In a 2013 interview, artist Harald Thys described how a work he made with Jos de Gruyter ‘punished’ viewers in a ‘very civilized way’. He was referring to the duo’s series of nearly 500, predominately white, pencil drawings (Untitled, 2009), which was presented in 2010 at Kunsthalle Basel in a labyrinthine arrangement of wooden panels. Bristling with social commentary, and confounding expectations of shared viewership, the work was the Belgian duo’s subversive offering to an educated art-world audience.
Thys’s phrase reverberated in my mind as I walked through the duo’s exhibition, ‘Pantelleria’, at Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, which led the best shows of this autumn’s Berlin Art Week – following hot on the heels of the unevenly received 9th Berlin Biennale. While the two events were officially unrelated, overlapping by a matter of days, the influence of the biennale still resonated and served to provide some valuable points of contrast to the Art Week shows. For instance, while the Biennale suffered from an over-reliance on
pat critical gestures – attempting to reflect endemic social problems by recasting social critique as impassive resignation – this month’s Art Week openings needled at the individual’s relationship to the social body in more novel and spirited ways.
It’s not that ‘Pantelleria’ is without resignation: there’s plenty. A sense of comic dejection haunts the room, encouraged by several bubbly but deliberately banal acrylic paintings (A Sunshade and Three Black Umbrellas, for example, both 2016). These paintings neither celebrate the sun nor pine its absence, but blankly indicate that weather exists – and that happiness and boredom are equally futile responses to its vacillations. In this way, a brutal emotional numbness is communicated, but not without a comic glint of the eye – making it strangely human, and knowable. In the live-action video Die Aap van Bloemfontein (The Ape from Bloemfontein, 2014), prone, droning human actors mutter nonsense phrases through faces caked with make-up. As the video unfolds, mention is made of a chicken named Jaap – except that Jaap is actually a monkey, who uses a computer that is sometimes a lawnmower. Nearby, several quasi-modernist sculptures are affixed with thermometers and pencil portraits of dumbstruck figures. With its deadpan rendition of linguistic – hence social – breakdown, the show assumes a dark pall, jovial despite itself.
In the city’s Kreuzberg area, Klemm’s mounted a modest retrospective of the late US photographer Jan Groover. Titled ‘The Virtue of Balance’, the exhibition is testimony to how complex human narratives can convincingly be rendered even in formalist still lifes. Rigorously composed, with carefully controlled lighting and colour, Groover’s small prints of kitchen utensils, moving cars and figures hum as self-contained compositions that seemingly never quite settle into a single position. Untitled (0647) (1980), is a platinum-palladium, black and white photograph of two children’s arms, bent at the elbow. The arms are crossed; both hands clutch the air, softly. There’s no disputing Groover’s ability to craft resonance between embodied and socialized sensation: her images trace a path between procedural rigour and visual enticement.
Retinal overload can also work well, however – in the right hands. At Société, Trisha Baga’s solo show, ‘LOAF’, looks to both individual perception and interpersonal relationships in a presentation that commingles information and material. One large room is bedecked with an abundance of ceramics while, in two adjoining areas, 3D videos present free-association dream worlds. In the video installation Ghost (2016), a woman roams the desert, selfie stick in hand. 3D-rendered cheeses, fruits, fishes and kittens embedded in white bread overlay the image like clouds. Baga’s mesmerizing works employ an uncanny alloy of historical continuity and contemporary reflection – in all its spasmodic, material splendour.
Nina Canell’s ‘Foam-Skin Insulated Jelly-Filled Vowel’, at Barbara Wien, drew mysterious hymns out of the gulf separating contemporary sculpture from its monolithic history. In one room, Canell had deposited many coiled, scat-like forms across the floor (Shedding Sheaths B, 2016). An animate spirit began to seep out of these inchoate things, when it became apparent that they’d been made from the foam encasements of fibre optic cables. Nearby stood stacks of frequency generators and loudspeakers, connected by delicate wires, emitting whines and warbles (the series ‘Flexions’, 2016, with Robin Watkins). I couldn’t immediately discern the pathways of signal and energy that produced them – and didn’t need to. After a summer of listening to critics hash out their opinions of the biennale and dispute the many ways in which art seeks (not always successfully) to illuminate the slow dissolution of society into technological and financial mediation, it was incredible simply to observe sculpture suspended between presence and transience: art wrested from both lone ruminations and the rumour mill.
Lead image: Jan Groover, Untitled (KSL 58.3) (detail), 1978, c-type print, 59 x 61 cm. Courtesy: Janet Borden, Inc., New York © Jan Groover
First published in Issue 183