December 31, 2016

End of the Year Tales: Women and the Scarcity Economy of Love

Reading Susan Sontag’s journals from the early 1970s I skip the part that is about her unfortunate love with C. While leafing through the pages, there is one sentence, though, that sticks: “Scarcity economy of love”, written in the margins of the diary. 

We are standing in front of the shop window of the bookstore in Reichenbergstraße. I see Roland Barthes’ A Lover's Discourse, which inspired my 2016 resolution for the arts. A few more books about love are on display. “How surprising!”, I say. “It’s Christmas,” the artist responds with a bit of sarcasm in her voice. 

A female art person listening to a male art person who does all the talking: “I abstrahise,” she says. 

Two things I watched this year, which are remarkable in their turning around of roles for women. I mean, the women are strong and powerful, and not dependent on men. The first one was the movie Ghostbusters, the other one is the series The Catch. “Are you okay?” a guy asks private detective Alice Vaughan after some dangerous action. “Would you ask me the same if I were a man?” she replies. 

It wasn’t something that I gave much thought when it happened, but I was reminded of it this week. When I was 27, I applied for a Fulbright to go to the United States as a post-doc fellow. Walking into the interview, looking great with my platina blond hair, the first thing a man of the jury says is that they are not sending people to the US to go on a vacation. 

S from the bookstore tells me he doesn’t like Kirchner. In fact, he thinks Kirchner’s paintings are straight-down ugly. I laugh, it’s funny to hear somebody call shit what has been canonized, especially when it’s male.  

I have this French medieval poem I know from school, it’s about youth and basically it says; mignonne [female], enjoy your flower before it withers. I like reciting it, and I did so while drinking jenever with my Berlin friend S in Antwerp. S didn’t agree with the message of the poem, saying that in Japanese there is the concept of wabi sabi, which means the beauty of imperfection, of wrinkles, of things that are unfinished - a beauty you can find in a broken pot. 

S always mixes up the gender when he’s talking, which can be really confusing because you thought you were talking about a certain person but then he’s switching the “he” and “she” all the time. He explained to me that in Chinese spoken language there is no male or female, also no boyfriend or girlfriend. I think English and German language should catch up on that, it’s more 21st century. 

December 24, 2016

End of the Year Tales: What have human cultures made of time?

The artist, critic and activist Nine Yamamoto-Masson has a new radio series News from the Sun. The first part is on the topic of time, which is a great thing to reflect about in this time slot between 2016 and 2017. "What have human cultures made of time?" Nine Yamamoto-Masson asks. Yamamoto-Masson has a voice that is beautiful to listen to, one that takes you along, and she made the radio show into quite an art work, collaging different sources of inspiration together. She mentions that the listener might think of her like a stoner or like a wide-eyed child. And it's true that her journey on time has something of Walter Benjamin touring on hashish through Marseille, opening up to different powers of observation. She does so by conversing with all her favorites, like Chris Marker, Nina Simone, Audre Lorde, Maya Angelou, CG Ballard. “Don’t you want to transcend time?”, it’s asked at some point, to which is responded: ‘Of course, I have little time left.”

After listening to the show, I was inspired to give time, as I experienced it this week, some thought: 

On Monday evening, December 19, I watched Pina Bausch’ Palermo Palermo at the Berliner Festspiele. Theatre or cinema gives you time off: it can be dream time, condensed time, escape time. When you leave the show you need the real time outside to be the same as before so you can acclimatize your way back in. But during the show, a few blocks away of the theatre, a truck had been driven into a Christmas market, which seemed very unreal so that when we exited the show it was as if we were left hanging somewhere in between times.

Pina Bausch’ Palermo Palermo consists of vignettes of life’s struggles and the need for love. Interestingly, it’s the women who are in charge. Men are merely doing what they are told to do. The women demand to be kissed, hugged, and loved but the fulfillment of these demands doesn’t lead to satisfaction. Actually, most of the time everybody on stage is quite dissatisfied. A woman in the possession of  uncooked spaghetti screams: “I don’t lend them and I don’t give them away. They are mine.” At the end of the piece, a tale is told about a fox who wants to eat some geese. The fowl outwits him, asking the fox for time to pray. There is nothing he can do but wait until the geese are finished praying and, of course, they just keep on going, which is sort of hopeful.

In the middle of Pina Bausch's drama on stage, an elderly man in the audience stands up and turns around while saying out loud: “There has been a terror attack in Berlin.” Then he leaves. The rest of the audience stays in its role of audience and doesn’t budge. A woman behind me sobs and keeps on doing so until the person sitting next to her proposes to accompany her outside. It isn’t the first time that stage and reality collide in Palermo Palermo. The piece starts with an enormous wall falling backwards on the stage with an enormous crash. When it was first performed in 1989, the Berlin Wall came down.

On Tuesday, December 20, I was on my way to Belgium and since my flight was delayed I had to wait for more than five hours. Finally, it looked like we could board any minute. From the waiting room we saw the crew getting ready in the cockpit. But then the crew discovered that because of the delay their limit of working hours had been reached. An announcement was made that they were looking for a new crew. Two hours later it was announced that "volunteers" had been found to fly the plane to Belgium. By then, nobody gave a damn about the volunteer part, it could have been interns and we would have boarded anyway. 

