(Berlin.) A Mercedes and a loan from Deutsche Bank: 98.5 per cent of artists (and critics) will never get near either. Yet, both emblems of Teutonic economic power entertain exhibition spaces for contemporary art in Berlin. It’s been a sunny Sunday morning when freshly showered, perfumed and if not wearing a suit than at least a clean new T-Shirt we set out to visit both: Daimler Contemporary and Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle.
First things first, money comes before a car (getaway vehicles excepted), and thus we decided to commence on Unter-den-Linden boulevard where Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle opened under the label Deutsche Guggenheim in 1997. Three years ago, the bank took over completely. Despite the joint-venture’s liquidation, some cooperation still persists, and all works in the current show are borrowed from New York, the fees potentially being set against some donation or other. (Guggenheim’s official banking partner today is Swiss UBS, but it can never hurt to be on friendly terms with more than one financial institution.) To see the art you’re asked to make a deposit of four Euros, non refundable like a Greek credit. Doing this, you will feel slightly upset not to have come on a Monday when admission is free - strange thing that, we’ve heard of casual, and even black, Fridays before, but never of a free Monday.
For a start, let’s have a look at the show’s title: Photo-Poetics: An Anthology. Isn’t it funny, how at a time when hardly anybody reads – and certainly no poetry -, literary terms become hip to use in other contexts? “Poetics” and “anthology” sound utterly exotic, mysterious, elitist, and all-in-all far from common contemporary experience; it’s almost like using Greek or Latin expressions in conversation. “Poetic(al)” might count as the new “romantic”, misinformed gibberish to avoid expressions like “emotional” or the downright obscene “aesthetic”. But relax, have a tea and a sonnet maybe. To be honest, certain artists here do indeed use words or in some other way connect to text. Plus the floor plan is geometric with walls placed like a metre, and photos for syllables (though we doubt they did it intentionally).
A work rather unrelated to the topic is Lisa Oppenheim’s The Sun is Always Setting Somewhere Else with slides of the artist’s hand holding the photograph of a sunset before a second sun setting in the background. The first pictures were taken by American servicemen and -women in Afghanistan or Iraq, the second on the home front near New York. Anne Collier’s photos of photos in magazines are remotely related in technique, they show e.g. Cindy Sherman in drag on the cover of the Italian mag L’Uomo, which our almost non-existent knowledge of the Italian language translates as “The Man”. Also the series Women With Camera, featuring – you guess it - people with double-X-chromosome holding picture-taking devices in order to push sales of a variety of products and services. The work is explained to claim that the advertisement industry would objectify women even more than it does men. Or Erin Shirreff’s folded photos of sculptures and sites that enquire into the medium and art’s representational powers. We cannot resist the pun to call Claudia Angelmaier the Shirreff’s deputy, her postcard versions of well known artworks pose similar questions. All great, and all decidedly un-textual.
Then, there is Erica Baum, who at least starts with pulp literature of the 1960’ and ‘70s and in an innovative approach to cut-up technique makes the words disappear. There’s also Moyra Davey adding quotes from Lynne Tillmann’s novel American Genius to images of her own. In the end, we fell onto a really, no: really, comfortable sofa, and watched a film by the same artist. It turns out Moyra Davey feels much connected to Mary Wollstonecraft, and links her family’s biography to the 18th Century writer’s. Probably every reader’s eager to find parallels to his self in a text, but only a few create something new from this. The hour long film shows Davey reading aloud from her notes, speaking into a Dictaphone and ranging her apartment. In reading thoughts that have previously been banned on paper, the artist keeps the form of spoken language, (fake?) slips of tongue included. The reading situation gets transported into another, interpersonally accessible medium, it’s kind of an audiobook with images. Is Moyra Davey a self-obsessed person? Definitely, but that does not make her art less interesting. And the views from her window are captivating, should she ever be willing to sell, she could use this video, too.
