January 6, 2015

Like Old Cheese. What Museum Cafés Tell You About The Avant-Garde

I’ve written about museum bookstores as the backstage to the art world. Museum cafés are equally important. They are like the kitchen at home. It’s a big mistake not to have one. Kunsthaus Bethanien, for instance, didn’t think of it when it relocated to Kottbusser Damm in Kreuzberg and the new space, and every exhibition in it, lacks an ambiance. The café I spend most time in, is the Sarah Wiener one in Hamburger Bahnhof - Museum of Contemporary Art, Berlin. Not that it’s my favorite: the acoustics are very bad (you can’t hear a thing of what your neighbor is saying), the red walls are agitating, and the altar of Sarah Wiener books and products at the bar gets incredibly on my nerves. In 2014 Sarah Wiener renovated for a few months and after the renovation everything still looked the same. Except that the altar had disappeared but after a few days it was back again and it seemed to have grown even bigger. I wish Sarah Wiener had inherited some of her mother’s wit, Ingrid Wiener, who together with Valie Export sung a funny song about lemons and bananas making out in bed: “Bananen, Zitronen, sie gehen in ein Haus / Bananen, Zitronen, und zieh’n sich nackert aus / Halli-Halli-Hallo, und finden sich ganz nett / Halli-Halli-Hallo, und legen sich ins Bett / Halli-Halli-Hallo, und vögeln um die Wett’. Hallo.”

What does Sarah Wiener’s cacophony** reveal about the state of contemporary art? Grayson Perry puts it like this: “I don’t believe there is an avant-garde any more. There are just multiple sites all over the world at different levels, in different places, using different media for experimentation, and we live in this globalized, pluralistic art world with a lot of money sloshing around in it, and it’s as varied as we are.” Yet the idea of avant-garde is not even celebrated in a place where you would expect it most: the Bauhaus Archiv. At the lockers the odor suggest the close proximity of bathrooms and in the restaurant the food smells as if it has been heated in an airplane. I was considering a cheese sandwich but the bread looked harder than my teeth could manage and the cheese seemed to have dried out because of too long exposure. There is no way to bring dried out cheese back to life and that’s what the Laszlo Moholy-Nagy exhibition looked like. Everything seemed very sad and moldy as if the avant-garde is a really old and silly idea, contaminated with bacteria you don’t want to eat. 

C/O Berlin at Amerika Haus

I also checked out the new location of C/O Berlin, which has a reputation of being hip and trendy. The Amerika Haus truly is a great space and the café is wonderful, with big windows that give you a beautiful view of the railway station Zoologischer Garten. I had a delicious sandwich with goat cheese and a fig chutney for only 3 Euros. My neighbor had a vegan sandwich that was designed like the Triadic Ballet of Oskar Schlemmer. My hope is only that the new C/O turns out to be more like its restaurant: solid and original. Because the opening exhibitions are certainly not cutting edge and avant-garde. C/O seems too eager to please. The Magnum exhibition is a safe choice, the Berlin photos are for the tourists, and the selfies are for the children. I always wonder why photography exhibitions look so conventional. It seems that it’s the only contemporary medium that doesn’t question the space and the walls it is displayed upon. Rows of framed photography hang closely together at the conventional height of 1,50m eye level... yawn. This was also the very first show that I visited in which Wikipedia is openly used as a source for the labels. When art gets down to a Wikipedia-level, I feel it’s high time for a new avant-garde. Anybody interested?

From Douglas Huebler's Wikipedia page...
** Just got the news that Mercedes-Benz Museum resigns Sarah Wiener restaurant because of bad working circumstances. More here

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