In the street where my mother lives (which you could call a village street if it wasn’t for the fact that Belgium doesn’t really do in villages but rather in suburbs) things have changed over the past few years. The grass in front of houses has been systematically replaced by gravel, the hedges by stone walls, and all trees have been cut. My mother says it’s because people don’t want to bother anymore with cleaning up the leaves and cutting the grass. It’s also nice because this way the street is in a kind of time free zone. The Belgian sky is always grey and now there is no longer an indication to see that it is winter when nature is so sad to look at. 

I looked in my notebook and found a list of words on time that I collected once. Don't ask me why, I don't remember, that's what time does to memory: 

these things take time
your time runs out
living on borrowed time
killing time
time has changed
time stands still
hard time
wasted time
the time of my life
free time
doing hard time
the right time
night time
time square
break time
time out

December 12, 2016

Uncertain States at Akademie der Künste, Berlin

Everybody kept telling me how great the current show Uncertain States at Akademie der Künste is, so I was excited to finally check it out. I love the architecture of the old academy at Hanseatenweg. The weather was rainy, it was a Sunday, and I went with my friends Lutz, who is a designer, and Olivier, who is an art historian. Circumstances couldn’t have been better. We debated if we would go immediately for the coffee and cake but then decided to do “work” first. Going upstairs we saw on our right side that the windows were covered with foot prints - a window installation by Graciela Sacco: the shoe soles refer, so the accompanying text, to themes of “escape and migration, leaving and arriving, bureaucracy, human suffering and individual stories.” I got a bit cranky: I can’t stand art work that takes things 1/1. Here I also must admit I’m not the best company to see exhibitions: I get grumpy really easily and have no patience (In 2017 I will meditate more regularly and get better). 

But then the first space upon entering was elegantly curated and this would continue throughout the whole exhibition. The exhibition has style and manages to create a nice dynamic flow between the contemporary art, the historical part, and the gathering space for readings and screenings. It was also good that the show didn’t start off immediately with the historical part but with a contemporary introduction. I liked the red colored things in the cages of Mona Hatoum but not the cages. Olivier shrugged his shoulders and he was right: it didn’t amount to much. Making your art work out of reinforcement bars just isn't good enough. Same with the art work of Ayse Erkmen next to it, showing landmines on kitchen tiles. I can only say that the color green of the landmines fitted with the red of Mona Hatoum’s work, but that is also very cynical of me. 

Around the corner was the historical part, which displayed migration stories of German artists in the 1930s. At the sight of it I got a little depressed of having to do so much reading. But then the frustration disappeared and I started to get moved. The texts were very well written and the display was wonderful: boxes, carrying an object like the “sweetheart jewelry” that John Heartfield gave to his beloved one and the last letter of Walter Benjamin to Theodor Adorno in 1940, six weeks before his suicide. Also my favourite Valeska Gert was represented by a letter from the German-Jewish émigré journal Aufbau, telling her she shouldn’t be critical of the USA in her performances: she was too unimportant a person to put the whole emigrant community in the USA at risk. The only problem with this historical part of the exhibition was that the designer made a mistake: the texts on the plexiglas were very hard to read and at first I thought it was intentionally but that would have been too tacky of the designer, wouldn’t it. 

Then contemporary art followed and I must say (and we all agreed on this) that the contemporary art on display didn’t manage to keep up with the historical part. How come?, so we wondered. Olivier suggested it was because the historical part is about a lived experience, whereas in the contemporary art it’s more of a presentation of an experience that was, in most cases, not lived by the artists themselves. It was all too much of a mock-up to be able to move. In my opinion, a lot of the art was just too eager to please. It was too intentionally looking for making an impression and it doesn’t work when artists are out to impress the audience rather than to think of things in themselves. Nasar Tur delivered bad work - one in which he is peeing in his pants, another one where he shows people who fire a gun for the first time - even the slow-motion here didn’t manage to create that little something more that good art has (call it poetry, excess, that little thing that pierces you). Most art was also too literal. I prefer art that makes a detour of some sort - that looks at a thing and shifts our perception just a little inch and  that does it all. Francis Alys is mostly great at this and his video work on kids making birdcalls in the ruins at the Turkish-Armenian border is quite beautiful but it doesn’t reach its full potential. I was surprised to see that he showed an historical explanation at the end of the video. That was unnecessary.

Zineb Sedira, Mother Tongue, 2002

The best work on show is unfortunately exhibited in a lost corner of the exhibition. It is the work by Zineb Sedira, titled Mother Tongue, which shows three videos in which the communication between the artist and her mother, the artist and her daughter and the grandmother and her granddaughter are examined. Both daughters talk in their language of schooling, whereas the mother and grandmother talked in their native language. Granddaugther and grandmother don’t share the mother tongue, which made the conversation difficult and uncomfortable. This art work is based on a simple and beautiful idea, it takes the own living experience as a starting point, it is unpretentious, it opens up the imagination, it is loving. What can be more adequate in a time of uncertain states? 

December 11, 2016

Things I Heard This Week

S told me at a Japanese plum dinner how it seems to him that all Japanese art has a same kind of sensibility: a bit of sadness, melancholy, and a bit of nature.  

Pickled Japanese plum is a very sour thing to eat - it opens up your nose immediately and all the rest follows. Not so many Europeans have a taste palate that can deal with a Japanese plum. At the Japanese plum party the host H. had fun putting the pickles in everything he was making - in the pancakes, the quiche, and the soup - while chuckling: “It’s okay...” It reminded me of Warhol who liked to say: “Why not?”

