• Christian Hain

Roses, Couples, and Great Art: Two Exhibitions at Palais Populaire, and Next Door


(Berlin.) Welcome back after this rather extensive winter break, suddenly it’s 2020, and so many things have changed! Already we think of 2019 with a lot of nostalgia - ‘member the summer of ‘19, when online banking was still fun and simple? Before autumn came, and the EU bureaucrats introduced PSD2, causing oh so many cases of PTSD among their subjects? By now it sounds like a dream of the Golden Age, yet only months ago you did indeed not need to enter five passwords and ten PIN codes, then scan three barcodes, no it didn’t even matter if you’d left your phone in the bathroom, were charging it in the kitchen, or had no clue where tf it might be once again, as you were sitting at your desk and all you wanted was to check your balance. No, not all things constantly get simpler... The laws of our time: Bring everything down to the lowest common denominator, and security above all. If there is the slightest risk for the weakest link, the feeble in mind, to be cheated, the majority has to suffer. ...Alright, this rant should have put you in the right mood for another brand-new exhibition review! Deutsche Bank is one of those now being legally obliged to torture their clients, and maybe not even sad about it (fewer users mean reduced bandwidth and thus less IT costs, doesn't it?).

As we are all aware, DB’s art sponsoring and collection branch recently took new quarters on Unter den Linden boulevard in the heart of Berlin, next door to Berlin State Opera (“Staatsoper”) with whom they share a bus stop, that is - still? - named for only one of them (not the bank). Ever since the housewarming party, both parties have been curious about their neighbours, they instantly got busy contemplating the potential for future collaborations, potential savings and win-win potentials. And it really sounds like a textbook example for the perfectly arranged marriage: Here’s the money, and there’s the prestige.

If we are to believe the speeches on DB PP’s (Deutsche Bank Palais Populaire) latest exhibition opening, it is the public institution who finally took the first step and held out her hand to the wealthy gentlemen next door. Not to humbly ask for a loan, mind! (or maybe they did too, one never to be repaid, or in other words: a gift, sponsoring) but to propose a common artistic project. Happens, that this February, the opera is premiering a production of Richard Strauß’ - never to be confused with operetta king Johann Strauß! - Der Rosenkavalier (The Gallant of Roses) directed by Austrian artist-entertainer André Heller, who's invited his compatriot and dear friend, Mrs. Xenia Hausner to paint the scenery. Would not by any chance Deutsche Bank Art have an exhibition slot available...? Of course, they did!, and they happily take on the role of a generous host in the romantic public private partnership that promises to profit everyone involved.

Both opened – or: premiered – on the same Sunday, when first Palais Populaire treated the audience to sketches for Hausner’s stage paintings (the final versions not being available for obvious reasons...), a dollhouse model of the Staatsoper, and some props. - A pair of red pumps has NOT been planted here by Hans Peter Feldmann, but was designed by Hausner, it’s actually made from glass(!). But mostly, this is about paintings. Rather recent paintings, and yet they have not been created especially for the occasion, they do not directly link to the opera. All portray human couples, as fashion demands of course including all sexes in every possible combination (in monotonous “equality”, there is only one gender, anyway) and, of course, several more pigmented faces, too. These paintings are in general very colourful, and very skilfully executed – Xenia Hausner’s yet another German/Austrian figurative painter, but a great one for that, who is looking back on a career of several decades (her once having started as a stage designer, the opera also marks a return to the roots).

They could easily figure in the next ad campaign of – say, a bank, or whatever, were it not for one important detail: Almost without exception, Hausner’s characters display the most “meaningful” and “deep”, or more prosaic: “sad”, facial expressions seen in a while, apparently contemplating their sorry fate, being condemned to carry all the meaning of a meaningless world - faces only comparable to that of a Deutsche Bank family office client who has just learned of his sole heir‘s decision to throw himself into a “career” in art.

Now, which playwright comes to mind first, when asking for the perfect antipode to easy-going operetta life? - Exactly: Beckett. Xenia Hausner chose a quote from Happy Days: “This will have been another happy day” for a title to her exhibition, and upon a second glance, you might notice, how these people indeed appear only from the waist upwards - they could very well be half-buried!

Said opening cannot by any means be described as “sad”, yet the faces on display there were also very solemn, and dignified, in fact it felt more than just a little bit... special. This was Deutsche Bank inviting after all, the event not publically promoted, and guests even asked to rsvp, something very rare in art. In consequence, there was champagne and pretzels for free - all you can guzzle! - but hardly any artists, students, or comparable trash to profit from the offer. Only private banking clients or people in evening attire who at least looked like they could be, plus a handful of journalists/bloggers who for one reason or another had missed the separate press preview (the invitation to that one included this).

I overheard a gentleman bitterly complaining in a distinct Austrian accent about how he’d left the tailcoat at home, and thus found himself obliged to appear in this ordinary grey suit. How very shocking! As I mention it: Austrians - they were everywhere! Only if you kept scanning the room for that one uber-gallerist of global – no, surely more than that: universal! - fame, you made a mistake: Xenia Hausner is NOT with the mighty Tad, Mr Ropac, she shows with Deschler, Berlin and Forum, NYC (not really top of the top, are they?) instead.

Not having cared to even ask for a ticket to the Roses, I rather visited the second show still continuing upstairs, which was a great choice because Seeing is Believing by Libanese artist Caline Aoun is outright magnificent! A one room show that could almost be confused with a single installation taking the whole space, so much its different parts flow together in a visually impressive whole. Several walls cover A4 prints that in minimalist drawings, a little Hanne Darboven-like, depict the turnover of commodities at Beirut air- and seaports, from corn and all kinds of petroleum derivatives to “carbon paper, self-copy paper, and other copying paper” and “coffee, whether or not roasted or decaffeinated”. Of course, this is not a particularly innovative artwork, but still very nice to behold, the heartbeat of an economy. And it might really have been made for the occasion, which is Caline Aoun’s designation as the Deutsche Bank Artist of the Year (2019 or 2020 btw?). Further, a stop motion video of waves breaking on the seashore: panta rhei disrupted in and by modern technology; large printouts on another wall, the results of a printer completely emptying its cartridges and “accidentally” – or by design – creating patterns, almost colourful for the absence of colour, by light effects and the blank paper shining through the thinning ink. Also four fountains that each gurgle another oil paint, and we learn, as time moves on, they will mingle, eventually loosing their hitherto distinctive colour to a newly-established unity. - Of course, for once you are NOT supposed to take this politically, even if it’s art, and even if it’s art in Germany (which usually spells the term with a major “P”)! Really, don’t start thinking in the lines of “diversity by separation and peaceful cohabitation, but later all mixed up which in the end brings about the most uniform monotony”. Talking about “data transfer” as they do a lot in the context of this exhibition, sounds much more correct. For example, the artist also transfers pine needles from nature to metal, &ct. Overall a truly impressive show, and much more than WYSIWYG!

Xenia Hausner, “This will have been another happy day”, 9 February-2 March 2020

Caline Aoun, Seeing is Believing, 15 November 2019-2 March 2020

Palais Populaire




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