Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Guarding Germany's Treasures

Joseph Beuys, Straßenbahnhaltestelle - Ein Monument für die Zukunft, 1976
I was surprised at how much I had forgotten about life in Berlin, but like getting back on a bike, it didn’t take long to be plunged back into the cultural familiarity of this extraordinary city. I recently read Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters as well as Asunder, by a young writer, Chloe Aridjis, both of which give life and personality to the otherwise “invisible” museum guards in the Kunsthistorisches Museum and the National Gallery in London respectively. With these two novels on my mind I was alert to the comportment of the museum guards and it didn’t take long to be reminded of this unique human specimen: the Berlin museum guard.

All of the guards in galleries on Museum Island were just as I had remembered them when I visited Berlin during the Cold War: upright, proud civil servants with a sense of propriety over the goods in their charge. The one difference — and it is a significant difference — is that their uniforms have been updated to reflect the striking renovations of the rooms they inhabit.

I was struck by the fact that at the Hamburger Bahnhof where the contemporary art sometimes resembles objects from a waste bin, the guards were fierce. The manner in which they instructed visitors to put their bags in the cloakroom, the unflinching authority with which they refused a group of French tourists entry one minute after the said last entry, the fierceness of their look as they guarded the ephemera of Joseph Beuys — bits and pieces he sometimes picked up from the side of the street — and their policing of photographs of works that couldn’t possibly reproduce on an iphone, made it seem to me that they had been trained in a simulated environment and were unable to translate their skills to behavior more appropriate to the art that surrounded them. Their rigidity and officiousness would have been comical if it wasn’t so confrontational.

At the Alte Nationalgalerie by contrast, where the paintings are among the most glorious in Berlin, indeed, in all of Germany, where whole rooms glow thanks to the luminescence of Casper David Friedrich’s landscapes, the exquisite and delicate brushstrokes of Schinkel’s cathedrals and Böcklin’s lighted skies, the guards were far fewer in number and tenfold more generous and friendly. It was as though the treasures of German art history lightened their spirits. We watched as five guards rallied around a young boy with his leg in a plaster cast in a wheelchair to place a ramp over three or four stairs to a mezzanine level. It was quite a performance, but the guards jovially took a break from reading their iphones and made it happen. Children were at the museum with their parents on an otherwise glorious summer day, looking at the history of their nation’s art. On more than one occasion I saw the guards engaging the children in discussion about the art on the walls, proud of their familiarity with images that accompany them day after day at work.

It was as though the delicacy and softness of German art had resonated with their being. We don’t expect German art to be so gentle, and neither did I expect the guards to engage so generously with the children in their midst, especially when at one of Berlin’s oldest, most esteemed institutions.

More like the Hamburger Bahnhof than the Alte Nationalgalerie were the cries of the guards at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. One of the most delightful, and simultaneously, unsettling expanses of the new Berlin is the 19,000m2 field covered by Peter Eisenman’s concrete slabs at Potsdamer Platz. As visitors wander through this cemetery, children and young people race along the narrow pathways, hiding from each other around corners, climbing onto the stelae, laughing and screaming as they outwit their friends. Because of the height of each stela our sightline is limited to what is in front and behind, we cannot see to the left or the right, and so we put one foot in front of the other with trepidation, timidly advancing, eager to keep moving. The light pouring onto our path is eerie, compromised by the colour and density of the slabs. Young people sat on the columns, talking, kissing, quietly reflecting on the experience of being at the Memorial, or simply of being together. And then came the guards in their official uniforms, complete with hats and ties: literally yelling at the top of their voices, ordering people to get down, to stop running, to obey orders. 
I couldn't help wondering whether the German guards were protecting a historical treasure or extending a legacy as they constantly ordered these young people into line at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe?

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Anish Kapoor in Berlin, Martin-Gropius-Bau

Anish Kapoor, Symphony for a Beloved Sun, 2013

My pick of the current exhibitions in Berlin has to be the Anish Kapoor at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, though I will admit, I spent most of my time in the permanent collections of the city’s major museums. Anish Kapoor in Berlin was my first experience of a Kapoor, single artist exhibition. Whatever one says about his sculptures and installations, his work ticks every box of what makes interesting and challenging art. The works are contradictory, they dispute the meanings we blindly invest in the materials they use, they create irresolution, both philosophically and materially, they are messy and chaotic and, at the very same time, as being mathematically precise, these installations technically brilliant. And I could go on. Kapoor does what great art is called to do: he breaks all the rules, and then has his audience asking how on earth he achieves what he does.