The Japanese plum party had a name, it was called Tschaikovksy’s Pickle Surprise. Tschaikovsky was gay, H. told me. The Russians consider him to be their national composer, which is funny, so H. said, chuckling once more, and then showed me on Youtube Tom Rubitz’s video Pickle Suprise.

In the bathroom of the host, there was an object with a vagina lying on the white tiles. My friend and I were looking at it, our imagination running wild. The host came in (it’s a special kind of bathroom, one that invites people in) and told us we could touch it. We backed off first, then to be informed it’s a sculpture made out of stone. I really liked the sculpture and went back to see it a few times during the evening. 

A told me she studied speculative design in London. You can also call it critical design, she explained to me. Most design is made to serve a purpose, an ideology. Critical design isn't and it speculates about the future. When she started studying speculative design, her dream was to build a huge machine on high voltage. She did build a machine, A said, but it's not on high voltage.

I watched an episode of Absolutely Fabulous in which Patsy is starting a new job at a fashion magazine in New York. When she arrives, they ask her what her program is, to which she responds: “I want to take the fun out of fashion!” 

B told me how he prints out stuff from the internet to read on paper. He can’t believe people still send these kind of emails which say at the bottom to please not print out this email. As if anybody still prints out stuff. If you read online for 30 minutes,  B. informed me, then you’re using up circa 32 CO2, while if you do the same on paper it’s only 28 CO2. Also, paper is a renewable resource and when you decide to print something out, you very much realise that what you’re doing has its consequences. With online surfing it’s much harder to visualize. 

Art theorization seems a very dry, stiff, and tough thing to do, only for those who have a sec, abstract mindset. The word “theory” itself has the sound of a nut that is impossible to crack. While teaching cultural theory for Node, however, my student T. wrote in his assignment that theorization comes easily: “It requires nothing more than imagination, fantasy.”

November 30, 2016

Pills for the Heart. Leftovers from a conversation with GuNa, resident at NON Berlin

These are thoughts that came up during my visit to GuNa’s exhibition My black brown at NON Berlin on Saturday November 26, from 3:30 till 6pm in the afternoon. 

Talking with Nayeon and GuNa. Photo: Courtesy NON Berlin

Leftovers are the rests of food that you decided not to eat and throw away. Arriving at her residency in Berlin, GuNa wanted to do good to her body, shaken by moving to a different place ("Moving to a different place is interesting but at the same time there is always fear by my side" so GuNa in the exhibition flyer), and she bought healthy, bright, colourful food like lemons and bananas. The dried leftovers of that intention are very carefully displayed at NON Berlin. GuNa seems to hold on to waste and abandonment, with an intensity that is unable to let fully go. 

There is some rest in everything one has decided to do, the choices one has made. What stays are the leftovers of those other options. That’s where the melancholy sets in.

Stupidity comes before wisdom, so a Korean saying goes. Not to know, and touching upon that. 

GuNa likes to paint plants that are half dead, that are not been taking care of, abandoned. Berlin lets its plants decay in wintertime, so she noticed during her residency. One doesn’t seem to put them inside, as people do in Korea, or cover them up outside so they can survive wintertime. In Korea the trees are nicely cut, she says. GuNa appreciates the negligence of Berliners, to let things go ugly, bent and twisted - to let death be in a season that’s welcoming it. 

Courtesy NON Berlin

In GuNa's paintings the depicted figures, once fully convinced of their strength (fist and arm stretched forward), are not (yet) dead, just like the plants, they are hovering somewhere in between. GuNa lets them die only halfway. 

If you look at GuNa’s portfolio, there is the same small painting of a bird that always pops up in displays, as if holding everything together. At the NON space, the bird is at the staircase that leads to the basement. In the harmonically balanced composition of the show, the location of the bird at the staircase seems to suggest a way out of it, not upwards, but inwards. 

The heart is weak in GuNa’s work. It’s weakened by a melancholy that comes from the past, being sick in childhood. A painting shows the pills, enlarged, that are taken to strengthen the heart. A chemical poison that kills as much as it makes alive.  

November 25, 2016

The Importance of Being Artist

Are you sometimes wondering during your museum visit if you've spotted an important artist? Somehow you can just feel you've seen one by the way they walk through the exhibition space. It's not so much what they wear, but it's the air of owning the space they walk in, in this case the contemporary art museum. Mostly it goes together with an aura of importance and also an incredibly serious look. I detected one yesterday. It was easy to do so because he (of course of the male gender) was talking to a (of course female) curator with a very serious look of importance on his face. I just caught a fragment of the conversation. "I have a mission", he said with his face getting even paler from carrying the weight. I backed off immediately to the safe zone of the bookstore because artists (especially the white male ones) with a mission are the worst. Fortunately, salesperson M. put me at ease by saying: "Wer eine Mission hat, hat ein wahres Leben." (Those who have a mission, have a true life.)

November 16, 2016

Warning: This Is Self-Promotion. The Shape in the Air. An Art Philosophy for the 21st Century

A week ago I presented my newest publication in collaboration with the electronic duo Ducks! at Bar Babette in Berlin. It's titled The Shape in the Air. An Art Philosophy for the 21st Century and published in the mimas atlas series of Hybriden-Verlag. "An art philosophy for the 21st century" is a big subtitle of course. It sounds kind of preposterous to do so in the early year 2016.  Also for a book based on a conversation between only two persons - that is me and the Artist, whose true name, for the sake of suspension, I won’t reveal to you yet. Also in the book you have to be careful not to skip it: It’s mentioned only once, and even then you’ll have to use your intellectual capacities to put the first name together with the last one.

