(Berlin.) Generally, in art, the prelude, i.e. the opening, is also the main thing, the most important date of the six to eight weeks to come. It’s then, when a gallery sells, if it sells at all – and if it’s not big enough to have sold the whole exhibition already beforehand. For many galleries it’s even the only day at all to welcome more than two visitors during business hours (art and business school excursions excluded). In non-commercial venues, an opening offers the occasion for some very important functionary or other to hold a most irrelevant, uninteresting, self-applauding, speech.
There are rare exceptions, however, where the highlight is waiting in the end, after the show, and I’m not talking about unexpected plot twists, à la “ha-ha, this was no shi--y exhibition design at all – ‘twas an installation!”, or “we hope you enjoyed this unanticipated performance”. No, there are auctions, where you only take a peek at the goods before raising your card, and there are awards.
Every other year in autumn, Hamburger Bahnhof Museum allocates the Preis der Nationalgalerie/“Award of the National Gallery”, and don’t be confused: Hamburger is not identical to the Berlin National Gallery, neither the Alte/”Old” nor the Neue/”New” National Gallery that both exist too. No, Nationalgalerie is also the name of a government body that manages several art institutions in Berlin.
In the month before the ceremony, the audience can judge, or at least have a look at, the nominees’ work. There’s four of them, and the show hidden on the museum’s first floor. Even more annoying, it’s divided by the staircase, when you wonder if you’re done already, you realize, you’re only halfway through. If you don’t want to take the stairs back down to the lobby, and up again on the other side, there is a corridor leading from one part to the other. You are permitted to use it, even though this corridor is an installation in itself (don’t ask “whodunit”, the label it well hidden, if there is one at all, most probably it was none of the nominees): Hundreds of German words - all conjunctions for a corridor conjoining spaces! – appear written over floor and walls.
Now let’s take one step back again: Unlike artists’ names, the sponsor’s logo is omnipresent. The Award of the National Gallery is an event by -, no, excuse me: The Award of the National Gallery is sponsored by our favourite Bavarian carmaker (the three lettered one). They are also sponsoring Berlin Art/Gallery Week/-end, and, more importantly, Art Basel, and isn’t it funny, how their marketing gets more and more “arty” as their cars get more and more boring? They will probably sponsor Venice by the time they only build self-driving electrics.
Like many museums, Hamburger Bahnhof entertains an exclusive club that goes by the name of Freunde der Nationalgalerie/“Friends of the National Gallery”. Friends with (tax) benefits. Presiding the peer group is Mrs Gabriele Quandt, which might ring a bell. The Quandts came into money with textiles in the 19th Century, then came into real money between 1933 and 1945, and in the 1960s, one of the two brothers then leading the dynasty acquired that very Bavarian carmaker to later bequeathe it to his children, who have been the majority stakeholders ever since. Gabriele is the other brother’s daughter, and far from “poor relation” status. “Hi Susi, it’s Gaby, mind sending us some rides? Yeah, still that art thing...”
But we’re here to talk about art, and an award. The composition of the first jury, that compiled the short list of four artists, might strike you as peculiar. What is an German actress doing there? This is not the Berlinale, nor is it strictly about video art. (Given the box office results of German films, we might best understand it as a form of charity, the jury duty will pay her rent for another month.) To be honest, there is a film award too, but not directly, yet still somehow, linked to the PdNG. The nominees for that - well, excerpts of their films - are presented in a separate screening room in mid the PdNG exhibition, rendering it even more confusing to know which artist did what, and where you are at. Because: there are no labels. Not even wall texts. Not even the nominee’s name written on a wall. There is nothing but an overview map at the entrance, and a leaflet. If you don’t visit alone, as curators and museum executives do, but lost in a horde of tourists, you probably won’t notice that map.
You might still recognize Iman Issa for her recent gallery show at carlier⎢gebauer (gotta love that⎢). She takes forms out of context, from cultural, antique or medieval, remains, then reinterprets them as finished sculptures, and writes the key to the wall. You struggle to connect the solemn scientific description to that form, that plastic thing, on the floor. There are a lot of them in the show. You almost sense a danger lurking, of Issa becoming over-identified with this series - will the novelty wear off finally? There’s enough source materiel, no doubt, but maybe once we know the idea, and have seen it more than twice, more than ten times, will it eventually loose fascination? (You could call that the “Jorinde effect”.) Not now, though. She’s still fresh.
Jumana Manna‘s film documentary starts from 1930s German-Jewish ethnomusicologist (sic! there are always disciplines you’ve never heard of!) Robert Lachmann. The Israeli-Palestinian artist has asked musicians of the ethnic groups Lachmann visited, to cover his historic recordings from almost a century ago. The film thus features oriental men playing flute (and also crafting flutes), it’s shown in a construction site like installation. Maybe it lacks the visual appeal to hold its own in the competition.
And, to have done with that, too: I only watched two parts of the film award, all shown on the same screen, each ten minutes long. A Romanian language - fake? - documentary about two prostitutes working not Kurfürstenstrasse, but in Romania; we see them get dressed up and talk about daily troubles. The subtitles are German only, which might annoy you if you’re a foreigner visiting Berlin’s leading contemporary art museum.
And a (too obviously) fake home video from 1950s Germany. The colours seem wrong, and even the people don’t really look 1950s. Later, it gets slightly more interesting, as the voiceover tells about “the time, when daddy died” (that’s the guy we’re supposed to see on screen).
The most challenging aspect in this screening room is a trap, an inadvertent performance of which you are the star. Imagine entering a dark room, you roughly distinguish a bench in the dark and somebody seated there, you turn left to continue along, and sit down on the other end of, that bench. There’s a wall. I somehow smelt it, and stopped just in time, making a noisy fool of myself, then climbed over the bench, and sat down beside the other visitor. Then somebody else entered, sensed the two of us in the dark, turned left to circumvent the bench, and sit down on the far end. He did not smell the wall.
I guess it hurt. A lot.
Sol Calero will most probably take the trophy home. She’s installed a piece of South America in bright blue and yellow, a bazaar of stalls supposed to resemble “typical” immigrant’s businesses (no, not kebabs, Martial Arts schools and street vending “pharmaceutics” operations, but internet cafés, travel agencies and nail salons). There’s also a cinema showing a telenovela. The whole installation aims to overwhelm you and your sense of judgement, you’ll even forget to ask, “But why?”
And finally, Agnieszka Polska. A two screen installation over two rooms, one showing a countdown, the other a film, then they change, and you leave the comfy mattresses on the floor, to move spaces yourself. If anything, it’s good exercise!
Who would have thought, the sun from the Teletubbies later made a career as a stand up comedian? Yet, here it is, a sun with a face. Going on ceaselessly about life and everything, frequently including a joke to which an invisible audience reacts with sitcom laughter. The images change and accelerate, cities, streets and more, later the earth makes a cameo. If you take your time, it’s captivating. I’d love to read the script, the monologue alone.
Award Show: Preis der Nationalgalerie 2017, 29 September 2017-14 January 2018, Hamburger Bahnhof Museum
World of Arts Magazine - Contemporary Art Criticism