(Berlin.) Berlinale’s back. And just like the past year, the film festival grants its name and logo to off-site art exhibitions in two different locations to complement their series Forum Expanded. Tuesday night, it was the turn of Savvy Contemporary, still hidden away next to a crematorium, still located in one of Berlin’s lesser confidence-inspiring neighbourhoods.
The courtyard and corridors of what might have once been a workshop, a garage, or a morgue maybe, were littered with posters leading the way to the art, a true lot of them. I think, I’ve never seen as many in an art context, looks like they've sent the wrong intern to the print shop. Once arrived at the exhibition inside, visitors were asked for a “proposed donation” of five Euros (even on opening night; well at least they have visitors then). Maybe I would even have paid, had I not watched some minutes of a video vis-à-vis the cash desk first. The interview with an Egyptian yuppie lawyer – possibly specialized in human rights, or an activist in his spare time - sets the tone for what is to follow. Casually sneaking in, the show is all what could have been expected: So much text, so much talk, so much politics, so little art.
The one, or actually two, exceptions are large projections of a blank space with horizontal lines making it resemble a stave, yet instead of musical notes, we get stamp-sized videos. Let’s not exaggerate, but this work in two parts is inspired, original, and it looks great.
The audience gathered in the back, between a bar (further financing the event that’s supposed to be sponsored by Berlinale among others) and a bookshop. I noticed a lot of foreigners, many of them from Africa, indeed: one easily forgets, but Egypt – all this was somehow connected to Egypt and the “Arab Spring” – participates in the CAN, or in other terms: is located in Africa. (Fine, usually one does not forget, but culturally spoken, Northern Africa seems worlds apart from Africa.) Images of the – failed - revolution are important, of course, so are politics, and it might even be relevant to inform us here about what’s going on there – but for an art show, you need something more. And then again, there’s a dilemma: TV will no longer recite boring piles of information because nobody would be watching that, nobody really reads scientific text, and those who still would and who still do, might very possibly be found in an art context. Although I’m not sure about that. I am sure, this show does not add anything new, unread or unseen to the discourse. Leaving, I took a pamphlet, I very much doubt, I’ll ever touch it again.
The following night, Forum Expanded, Part 2 opened at Akademie der Künste (Academy of Arts), still not at its representative main residence in the city centre but an offshoot in the west.
Now, there are three possibilities: a) This time there was no press visit in the morning b) I’ve lost the invitation in the mass of Berlinale related spam c) They actually did read my 2017 review.
In any case, I had to settle for the public opening at 6pm on Valentine’s Day. It was dark outside, there in the outskirts of “Berlin’s Hyde/Central Park”, the Tiergarten; and it was also dark inside, so dark, you almost could not locate the wall texts that were far more important than the films they’re supposed to describe. But easy here. Arriving, the show was still closed, the staircase cordoned off, and two interns happy to enlighten me: There would be a speech first. Oh f***.
A speech, the curse of German openings.
I shamelessly tried the old routine, “There was no separate press visit this year...?”, hoping they’d let me pass for VIP. They didn’t. Maybe I should have gotten my Berlinale badge (I’m so proud!) when it was made available that same morning. No, they couldn’t tell how, long it would be. “I’ll need to go somewhere else later, but thanks” (that somewhere else being a pub to watch the Champions’ League quarter finals, but I did not elaborate on that).
Enter the cinema for that speech, or have a glass at the bar?
Should be a no-brainer, but the night before... and the pub waiting... and the weekend before... and Berlinale starting on the morrow... Having pondered the question for approximately ten minutes, a gong cut short my decision-making process. All obedient citizen, I followed straight.
There were two speeches, actually. First an elderly woman talking Eastern European English – she didn’t take very long -, then a slightly younger woman talking German English – taking much longer. The overall topic was colonialism, apparently also in a separate show currently on display at Akademie der Künste (the real one).
She further played Scrabble with the works of a poet who confuses poetry with the compilation of a dictionary. I left when someone’s phone rang, shocked in face of the masses who had entered in the meantime, almost blocking my way out. Gladly escaped before the stampede (i.e., all those people trying to get into the show before me), the rope blocking the stairs had vanished, and so had the interns. Several other patrons hesitated, but then we took a heart, and indeed: the show was open. Upstairs another bar, and another door, but not a queue yet.
The artworks. First the good news: there were those, and even identifiable as such. An infinity pool before the sea, blue frozen ice - a glacier? - on a second screen the backside of which offered impressions from a ship’s engine room, all accompanied by a sonar beeping and a foghorn burping, or was that a piano?