Of course, the subtitle is a reference to my favourite Andy Warhol, who wrote The Philosophy of Andy Warhol. From A to B and Back Again, which is according to me something like the bible of contemporary art. it deals with all the essential topics of life. Art essentially deals with exactly those topics although their surface might change: love, beauty, fame, work, time, death, economics, atmosphere, success, art, titles, and underwear power.

When I finished my book, I had this silly pride of having written an art philosophy of the 21st century in only 28 pages, which is, I think, with our current attention span, a very 21st century thing to do. But then Hybriden Verlag made the fontsize bigger and turned it into about 45 pages, which makes it into a less spectacular endeavour, but still an achievement of some sort. 

The book is set up like a detective story. I just have always wanted to write a story in which I use the word  “swell”  like the great detective writer Dashiel Hammett did. You’ll have to buy the book to see if I truly did so. I mean, you can imagine how hard it is to bring the word “swell” together with art in one sentence. 

I’m pretty old-fashioned in my choice of detective series, unlike Patti Smith, who is, this I read in her last book M Train, a fan of the Swedish high-tech ones. You know, I like Columbo where the murder is commited right at the very beginning and you see who did it, and the rest is just watching how Columbo will find out what you already know. 

Just one more thing - this book is not about finding the Artist. The Artist is not missing nor is the Artist hard to find. I meet the Artist almost every day, and if not, then we call on the phone. 

I would like to thank the Artist, and also Will Furtado who guided me in the process of writing, Jennifer Danos who did the proofreading, Lani Bagley and Craig Schuftan of Ducks! for giving the text a rhythm, and Hartmut Andryczuk for publishing the result.

The Shape in the Air. An Art Philosophy for the 21st Century (mimas atlas #19, Hybriden-Verlag, Berlin), in collaboration with Ducks!  The book includes a CD and an original drawing. You can buy it here

November 11, 2016

Art Trivia of Insignificant Importance: Furniture and "Accessoires"

Who would have thought that German language can cheer one up. It has a bad reputation, but German is actually a funny language. I attended a dinner party and a friend and I were talking about Laurie Anderson's latest art film - something to do with her dog. And then my friend said she bought the video so we could get together and see it. I asked her the specificities: how big is the screen she has? Is it a laptop? Or a flatscreen? It's not very big, she admitted, but she does have a "Sofalandschaft" which makes for a comfortable watching experience. A sofa landscape! Only the German language could deal so accurately with such a piece of furniture. Of course, the Germans might be considered to be the discoverers of the landscape as such, aren't they, at least the romantic notion of it: with the Rückenfigur standing on a hill and admiring it. Pop and German seem to be contradiction in terminus but it's a very pop thing to do, to metamorphose something as fleeting as a landscape into something as immobile as a furniture piece.  

Talking furniture, yesterday I was giving a guided tour at the Museum of Contemporary Art and the topic was "Was ist Kunst?" I had some young fellows in the group and they were testing me. One was very good at it and he told me that art was decoration. "You can call it accessories," he said. I was a bit baffled because, of course, it's true - it's in the first place used as a decoration next to your sofa. I had to think of Oscar Wilde, who travelled at the age of 27 to the United States for a tour to defend beauty in the age of industrialisation: "A picture has no meaning but its beauty, no message but its joy. That is the first truth about art that you must never lose sight of. A picture is a purely decorative thing." So that young fellow might be onto something, a new Oscar Wilde in our age of neoliberal "usefulness". A very capitalist thinking is dominating also in the art world, with the idea that everything should have a result and "use". I'm horrified of the idea of useful art. Then I'd rather prefer the decorative one. 

November 6, 2016

Four Reflections on Current Hamburger Bahnhof Shows

In the Rieckhallen of Hamburger Bahnhof there is an exhibition of musical scores by visual artists. You might know the Rieckhallen as that eternally long hall that takes two hours to walk and then two hours to walk back to the exit. This sounds as exhausting as it is. Now I finally know how to make the Rieckhallen better. You see, in this exhibition some walls have been taken down. Chris Markley, for instance, is shown in a huge space with just two projections. It got me totally excited. That’s it, I thought. Those walls dividing the Rieckhallen into even, stiffening spaces have to be teared down. Turn the Rieckhallen into one huge space with maybe only 2 to maximum 3 separating walls. It will make the space magnificent and the art work will be able to breath. 

The categorisation of modern art and contemporary art is questionable, as we all know: where does the former end and the latter begins. But it is totally justifiable when you look at its audience. Take the current Kirchner exhibition at the Hamburger Bahnhof. The show attracts a totally different (older) audience that’s into modern art, but doesn’t like contemporary art at all. That the Kirchner exhibition takes place at the museum of contemporary art, leaves most of them cold. It makes me wonder if in thirty years time, I’ll be visiting exhibitions of whatever survived from the early 2000s and avoid, let’s say, the art of the mid 21st century. Probably I will. 

