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  • Christian Hain

Stars, Scars and Scares at KW Institute

(Berlin.) It’s always nice to find artists inspired by the same phenomena of mass culture that none of us can escape. In the case of KW Institute’s latest exhibition, it’s Paranormal Activity-like storytelling. Those, at least, were my first thoughts when attending Enemy of the Stars, an exhibition curated by artist Jason Dodge and KW boss Krist Gruijthuijsen. But oh, was I wrong! Julia Scher’s work, a film on many screens - an x-channel video installation, I suppose you call it now - mixes surveillance cam recordings from museums with acted scenes and text. It predates that film franchise by about twenty years. Who's watching the world, and the watchers?

Enemy of the Stars marks the beginning of the second season under Gruijthuijsen’s reign in Berlin. Halfway between group- and solo show, it focuses on Ronald Jones and other artists who continue(d) to work in his spirit. Jones himself is quick to tell us about his long break from art, designing city parks for a living and writing an opera for fun. That’s a very good reason for not having sufficient works available for a true solo.

Ronald Jones’s popularity reached its height in the 1980s, and few works here are of a more recent date. The ideas he shares with others concern history and politics, but mostly menaces to human life. The horror connotation was not completely wrong. Enemy of the Stars is a show designed to make you nervous, terrified even. The biggest problem: You might not notice. If you don’t do enough research, you won’t get it. But that’s fine in a sense, as text – and titles! – are said to be of uttermost importance to Jones and friends. You might like to apply this to the exhibition title: “Enemy of the Stars” is the name of a play published in the short-lived Vorticist magazine Blast, edited by Wyndham Lewis and the politically suspicious Ezra Pound. It’s an interesting title, today even more so than a hundred and two years ago. Think of the stars you long to be friends with; or not if you're opposed to that form of culture (now, here would be a fine place for some GoG/Star Lord sponsoring, Marvel, do you hear me?). Kill the stars, kill your idols. Or in religious terms, a fallen star &c. There’s much ambiguity.

However, even after reading about the exhibition, and probably not listening attentively enough to the curators’ explanations, I was still confused by a voice continuously repeating: “Welcome to the centre”. And no, it was not only in my head.

A dark story lurks behind every work in the show. A wooden floor panel (allegedly) originates from a South African police torture room. Even the type of wood, and how the artist got it, is important as restrictions apply to its exportation.

KW won’t change their politics never to overcharge patrons’ attention; the hanging is sparse once again. One or two dark photos of spooky trees, very atmospheric. And - nobody expected this - portraits of exceptional baddies from the Spanish inquisition. Upon taking a closer look, you realize, it’s all copies of the same portrait, in image and text, of Sir Jeffery Amherst who earned his place in history by ordering Captain Ecuyer to present a South American tribe with blankets formerly used by smallpox victims. Many died (obviously, this was not the first ever use of biological WMDs, far from it; think plague corpses catapulted over city walls).

Now you might say, “’tis great, but wasn't there another ‘violent’ show at KW lately”? Indeed there was, and it was called Fire and Forget. Perhaps it’s been a success with critics and patrons, in the humble terms of an avant-garde art centre. Or the times demand more of the same.

KW Institute continues to talk of “forces of evil”, not caring to define “evil”, but trusting to common sense ethics. The main hall hosts a platform with poisonous plants in pots whose design is courtesy of Albert Speer for Hitler’s bunker (now, wouldn’t that be a great addition to Mr Boroscollection?). Evil, or legitimate self defence? (Don’t get me wrong: I’m referring to the plants. You might continue the thought: If certain people had enjoyed an unhealthy, and vegan, meal of those plants, that would arguably have been a good thing.) On the same platform we find Jason Dodge’s sculptures depicting the DNA of deadly diseases. Mostly large works, but also a small group sitting on a pedestal.

The walls are covered with a hundred Riefenstahlish, or Greek/Roman bust–ish, photo portraits of the same man. A Jewish person, and not an actor despite his impressive ability to mimic multiple roles, photographed by Swissman Helmar Lersky in Tel Aviv, 1935. Only context, and history, creates the meaning, the menace, that earns it a place in this show. That man was at the right place, and let's pray he didn't leave for the next decade. Last in line hangs an Easter egg, an unattributed extra work. Not even the artist’s name is disclosed. The leaflet (btw, KW, I find your lack of labels disturbing) omits any mention, and the guarding interns - at least on the day of press and public openings -, knew nothing to tell of it other than confirming its presence; it was not installed by some joker. A sheet of paper with pencilled lines one below the other. Add the name of an artist of your choice (top ten or hit list)? Insert your own, personal, fear? Horror vacui? Flatlines? A fearless, empty, riskless, life?

Elsewhere, there's the photo of a photo of Lersky’s photos in another show. (Come on, that's merely three levels of abstraction, apes can do that.)

The nocturnal opening included a performance at Bob’s Pogo Bar. It was scheduled to start at eight p.m. Arriving there, I experienced a déjà vu of Parisian nightlife: Guest list only. To be fair, Bob’s is tiny, and there are security rules they need to abide to, to avoid all danger. Waiting outside in case anybody would leave prematurely, and free his seat, I learned the performance was actually a reading. And I never go to readings. Even more: I don’t see any sense in readings. If you're illiterate, or blind, maybe you have a valid excuse. But most people at readings are neither, I’m told. Just do the math: The entry fee will buy you half the book already (at KW admission was free for the lucky few on the list, but we’re talking readings in general here). If you intend to support a writer in need, who - so much is true -, will earns more from the ticket to a reading than from a book, go and write him a cheque, he’ll appreciate.

Surprisingly, this reading finished at eight fifteen. If you had read the text in question at home, you would have mastered ten to fifteen pages in a quarter of an hour. Read aloud, I doubt it was more than five pages at most, and you still needed to re-read them in silence to get the meaning.

Those fifteen minutes were not even sufficient to buy a drink from the overly relaxed bar staff in the outside café. Everybody ordered Aperol Spritz at art collector prices. Later, standing under a tree outside, I heard a splash, and got liquid on my hand. Second déjà vu of the night: On the Champs de Mars, a pigeon once shat in my coke can. I can never thank the lord enough for having observed it as it happened, before taking the next sip. Back then, I even emptied the can not to endanger a clochard eventually taking it from the trash. At KW, I found a solid green tree seed in my glass that, I concluded, had caused the impact. Strangely, the next day I did not feel well. In so far, the show was a success, although they rather aim for psychological discomfort.

Enemy of the Stars, 20 May-6 August, KW Institute

World of Arts Magazine –Contemporary Art Criticism



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