Last week four of Berlin’s major art institutions simultaneously opened four very different exhibitions under one overarching title: Stadt/Bild (termed The City and its Image in the English version). uncube’s Florian Heilmeyer raced through Berlin, to take in all four exhibitions – and the city in-between – in one frantic day.
It’s a grey Monday morning when we lock our bikes in Auguststrasse in central Berlin. We start our tour at the KW (Kunst-Werke) Institute for Contemporary Art with their show Welcome to the Jungle (on until November 15) and its promise to “draw a mental map of the present and the life forms within it”, a title taken from the 1988 Guns ’n’ Roses hit, that hints at that classic rock star lifestyle of sex, drugs, wild times and rock'n'roll. For curator Ellen Blumenstein, it’s not important if most younger visitors are not familiar with this bit of rock history, but she assiduously places lyrics from the song across the walls of the galleries to clue them in well enough: “Welcome to the jungle / We've got fun and games / We got everything you want honey / We know the names / We are the people that can find whatever you may need / If you got the money honey we got your disease / In the jungle, welcome to the jungle / Watch it bring you to your knnn.. knne... knees, knees / I want to watch you bleed”.
To begin the exhibition, you climb down a steep stair into a cellar, (watching out for the low ceilings), and the first thing you see are a couple of young men (real) taking a hot bath in a weird pop-art cardboard installation (art). With a cellar full of visiting hipsters trying to take selfies like crazy against the installation and the reclining hipsters (in the hot bath), it’s a pretty perfect start to the exhibition. But then things start to unravel. The exhibition is a great big mess, filled mostly with video art and everything seems to be moving, flashing and screaming at you at the same time. It’s atmospheric alright, and loosely connected to the idea of the jungle around and within us. But there is hardly any space to focus on any single piece of art, and even if one summons up the concentration, few of these are very convincing in any case. I end up watching a big guy in a rabbit costume tormenting a real rabbit. As to why it’s in the exhibition, wasn’t clear. Fun and games. But there is no time to think about if this could really be part of a mental map of the present, as we have to move on: there is so much more to see, see, see...
We are out on the street, taking a little detour via Museum Island to get a glimpse of the construction sites of both the new entrance building for the museums, designed by David Chipperfield and that of Berlin’s new (re-hashed) castle. Welcome to the Jungle, indeed, look at all that money honey, we got your disease. Down on Unter den Linden, we reach the KunstHalle, the cultural fig leaf of Deutsche Bank. Atmospherically, the exhibition Xenopolis (on until November 8) is the opposite of Welcome to the Jungle. Curated by Simon Njami, it brings together the work of six artists across two quiet and concentrated galleries. Although the two transparent caravans filled with cacti (by Loris Cecchini) evoke jungle associations again, overall the show is clear and focused around the topic of strangers encountering a city, dealing with and digesting their impressions, and contains some of the most powerful works we’ll see over the day. Within an hour we watch all three (great) video installations (by Anri Sala, Laurence Bonvin and Theo Eshtu) – and even have time to talk about them quickly over a coffee in one of the strangest places on earth: the inner atrium of Deutsche Bank. And then off we go again: there is so much more to see, see, see...
On bikes we race down to the Brandenburg Gate, turn left across the busy commercial hub that is Potsdamer Platz and then right to where things slow down in the vast open space of the Kulturforum between Scharoun’s Philharmonie and Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie. Since the latter modernist masterpiece is being renovated at the moment, its curators Lisa Marei Schmidt and Udo Kittelmann have invited four groups of artists to do performances across the city instead, each a reference to the “father of happenings”: US artist Alan Kaprow. Specifically, each is a re-enactment of his 1967 work Fluids, when he and some friends stacked up a rectangular enclosure constructed of blocks of ice in the Californian desert and then proceeded to watch them melt and disappear. To start the series, a version of the original ice sculpture was built on the Nationalgalerie’s terrace on 15 September, looking great against Mies’ glass box for a couple of days before they were gone. The second version was laid out on a small green space in Moabit on another day. Here, the artists rebuilt Kaprow’s box-like structure, but this time with all kind of objects donated by volunteers and neighbours – books, shelves, plants, toys – which were in the end given to, or swapped with, anyone who was interested through a process of a bartering. Another version was a “sculpture” of crates of plastic water bottles, which could be taken away for free (this one was gone even faster than the one with the melting ice), while another over on Potsdamer Platz, saw 70 people reforming Kaprow’s sculpture with their bodies in a sort of flashmob performance. Each performances was clever and pleasing in itself, but it still begged the question of why re-enact this performance about vanishing and eternity fifty years on. Yet breathless and with too little time to think for ourselves we hurry on, as there still is so much more to see, see, see...
Passing the Martin-Gropius-Bau (with more huge exhibitions for which we don’t have time) and the Topography of Terror, we get to Checkpoint Charlie and take a shortcut, with Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in the distance, down a pedestrian passage to finally reach the final venue of Stadt/Bild: the Berlinische Galerie. It’s late afternoon and there is not much time left, so it’s a relief to find that The Dialogic City (on until 21 March 2016) turns out to be much smaller than we were fearing. It is one big installation of shelves, stacked with boxes of models and documents in folders, all taken from the Berlinische Galerie’s vast archives, each containing an unbuilt proposal for various buildings and projects around Berlin. To our disappointment we are not allowed to rummage in – or even open – any of the boxes or folders, so actually there is not much to see, even though the names on the boxes whet our appetites. We find ourselves on the tips of our toes trying to catch a glimpse through some of the gaps of the boxes, whilst being closely watched by the exhibition’s security guards. At least we can grab the 700-page catalogue for free. This doesn’t contain images of what’s in the boxes, but offers an enormous treasury of texts and essays about Berlin – although strangely, despite the introductory texts to the exhibition being bilingual, these are only in German. Still perhaps it’s for the best, as it’s so much to read it brings us to our kn... knnn.. knees.
And then it’s done. We’ve made it, sitting exhausted and happy in front of the Berlinische Galerie, taking deep breaths and having long drinks. As with many other big art events – Documenta, biennials, triennials – there was only a couple of artworks we can recall clearly: Julius von Bismarck’s Painting Landscapes in the Jungle, Anri Sala’s frantic saxophonist flying over Berlin‘s Märkisches Viertel and Laurence Bonvin’s incredible study of a township, Blikkiesdorp in South Africa (both part of Xenopolis). For a moment we are disappointed that there weren’t more works dealing with current issues in Berlin itself – like tourism, refugees, gentrification, or the city’s new castle – as you might expect from a contemporary art show addressing the topic of “the city and its image”. But then we realise that in our minds the art pieces have started to merge with impressions of the real city that we’ve had while racing from exhibition to exhibition. All of a sudden, the city itself starts to look and feel a little unreal – or perhaps its the art getting more and more real.
So that is our final recommendation: if you want to truly experience Stadt/Bild, do it all in one day, racing through the exhibitions and the cityscape in-between, stirring and blurring it all up. Then, for a moment, it all dissolves into something else, something more. Money, honey, bunny. Welcome to the Jungle.
Stadt/Bild – Image of a City
until 8 November 2015
At the Berlinische Galerie, Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, KW Institute for Contemporary Art and Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin.