(Berlin.) As you are probably all aware by now, a certain Bavarian car maker is sponsoring the BAW and the GWB, among many other good things. You might have even read on here about the Preis der Nationalgalerie award (“National Gallery Prize”), also belonging to their protégés. The PdNG has existed for eighteen years, of which our carmaker sponsored thirteen (we don’t know exactly when Mrs Quandt joined the museum’s board of benefactors; but could it have been around... 2005, incidentally?).
In 2017, Polish artist Agnieszka Polska won and took home not a car - hey, this is art, not a tennis tournament! -, but the promise of a show at Hamburger Bahnhof Museum, and maybe a T-Shirt on top (“I heart my bimmer” or something; thinking of a goodie bag with a badass car HiFi system and, wait for it,... car polish, would be very mean on your part). She didn’t have to wait long, as every other year the nominees’ show alternates with a winner’s solo. Polska decided to go for a short film and have it shown, as is the fashion, in a huge installational setting.
The plot isn’t overly complex, and even the historic background quickly told: In the mid-15th Century, a courtier called Mikołaj Serafin took over management of the Polish salt mines and introduced quite modern rules of business, thus providing us with an early example of the change from a feudal system to European mass capitalism. For instance, instead of liegemen, the mines under Serafin employed wage workers and subcontractors; they also wreaked havoc in the woods around.
The story starts as an illiterate peasant gets hired to transport a letter from monarch to magnate that could change the course of history because... reasons. We don’t learn exactly why, but need to trust Polska on this one. On his way, the messenger feasts on ergot fungus infested rye bread and falls asleep to - no, not really, but he meets a “demon” hanging out in the woods, or time traveller, or system operator of this reality/dimension/total environment simulator as we’re soon led to understand. In any case, it’s a voice manifesting into a face, that keeps telling him (in rather few words, the rough outlines only) of a future where the value of salt is neigh nothing and people are no longer slaves to noble lords, but anonymous companies instead, which is much better - well: there’s actually not much judgement involved. Other than in the derogatory term “demon” - had Agnieszka Polska not better called her film “The-highly-persuasive-and-persistently-shifting-shapes-of-self-expression-migratory-being-from-a-community-rooted-in-regions-where-temperatures-may-exceed-even-post-climate-change-conditions-on-earth’s Brain” rather than the v e r y offensive The Demon’s Brain?
And moreover, is it not even a she-... being? It kind of talks like one, that voice at least sounds as if it were self-identifying – and expecting others to be identified accordingly - a user of double-x-chromosome-labelled-bathrooms. Yet our rider, in a manifestation of shockingly medieval manners indeed, addresses him/her/it by the English term “Sir” (why in English at all, you might be inclined to ask, would not medieval Polish with magical subtitles a) suit the context better and b) even benefit the ambiance?).
And could it actually be a spectre, yes: that spectre even... a spectre haunting Europe that could never exist without its counterpart - we do learn of early efforts to found a union in order to improve the workmen’s situation vis-à-vis Serafin. ... On the other hand, a well known ultra luxury car make that today is a subsidiary of the show’s sponsor, has a habit of naming their models for supernatural entities, with a back catalogue abounding in Phantoms, Ghosts, Spirits and Wraiths. Never a demon, though. That really is offensive language.
He/she/it makes a second appearance in raven disguise, which very probably alludes to Greek mythology, Appollo’s pet a harbinger of death (but rather not to a more contemporary popcultural phenomenon - send a raven to the wall, if you know what I mean). At some point of the dialogue, the stranger brings up the sudden deconstruction of the former rider’s, now footman’s, horse, the mare/stallion/... being referred to as a “floating 3D [object]”. Indeed did it not pass unnoticed by the messenger, how the “head detached and flew away”. Now, don’t you hate it when that happens?
Many among us will have crossed paths with mailer daemons before, evil creatures lurking in the depths of corporate email servers, ever on the lookout to strike without a warning and refuse reception of an unsuspecting sender’s message (never heard of those? Oh my sweet summer child, just you wait till you start a mailing list of your own; mailer daemons are almost as annoying as GDPR), but this is a whole new level!
