Breakdance and Ballet, VR and a Monk - A Thoroughly Modern Double Feature at Hamburger Bahnhof Museum and Alte Nationalgalerie

 

(Berlin.) Just like every other market player, contemporary art museums, and not only those for contemporary art, feel a constant pressure to evolve, to reinvent themselves and their “product range”. So they try and cater to ever broader audiences, compete with mass entertainment and experiment with ever new forms of artistic expression, hoping for the hype and to be “the next big thing”, for a month or two – “go with the times or be gone in time”. More often than not though, marketing talk won’t hold up to scrutinization, and if you look only close enough, you may find that many attempts at modernization are not that ground-breaking at all. 

 

This spring, Hamburger Bahnhof Museum hosts regular performances of a breakdance company, and Nationalgalerie’s boss (no, not another discourse on the bizarreries of the Berlin museum scene here, let’s simply agree, nobody knows what “Nationalgalerie” - neither the Old, nor the New but both, and more - exactly is, and yet the strange conglomerate somehow is in control of most if not all Berlin public museums) Mr Udo Kittelmann won't tire to insist, how very revolutionary the project were, how never seen before, and how “some” (who?) won’t appreciate and even reject it. 

Having attended the premiere, it is a very nice show indeed, an impressive experience, and yet... I honestly don’t get the ballyhoo. This is 2019, and to claim, the bringing together of music, dance and art in a spectacle were something unheard of, seems, to put it mildly, a profound exaggeration. To cite only the most prominent example of art history: No less than a century has passed since Serge Diaghilev commissioned artworks (decorations and costumes) from Picasso, Braque, Utrillo, Matisse, de Chirico, both Delaunays, e.a. to accompany compositions of Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Debussy, Ravel,... in his spectacles. Those were, of course, the Ballets Russes, and that's what Flying Steps and OSGEMEOS: Pictures at an Exhibition breaks down to as well: Ballet. A contemporary form of ballet, granted, but a familiar genre nevertheless.

 

Flying Steps impresario Vartan Bassil based the libretto on eponymous compositions of Modest Mussorgsky from 1874. Where the Russian genius (or not, he seems a rather controversial figure in classical music) acoustically “illustrated” drawings and water colours of a certain Victor Hartmann, this modernized version focuses on an imaginary museum. After the opening scene - which features two dancers/mimes (indeed: miming...) hanging imaginary paintings -, the plot gets lost and soon, it’s all acrobatics, dancing, and dressing up and down. 

Responsible for the score, the Bhatti bros Ivan and Ketan created uptempo remixes of Mussorgsky, played live by the Berlin Music Ensemble, and only occasionally (in an interlude), there might be recorded beats, too.

The choreography imports at least as much as the music here, and both met with huge applause on the premiere night. If rightly so, I cannot presume to judge, being all but a connoisseur of ballet (or modern classical music). I liked it, but then again, my only ever previous encounter with ballet happened by chance, once in a gallery where they were screening the video of an evening with Jerome Bel. It involved a discussion with a Thai dancer between choreographies, and certainly was no classical ballet either. I feel, Vartan Bassil should at least consider a permanent move in that direction. 

 

Brazilian street art twins Otavio and Gustavo Pandolfo aka OSGEMEOS contribute the art, i.e. background deco for Bahnhof’s main hall - a wall of speakers transformed into blockheads (isn’t there a mobile game looking exactly like this?), a giant, inflatable, B-Boy with much swag, and, more integrated in the performance: carnival-in-Rio-like fancy dresses from papier-mâché(?). All this actually feels rather unnecessary. It’s deco, and in no way essential to the experience. 

Then, there’s that human beatbox guy dragging a modified ice cream stand around the stage, which also belongs to what you could call – not derogatorily, mind! – the “circus influence” here: Clownery to loosen up the acrobatics. For no apparent reason, visitors are once encouraged to don Venetian style paper masks found on their seats, another effect that does not really work out. The true spectacle stays limited to the box ring like central stage.

 

Flying Steps and OSGEMEOS: Pictures at an Exhibition lasts a good hour and, natural in dance, parts seem repetitive. Headspins are impressive and of course very cool, but seeing a certain number of them, you finally get used to them.

Needless to say, all moves are immensely acrobatic, and take influence from various sources – were those really Capoeira “kicks”? 