At the moment there are Franz West chairs shown in the Historical Hall of the Hamburger Bahnhof. You can see that they’re not design chairs and they're also not normal chairs, so the conclusion is they must be art chairs. Then you still don’t know if you’re allowed to sit on them. When giving guided tours it’s the first thing I do with my group. We sit on the chairs, and then we go and look at this new constellation of chairs from afar. The sight of this fleeting temporary togetherness warms the heart. It's only a pity that Christopher Büchel’s container of the 2000s USA selection is also in the same space. Nothing against Büchel, but the Franz West’s chairs on their own in this beautiful hall would have been such a splendid sight. It would also have visualised a radicalness that no other huge spectacular art show could ever top: give people space, give people a chair to sit on!  

Today was the last day of the Capital exhibition curated by Catherine Nichols and Eugen Blume in the Kleihues Hall. You know I wrote the short texts for the exhibition, but it’s not only because of my own involvement that I’m particularly fond of this show. My favourite constellation is at the end of the Kleihueshalle. It’s a small Kurt Schwitters bricolage of wood, titled Cathedral, shown next to Beuys’ enormous environment Das Kapital. The combination undoes every attempt to aggrandize Beuys’ monument into a redemption of some sort. Beuys’ Kapital Raum shows blackboards, recording equipment, a grand piano, and projectors without film. What I found most beautiful was to put into praxis what Eugen Blume very well describes in the catalogue: to “think sight and sound rather than actually seeing and hearing.”

November 4, 2016

Casual Smart Cultural Dining at the Swiss and Belgian Embassy

Antwerpse handjes

Two weeks in a row I was dining at an embassy. Not bad at all, I wouldn’t mind getting used to this. The first dinner was a cultural get-together at the Swiss Embassy, which is in between the Hauptbahnhof and the Reichstag in a no-man's-land. Apparently it was the only building that was not bombed in that area during World War II. The tables were arranged according to Swiss cheeses and I was at the Sbrinz cheese table. It’s funny, right, to arrange your tables according to cheese.  It’s a very Swiss thing to do. French people would never think of arranging their tables according to Camembert, etc. It’s the kind of Swiss humor you also see at work in the art pieces by Roman Signer and Fischli and Weiss. The confusing thing was that the cheese never made it on the table for real. The same at the Belgian dinner, my table was named after Isa Genzken and she never showed up. 

The Belgian dinner was organized for the visit of people from the Middelheim open air museum near Antwerp. On the table were delicious “Antwerpse handjes” and Belgian chocolate, but the highlight of the evening was the speech of the wife of the Belgian Ambassador. It was her mother’s birthday and she shared with us an advice her mother used to give her, which is to pay attention to everything that comes your way. Also to people. So I turned myself to my right side (I already knew my left side, which was occupied by my friend, art lover Shuai Wang). Sitting next to me was Stefan Körner, who works at a big German auction house. We had a great conversation about his correspondence with Karl Lagerfeld. Lagerfeld is all about efficiency, he told me. If you repeat yourself, he’s quick to say that you’ve already said that. No surprise for the man who said "I'm lazy all the time, I just know how to exploit it." Lagerfeld also writes real letters on special, beautiful paper. Like love letters. Isn’t that the sweetest thing to do? 

October 28, 2016

Art Question: Can an artist still work with the material fat?

It’s really hard to pull it off. Some material is just done with. It’s rare that an artist used a material in such a way you can’t use it anymore. Whereas Andy Warhol did it with coca cola, Josef Beuys took fat. Yesterday I met somebody who did pull it off though. It’s Wolfgang Müller and we met for cheese cake at Café Olé in the Boddinstraße in Neukölln. In his backpack he had a fat ball in bronze with him. Who would ever think to make a bronze sculpture out of a fat ball? The artist does. It's called Übermaterialisierung. I know Wolfgang Müller once did research on which brand of fat ball is the best. I imagine him watching the birds at his window. Luckily the Berlin winter is long so you can do in depth research. You probably want to know which fat ball came out as the most qualitative. I don’t know. Unfortunately TEST Magazine doesn't publish the results of artistic research on products.

October 25, 2016

Art Question: Why is Female Sound Bad to Hear?

“Why is female sound bad to hear?” that’s the question asked by Anne Carson in an essay on the gender of sound. It reminded me of the artist Tino Seghal choosing women to perform the role of security guard in the museum, surprising the visitor with singing in high pitch voices. As we know, high pitch equals low authority in our society. Carson notices how in Homer’s Odysseus disorderly female sound is associated with wild space. A man is supposed to control his own emotions and therefore their sound, whereas a “woman is that creature who puts the inside on the outside.” 

Carson refers also to an anecdote Ernest Hemingway wrote about in his memoirs A Moveable Feast, when he accidentally listened in to women’s voices from the room next door and was so repelled by it that he left. One of them was the voice of Gertrude Stein, the other probably her partner Alicia Toklas. Hemingway wrote: “Miss Stein’s voice came pleading and begging, saying, ‘Don’t pussy. Don’t, please don’t. Please don’t, pussy.' ... She got to look like a Roman emperor and that was fine if you liked your women to look like Roman emperors .... I could never make friends again truly, neither in my heart nor in my head.” Truth be told, Gertrude Stein wasn’t that nice about Hemingway either. “He looks like a modern,” she said, “and he smells of the museums.”