In the end, the messenger refuses the – our! (for the slow of mind) – future and whilst the raven won’t stop to quoth not “Nevermore” but on the contrary: “It’s not too late”, croaking like a Greek tragedy’s chorus, he burns the letter without further ado.
Sounds like a season final of Supernatural to you? Well, it is more artistic, sort of.
The show starts behind one of the largest curtains you’ve even seen, clearly some theatre furnishing company - is there still a market for theatre furnishing companies? - has made some good business here. Without a doubt one of Berlin’s biggest curtain commissions in recent times. Pass it, and you'll reach the antechamber to the show, where on a wall turned pinboard, historic exchanges concerning the salt trade in medieval Poland meet essays from a today’s perspective. You could skip this and immediately continue to the main part, but caution: The film is only understandable for those who know already what it is all about.
That automotive money really pays off for Hamburger Museum, visual and technical presentation are at their very best, this is a Series 7 show, not a petty New Mini. Shown in short scenes, snippets spread over a handful of massive screens, the film runs in a perpetual canon. Slow takes and facial close-ups, it’s art alright. Mattresses placed in the centre are a nice gimmick but rather unnecessary. Their purpose seems mostly to consist in adding to the illusion of a much longer film than it actually is. Should you feel obliged to lie down for an experience of no more than ten minutes, you won’t even make it here, the nearest public transport station/parking space being at least that far away.
After all, this is just a one-work-show, a single installation piece. What would you prefer, this or how they do it at the Prix Marcel Duchamp, with a full blown solo, i.e. multiple works, at the Pompidou (a side gallery not the top floor, but still)?
But back to the story, and interpretation: Surely that one letter won’t change a thing? The messenger's effort seems rather futile, but maybe he was feeling cold on top when taking his resolution. For the sake of the story, let’s just assume the Polish kingdom was suffering a flagrant shortage of illiterate rustics, and there was nobody around who could possibly transport another letter. Let's also ignore the possibility of there being several messengers acting independently and unbeknownst of each other in the first place, but this is nitpicking. As mentioned above, it’s a rather short collection of scenes, take away the multi-screen presentation – cut it back it from installation to film – and you’re left with not that much. It’s a simple story, and it doesn’t feel that original. Yet, there are aspects that should be worth a second thought at least. There’s ambiguity with a big “A”: After all, it is a demon, and what is truly going on in its mind (or: Brain) remains open to interpretation. Where are its motivations, to warn the messenger (and us) in earnest would go straight against its nature, wouldn’t it? Or is this stereotypical thinking again? (Guess, I’d better have a glass of Polish vodka at this point...)
Besides, that job description,...: “doesn’t know to read and write, but very much to ride” - don’t you say, this sounds like a common job offer for young women of Polish, and more generally Eastern European, extraction!
It seems like a bad idea in general, to unveil the future - if that is indeed possible without reverting it to a mere possibility in the process. Could a simple peasant once change the course of history (and even in a non-violent – not violent against people at least - way!), and if the answer is “yes”, could this be the single most deplorable thing we’ve lost in the transformation from humans to humanity? The good ole world of individuals, of heroes, and villains too.
And why in the world did Agnieszka Polska choose a horse’s head (the body being hid in the shadows - this is no remake of The Godfather!) for the exhibition logo and posters? The Lipizzaner (that’s what you call those homosexual white horses, right?) appears a bit demoniac though, probably lifted, i.e. photoshopped around its huge, dark, alien-, or Manga-, like eyes - it might even be an animated 3D object. The horse is surely the least voluntary slave in the whole story, and it doesn’t even make it through the to end, not in one piece. If asked, would it not prefer a technical society? Where generous automotive companies provide the means of transport? (Disclaimer: wartsmagazine.com is not receiving any sponsor money from Bavarian car makers. ...Not yet.)
Agneszka Polska, The Demon’s Brain, Preis der Nationalgalerie, 27 September 2018-03 March 2019, Museum Hamburger Bahnhof
World of Arts Magazine – Contemporary Art Criticism