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|Berlin Art Diary
by April Lamm
|If T.S. Eliot had been German, surely he would have made March -- not April -- the cruelest month. With relentless frost nipping the anxious pansies, Spring sticks her head out only to shy back into hibernation, making Berlin's steady pale gray all the harder to swallow. Is it any better in New York? This weather is sending me into a frenzied isolation.
But a visiting friend from South Carolina, complete with southern twang, salved some of my mental rheumatism. Her sentences seemed to come up out of the swamp. Slow as molasses, Blanche and I made our way through the Berliner Szene.
Walter de Maria at the Hamburger Bahnhof
Our first stop was the opening of American Walter de Maria's Sculpture 2000 in the Hamburger Bahnhof on Mar. 2, a cold and windy night. The weather must have kept the rowdy crowds away, because the party was as quiet as the sculpture. In the main hall of the former train station, de Maria has made an orderly arrangement of 2,000 plaster blocks, each measuring 50 cm long and 12 cm wide, all of them lined up in a field 50 meters long by 10 meters wide.
The bright museum lights beam down on the all white, as-yet-unblemished blocks. To me, they look like mini-coffins. But why associate this field of white with death? Usually the color white goes with purity, innocence, all things a lamb should be (if she were a good girl)...
Maybe it's just the math involved. The blocks are arranged in something like a palindrome of the numbers 5, 7, 9. Clever me, I figured that much out. In the middle and at the ends are the 5-sided blocks; the seven- and nine-sided blocks hug them. So what the viewer gets is 5-7-9-7-5-5-7-9-7-5.
The blocks were conceived of as "meaningless objects" that the catalogue boasts as an example of "Die Zeit wird heir zum Raum" -- here time becomes space. In Germany, we're never farther than a stone's throw away from Kant. Next!
The work, which the Fluxus Minimalist says he conceived in the Orwellian year 1984, is on view until Aug. 27, 2000.
"Die Nazis" in die Margarine Factory|
The next stop on the art crawl was the basement of Kunst-Werke, the hip art space in a now much-refurbished margarine factory, to see what the stylish young Polish art star Piotr Uklanski had to say about what every tourist to Berlin will get a good dose of ... "Die Nazis." (Death was in the air, at least for my South Carolinian pal Blanche, who asked what this "die" means, thinking it was really wicked the way that death was all over the street placards, chuckling when she found out that "die" is German for "the.")
Warsaw born, and a New Yorker since 1991, Uklanski rephotographed images of actors playing Nazis from posters, photographs, illustrations and other sources from over 300 World War II films. One hundred sixty-four Nazi head shots, some color, some black and white, are displayed here in 8 x 10ish glossy format in a continuous wrap around three walls, a modern-day photography frieze.
A conspicuous gallery of evil? Not really. The effect is more innocuous and playful than anything heavy duty. With no further commentary other than a list of the actors and the films, Uklanski said he wanted to create an "uneasy statement." Unquestionably, it is nervous-making, considering Berlin's Nazi past. But it could be worse -- try doing a show like this one in Vienna!
In London, when the exhibition debuted at the Photographer's Gallery 18 months ago, the newspapers screamed about the "glamorization of the evils of Nazism" and accused the show of "causing offense to the Jewish community." A Sunday Times reporter, a fellow Pole, rushed to Uklanski's defense, shaking his finger at the film industry and not at the artist who did nothing but gather together the faces of evil as interpreted by the film industry.
These monocled, scarred, black-eye-patched Nazis, as it happens, are rather far from the banal reality of what these villains actually looked like. Have you ever seen a picture of Heinrich Himmler? The man looked like an ugly pear. Worse, a no-neck pear. Actors like Klaus Kinsky, Clint Eastwood, Marlon Brando, Ralph Fiennes -- they'll never look that bad. And Christopher Plummer? Well, he'll never be anything more sinister than Captain von Trapp to me.
Ronald Reagan and Errol Flynn played Nazis in Desperate Journey (1942) and two of those Monty Python fellows as well -- Michael Palin and Eric Idle -- are here looking goofy and bemused as ever. Apparently Uklanski's grandfather never spoke to him of his WWII experiences, poor fellow, so he says he "got to know the Nazis in the cinema."
Florian Merkel at Wohnmaschine|
Strolling down the street to Friedrich Loock's gallery, Wohnmaschine, there's another kind of "frieze" going on. This one's a modern interpretation of Heinrich von Kleist's Penthesilea. On the white gallery walls, 39-year-old Berlin artist Florian Merkel has drawn the outline in black of two figures, a man and a woman, struggling over something. Our eyes follow the drama, attempting to forge a narrative out of the mishmash of allegory and myth of Achilles and the Amazonian Queen Penthesilea.
In the second room are large format hand-colored black-and-white photographs of yet another man and woman -- are they the same? -- in Berlin's famously rearchitected center, the Potsdamer Platz. You can see Mark di Suvero's sculpture on the left, a girl with a lit cannonball ready to bowl, and an angry guy in a tie on the verge of hurling a Molotov cocktail in the viewer's direction. Yet another battle between the sexes? Or just an outright rebellion against the sterile mess of plastic-looking buildings the Potsdamer Platz has become? These are the only Merkel pieces up for sale, 7,500 DM apiece.
In the basement of the gallery is a slide show of Merkel's black-and-white photographs of what could be called the "non-spaces" in Germany. Ordinary streets, factory parking lots, concrete apartment blocks, the sun rising over the nothing new from 1996 to the year 2000. Very real, very conceptual.
Sugimoto at the Deutsche Guggenheim
Very unreal is the specially commissioned exhibition of Hiroshi Sugimoto's latest series, called "Portraits," on view at the Deutsche Guggenheim on Unter den Linden just down the road from the Brandenburg Gate in Mitte. It's positively lush. In fact, I'm gushing with awe walking through this portrait gallery of the great, from Jesus to Napoleon.
Using black backdrops and soft lighting, Sugimoto has photographed these famous figures as they appear in dioramas and wax museums. Larger than life size, in three-quarter-length view, Sugimoto's images suggest that photography must have existed way before the 19th century.
Many of the wax figures were based on paintings done by the likes of Leonardo da Vinci (Jesus), Hans Holbein the Younger (the portraits of Henry the VIII and his six wives) and Jacques Louis David (Napoleon). In the end we have a photograph of a sculpture that was based on a painting ... three steps of representation, three steps away from reality. Exceptions include the wax figures of Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin, which were made as portraits by Madam Tussaud herself.
Organized by Guggenheim Museum curators Nancy Spector and Tracey Bashkoff, these large photographic gems are on view until May14, turning the museum on its head, making it into a photo gallery of wax figures... a museum of a museum.
Fashion designer Wolfgang Joop makes his environmental art debut, coating animals he found on Belle Île with black auto paint and then pedastalling them in the recently opened PICTUREshow gallery in the fancy new Kunsthof courtyard at 27 Oranienburger Straße in Mitte.... The Austrian Gerwald Rockenschaub's huge works opened on April Fool's at Mehdi Chouakri.... John Bock -- Berlin's greatest young imagination -- recently had an opening at the Klosterfelde Galerie and as soon I get my hands on some photos of the installation, I'll be roaring up to tell you more....
APRIL LAMM writes on art from Berlin.