The big show in Berlin this fall is an exhausting, befuddling three-museum extravaganza titled "The 20th Century: A Century of Art in Germany." On view Sept. 4, 1999-Jan. 9, 2000, the show features over 600 works by 200 artists -- many of them German -- organized by a team of curators led by Peter-Klaus Schuster.
The "century of art" is provocatively divided into "The Power of Art," a study of art as propaganda at the Altes Museum; "Spirit and Material," which focuses on the mystical "geist" of art at the Neue Nationalgalerie; and "Principle: Collage/Montage," which examines the idea of memory and history as seen through the eyes of the Dadaists, Futurists and Constructivists at the Hamburger Bahnhof.
Unfortunately, the show is more of a mess than these tidy categories might suggest. Part of the problem is uniquely German. The museums wanted to do a big show of German art, but were afraid of being labeled "nationalists" and compared to the Nazi Zeit. So they stuck in international artists to add context, but the result is weird and even lackadaisical. You just can't put great art into bite-sized sandwiches!
Needless to say, schlepping through the 20th century three times is not all that inviting. If you want your 100 years in one cool whack, try the New National Gallery's "Spirit and Material." It opens with a noisy, anti-art installation by Hans Peter Kuhn, who has filled Mies van der Rohe's dramatic glass box with fluorescent light tubes dangling dangerously from the ceiling like a Dan Flavin gone awry. On my way in the work emitted sounds of metal falling perilously to the ground. On my way out it was the sound of a train racing by.
Sound and spirit
Acoustic happenings are all the rage here, no doubt due to the historic link between sound and "spirit." An eerie gong-like sound comes from Ulrich Eller's sculpture, TwoTonForm (1999), a collection of seven large metal discs, each with a speaker in its center. Positioned on the floor, these cosmic shapes are connected to a secret black box by long snaking wires. Nice.
Rolf Julius -- known for his site-specific musical compositions such as Koncert for the Frozen Sea and Koncert for an Old Wall -- has made a soundtrack for the museum's sunken outdoor sculpture garden called Music for the Outside View. It sounds like tree frogs or grasshoppers, and comes from six little round loudspeakers attached to the wall about seven feet off the ground.
Joseph Beuys's sculpture speaks to us, too, via blackboards full of prophetic scribblings. "Make the secrets productive," says one slogan. "Only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system" says another. Beuys is also represented here by a much quieter and more secretive work -- a room-size set of eight stacks of felt, topped by copper plates and accompanied by copper paddles. Designed to generate spiritual electricity, perhaps?
The other senses also are beckoned into the realm of the spirit. Otherworldly Otto Piene's Light Ballet (1959-1994) is a sound and light installation that defies wordy description. A paradise of pure Lautbildern (soundpictures) and Lichtbildern (lightpictures).
Sensibility and cosmos
There are a few interesting juxtapositions, such as pairing up Barnett Newman's gigantically ironic Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue IV (1969-70) with Caspar David Friedrich's darkly romantic paintings The Monk by the Sea (1808-10) and Abbey in the Oak Forest (1809-10). I don't know about you, but I cannot look first at Newman and then Friedrich without some sort of mental violence coming into play.
But the next room cools my temper from red to blue, with a wall of works by Yves Klein dating from 1960-61 installed opposite a wall of Wassily Kandinsky abstractions from 1912-14. Looped together, Kandinsky and Klein are "Cosmos-Spirit-Sensibility."
Max Beckmann, Emil Nolde, Anselm Kiefer and Rebecca Horn each get their own galleries. Others receive a wall: Rosemarie Trockel, Martin Kippenberg, Sigmar Polke and Roman Opalka. Gerhard Richter gets two walls, with contrasting displays of early and late styles, the Photo-Realist 48 Portraits (1971-72) contrasting with the vibrantly abstract Atelier (1985).
Zittel at Galerie Frank + Schulte
As if in contrast to this massive 20th-century retrospective, Andrea Zittel has gone Lilliputian with a group of hat-box-sized models for her Zeitloss Zimmers (Timeless Rooms) on show in Galerie Frank + Schulte's Kabinett. "Guests are welcome to stay for as long as they please," says Zittel. I can't wait for these vacation-from-time-rooms to be realized.
Zittel is also working on a set of A-Z Clocks, which redesign time into rounds of four hours, eight hours, 12 hours, 24 hours and 168 hours -- the last being a week's worth of time. Seven sets of five different clocks, each set is going for $12,500. Five of the sets are already sold. Hot clocks, I'm calling them.
Bonvicini at Mehdi Chouakri
Monica Bonvicini, celebrated for her "cyclonic" installation featuring "wind speeds in excess of 75 mph" (done with fans), is even more butch in her show "FUCKEDUPTIMES" at Mehdi Chouakri. A work-in-progress (that was first shown at the Santa Fe Biennial last spring), the piece is a survey of construction workers in Los Angeles, Berlin and Milan. Their answers to questions like "What does your wife think of your rough hands?" are framed and hung in a continuous wrap around the gallery.
Many Germans answered sincerely -- "She makes me use hand cream, said one. Italians, no surprise, flexed their muscles and said things like "She likes the rough touch." Others gave funny, non-sequitur responses like "I use sandpaper." Still others just answered "yes" or "no," as if too weary from manual labor to engage such effrontery. You can have the 110 framed originals for DM 45,000.
Also on view are the labours of four masonry students from Berlin, who Bonvicini invited to the gallery to build several blocky structures as part of their final exam. Apparently the things were supposed to take seven hours to build, but instead took two days. These four "sculptures," named 7h30, are priced at DM 10,000 each.
An exhibition called "Waiting" is all the rage over at Kunst-Werke. But you'll have to wait to hear about it later. I'm out of time, and out of space.