October 29, 2012

Zeitlos. Art Criticism or How To Chase A New Pig Through The Village

Café Zeitlos
Timelessness once used to be a compliment. It no longer is. Recently I sent a writing sample to an art magazine. It got rejected. The chief editor explained to me that my art criticism is “timeless”. The art magazine focuses on “actuality” he said while asking me to send in some new proposals that meet this need. I checked out the magazine to see what he was exactly talking about. An article about a museum exhibition on Brazilian art ended with the statement that it made one wants to travel to Brazil. Should the writing about art be like a kind of tourism brochure, laying out the latest hot spots? A few days later the chief editor wrote me again: Unintentionally he had deleted my response with new proposals, could I send it once more? I was a little baffled because I had not given actuality a real thought yet, let alone write proposals about it. Only one of these beautiful German idioms had popped up in my head : “jeden Tag eine neue Sau durch das Dorf jagen.” (“to chase a new pig through the village every other day”).

Apart from my education in history I blame the café in the street for my inclination towards the timeless. Café Zeitlos is at the corner of Waldemarstraße and Manteuffelstraße. I've been watching that mysterious door while drinking my daily coffee in D'Espresso at the opposite corner, pondering about where this bizarre entrance leads to. As the case may be, I'm probably under its spell. Also my occasional job as a tour guide in the museum might have something to do with it. Not that museums imperatively exhibit timeless art, far from. Most museums safely and cautiously bet on what happens to be on “the list”. It's rare that an artist gets discovered by an institution of contemporary art. Yet inevitably there is art that proves to be lasting and makes it, mostly a few decades after its making, into the museum canon. I happen to give a museum tour addressing the difficult question “what is art?”. I'm in favor of interaction but for this particular tour I prefer a monologue, avoiding being irritated by unnecessary exclamations and variations on the question by the visitor. To make my point I lead the listeners to my personal highlights of the museum. Since I like a positive approach I avoid answering the tough question by pointing out its negative. So throughout these guide tours I came up with a few guidelines on how to define “good art”.

“Good art” is, in my opinion, not so much a subjective issue, depending on the onlooker. There are a few characteristics that define good art. 1) Good art might at first sight look simple, yet is in essence multilayered. Actually, I'm a fan of “simple” ideas. 2) Good art makes one reminiscence for at least one hour. I would love to give one-hour guide tours focussing just on one art piece. 3) Good art opens up a space of negotiation. It does not give definite answers nor does it repeat hierarchies or reveals what one already knows. 4) Good art displays self-reflexivity, irony, and humor. 5) Good art avoids a thinking that revels in “either ... or” categorizations. And of course, last but not least, number 6) Timelessness is intrinsically part of what defines good art. Good art might have been made decades ago, yet it does not loose its critical acumen for the present. As a consequence, art criticism is about laying bare the contemporary significance of an art work, but it tries also to point out how it reaches beyond that actuality.

How to make it on “the list” is a very different discussion, as well as which strategies art criticism can use to get the ball rolling. Fame can reach one in unexpected ways. The most exhilarating is maybe to hover for an instant in its presence and to seize the occasion. My friend, the painter Ali Mongo got eternalized in a juxtaposition with Steve Jobs in the San Francisco Chronicle and in that coincidental confrontation he made a very good point: 

Steve Jobs and Ali Mongo in the San Francisco Chronicle

October 1, 2012

Let's Talk Food. "Hungry City" at Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien

  • Berliner Cupcake

Where did I get the idea that riding the subway is no fun? I took the subway two days in a row, feeling too lazy for my usual bike ride. Both times exciting things happened. The first time the lady next to me had a poodle on her lap who without warning decided it was time for a pee. The owner took it in stride and laughed it off. The second time I sat down next to a lady with a platter of freshly baked cupcakes on her lap. They looked and smelled so yummy I could not take my eyes off. I ended up buying one of these what must have been a Berliner cupcake because it had a gummy bear on top of it. My neighbor was on her way to the museum island to sell her cupcakes to the art lovers. The money is for an initiative called “cupcakes for literacy”, providing children with learning resources. The Let's Talk Cupcakes!-project, so I checked online, also organizes language lessons – promoted as the tastiest way to learn English. Even corporate team building can be a piece of cake with cupcakes (www.letstalkcupcakes.com).

Sugarhigh I arrived back in my neighborhood Kreuzberg. I actually happen to live in a hood where many people are convinced that with food one can make the world a better place. Food, for example, can surely revive deserted places and tighten the community. Around the corner of my place, in the Eisenbahnstraße, there is Markthalle IX. Built in 1891, the market hall's downfall started in 1997 when ALDI moved in. Merchants could not cope and had to leave. ALDI is still there but in 2009 the neighborhood's residents started an initiative: Markthalle Neun (http://www.markthalle9.de/konzept.html). As a result there is now a market on Fridays and Saturdays with local merchants selling pies, juices, flowers, regional vegetables and meat. The cooking is glocal: veggie burgers, spanish tapas, Berliner Blutwurst. The tables are covered with ecological food and the neighborhood gathers around. During the rest of the week you can still hit Markthalle IX for a five euro dinner at noon. Or you can have a coffee at the central booth, which has been there since 1989, surviving the market hall's harshest times and apparently enduring stoically its recent upgrading. 

Booth at Markthalle IX since 1989

At the other end of my street food meets art: Hungry City, curated by Anna Kersten in cooperation with Stéphane Bauer at Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien, features art that deals with the significance of food in culture. The nexus of food and art has a long history, food being the perfect object for still live paintings or the ideal material, preferably in decomposed condition, to move the boundaries between art and life. No such thing in Hungry City: Environmental Art, Rural Art and Guerilla Gardening are at the fore. You can follow the food chain of your morning yoghurt personally tracked down by Jekaterina Anzupowa during a worldwide trip. The artist collective Fallen Fruit maps the places where the urbanite can do harvest picking for free in the city. Kultivator shows you how to build a worm tower for your urban compost. A story is told about the breeding of potatoes in the GDR (Åsa Sonjasdotter), farmers in Poland go into great detail about their self-made machinery (ŧukasz Skąpski), and personal tales bring together Croatian and Hungarian milk production (Kristina Leko). You can see happy pigs being fed with acorns (Isa Winkler), a 1982 wheat field in front of the former World Trade Center in New York (Agnes Denes), and a 1970s San Francisco farm project under a highway crossroad (Bonnie Ora Sherk).

Insa Winkler, Das Eichelschwein, 2006. Standbild aus dem Video. © die Künstlerin

Hungry City's accompanying program makes you experience food from a different angle. An evening dinner, for example, was served by Dinner Exchange Berlin, using the leftovers of the city's supermarkets and gastronomy. I happened to wander through the exhibition spaces while dinner was being prepared, its smell rising up. Believe it or not, it was right after my cupcake experience. Needless to say, all my senses were blown. I went home where my roommate Asier Solana was doing some home-cooking – his aim of the week being to cook a different meal every day, leaving out spaghetti. The empanada, Spanish style, was so divine. That's when the music set in: “You have to get a tongue for the taste, it's the kind of food you don't waste / food for your mind and your belly, not when you're in front of the tele / the kind of food that keeps you strong, keeps you balanced all day long / you got to feed up your foundation – information.”