(Berlin.) Promoting their latest show, Flesh, Altes Museum – “Old Museum”, that’s the name indeed - does not exactly highlight the fact, it has been curated by their youngest, trainees at the venerable institution. You will only learn that by chance, or not at all. In one of the most beautiful euphemisms ever, the young curators' job is called a “volontariat”, despite being everything but voluntary for anybody aspiring to a career in German museum bureaucracy - “obligatoriat” would be the more honest term here. Neither would you expect the show to be this small prior to your visit; there’s the whole PR programme with posters, press conference, opening, &ct going on, and the work list is extensive, but in the end it turns out to be all stowed away in a single room, and it’s one of the smallest rooms in the neoclassicist building. It’s a pity, even if you are not enthusiastic about those curating talents (I am!, or at least I like the show), but given the number of artworks and artefacts involved that each of them demands respect, and space – maybe with the exception of one exhibit, a toy piglet “on loan from a private collection” (could the collector also be curating here, possibly? You ought to avoid any such conflict of interests, usually...;) ). It's not the only contemporary exhibit, and not the only one stemming from a craft and (industrial) design background. There’s also post-WWII ration stamps for meat, many documentary photos and historic jewellery from around the world and several millennia. Did you know, the Uruk had almost as many different names for “pig” as the eskimos have for snow, namely fifty-eight (clay tablet, 3300-3000 BC)? It fits the context well, for among all possible depictions and sculptures of nutriments with a face, the curators mostly chose pigs – the show is not kosher, or halal! When asked, they’ll point to sus scrofa domesticus’ uniqueness in being exploited for its meat alone, with no other benefits on the side (i.e. neither fur, nor milk).
You might add, there’s a theory that the species’ outcast status in cultures originating from a desert climate is due to their excessive need of water – not to drink, but to wallow and waste. As a result, only the richest, and most decadent, could afford to keep them - the very same who would also commission jewellery and art.
Still, it's a strange decision to ignore the tradition of still life painting altogether.
Flesh follows a clear concept: Take a term, a most basic and general one, then scan Berlin public museums for everything remotely connected. In the end, they (tried to) boiled it down to two keywords: Body and bread. The flesh - or: meat, in both cases as you will see - of human and non-human animals, consumable by mouth or mind.
Anthropophagy holds a special place in the curators’ hearts (not stomachs, we should hope), and not merely of the mythological kind (Wenzel Neu: Cronos Devouring his Children, terracotta, ∼1766. There’s also a sacrifice on the mountain in clay, but it’s the Moche culture of Perou, 0-650 AD, and not the biblical Isaac) More graphic: scenes and relics, descriptions, drawings and photographs, of all kind of animals, four and two legged alike, being offered in a ceremony and/or unceremoniously eaten. That stone dagger from – yes, where it is actually from, that info seems to be missing, but at least it’s dated: 1325-1521 - should send a shiver down your spine. It’s been used. You might miss some more references to the literary tradition (and if it were only Robinson Crusoe), but that’s the same with the much larger Wanderlust show at Alte Nationalgalerie just around the corner where they chose to include a lot of books but the omissions are much more revealing.
Of course, the Eucharist as the tradition's metaphorical continuation must not be missing in the context: There's a naive, wooden, Last Supper from the mid 20th Century, for example.
And then, the meat market, in every sense, with pigs’ corpses bleeding dry in a slaughterhouse (no Rocky around) and nudity: Photos of a Vanessa Beecroft performance at Hamburger Bahnhof some years ago (not truly nudity, they're wearing non-transparent tights), a Roman phallus pendant that would appear a little out of fashion today, or a terracotta Woman Masturbating Death (0-600). The latter seems not that out of the ordinary - just a regular Day of the Dead in Mexico City (oh, that tequila... ¡ay ay ay!). On the contemporary art side, there’s a takeaway performance, a pile of papers with instructions to move your flesh and relax your mind, by Bruce Naumann. Maybe the most interesting part about it is how the performance is supposed to fail in an exhibition context: It’s impossible to read the poster and press your cheek to the wall at the same time. Putting that pile right under an overpainted power supply on the wall might be a little joke on the side.
Other eminent artists, regardless of style and era, include Lucas Cranach with a woodprint, Otto Dix with an etching, Dieter Roth with a “print on a sealed plastic bag filled with minced mutton”(!), a magnificent Francis Bacon litho, and sadly none of Lucian Freud’s meaty nudes. Instead, the best work of Christian Jankowski I’ve seen so far: A cameraman follows the artist into a supermarket where he's hunting down and “killing” every item on his shopping list with bow and arrow.
Know thyself, memento mori, flesh means life and death, one’s sustenance is the other one’s end. They refrained from adding an actual human body, Gunther von Hagens features not in the show - just a bronze version of his art (Jean-Antoine Houdon: Muscle Man, late 18th Century).
Maybe Flesh is missing a deeper intention, and meaning. This is basic curating as described above, but to make it truly museum worthy, there should be some new approach or interpretation involved, some insight exceeding the overview on works in the musuem collections.
One mid-19th Century comic strip (L.E. Grimm) tells a pig’s life, from birth into a farmer family to being nourished and cherished almost like a friend, and the inevitable(?) end in human (but not –e) treachery – this is actually not shown in the small excerpt of the story at Altes Museum. Hunting seems not on the same level as husbandry, if it’s bad, then not evil at least. Even though not exactly fair, the roles are clear to everybody involved. But to breed a being with the aim to ultimately kill it... that sounds pretty bad, even to a carnivore. (Not to mention the differences between a life at liberty until that final encounter with a wolf, bear, or huntsman, and lifelong detention on the death row of a farm.) One is nature, the other culture, but the wrong way.
To sum it up: The sow, er: show, to visit with the vegan partner you want to break up with. And once again, it’s a pity how they’ve hidden it away, the partly chaotic appearance is more the fault of a lack of space than of a too vast concept.
Should you decide to visit Altes Museum, you might consider taking a bus for the true experience. Upon arrival, you will be perfectly able to relate to pig roasts and other barbecue treats. You don't know the true meaning of “cynicism” before reading the words “vehicle air-conditioned” on the shut and locked windows of a Berlin bus, sweating more than you ever did in a sauna. And nobody’s there to turn the stacked meat.
Flesh/Meat, 01 June-31 August 2018, Altes Museum
World of Arts Magazine – Contemporary Art Criticism