Pictures at an Exhibition is a great spectacle, nothing revolutionary, but a contemporary form of ballet - without tutus and tights, but baggy jogging pants (and no hare’s foot inside). One of the female lead dancers has Russian roots, and you might wonder: won't she dream sometimes, of how it could have been, growing up in Moscow, joining the Bolshoi, have an affair with an oligarch... (no, skip that last part). She definitely knows the basic positions – there are five of them, right?

 

 

At Alte Nationalgalerie, Nationalgalerie (...) takes things a step further still, with an experiment that is truly innovative (and if it fails, it’s only technology’s fault). 

Remember that Russian company we’ve told you of once, offering “art experiences” without any artworks, but mere videos of such? It’s a (not so) cheap spectacle for tourists, and Alte Nationalgalerie rather wouldn’t like being likened to them.

The museum took one of its best known paintings from the collection, Caspar David Friedrich’s romanticist Monk at the Sea, and commissioned a digital agency to create a “Virtual Reality experience”. Visitors may now don a helmet with VR-glasses, and find themselves transported to the beach with the monk, and, like in the painting, seagulls circling above. Some might cover their head instinctively, in anticipation of wet drippings, but rest assured: Alte Nationalgalerie at least spares us that “gimmick”. They’ve added other details though, for example the monk’s face being revealed, much contrary to the painting. 

 

When speaking about a text by German writer Heinrich von Kleist, who was a contemporary of Friedrich’s and in his critique wrote: “...thus I became the Capuchin myself, the picture was the dune, but the sea, where I so eagerly wanted to turn my gaze, was missing”, Mr Kittelmann, who is a very capable, and knowledgeable, art manager, commented: “sadly the technical means were still lacking”. Well, ... no. 

Before TV, computers, or cell phones, instead of consuming prefabricated “experiences”, people would actively summon images in their own mind. Not every "lack" needs, or only wants to be filled.

The beholder of a conventional artwork will always remain that: outside, which is a good thing. Immersion, if taken too far, all too easily engenders the loss of critical distance, of reflection and understanding. VR offers a superficial show, a spectacle for the eye, as quickly forgotten as the glasses are taken off. It may be done on purpose, consciously employed by an artist – there was this Jonathan Meese VR film at MGB lately – but here it is a museum engaging a company to fabricate a product (remotely) related to an artwork. Not to use the glasses at all might even prove of greater interest, only watching the screens of the control centre on the side. It offers almost the same image(s), but in 2D, and doubled, plus insights into the technological background. Never underestimate the "fourth wall".

 

If afterwards you feel like paying a visit to the original and compare experiences, you need to climb several stairs to the permanent collections on Alte Nationalgalerie's third level. Has nobody thought of putting the painting if not in the antechamber to the VR stuff, where it would be in danger of being damaged by the queuing crowds, but at least in the immediate surroundings? Maybe that comparison is not all that wished for, as it can only favour the handmade over the digital, the original over the copy, man over machine: The painting is immeasurably more impressive. It conveys the scene’s mood and content better, that tiny monk feeling lost - and found – in untamed nature, under an immense sky, it tells of concepts and emotions almost forgotten by modern man. Not of technology, which embodies about the exact contrary.

 

 

 

 

 

One of the few things that did not fail to impress Stefan Zweig on his tour of the USSR in the mid-1920s, were organized (and staged?) visits of the new ruling class to museums, where he met “crowds of workers, soldiers, peasants, holding their hats like formerly their icons, walked the erstwhile imperial halls, and beheld the pictures with a secret pride: this is ours now, and we will learn to understand these things (...) art curators explained Rembrandt and Titian to the listening peasants, who shyly lifted their gaze (...) Here as everywhere was a hint of ridiculousness in the pure and honest endeavour to raise the ‘people’ from illiteracy to the understanding of Beethoven and Vermeer (...) Wagoners who couldn’t quite read yet, held books in their hands, only because it were books, and books meant ‘education’, thus honour, duty of the new proletariat.” (from The World of Yesterday).

From a today’s point of view, you’re definitely expected to feel much indignation now, and decry an old white man’s paternalist stance, science and psychology having irrefutably “proven” that we are merely stimulus--response animals, and all creation of culture is an inefficient illusion. Particularly the same political tendencies that built the USSR have long given in to the realization, that it is much easier to bring society down to the standard of the proletarian. Let’s get entertained.

 

Flying Steps and OSMEGEOS: Pictures at an Exhibition, 5 April-2 June 2019, Hamburger Bahnhof Museum

At the Beach With the Monk, 5 April-30 June 2019, Alte Nationalgalerie

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