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? 


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