October 24, 2016

Abstract Cries of Murderous Birds: the Trautonium

I had a good time yesterday listening to the trautonium played by Peter Pichler at the Alfred Ehrhardt Stiftung. At moments it go so loud and shrill that some people in the audience had to hold their hands on their ears. That’s the sonic power of this pre-synthesizer: its sound is dissonant, it has a great pitch-slide, and you can hit full volume with only a short depression of the finger. One knob in particular seemed to be Pichler’s favourite and he explained later it was the one that can turn a sound from soft to sharp. The trautonium was created in Berlin in 1929 as an instrument that creates a new sound that doesn’t imitate anything. Abstract music, so to say. 

Accompanying a film of Alfred Ehrhardt’s Korallen - Skulpturen der Meere, 1964, it was the sound that made the corals look like aliens. Now I also know why The Birds of Hitchcock freaked me out - the whole sound track was created by the trautonium. Hitchock wanted an electronic, cold, unnatural sound for his horror movie and came upon Oskar Sala playing the trautonium in Berlin. Picher gave us a bit of The Birds at the end of his concert. It is the sound track of the trautonium: abstract cries of murderous birds. Yet the sound of screaming birds wasn’t longer used for the seventh and last attack in the movie. Hitchcock explained: “What I wanted to get in that attack is as if the birds were telling Melanie, ‘Now we’ve got you where we want you. Here we come. We don’t have to scream in triumph or in anger. This is going to be a silent murder.’”

October 22, 2016

Cocktail Hour at a François Morellet Exhibition

Invitation card of the exhibition in Thibaut de Ruyter's trademark - the negative photograph

Raisins, green tomatoes and crackers were served together with some delicious cocktails at last night’s finissage of Neue-Neue Nationalgalerie, a François Morellet exhibition at Jordan/Seydoux. I arrived late, hadn’t eaten, and it was the first thing I went for. I swiftly brushed by curator Thibaut de Ruyter, letting him know my first impression - “so 1950s!” He took that the wrong way and kept shadowing me during the rest of the night saying the exhibition was referencing two decades later: the 1970s. Fact is that it was in the 1970s that Morellet had his first big retrospective at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin. Exhibiting at the Neue Nationalgalerie is always a bit of a struggle for artists since there are no walls. Thibaut told me that Van der Rohe had been on the lazy side and he had used an unrealized project for the Bacardi family in Cuba in order to build the museum in Berlin. The result is a transparent hall which is better for having cocktail parties than for hanging exhibitions. So Morellet decided to hang his paintings with wires from the ceiling, which turned out to be a magnificent idea. 

Exhibition view

Thibaut de Ruyter found those exhibition photos of the 1970s, plastered them on one wall, and took over the same hanging for the other works in the space. That’s why I got the 1950s effect, because I’m sure that this hanging method was invented in that decade after the war, a time when space was economized to the fullest. Think of the 1950s kitchens and offices. The same happened with exhibitions space - walls or no walls, hang the pictures in the middle! At least, that’s my theory - I don’t know where I got it from, probably Mad Men. But I must say that it’s also Morellet’s work that made me think in that direction. When you see his work as such, you can see it has aesthetics, but there is also something that makes you wonder if he wasn’t just a white male with the right connections in the 1950s, when being a man still meant you owned the place. This was before Andy Warhol came in.

The thing is, Morellet’s work needs installation and then it does magic. He was apparently good at it himself, and so is Thibaut de Ruyter, who is an architect, which you notice because he is meticulous about space - a wrong plinth can freak him out whereas a perfect symmetry of lines makes him happy. That’s the person you need to handle Morellet’s work. Also because Thibaut, despite his rigour about the 1970s, brings his own subtle humour to it. I mean, he chose the color green for one wall to evoke the green marble shafts of the Neue Nationalgalerie. I can’t explain to you why that is funny but I had to laugh when he told me, so it is. Thibaut actually told me that Morellet himself had a sense of humour.  A visitor said you could see the humour in the titles: they describe exactly what is being done in the paintings (Du vert à l’orange (5 trames de carrés réguliers pivotées sur le côté) which is also kind of funny in that very particular funny kind of way. 

October 16, 2016

Such Great Heights. On Artists Climbing High, the A-Team, Frieze and Karstadt

Thinking about religion this Sunday morning, I decided to stay on a high level in the afternoon and go see the exhibition such great heights at a former indoor climbing hall in Neukölln. The exhibition is organized just for the weekend by artists who, when I talked to them, denied having curated the exhibition. I proposed the word “arranging”, but then the word “hanging” came out as the most adequate. Hanging indeed, because the artists must have climbed quite a bit to install the art work on these climbing walls. The visitor could only see the works from above and binoculars were given for close-up viewing. I loved it - I’ve never been to an exhibition where you could see the art only from one perspective, and I can tell you that the perspective from high above is a good one. It made me wonder if even higher viewing perspectives would be possible, like bird view wise. And don't ask me why, but that made me think of a helicopter chase of the A-Team (probably the climbing hall brought me there), and I looked at the artists who were hanging out together in the space drinking coke, and they did look like a team that is acting on the good side helping the oppressed - isn’t that the definition of artists anyway? 

You see, my fantasy was running wild but the exhibition invited me to do so, with calls of birds that only fly on high heights, a boys band singing in the far back, relaxing peignoirs, flags of unknown territories, sculptures that take form in between half human and half something else, and in the middle of it all was a real man working on what is going to be a boulder hall in the future (I asked the artists but they didn’t pay him to be there on a Sunday. Apparently an art exhibition just isn’t something that would keep the guy from working when he wants to. Word!). I googled the exhibition title when I was back home, thinking it must be a reference to something. It is. It’s a song by The Postal Service and it goes like this: “They will see us waving from such great heights, ‘Come down now,’ they'll say. But everything looks perfect from far away, ‘Come down now,’ but we'll stay...” 