There was visual power, there was inspiration. But there was also text, a lot of it. Illuminated sheets pinned to the dark walls, often so very hard to find. If you decide to visit – the show’s still on for a week or so – bring enough time. It’s like sitting down with a good book and a glass of wine in an armchair at the fireplace. Only without the armchair, the glass, the fireplace, or even the book. Standing bend, staring at small printed sheets in half-light instead. More often than not, they alone appear to create meaning that could be inscribed into just about anything. I’m not sure, if it’s a good thing when the label frees you from the obligation to contemplate an artwork. Not sure at all. (Maybe Imam Issa would disagree, but in her case, the label is – officially – part of the art.)
Black and white images of deserted small town streets, that’s Kerstin Schroedinger (she’s heard all jokes about her missing cat already, I’m sure), and it’s actually places where businesses of the chemical industry entertain research and production facilities. There’s also a subtext on the production of the artificial colour “Prussian Blue” involved, but I did not read it all.
More Egyptians walking and talking, a film projected to the photo of occidental museum stereotypes proudly presenting a mummy’s head in gold. Another nice work: A VJ’s visuals colouring the screen to electronica, could be a screen saver or some software (sorry: app) to “illustrate” music, but then there’s text – not too much, and in the film itself! – and images documenting the production and distribution chains of euphoria-inducing substances. It’s visually compelling, and the topic always relevant. The artist: ? (appears to be missing from the catalogue).
Also interesting in the least: A fire-eater in drag, dancing in an Asian circus setting. No clue, what it’s about, but hey, it looks great! Four white monochromes on the wall, or just soundproof panels, and then something about the former German colony of Deutsch-Südwestafrika, today’s Namibia. Yes, you didn’t know, but Germany had colonies too! Ha, all you British, French, and Belgians, take that! No, that’s wrong, that’s not the intended line of interpretation. More like “we did some nasty stuff there, too!”
Finally, and in the same vein, a Chinese student interviewing a Togolese (no, that’s not where all the coffee comes from), mixed with images from that other German ex-colony, and a group of female sex tourists who – no. That’s Berlin now, and the so-called African quarter where squares and streets still carry the names of Colonial victors. (And those women are in fact middle-aged high school teachers showing off their tolerance and open-mindedness). The accompanying text – put here not by the artists, but by the curators in order to present and explain the artwork - is interesting in that it gives up all pretence to unbiased academic standards. This is no longer information, but more like overt propaganda: “Petersallee, Lüderitzstrasse, Nachtigalplatz carry names of personalities whose biographies are tainted with the blood of the victims of German colonialism – thus, every tribute is out of place here...” (judgement, opinion, polemics). The writer is incredibly quick with labels like “crime” and “criminal”, without any true justification – like it or not, no laws were broken. No laws that were in force back then that is, and there is no universal moral law (unless you’re religious, which I somewhat doubt in the case of the agitator). Men (and women) led wars, there was slavery and occupation, winners and losers – it’s called History.
I wouldn’t be surprised, if it was even a journalist writing this, the differentiation between reporting and commenting is hardly fashionable any more (and no, that’s no own goal, this text is an critique/comment/essay/call-it-whatever-you-want but it certainly is not meant for publication in a scientific or newspaper context). It would not even be all that bad, if there was another artwork to outbalance the discourse. For example some filmmaker documenting how the grandfathers of today’s refugees died to get out of Europe, where their grandchildren are dying to get it. Then asking, if not every single migrant is an argument for recolonialisation, which, all ideologies aside, might be the best solution for everyone involved. That artwork doesn’t exist. It would be provocative, radical from a different point of view, and thus complimentary to the usual argumentation. You could choose your camp instead of being educated/manipulated into just one, instead of only ever being confronted with the same interpretation.
A last room, hidden away at the end, has two screens and the same countdown on each. Five minutes to go, I doubt, there really is a bomb. Would be something new at least. The art in here really is the music.
Downstairs, it was open bar. And they actively tried to make patrons drunk – “May I refill your red?” (that glass was not even half empty). It would have been a great idea before the speeches, to indemnify, and prepare, listeners. Maybe I just didn’t notice then. One glass was enough though, and off to the pub. Liverpool’s Egyptian striker Mohammed Salah scored a beauty, which somehow closed the circle.
Forum Expanded: A Mechanism Capable of Changing Itself 15-26 February 2018, Akademie der Künste at Hanseatenweg
Forum Expanded: We Are Not Worried in the Least, 14-25 February and 1-11 March 2018, Savvy Contemporary
World of Arts Magazine - Contemporary Art Criticism