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  • Christian Hain

Take me Beyond, Mr Olbricht

(Berlin.) This year’s Gallery Weekend Berlin cast its shadows already in mid-April, with institutional openings in abundance. Unlike in the past, museums and non-commercial galleries seemed to largely ignore the event itself, which was not a bad thing, giving us more time for the gallery crawl. And of course, one or the other art tourist will still have found his way to those venues, even without an opening. One of them is me, and they at least have their thoughts elsewhere these days, beyond the trifles of this world and its galleries, beyond good and evil.

We must pose the obvious and most urgent question first: Are there reasons to worry about Mr. Thomas Olbricht, “me’s” “myself and I”, the personality behind the private museum and its collection? Because Beyond is dark, the show of choice to visit with the Goth or Emo close to you - a severely endangered species, whose last surviving specimen might with a lot of luck be spotted on a safari to the remotest cemeteries, forlornly huddled together around a black candle -, take them I say on a pleasure trip to me, and brighten their day - oh wait... Maybe it’s just the gloomy Berlin spring with climate change once again not living up to the hype (happened to the best/worst of apocalyptic visions before, only ask the historian of your choice). You know how it is, having stashed your wool sweaters in the cave, exchanged them for your ever growing T-Shirt collection, on the very first day you've felt touched by a single lonely sunbeam bringing about the slightest remembrance of an outer warmth - only to find yourself shivering at 10 degrees C in the rain again the next day. Gets you every time, and then, just to warm up!, you open a(nother) bottle of - in the case of an art collector: not so - cheap red, while your mind starts wandering, “It’s deep, man, and sad, life, the end, know?, one day: boom! - boom, gone, like that, it ain’t fair, it just ain’t fair, ... (sip)” We’ve all been there, even billionaire (/multi-millionaire) art collectors. Not all of us can afford dedicating a good part of our art collection to serious melancholia or seasonal depression, though (most of us cannot afford any collection at all). But if you do, you might wander down the corridors of another one of your art collector mansions, glass in one, bottle in the other hand, and absentmindedly not so much as gaze at all this stuff covering the five-metre-high walls, and suddenly, somehow, just before you reach the wine cave(s), there’s this thought, appearing out of nowhere, out of the.... beyond; and you realize: Here’s the idea for an exhibition! The next morning, more or less sober again, you take some aspirins with your caviar and ask your PA for a list of works tagged with either of the keywords “dark”, “brutal’”, “sad”, or “death” in your artbinder.

I don’t have any idea if it was like that, or what is going on in an art collector’s brain in general, but Beyond, me’s latest presentation of the vast Olbricht collection, highlights the sombre parts, Memento Mori’n’gore galore. This said, the title is treated under a broader light (or: darkness), the works in the first room actually don't talk that much of the great beyond, the other side of the finishing flatline, but rather focus this-worldly horrors, past and present, future even: They tackle art beyond notions of good taste, art beyond PG ratings.

It all begins with Francesco Goya’s Desastres de la Guerra in eighty Aquatint etchings, 1810, - and continues with further eighty Disasters of War (note: even if “Horrors” instinctively feels the better translation, the official one underlines notions of unavoidable, natural, events), “remixes” of the former and appearing like photo negatives, printed etchings by Jake and Dinos Chapman, 1999. The early 19th Century’s darknet, bloody, cruel, terrible. Olbricht can be legitimately called a faithful fan of the Chapman bros, the collector offhandedly recounts how he was offered one of their most emblematic works once, Hell, when he was only preparing the opening of an – this - exhibition space, but ultimately shied away from the price which amounted to the lowest seven figure number possible (£). Then still important Charles Saatchi would not let himself be stopped by peanuts, but alas! some years later, in 2004, the work somehow fittingly - if the Chapmans were (in)famous for performances as well, you could almost get suspicious - fell victim to an inferno that ravaged one of the mega collector’s warehouses. A remake ended up with Monsieur Pinault who has recently made the headlines with donating some hundred million (€) for another fire victim, a church in Paris (and no, it was not Quasimodo smoking in bed!).

Olbricht did buy other installations/sculptures that we can “admire” - this seems definitely the wrong term in the context - today. Exhibit a) A violent Goya scene transferred to sculpture, rotting and fractured corpses hung on a rotten and fractured tree, and judging from their state of decay, it should soon be peace again (even it’s the 30y, or 100y, War), but maybe the crows have been particularly hungry. Exhibit b) A chess game, the pieces naked, sexless except for their phallic noses, child dolls, black and white. Further a Calvary scene featuring Ronald McDonald, a BigMac-Man and another character that might once have appeared in McD advertising, taking the roles of Jesus, Dismas, and Gestas. Lastly, the Chapmans, whose world views seem thoroughly influenced by that Huxley quote, “Maybe this earth is another planet’s hell”, add The Shape of Things to Come, a terrarium that approaching you will think, “Cooool, toy soldiers! How I would have loved playing with this as a child!” Then you distinguish the horrors and realize, it would indeed take a child to delight in, and play with, this, yet you are perfectly aware how “awesome” every twelve year old would find it (don’t forget, parental discretion does not exist to protect them, but society from them).

