John Bock

Berlinische Galerie, Berlin, Germany

In a video interview from 2012, the German artist John Bock mutters about his career. With crazed eyes, he explains that breakthroughs have always proved elusive, despite a long and unbroken string of projects. Walking through his latest show, ‘In the Moloch of the Presence of Being’, at Berlinische Galerie, it’s easy to imagine why. The exhibition is a sprawling confabulation of slapdash sculptures, food, DIY architecture, frenzied videos and ghoulish mises-en-scène. But, in spite of this, Bock’s problem here isn’t the shock factor, it’s that the show has a benign familiarity: Paul McCarthy haunts the work as does Otto Muehl, the granddaddy of scatological performance. Given Bock’s enthusiasm for food and entrails, however, this regurgitation of artistic influence makes a strange kind of sense.

Though intended as a retrospective of singular works, ‘In the Moloch of the Presence of Being’ has the motley cohesion of a psychotic squatter’s warren. Two structures dominate: Sexy Socks (2010), a canopy made from latticed tube socks, and Da-Dings-Da ist im Groß-Da-da weil der Wurm im Moby Dick wohnt (2014), a children’s fort constructed with colourful blankets. Both assemblages toggle between sculpture and detritus: a yellow farmer’s plough, burnt pizzas, toast, straw bundled into a quasi-voodoo doll and a floral deckchair that serves as a backdrop for so many grotesque puppets. Incorporated video projections illuminate each of the structures, and recur throughout the show. In one, an actor slathered in make-up and cake sings a shrill tune, while mashing a puppet’s face into red clay flowers. Enfolding Muehl’s passion for food-play with Kelley’s operatic stylings, it’s sufficiently unhinged to scare off any child from watching puppet theatre for life.

It’s a little disheartening that Bock gives familiar form to such transgressive intention. But move past the work’s dated style of abjection and dense, contradictory thickets of motif, gesture and material come to the fore. So discordant are the physical contents of the works that my own attempts to parse them have been plagued by anxiety. How, for example, are we to reconcile a piece like Dünnhäutiger Butcher (2016) with Escape (2013)? While one comprises the scattered relics of a performance – toilet paper tubes, feathers, a rubber glove – the other is a camp video in which a woman
drives a car while her male passenger examines his own entrails. Bock’s extrapolating of such ridiculous ideas into full and vivid works is innately engaging. Moreover, this chaos has a cathartic quality, a warped reflection of the mixture of bodily mystery, social performativity and repressed desire that simmers within each of us.

Having zigzagged through a smattering of glowing animatronic installations, visitors to Bock’s show then encounter a makeshift cantina. Entitled Große Erscheinung der ins Licht getretenen TRIEBKREATUR (2014), the shack offers neither the succour of food nor the reprieve of drink. Instead, we’re served an agitating tableau. Behind a hanging steel contraption, a single light bulb glows against stained wallpaper; nearby, a small monitor shows a woman trapped within the very same concession stand. This image pushes Bock’s show from conventional bad trip to horror film. The last thing we need is more imagery of women being tortured by misogynistic psychopaths, but the disquieting video gives us a sense of the scabrous pathologies that the artist seeks to excavate. As it stands, Bock’s flair for grotesque pageantry becomes mired in stylistic proficiency – a kind of incessant reiteration of art history’s most abject of practitioners. All the same, I’ll happily take in the rare concentration of piss and vinegar that he brings to this recitation, as he toils towards that ever-elusive breakthrough.

Main image: John Bock, Hell's Bells, 2017, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Berlinische Galerie, Berlin

Mitch Speed is a writer based in Berlin, Germany.

Issue 187

First published in Issue 187

May 2017

Most Read

Ahead of ARCOMadrid this week, a guide to the best institutional shows in the city
At La Panacée, Montpellier, Nicolas Bourriaud’s manifesto for a new movement and attempt to demarcate an artistic peer...
A report commissioned by the museum claims Raicovich ‘misled’ the board; she disputes the investigation’s claims
In further news: Jef Geys (1934–2018); and Hirshhorn postpones Krzysztof Wodiczko projection after Florida shooting
If the city’s pivot to contemporary art was first realized by landmark construction, then what comes after might not...
Ignoring its faux-dissident title, this year's edition at the New Museum displays a repertoire that is folky, angry,...
An insight into royal aesthetics's double nature: Charles I’s tastes and habits emerge as never before at London’s...
In other news: Artforum responds to #NotSurprised call for boycott of the magazine; Maria Balshaw apologizes for...
At transmediale in Berlin, contesting exclusionary language from the alt-right to offshore finance
From Shanghai to Dubai, a new history charts the frontiers where underground scenes battle big business for electronic...
Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton, UK
Zihan Karim, Various Way of Departure, 2017, video still. Courtesy: Samdani Art Foundation
Can an alternative arts network, unmediated by the West's commercial capitals and burgeoning arts economies of China...
‘That moment, that smile’: collaborators of the filmmaker pay tribute to a force in California's film and music scenes...
In further news: We Are Not Surprised collective calls for boycott of Artforum, accuses it of 'empty politics'; Frida...
We Are Not Surprised group calls for the magazine to remove Knight Landesman as co-owner and withdraw move to dismiss...
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film is both gorgeous and troubling in equal measure
With Zona Maco opening in the city today, a guide to the best exhibitions across the Mexican capital
The question at the heart of Manchester Art Gallery’s artwork removal: what are the risks when cultural programming...
In further news: Sonia Boyce explains removal of Manchester Art Gallery’s nude nymphs; Creative Scotland responds to...
Ahead of the India Art Fair running this weekend in the capital, a guide to the best shows to see around town
The gallery argues that the funding body is no longer supportive of institutions that maintain a principled refusal of...
The Dutch museum’s decision to remove a bust of its namesake is part of a wider reconsideration of colonial histories,...
At New York’s Metrograph, a diverse film programme addresses a ‘central problem’ of feminist filmmaking
Ronald Jones pays tribute to a rare critic, art historian, teacher and friend who coined the term Post-Minimalism
In further news: curators rally behind Laura Raicovich; Glasgow's Transmission Gallery responds to loss of Creative...
Nottingham Contemporary, UK
‘An artist in a proud and profound sense, whether he liked it or not’ – a tribute by Michael Bracewell
Ahead of a show at Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum, how the documentarian’s wandering gaze takes in China’s landscapes of...
In further news: Stedelijk explains why it cancelled Ettore Sottsass retrospective; US National Gallery of Art cancels...
With 11 of her works on show at the Musée d'Orsay, one of the most underrated artists in modern European history is...
Reopening after a two-year hiatus, London’s brutalist landmark is more than a match for the photographer’s blockbuster...
What the Google Arts & Culture app tells us about our selfie obsession
At a time of #metoo fearlessness, a collection of female critics interrogate their own fandom for music’s most...
A rare, in-depth interview with fashion designer Jil Sander

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

November - December 2017

frieze magazine

January - February 2018

frieze magazine

March 2018