. They signify much less and much more.
To put the problem differently: KW does not stay on the surface, but dwells in depths where the art gets lost, in darkness or a searchlight much too bright. Personally, we've never met any artist who'd say “what a sunny day it is, let’s hurry to the studio and commence an analysis whose 'starting points and subjects are derived from surface as a site of meaning'. Now, that’ll be fun!” Creativity doesn’t work that way.
Now what about those one or two great works in every show at KW? Even in Secret Surface, there's art beneath the talk. The very first video, shown before even the "prologue" (as a foreword? the acknowledgments?) is fine. It has a fictional artist constructing a meaning to the space - KW Institute – by relating her and the city’s biography in a CGI animated film/unpopulated video game (audio track is German, but subtitles are in English; as always these focus more on length than on exact translation). Born in 1942, this artist is invited to participate in a show in 2042. That’s the surface, anyway. After some research, we found Lawrence Lek, who invented the story, is born in 1982 (and probably doesn't own a time machine). It’s confusing.
The central hall deserves praise, too. Here, and only here, the artworks form an ensemble. The backside (the outer surface?) of a long wall attracts us with a blood red sun (actual NASA photos, combined and enlarged by Katharina Sieverding). On the inner side, that same wall is covered with a wallpaper displaying a galaxy, and the stars have eyes. Countless little eyes, like knobs on a tentacle, three-dimensionally glued on actually. In front of this we find three spaceship-like (moon lander) structures and on the opposing wall a long row of blue pennants/triangle clocks with waves. It all creates a nice ambiance, and you might start constructing sense, projecting it onto the surface (you don’t see the inner workings, the entrails). Cosmic eyes, exploration, science vs. spirituality even. The curators construct something else, writing on D.H. Lawrence who apparently once “describe(d) the universe as a man made shield intended to protect us from sinking into chaos" (now surface is not individually perceived, but collectively created?). Why not, there’s no right or wrong, as long as you can support your ramblings with some link to the given surface. We thought of Lawrence’s short story The Rocking-Horse winner where that “chaos” is breaking through the barrier separating surface and beyond.
The exhibition continues on two upper floors where highlights include a “Beam me up” light installation and a Chinese artist obsessed with Apple™ products.
Every artwork has a surface and meaning(s). That much we knew beforehand. If the concept for an exhibition is to narrowly defined, it’s the same as when it’s too vast: Either way, the artworks will seem unrelated to each other, they will not work together. Good curating means finding the middle way. And, as a curator, you should never take yourself more important than the artists.
An artist’s meaning might be evident on the surface, or hidden (a subversive/ironic trojan horse), there might even be no conscious intrinsic meaning at all and only construction based on that surface. Every artwork is intrinsically open, its surface – and body - a double-sided mirror that reflects recipient and artist alike. Art is less precise and more open than any science, than any concept (this includes conceptual art), it speaks a different language. The interpretation that decided to put these artworks in this show is only one of many possible, it only scratches on the/a surface.
Secret Surface, 14 February-1 May 2016