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by Xavier LaBoulbenne
"Preis der Nationalgalerie für junge Kunst," Sept. 1-Oct. 16, 2005, at the Hamburger Bahnhof, Museum für Gegenwart, Invalidenstr. 50/51, 10557 Berlin

Three years ago, inspired by the international attention earned by the Turner Prize at the Tate in London, German collectors Rolf and Erika Hoffmann established the Preis der Nationalgalerie in Berlin, providing a €50,000 purse (rather more than the Turner’s £20,000). The contest aims to stimulate public interest in young German art -- the prize is restricted to artists under 40 –- and to encourage German institutions to embrace contemporary culture.

The exhibition, titled "Preis der Nationalgalerie für junge Kunst" (The National Gallery Prize for Young Artists), opened earlier this month with imposing installations by the four candidates for the award -- John Bock, Monica Bonvicini, Angela Bulloch and Anri Sala. Though all of the nominees are based in Berlin, only one is German -- a proportion reflecting the creative population of the metropolis. The jury includes not independent critics (or pop stars) like in London, but rather international curators and art administrators (including Dan Cameron and Alana Heiss), who may be already involved with the artists.

Such prizes have their critics, of course. However talented the artists involved, it’s hard for such awards to avoid being seen, cynically, as little more than popularity contests. What’s more, the pressure to produce an event that has mass-entertainment appeal has an uncertain relationship to progressive avant-garde ideas. In our aggressive capitalist economy, competition is the rule, and a competitive prize seems to emphasize antagonisms and strategies rather than enlightened social practice.

This sense of uncooperativeness extends even to the exhibition design. The Hamburger Bahnhof’s 80-meter-long, 10-meter-tall Kleihushalle (named after the architect responsible for the sterile transformation of this former train station) has been divided into four communicating but individual spaces, one for each artist.

A concurrent retrospective of photographs by the influential Conceptualist team of Bernd and Hilda Becher provides a kind of antechamber for the prize exhibition, and serves as well as an oblique introduction to Monica Bonvicini’s installation. She has filled her space with a 3D grid of steel scaffolding, from which are suspended by chains 12 black leather slings. Ordinarily a sex prop associated with leather fetish culture and violent pleasure, the multiple slings become inoffensive in this museum context.

Still, Bonvicini’s chains and leather belts have a sensuous dimension, considering the imprints they might leave on naked flesh. Titled NEVER AGAIN, the work suggests the intersection of sexuality and power in a theatrical and possibly an (unhappily) repetitive fashion. During the opening night, the metallic sounds of chains and leather, naively used by the public, created an ominous soundtrack.

Next door, Anri Sala has installed a single-channel video projection that is produced by a corporate foundation and presented courtesy of four different galleries. The newly popular Albanian artist certainly seems clued into the Western mechanics of commerce. A politician of the poetic, Anri has had a saxophonist play jazzy tunes in front of a dramatic urban vista on the rooftop of a modernist project in Berlin -– the techno music capital of Germany -- a forced and tedious situation for an artist who claims the beauty of daily life as his source of inspiration.

Angella Bulloch, who was born in Canada but is English in spirit, has been a pioneer in mixing design and high art. But her installations remain, somehow, stuck in their complicated productions. The work here, titled The Disenchanted Forest, evokes sci-fi movie decor, and reads as a materialist symbol more than a liberating device. Her trademark luminescent sculptural totems might eventually challenge the dialectic of a shopper in a Dior boutique (she has decorated the flagship store in Osaka), but they are too perfect for Berlin club kids.

John Bock is the only German artist in the exhibition, and the only artist to challenge the overbearing commodification of ideas that is everywhere present in the two big collections housed in the Hamburger Bahnhof (those of Heinrich Marx and Friederich Christian Flick). Bock’s neo-Dadaist performances are similar in their chaos to those of his German contemporary Jonathan Meese, but here Bock has allowed his provocative adolescence to regress to an even greater degree of childish alienation. The leftover costumes, props and a broken window need a filmed document of the well-attended action to justify their spiritless display. The sculptural traces favored by artist Andreas Slominski seem humorously monumental in comparison.

As an echo of the vibrancy of "young" artistic production, the Preis der Nationalgalerie seems hopelessly contrived and embroiled in provincial politics. Monica Bonvicini remains the favorite. She, at least, ironically addresses the underbelly of official art and acknowledges the ritualistic sophistication of underground culture in Berlin.

Stay tuned for the announcement of the winner, which is due on Sept. 27, 2005.

XAVIER LABOULBENNE is a writer based in Berlin.