Talking about heights, one of the artists is my anonymous source who I’ve been quoting here before. He has great insights into the art world and he travels high places. That’s why I didn’t need to go to Frieze London last week. I just go to Neukölln and talk to my informant. “How was it?” I asked. “It’s like going to Karstadt”, he said, “but then filled with art works.” “Right on,” I nodded, “seen anything new?” “No, just the usual biggies.” “Mmmm”, I sighted. “But the gallerists were happy,” my informant told me, “The sales went great.” “Aha,” I said, losing interest. “Does that phone number on the exhibition poster work for real?” I asked another artist. It says: “For further information please call 0176 72 644 738 / 0151 72 824 116.” The artist smiled mischievously. Why don’t you try it out, my dear reader, and give a call to up above? Tell them to come down, will you? 

* such great heightsantonia breme andi fisch konrad fischer
lucia kempkes hrefna hörn leifsdóttir thomas mader lucas odahara sarah rosengarten sonia senese lea st.
vince tillotson eva vuillemin & frauke schmidt  josh zielinski

Art Question: Do Contemporary Art And Religion Go Together?

Yesterday during my guided tour we started talking about how many are surprised to discover that Andy Warhol was religious. Others are surprised to hear that Joseph Beuys wasn’t religious, although his work is covered with crosses. Warhol didn’t make a public thing out of his piety. But his bedroom was adorned with santos carving, a crucifix, a statuette of the Risen Christ and next to the majestic canopied bed a devotional book was lying on the bedside table. Warhol also attended Sunday mass regularly. And when he died in 1987, he was buried at the St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Cemetery in Pittsburgh. After my guided tour, a worried visitor asked me if religion and contemporary art are irreconcilable, he himself being a bit on the religious side. “Isn’t religion all about following rules, something that doesn’t go well with the boundary-free art world?” he asked me. I told him that the art world has also its rules and in my opinion, there are ethical boundaries that apply to the making of art. I'm also convinced there is a certain spirituality in art. “Good art touches upon something beyond”, I said while focussing my eyes on an imaginary far horizon. “Think of the mystics that Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass set about,” I uttered as my last words before making a swift turn left to the wardrobe. 

October 9, 2016

Two Critics Waiting in Line of the EDEKA

It was in the line of the EDEKA on Sunday that I felt a man pushing at my back. I turned around to see my former professor, legendary art historian Horst Bredekamp, standing there. Not really my professor, but we met a few times when I was studying cultural history, and he was a bit of a mentor to me.  “Are you trying to get ahead of me?” I laughed. I used to know him as the calmness himself, although according to his publishing list, he must be incredibly busy. “Oh, Herr Professor Bredekamp!” I exclaimed, German fashion wise. “Ah yes,” he said although it is improbable he remembered me because I never did anything memorable in art history. “I crossed over in the contemporary art field!” I told him, thinking the news would make him happy. He pulled a face. “Ah, too bad,” he sighted, “the contemporary needs historians. Our society is flattening.” I nodded. It’s true that as an historian you have this feeling of importance most of all because everyone else ignores your importance. We continued our conversation about how impossible shopping on a Sunday is, a sign of our horrible 24/7 society that doesn’t leave any time for a pause. But he himself had just come back from a trip to Paris and needed food. I had promised to bake a cake and had forgotten I needed butter to do so. So there we stood, as real cultural critics complaining but participating all the same. 

October 2, 2016

Oooookay. More Flesh or the Existential Crisis of the Art Critic

My favourite answer to criticism, is to mimick Ms. Swan's '"Ooooookay". 

“You have to give your reader more flesh”, my friend criticised me Friday night over a glass of red wine. “People will get the impression you’re the writer of short, one-paragraph funny stories. “They’re not just funny, “ I protested, “they go beyond!” “And do you know”, I complained, “how much time it takes to write a whole review?” We were sitting in the Bergmannkiez in a dark basement bar. We had just given up trying to go to the Eigen + Art Lab exhibition opening somewhere far up north. Our friend with car had let us down and to take public transport seemed unfathomable for some reason.  “Okay,” I said, using my last argument, “I haven’t seen anything I can put my teeth in, really.” “That’s no reason,” my friend replied, “Go to the Gemäldegalerie and write about Vermeer.” “Vermeer?” I cried out. WTF, it’s not because I’m Dutch speaking that I have some inner connection to Vermeer. It’s like telling him (who's French) to go check out that new Cézanne movie.

Annabel Daou at Galerie Tanja Wagner

But maybe my friend is right: I could go see some Vermeer and take my friend, the artist Akane Kimbara. She’s a huge fan of Vermeer and travels to places just to see his work. Yet, you know, I would be more interested in why she does that then to talk about the Vermeer work itself. It seems that, lately, I’ve been leaving the art work behind to talk about everything else but the art. I like to watch the ambiance around the art work, how it gets into people’s head, how they behave around it. In the end, it’s true I’m not an art historian but a cultural historian. Maybe I should start identifying as a cultural critic. I like art criticism most when it opens up to society anyway. Yet being a "cultural critic" sounds a bit as if one is always nagging at culture, saying how bad things are going. Doesn't it sound more exiting to be a philosopher - opening up art to phenomenology? But who dares to use such a big word as "philosopher," even my favorite Susan Sontag didn’t call herself one. 

