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Waiting, Mountains, Music and a Whale. Museum Hamburger Bahnhof

(Berlin.) Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin’s most important museum for modern and contemporary art, dedicates a show to Black Mountain College. Founded in 1933 by a group of teachers who had previously been expelled from less progressive institutions, the academy counted some of 20th Century Art's biggest names among its staff and students. The curriculum was inspired by ideas of philosopher John Dewey, its focus lay on character building and interdisciplinary learning instead of mere fact rehearsal. Students and teachers built parts of the campus themselves and even maintained a farm to sustain the college. From the beginnings on, German refugees played an important role with former Bauhaus affiliates Josef and Anni Albers the first to arrive. In 1957, Black Mountain College had to close for financial reasons, but its enduring influence cannot be underestimated.

These few sentences took you less than a minute to read, and yet they provided you with everything you need to know about the exhibition’s background. If you had come to the opening, it would have required a lot more patience to arrive at this point. Openings at Hamburger Bahnhof are ceremonial events. The high priest/museum director steps in front of the crowd and talks. And talks. And he just won’t stop talking. It’s not as if he were enjoying it, he slips words and appears quite nervous, but now that he’s standing there with (an estimated) fifty pages of text, he has to deliver. it. all. No matter, hardly anybody is listening. We’re not here for entertainment, or art, we’re here to be taught a lesson, to suffer like we did in school. Or wait, should it be only me feeling bored, ever preferring text to talk, reading to listening - maybe other people are actually enjoying this?

One look around reassures me of a shared misery. People are staring at their watches, are yawning, tiptoeing, crouching down then stretching up, are walking up to the museum entrance and back again as it’s indeed not possible to enter before the sermon is told. An elderly man plays the air piano, he’s practising an entire symphony and what would we not give to be listening to the score in his mind. There’s not even any official catering provided, no Black Forest Cake, or whatever they eat in the Black Mountains, and certainly no free alcohol to alleviate our pains. Fine, the neighbouring restaurant has put a table on their doorstep to offer organic bratwurst and wine, but that won’t do for long (and “offers” means “sells”, of course).

Finally, the speaker falls silent. Incredulous faces, people nudging each other, slowly waking up, and here’s a polite applause. Well, don’t rejoice too fast, you know the old saying, “the opera ain’t over till the fat lady sings”. In our case, it’s a slim curatress, who absolutely needs to add something.

Another twenty minutes later, she truly and really declares the show open! Her last words though, the words that finish her discourse and us with it, are apt to wake primal instincts in the most peaceful Waldorf teacher, and to turn this event into a participative performance more violent than Viennese Actionism ever was. These words are: “We kindly ask you not to enter all at once, but in small groups, the exhibition space is limited. Please be patient”.

Having strategically advanced to the door about an hour ago, we escape the ensuing carnage, and make it in with the first wave, with hardly more bruises received than body checks dealt out. Once inside, we gaze around: Was it worth it?

Yes, definitely. The show is great. Not perfect, but who would ask for it. The exhibition design features rough wooden pillars to mirror the college’s hands-on approach. There are original artworks, mostly from the Albers and their fellow Germans, but also some Rauschenbergs, and even a Twombly. There are documents, photos, portraits, and a media room with interviews of former students. We learn that John Cage and Franz Kline were lecturers at BMC just like Motherwell, Noland, de Koening, Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller, and ever so on. A poem by Charles Olsson - the BMC’s poetry branch under his guidance hatched some eminent writers - serves as an example for the teachers’ team spirit. Initially written about a cook in the college’s canteen, Ben Shahm translated the text into a drawing which in turn served as inspiration for a performance by dancer Katherine Litz and composer Lou Harrison using costumes by Charles Oscar. Even if on the surviving video, the result looks suspiciously like a sack race, collaborations like this one were important for building and maintaining BMC’s influential network.

On arrival, the Germans were a curiosity, not particularly well known - the journalist from the Ashville Citizen misunderstood Josef Albers’ wife’s forename as “Frau” (i.e. Mrs), and consequently called them “Professors Josef and Frau Albers” in his 1933 article. Yet, Anni Albers was a great artist in her own right, still today her textiles inspire artists like Richard Tuttle. Another Bauhaus veteran, Xanti Schavinsky, staged theatre performances at BMC, while Walter Gropius designed college buildings. On the opening night, we were much impressed by an interactive corner, where we could rummage through an improvised library, to study curriculums and writings from and on Black Mountain College. Suddenly, the whole event was making sense as a reflection on the paradigm change in pedagogics: A frontal lesson 1930s style is followed by a modern presentation to exemplify the nonconformist academy’s achievements - what a clever move! (always see the bright side, a bit of imagination, much goodwill, and there’s meaning in everything).

However, when we returned the other day (14€ entry fee! So, that’s why this many people endure the opening act when at least one exhibition, though not the whole museum, can be visited for free; and forget that “poor but sexy” b.s. – judging by the state-of-the-art buildings and technique, Berlin’s museums are amongst the richest), we found the library occupied by a group of art students/museum interns reading aloud, playing music and generally overacting. A warden confirmed they belonged to the show, there is no participative element. Seems that after all, the curators did not truly understand Black Mountain College. But we won’t complain (no more than necessary). One of the best things to say about any art exhibition is that it’s over before you know it, feeling still hungry for more. This not a small show, and yet we were still fresh enough to have a look at what else is happening at Hamburger Bahnhof.

Michael Beutler’s room taking installation Moby Dick is impressive on a whole different level. Upon entry it takes a while to accustom to the apparent chaos. There’s something everywhere, wooden structures, printing presses, tools and trash. Tight nets hold pressed paper blocks, where open structures mimic houses, shacks and market stands. It all blends in with the views of a construction site beyond the windows.

