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  • Christian Hain

Not Alone in The Dark Rooms

(Berlin.) Sometimes, people like to be left in the dark. It admittedly happens a lot in contemporary art. Sometimes even literally.

You know dinners in the dark hosted by theme restaurants around the globe, maybe you even have first f̶i̶s̶ -hand experiences with a different type of darkroom activities, and we envy your naivety if you think photography now. But you have never (not) seen an art exhibition in total darkness, not until now. A group of Berlin based artists/curators is here to change this, and not because they were ashamed of their works, but in search for new forms of presentation. The Dark Rooms opened only for six hours on a September Saturday (to emphasize the idea of a unique “event”, and to pressure people into a visit?), it featured six artists on five floors of abandoned Willner Brewery - Berlin has a seemingly endless supply of former breweries transformed into event spaces, from “Kultur-“ ("Culture") to “Musik-“ (“Music”) "Brauerei" (“brewery”, whoever said, German were difficult?), but don’t think this means Berliners drank any less.

All windows got covered with black tissues and the lights put out except those illuminating the art. Not the art is dark, The Dark Rooms was not about art for the blind (did you see Don’t Breathe yet?) and their dogs, not about works to be experienced with our remaining three to four senses in which case you could of course leave the lights on and simply blindfold the visitors; no, far from a game of blindman’s buff, it was about exchanging the once-revolutionary-now-become-boring White Cube for a black one, with art that could be, and otherwise is, shown in daylight. It was not - or not necessarily, for some of it did interact with the darkness - about changing the art, but about changing the spectator. Arriving on site an hour after the doors opened at 4 p.m, we passed the entrance to a photo awards show, and admired the selection of food and drink stalls in the yard. An external steel staircase led to an open door where a paper sign read “Exit”. We sat down and had a beer to contemplate the situation. It always helps.

Deeply confused by overhearing a discussion about somebody who had left "because there are no more toilet brushes on the whole site” (maybe he was working there?), we decided to give those stairs a try; other visitors in search of darkness followed us. Only to be told in a distinct Austrian accent that this was the The Dark Rooms’ exit. Everybody got sent back to where we had seen the poster for a photo awards show before. There was not a single poster for The Dark Rooms around, which might or might not have been a conscious decision in line with the exhibition concept. In the meantime a queue had formed at that entrance. We were handed a paper slip declaring we’d enter at our own risk, and politely asking us to follow the orders. Despite the signature, we have some doubts about any actual legal implications of this document.

Inside, the brewery looked like the average Berlin nightclub, we even got a stamp on our hand right next to the previous night’s from Tresor - for a moment we wondered if we had actually left there, and this was indeed a new day. Darkness, industrial surroundings, a broken cigarette machine on the wall and the smell of a dry-ice machine: they had thought of everything. Projections on the wall begged visitors not to use a mobile phone or any other light source, and to get lost, in darkness. We bumped into a wall, then into the first of many black curtains. Even as our eyes eventually adapted to the conditions, those textiles should remain an almost unavoidable obstacle. The girl outside who checked the tickets had told us and everybody else to go upstairs first, then return to the basement. A colleague of hers had repeated the plea in the antechamber, before the lights went out. When we reached the staircase, we got overtaken by what appeared to be a guide/organizer/curator asking the group with her: “Sooo, you want to go downstairs first?”. We stuck to orders and stayed behind.

Now, “total darkness” is relative. They had covered all windows, but still you could see enough not to step on anyone’s toes, you distinguished other visitors and more important: the walls and occasionally a chair or a sofa (just not those curtains). It was more dusk than night, or a very moonlit one; “The Twilight Rooms” would have been a fitting title too. To describe it in more arty terms: In an Ann Veronica Janssens installation of coloured fog you lose your orientation, you crash (and preferably not: grope) into other people, you feel extremely lucky to find a wall, you cling to it and won’t let go anytime soon. Janssens was not one of the artists at The Dark Rooms, and the experience not remotely comparable. But for what it was, it was great.

Our biggest fear prior to visiting the show was it to be a non pro event hosted by a collective of outsider artists living in a squatted factory, “doing anticapitalism and art, yeah” - you know the type. Thankfully, The Dark Rooms was nothing like that. Only one artist painted in colourful street art style (not our cup of tea but we're sure, Jürgen Schwämmle has his fans, it's certainly well done). We found a gas tank next to an illuminated sign telling us to tap a sensor. Nothing happened. Luckily, a child tried after us, and discovered the art inside that tank, about 50 cm above the floor. This small light projection (or wire sculpture?) was a first work of Ralf Westerhof’s, a teaser for his sculpture group in human size waiting around the corner. Light flashes made their red hearts pulsate in blueish contours. A cotton thread helped people guard their distance. We remembered that Austrian at the exit, and wondered it he had told Westerhof about Fritz Panzer, and how his wire sculptures could be made even more impressive with the use of electricity - but of course, it does not take away anything from an artist’s greatness if his works remind you of someone else's. It was of the works that interacted the most with the concept in all of the exhibition.