Chiharu Shiota at Blain Southern

Actually, I’d say that Susan Sontag is the reason for my lack of “substantial” reviews lately. I’ve been under her influence since teaching Against Interpretation for the Cultural Theory class at Node Center. It made me turn against interpretation , preferring feeling and experience instead of logical analysis, which is a bit of a fatal attitude for any longish art reviews in which you’re bound to go into interpretation. I guess I’m interpreting Sontag a bit wrong by getting lazy in interpretation. For instance, take my gallery hopping last Saturday. At Galerie Tanja Wagner I saw the work by Annabel Daou, and since I wasn't interested in reading the content of what was written by the artist on those many tiny papers, I took some steps back so I was able to get a beautiful black and white overview of the whole. I stayed with aesthetics, and was totally happy doing so. I didn’t even read the press text. The same at Blain Southern with Chiharu Shiota’s installation, a web of red yarn connected to boats.With Blain Southern it’s always the question if the space or the art work is the most impressive one. But I know for sure it’s an improvement that the artist left out the kitschy keys she used in her red web of last year’s Venice Biennial. 

Since I can’t help it (sorry my friend!), here a little funny anecdote about my visit to Blain Southern. During my gallery hopping I was followed by three men who were apparently on the same track. They were dressed like collectors,  if you know what I mean (striped shirt casually tugged into the Ralph Lauren pants) and they also acted like collectors (a certain air of money in their gestures). At Blain Southern one of them asked the price of Shiota’s work exhibited upstairs, which consisted of small canvases put together in an arrangement of some sort. “No,” the gallery salesperson said, “one can’t just buy one, one has to buy the whole composition.” “10.000”, I heard her mention. I climbed the stairs to see those canvases for myself. They’re creepy little things stitched with the same red yarn as used in the installation below. Smart move, collectors will probably buy those little canvases merely to talk about the big installation. Some art works just exist to refer to another one, and that’s oooookay.   

September 29, 2016

Little Thoughts on Art: Did Warhol Meet Picasso?

Andy Warhol loved France, or at least, I know for sure he loved the French language. He had such a good time in Paris exhibiting his Flowers there (I believe it was in 1965) that he decided it would be the place to declare that he was leaving painting behind. He told the French press: “I only want to make movies now.” And he was excited to see the next day how they had reformulated it in the papers as “going to devote my life to the cinema.” He was equally excited when he disovered the French word magnétophone for his “wife”, the tape recorder: “Doesn’t that look nice on the page? Different. A new word for the same thing.”  But what Andy Warhol admired most about Paris, was definitely Pablo Picasso. Prolific, great at PR, huge production - Picasso can be seen as Warhol’s mentor. Did both stars ever meet? So far I know, they didn’t. But after that first show in Paris, Andy Warhol left very happy. With all the publicity in the French press he was sure, so he wrote in POPism, that “Picasso must have heard of us at last.”

September 23, 2016

Andy Warhol in Heipzig, oh sorry, Leipzig!

It’s been a few weeks by now and the exhibition has already finished. I’m sorry for that, but I was particularly moved after seeing Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests show in Leipzig. It was nice to stick to that feeling for a while without spelling it out. The Galerie für zeitgenössische Kunst showed a selection of Warhol’s Screen Tests, of which he made 471 between 1964 and 1966. The work is very simple - Andy Warhol at his best: a 16 mm camera filming somebody’s face for 2 minutes and 50 seconds and then slowing the film down to 4 minutes. You’re basically observing people’s faces looking in the camera. Soundless. There is a beauty about it that gets under your skin. 

I also didn’t want to write about the show because I feel reluctant about its curating. It's not important in the end, with the work being so strong. The art of curation with Andy Warhol is to just let it be, as simple as possible. The curator Julia Schäfer clearly wanted to be creative and complicate matters. The Screen Tests were shown on wooden panels, which was okay but intrusive nevertheless. It got worse later when the display was suddenly changed into a projection on glass and in a film set. In Warhol’s Screen Tests there are no hierarchies between the persons being filmed: everybody got the 2 minutes and 50 seconds. The curator’s display shouldn’t have messed with that.

There was one particular thing of the curating that got on my nerves: in the middle of the exhibition, on some shelves, the curator had displayed books marked with quotes that apparently had inspired her research. I hated it. It was too much information and it damaged the quietness of my viewing experience with that so-called "knowledge." As it is: I don’t want to see any research stuff in exhibitions anymore - damn, just show us the final result! Yeah, I got very edgy and afterwards I couldn’t concentrate anymore. 

A few weeks later on the train from Halle to Berlin a friend told me it’s probably the slow motion that is so attractive for us in a time when everything goes speedy. It’s true, after spending an hour at the David Claerbout exhibition in KINDL this weekend, I realized there is something mesmerizing about slowing time down. Some artists fasten things up and I’m not really a fan of that: it makes me nervous. 

Leipzig is, by the way, an excellent city for slowing down. It was my first time there and I was surprised to see there are no hipsters yet in Leizpig. Instead I saw many hippies hanging out as if George W. Bush never happened. My friend got really excited and decided to move there on the spot. "Probably cheap rent for big spaces," she was dreaming. However, back in Berlin, she found out that everybody wants to move to Leipzig. That’s why it’s now called Heipzig.