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Schinkel Pavillon with Paul McCarthy, Unplugged

(Berlin.) Some say, if Potsdamer Platz is Berlin’s Manhattan, the area surrounding Museumsinsel is a mix of Vegas and Monte Carlo, minus the money and the gambling. What they mean is a gigantic construction site, even a network of multiple ones: An eternal circle of destruction and reconstruction where of the finished buildings you can never be sure what is genuinely historic and what a contemporary copy.

The art centre Schinkel Pavillon that sits deep inside this dusty maze is the hobby horse of a German photographer who can spare enough money and time to manage and curate; its name derives from a long demolished building of 19th Century architect F.K. Schinkel’s. Rebuilt on top of its proper ruins in the 1960s, it served as a convention centre to the Socialist government of East Germany before capitalism and art took over. It is not to be confounded with the New Pavillon in a Western borough of Berlin that was built in 1824/25, still stands in its original state, and is also referred to by that architect’s name.

When you venture on an expedition to Schinkel’s, we strongly advice you not to go alone. Definitely, you should equip more than one GPS, and better take an old fashioned map too just to be sure. Wearing a helmet is one more good idea. We will not bore you with details of our straying through the scaffoldings, passing ruins and bottomless abysses, virtually abandoning all hope of ever seeing civilization again; will tell nothing of the anguish and despair when the water bottle’s last and long spared drop oozes down a parched gullet under the merciless eyes of sweaty shadows clinging to an edifice's steely straitjacket. You too will have too much time to ponder life’s last questions until in a moment of epiphany you'll espy the words Schinkel Pavillon (not in burning letters) inscribed on cardboard with an arrow pointing to a wall. Upon closer inspection – fruitlessly searching for a secret door -, you discover a narrow passage through garbage cans and heaps of debris. Feeling all the excitement of a reborn Howard Carter you fall upon a sudden opening. There are no mummies waiting, yet something not entirely unrelated as you’re soon to understand.

A rotten staircase mirrors the end-time ambiance outside, and visions of post-war Berlin (or today's war zones) haunt the visitor's mind. In other words, the Schinkel Pavillon is about the exact opposite of Parisian Place Vendôme, where a sculpture of Paul McCarthy’s caused a stir about a year ago in what will forever rest inscribed in the city’s, err: annals, as “Buttplug-gate”. Schinkel Pavillon presents a solo show of the American veteran artist that does not involve any homosexual sex toys, and consequently there has been no scandal so far (maybe fixing the opening on September, 11th was an offhand provocation). Hesitating about the stability of those stairs, we once more followed a heavenly sign that spelt “Schinkel-Klause” on a wall ahead. A “Klause” is the Bavarian/Austrian expression for a rural restaurant, conveniently placed on top of a mountain (it historically refers to a recluse monk’s home). “This has to be the cafeteria”, we naively concluded, and even had a smile for the resemblance of “Schinkel” to “Schinken”, German for “Bacon”. Exactly what you’d appreciate after the journey’s hardships.

Rather to our disappointment, the “Klause” turned out to be the first exhibition space.

It should not be the last of surprises on that day. Hardly had we time to duck a group of oncoming visitors and catch a glimpse of a video that seemed borrowed from a medical library, department of gynaecology. There were more screens, but we did not really care for them just now, when a woman demanded us to follow her out again. Our protests, we would not belong to her guided group proved to no avail – Schinkel Pavillon must be the only art institution in this world and all others that suffers from a lack of interns. This pitiable person was alone in charge of the building. She alternately closed one of the exhibition spaces up- and downstairs. We had to go with her.

The stairs proved more solid than expected, and we were allowed ten (or even fifteen?) minutes for the exhibition’s second part. It feels like a public viewing: In the centre stands a dissecting table – in a former life a door in the LA branch of the Bank of America -, on which is laid out a life like self portrait of the artist in sculpture. Base and superstructure, money, art, and death. Naked and thoroughly detailed like a Ron Mueck’s work in small (that would be a John deAndrea?), it offers an uncannily close encounter with Paul McCarthy. We bowed down to sniff his toes. We knew the artist only from photos on the internet that show him half Santa Clause, half Amish, and well, if one believes the sculpture he has cut the beard. At seventy there’s probably no more need for the hipster look. This work is joined by a no longer recognizable silicon cast from the artist’s body that was used at one point of its creation.

When our time was up, i.e. we were allowed to descend again, for the first time we noticed white marble(?) reliefs on the walls. They look Greek, or socialist, but don’t ask for details.

Now returning, we could focus on what was really going on on those screens downstairs (the genital scene was not playing right away). Stills and short clips of a naked female lying/sitting on a pedestal, and a hand (of the artist’s?) drawing lines with a pencil on that same pedestal - measuring?, preparing? - doing artistic stuff. Occasionally a colour field interrupts the image and a screen goes full red. All the time believing it were another sculpture, we admired the admirably executed pores, the goose bumps, when suddenly, in a truly Frankensteinian moment, the figure on one of the screens moved a finger. We blinked, not daring to trust our eyes, but then again, there assuredly was a movement. It was not our dream (/nightmare), this was a genuine humane being. Still, we stay convinced the body upstairs is not, though if Paul McCarthy has a twin brother, maybe somebody should check about his wellbeing.

In the middle of the room, mirroring the situation upstairs, stands that pedestal with the lines upon it, referring to a body’s absence. The screens do not show the measuring of a finished sculpture, but the preparation for a per now non-existent one; the transfer of a living model into the artist’s head. Paul McCarthy researches “life-forms”, and androids are a fact of the nearest future. Those lines on the pedestal further are a reference to Yves Klein’s Anthropometries - the petrification of a body in art (banned by Gorgon eyes), in an entirely different way than upstairs. Life and death, art a means to keep the artist alive, – or his work, a portrait’s power and longevity, but also the traces a body leaves by its former presence, by what happened in the past.

Proceeding to the next room, we feared we’d taken a wrong turn. Most B-movie directors would decline as "too cliché" when a location scout proposed this for the setting of a serial killer’s basement/zombies’ diner. Did the building truly serve as a convention centre, and not the secret police headquarters? Or maybe Mr Honecker was into some really kinky stuff? There are basins, stone structures, metal apparatuses, red stains and puddles (the hooks and chains only existed in our mind, we believe). In this morgue, or meat house, Paul McCarthy’s photographs of puppets – or real humans? - will inevitably make you shudder. Enter Sandmann. They stare at you, they come alive, they complain of being bound in art forever. To tell the truth: it’s 3D scans of the same person’s head who’s seen on the videos.

We love Schinkel Pavillon for what it is. Paul McCarthy’s exhibition perfectly fits its morbid lab ambiance, much more than a moronic white cube ever could.

By the way: if you take some notes on your visit, trying hard to look like a member of the press, you won’t be asked for the “obligatory donation” that is mentioned on a sign at the counter upstairs. But still you should pay, they deserve it.

Paul McCarty, 12 September-22 November 2015, Schinkel Pavillon, Berlin



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