The show’s middle part focuses on what could be referred to as “beyond consciousness”. It’s basically a solo show of Jonas Bungert, another Olbricht protégé. Some paintings might impress you with an eerie feeling of having seen them somewhere before, but at least this déjà vu is easily explained: there was a show at Blain∣Southern almost exactly two years ago, and perhaps Mr Olbricht got a tax refund just in time, or simply felt in the mood for a shopping spree (to fight a seasonal depression?). Art collectors are not that different from the rest of us; when you get a new T-Shirt, or sneakers, or whatever, you certainly won’t hide them at home, but show them to your friends, and better even, wear them on the streets to get properly admired, er: allow others to partake in your happiness!

To be fair, there are more works in this mini-retrospective covering the past fourteen years of the artist's career, and not all of them even in the possession of Mr Olbricht. Three pieces, we learn, had the shortest commute of anything ever shown here: An upstairs neighbour only had to drop them off (rather not personally, for insurance reasons). Maybe they’ve met at a B∣S opening dinner and realized, yet how small this world is. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours, or offer you a year’s supply of hair care products. The artist himself further added some works from his stocks (where they don’t need to return obviously, but don’t tell the gallery).

Bungert’s monumental dream/nightmare sequences appear like livestreams from forgotten legends, fairy tales, myths, quite unique, immensely recognizable and decorative – not in a bad way! Stylish, calm, static, film stills from a sleeper’s subconscious with recurring elements like a pierced target, and one character even appears a second time in sculptural form – Bungert seldom does those, but here we find even three. That big woman (not called Mummy Long Legs, but Untitled, 2012) is towering on legs like an antique plinth. The artist mentions psychology, messages from the (collective?) subconscious and, maybe more interestingly, assures us to never draw sketches to plan and prepare his works, that yet appear so meticulously worked out - he simply keeps painting away, allowing his proper subconscious to act at will.

A psychological, or psychotic, neo surrealist, chaos, not truly narrative but like out-of-context images from a stop motion film.

Stepping beyond this part and into the last room, I confess, how exactly George Condo’s “comic book Cubism” fits in here is, well: beyond me. With the obvious exception of another Calvary triptych to mirror the Chapmans’, but for the rest... - beyond a certain price tag? The remainder of the show does indeed aim beyond this life, with memento mori motives all around. Most of them from Kris Martin whom Olbricht likes even better than Condo, Bungert or the Chapmans, and once he likes an artist, he goes all in: There are no less than twenty-one works of the Belgian here, from WWI grenades as collected on the battlefield by the combatants then, who adorned them with (Art) decorative carvings and sold them for souvenirs back home, now further embellished with a gold plating by Martin, to a gold barren with the inscription “1 Idiot”, and an actual skull dug up in a former monastery then equipped with gold teeth (you could think this disrespectful, irreverent, and impious), &ct. Gold and death counting among his main interests, Kris Martin is a self-conscious gold-digger indeed.

Artist collective FORT joins the funeral feast with, among other works, “The End” written on a mirror: See, and imagine, yourself on the other side.

In between those parts, feel free to take a detour past some actual stop motion videos on a single screen by Nathalie Djurberg&Hans Berg and up the stairs into me’s “Wunderkammer”, the cabinet of curiosities from the Middle Ages, also with a Memento Mori focused presentation but that’s nothing special here.

Mr Olbricht once chose medicine for a pastime, became a doctor and for a while taught at university, maybe this show can be seen as a return to his roots. Maybe at some point he got fed up, disgusted, with human decay, but now once again feels the need for blood and guts and skulls. Then again, he’s collected this not on a spur of the moment, but over the course of many years. Is it a chronic (and even pathological?) fascination with the morbid, the vanitas of a man “born with the silver spoon” and leading a lifestyle not fundamentally different from the ways of the nobility of old who enjoyed that genre of art first, centuries ago?

Be that as it may, but let’s hope, there will be many more shows coming at me beyond this one! One last word: Ever again your lack of labels is irritating, me. It’s highly annoying to search around and never quite know if you got a title and artist’s name right.

Beyond, me Collectors Room, 10 April-18 August 2019

World of Arts Magazine – Contemporary Art Criticism



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