Next was Hendrik Czakinski with bird view architecture models presented like paintings. They seemed partly made from carton matchboxes, all in grey and geometry. At least here in the dark they looked stunning. Instead of continuing to the first floor, we then, finally, rebelled against our orders: Persian rugs led the way to the basement and past a bar downstairs. It was here we realized the venue is occasionally used for different events too: A radio was playing and a sign told us: “Wardrobe 1€”. Later we realized, it’s not. Or maybe it is. But the bar and the music were an installation by Mari Matsutoya. The rugs were a part of it too – because Berlin nightlife is said to be controlled by Arabian mobsters? Or meant as a metaphor for chemical substances that promise wild magic carpet rides? This sort of conceptual art gets quite dark in many regards.

Behind, a queue. A long one. Suddenly, we understood: They advised people to go downstairs last not for any narrative logic/exhibition design, but to control the influx of visitors. We contemplated loose cables hanging from the wall, forming a noose to get rid of some annoying... no, it was not dark enough. But we should have brought a voltage tester. We also found a light switch. We were tempted, but refrained. A ship’s whistle burped every twenty seconds. And what were we waiting for? Julian Laping and a herd of rabbits: In an indoor swimming pool with tiles on the walls on which was written “Anno 1979” - probably not part of the art, but remains from the brewery - dildos hung from the ceiling like stalactites. When the siren sounded, they vibrated. Hard. Too hard, even for you, we presume (/hope). Or maybe the "siren" was the amplified sound of their vibrations. Is this an interpretation/remix of the Weather Girls classic It’s Raining Men? There were platforms placed under them for the shorter visitor to climb up and reach for the stars. They glowed. We won’t judge. Leaving, we nearly got decapitated by the low doorway.

Arriving on the first floor, we passed by people queuing for the second floor, which was confusing. The sculptures up here lost some of their fascination to the darkness, you needed to approach closely to realize they were made from cardboard. For once, it would have been better with light! The works were watched by a camera automatically shooting visitors (it had vanished when we came back later on our way to the exit) and a guy dressed as 1970s Czechoslovakian comedian Pan Tau who might have been the artist, Jerry Kowalsky, himself. More magicians, Bjørn Hegardt and Theo Ågren, had prepared tricks like an apple levitating over a book (and no strings attached - many moved their hand about in search for them). The magic of electromagnetism, this was also the opening weekend of IFA. In other works, the artists use stuffed animal corpses, which you don’t have to like. Or maybe their meditating squirrel was not actually dead, but meditating indeed.

Julia Sossinka’s installation on a steel mezzanine could only be admired through a small opening and by no more than three visitors at a time. It resembled a gigantic spider’s web or a giant’s game of Mikado. Below it we espied stones, sand and litter. The watching intern could not answer our question for the material. But she looked very pro, casually pulling the earbuds out before confessing her ignorance.

One more stairs to Olaf Bastigkeit. His installation was placed on another mezzanine with a steel grid for a floor, and on this one you could step. We profited to peek down on Sossinka’s work. The experience had a touch of Antony Gormley’s 2012 Hamburg show to it. Or that Chinese glass bridge that made the news recently. But Bastigkeit: Plants, plaster, cables, a fur covered AC or loudspeaker box, we have no idea what it was, or what it was about. It did not obviously interact with the exhibition concept. Or wait, photosynthesis needs light, would it be...? No, probably not. No clue.

All meaning aside, aesthetic-wise we preferred a mysterious mechanism in the background. A clock pointer on a model train on tank treads or gearwheels, a black carpet below – covering a trap door or catching oil drips? We have no idea what use the brewery once had for it. But we would almost go that far and compare it to Twombly meeting Tinguely.

Later, we spent more time with the question whether the name Sa-Po stands for a female collective than with the artists' photos from South Korea in relief. It would match the Dark Rooms concept, right? Finally, on the top floor, we stumbled into a slaughterhouse with alien skeletons suspended from the ceiling. This was not the set of Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3, nor the meat freezer after Rocky’s training session, and least of all another set of sex toys, but sculptures of Wolfgang Flag. They were explained to be made from art magazine pages, they looked suspiciously like bronze. Again a concept you’ve seen somewhere else already, but well done nonetheless.

The Dark Rooms’ premiere was a success, a second edition has already been announced for next year. Outside we were happy not to have arrived any later: The queue now reached down to the street, finally it looked like Berghain from the outside also (and it was less disappointing inside). The bouncers were not that picky, in fact all tickets had been sold in advance. As we said before: The show was on for one day only, something they should reconsider for part 2. The organizers had told us about deceleration, about giving back time to the spectator, about a project against the "short- (and fast-) lived consummation of art". And then they hosted an event for six hours only.

That’s even more rushed than Berlin Gallery Weekend. The darkness alone should create enough buzz, that’s their USP, so why additionally limit the experience to one day, 4-10 p.m. only? Would it be too expensive to rent the location for a weekend or a week?

The whole idea was to calm the spectator. No distraction, all focus on the art - that was the White Cube’s raison d’être too, right? -, but is not darkness a major distraction in itself, at least until your eyes have adapted? Also you might ask, if the idea, enlightened art and an audience in the dark, is not stolen from cinema, or the good old House of Horrors. In the end it doesn't matter, most of the works deserve to be shown night and day. We will visit again next year. See you there – or not.

The Dark Rooms, Willner Brauerei Berlin

World of Arts Magazine - Contemporary Art Criticism



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