At Daimler Contemporary, admission is free, every consumer products brand needs attention, and your being here has something to do with it. Also, a car has to be reliable each day of the week, where a bank may change its interest rates more frequently. The venue is located on the fourth floor of magnificent Huth House just steps away from Potsdamer Platz, that sterile collection of skyscrapers where Berlin city planners after the fall of the wall decided: “Now, here let’s play Manhattan”. The former wine shop of a certain Mr. Huth has been built in 1877 and later became famous as the last house standing in the area, all alone watching the wall and the architectural atrocities that followed German unification. It was finally bought by Daimler Corp. who rents most of it to other businesses. To get in you have to ring a bell and, probably, pass close examination via a hidden camera. Inside, we opted against the elevator and admired the narrow staircase’s marble walls instead. The building breathes “Benz”. Old Money. Respectability. Reliability. Values. Yes. Or no, as this sounds not arty at all. In any case, if not cool than at least it’s cold in here like in a medieval cathedral, a welcome change on a hot summer’s day.
Daimler Contemporary is the name of the space, Daimler Art Collection the legal entity that owns the works, and From a Poem to a Sunset the exhibition’s title. Apart from some Western additions, it’s on China which is rather logical: China still is the place to be in business, and Audi still leads the sales in the Chinese premium car segment. You need to bolster your image in order to sell, and buying local art is a great way to do this, even more so if by the addition of some Westerners you underline your willingness to integrate everybody into the large target group that is the modern world.
Both shows, at Daimler and Deutschbank, share a tendency of self-conscious research into art and its perception.
A video work on three screens by Guan Xiao welcomes the visitor with stereotypical Chinese music. The Images show a Western orchestra, African arts, global nature and technics, all different forms created by human intervention, but nothing explicitly “Chinese” or only “Asian”. There’s also on-screen text: “Action brings us together”, ... All the while watching this we had the eerie feeling to have seen this before, but just could not pin it down. It was only at the very end, when the film blended out to a logo of equipment sponsor Sony, that it hit us: this looks exactly like a commercial. Cut in some bird’s view scenes of a moving Mercedes, a silver SL or whatever, and it’s finished. Synergy, der readers, synergy. The same artist also made an installation featuring an electric sunset and a tyre.
To be fair, the rest of the show is different, and with “different” we mean better. For example Xu Zhen with a fake Chinese fitness programme (could there be a nod to Falun Qong? But this would probably be too hot for Daimler), and Liu Ding’s shrine of objects and texts relating to his art studies in China that has been extended by an installation of Daimler employees who put some towers of chairs next to it (probably only the day we visited for some event/incentive the following night). It would be strange to talk of a Cultural Revolution since the opening to the contemporary west, but Chinese art has certainly made a Great Leap Forward.
Daimler's “poem” truly is one, and comes from Alice Lyons as part of a project by artist Sarah Browne that also involves the periodic release of pigeons. But the highlight on top of the model range here is Yang Fudong’s The Nightman Cometh, perhaps related to the Hong Kong Kung Fu movie The Iceman Cometh of 1989 that we’ve never watched (itself not related to Eugene O’Neill’s 1946 play that we haven’t yet read either). A snowy landscape that could also be a salt desert, different personas, no text. Very poeti—no, captivating is the better word here. Whereas the added occidentals are mostly unconnected, accidentally left with their Chinese competitors, Philippe Parreno’s carpet perfectly fits the monochrome images to extend the atmosphere.
All in all this is a nice overview on contemporary art from China. Many of the artists reflect on art history and their country’s cultural “evolution”. They could not do so about their country’s politics, art is more harmless – yet potentially all the more subversive.
Now that Ai Weiwei has his passport back, he may again drive his Benzes (or BMWs, or Bentleys even - he’s definitely on that sales level - everywhere in the world, and maybe we’ll one day see him in a corporate collection like this one.
The shows gives you something to think about, and much more than just possible slogans like “If you start on a Long March, make sure you sit in the right car.”
Photo-Poetics: An Anthology, 10 July-30 August 2015 Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle
From a Poem to a Sunset, 1 May-30 August 2015, Daimler Contemporary