Clues to interpretation are rare, apart from the title. To recall the story, written by Hermann Melville in 1851: Moby Dick, the big white sperm whale was hunted down by Captain Ahab who in a previous encounter had lost a leg to the beast (anarchists and hooligans among our revered readership will prefer to call him Captain Acab, but nope. On the other hand, maybe that’s the meaning of those whale chants: “All harpooners are bastards”.) Moby Dick is sometimes described as a story of revenge, of one man’s descent into fanaticism, but there’s much more to it. A patchwork text told by the sailor Ishmael, the plot does not take even half of the book, it is continuously interspersed with other texts, essays on zoology, whales in literature and painting -art critique in its own right-, the art of filleting them etc. There are parts of Shakespearean-Greekish tragedy here and a short story in the story there. Now comparing Moby Dick, the book with Moby Dick, the installation, there are some obvious parallels. Not only Beutler’s objects remind of harpoons and crutches, but most of the installation is painted white, and the horror of whiteness is one of those topics extensively discussed by Melville (“there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than the redness which affrights in blood.” ... “And of all these things, the albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?”; see also Dante’s innermost circle of hell, into which Mary Shelley later pushed her monster). Taking a sheet with the floor plan, we realize, Michael Beutler’s Moby Dick comprises different parts, some of which have been shown as independent installations in the past. In one corner is a wall with photo from these shows, not limited to three years like the whaler’s voyage. The installation’s parts are analogous to the books in the book.

Society’s views on whaling - on its merits and necessity at least, the sailors themselves never enjoyed high esteem - have changed, cynics would add “since we no longer need their oil for our light”. In the installation’s centre, we sit down in a carrousel seat with a water pool next to us, the walls around are moving to create an illusion of travelling the seas. If you want to, feel reminded of round doors to museums and malls. The experience is strangely similar to sitting in a train, only that here it is indeed the world that is travelling by and we are stunned in the eye of the storm. There’s no motor, the whole tent-like structure is not attached to the roof, just perfectly balanced and moving by an assistant’s muscle power. What larger change of perspectives is intended?

The relevance of Melville’s Moby Dick lies in its compound portrait of a phenomena. What is a whale, and what is whaling, not merely an industry, more than a commerce, a culture. Many readers today are reluctant to touch the book for the heroic story of a whale hunter seems anachronistic. Moby Dick is all but that, first and foremost it treats the whale fair. In 1851 the whale still stood a chance to win, and sometimes did, meaning the whalers’ deaths – thus in the book. It was not a fight among equals, but no assembly line killing either. This is the main difference to what followed later, up to near extinction (raising and rejecting this danger in the book, Melville could not foresee the technical developments). Hamburger Bahnhof’s press release talks about the social interaction of artist and his crew to change the museum’s architecture, which could be likened to whalers “changing” the ocean’s environment. The artist’s use of out-dated or self invented tools is supposed to ‘counteract technical, alienated forms of work and economies based on these’. Probably they’re not just referring to 1st mate Starbuck, who, we all know, in 1971 inspired three students to sell coffee. Capitalism killed the whale, the individual animal could only triumph before the inequality of means left it no longer a chance. Later, it was destroyed to advance, what has swallowed a man was conquered by mankind. There’s room for optimism, though, a way back is possible as shows the abolishment of whaling. Now, it you think this through to the end: A return to the old ways (not only of whaling) as demonstrated by a crew of artists who interacts with an environment without permanently damaging it, means a rejection of the claim to persistence. The sailors died, and Michael Beutler’s installation is a temporary one, nothing will remain but documentation – a text. (Obviously, no artist would subscribe to interpretations as literal as these, but nevertheless, here’s an alternative one: the whale as art can change the human world only as long as it stands a chance to escape the mercantile menace.)

The installation is not finished, the artist sets sail to Hamburger Bahnhof for one week of each month to continue his work. Melville as Ishmael wrote: “God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught – nay but the draught of a draught.”, and when describing Queequeg - a noble savage who came from “an island far away to the west and south. It is not down in any map; true places never are.”- : “to do anything coolly, is to do it genteelly”. This seems the secret behind a good installation, too. Be sure about what you’re doing and people will take it. Suddenly we realize whom all this reminds of – it looks Roth-ish. Dieter Roth, Germany’s most important installation artist of the 1970s is clearly an inspiration of Michael Beutler’s (and of course, both can be traced back to Schwitters). Not coincidentally, there is also a Roth show on at Museum Hamburger Bahnhof.

Dieter Roth and Music is what it says, a superb collection of music related art. From organ noise with Death Metal like whining in Quadrupelkonzert Basel to assemblages that include some instrument or other and participative pieces where we may freely combine different instrument recordings, this show would earn its own review - and a enthusiastic one for that - but we’ll limit it to some lines.

Dieter Roth loved classical music, and particularly its 20th century incarnation, he defended Arnold Schönberg against Nam Jun Paik’s Schönberg Quatsch (“Schönberg Nonsense”) assault, and recorded Distant Quartets with his family. Busted busts of classical composers only prove his passion, a Roth quote goes “Entertainment music is also very wearing, isn’t it?”.

Hamburger Bahnhof being the proud owner of Roth’s monumental Garden Sculpture, there was no way of leaving it out. If we compare the master’s work with his padawan Michael Beutler’s, Roth’s installation seem a little more closed, finished, his are defined entities, where Beutler’s seem more airy and less condensed. But both shows are definitely worth a visit.

Black Mountain College: An Interdisciplinary Experiment, 5 June-27 September;

Michael Beutler: Moby Dick, 17 April-6 September;

And Away the Minutes. Dieter Roth and Music, 14 March-16 August 2015,

Museum Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin



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