Anish Kapoor, Shooting into the Corner, 2009
Anish Kapoor in Berlin at the Martin-Gropius-Bau is huge in every sense. Kapoor fills the spacious atrium of the building known for its troubled history with Symphony for a Beloved Sun (2013), a work commissioned for the exhibition. Setting the tone for the rest of the exhibition, this central installation is overwhelming in its discourse on destruction, violent destruction, and in the spirit of all German art, it is not without glimmers of hope, if not resurrection. Clearly, the piece remembers and refers to Joseph Beuys’ Hirschdenkmäler, 1982, when the German artist filled the same atrium with the contents of his studio and a clay mountain for the Zeitgeist exhibition. And in a noticeable departure from the work for which Kapoor is best known, Symphony for a Beloved Sun is a deluge, devastation, and bloody destruction still in the process of taking place. Deep red, like hardened blood, wax is splattered on the floor as it falls from conveyor belts that rise up into the air; the wax smashes and breaks and the “sculpture” on the floor changes throughout the length of the exhibition as more and more wax piles up like the refuse that filled the streets of Berlin at the end of World War II. A giant red disk represents a sun overlooks the whole process, burning and corroding the wax as the waste of war, or industrial destruction. In another room Shooting into the Corner, 2009 is a canon shooting pellets of wax, the same Kapoor red, into the corner opposite, splattering all over the wall, creating another changing morphing mess of red wax. The canon is so loud that visitors are given protective ear pieces, and like the violent shot of a canon at war, the performance is over and done with in seconds. Again, like Symphony for a Beloved Sun, Shooting into the Corner is messy, and yet, the mechanics of the process are so perfect and finely tuned.
Anish Kapoor, When I am Pregnant, 1992
Everywhere in the exhibition, this contradiction between the cold precision of machinery, of war and industry and the amorphous, malleable mess of wax, usually hardened, is realized. A forklift is caked in wax, immobilizing the machine. We see the cracked wax, and envision the forklift moving, breaking the wax. What is the relationship between the two substances? Steel and wax, two materials that ordinarily have nothing to do with each other? Thus, there is always a disharmony because of the unlikely coupling of wax and steel. Again, I am reminded of Beuys’ making strange of the materials in his works: clay caked steel, animal fat and felt, and so on.
Detail of Anish Kapoor Untitled, 2010
The wax is luscious and sensuous and often highly erotic when it is moulded around and shaped by steel, wood, and other metals. As a steel arm moves at infinitesimal slowness to shape a bell out of red wax in Untitled, 2010, I am surprised that there is no odour to any of these wax creations. Similarly, despite the cautionary barriers beyond which visitors are not allowed to step in the Martin-Gropius-Bau, there is nothing fragile about the wax forms. They are resilient, forceful, and at their best, redefining the space in which they are placed. Wax is meant to be malleable, ephemeral, waiting to be melted. But in Kapoor’s sculptures, wax is resilient, solid, permanent, that is, the opposite of what we expect.
Anish Kapoor, 1st Body, 2013
So much of Kapoor’s work is about the body, both inside and out. When he does not anthropomorphize wax, cement, resin, pigments create holes, or the appearance of holes, negative spaces that leave us confused both as to what we are looking at and where we are in relationship to them. In Descent into Limbo, 2013 we wonder whether we see an empty black hole drilled into the floor or a circle of pigment. The title has us recall Dante’s Inferno, and yet, within the context of a Kapoor exhibition, the red hole is a mirror into which we want to peer, but cannot. The museum barriers again ensure our limited experience of this and other works. The impediments to viewing all of the works on display here are frustrating, but I want to leave open the possibility that Kapoor has dictated the limited viewing position to guard against full understanding.
My reflection in Anish Kapoor, Non-Object (Square Twist), 2013
Kapoor’s mirrors too are scientifically determined, playing with the viewer as much as they do the material from which they are made. Our image changes radically depending on where we stand in relationship to the mirrors: we can be upside down and elongated, and then move millimeters forward and find our image the right way up, consuming the surface of the concave mirror. Fascinated by our image, unable to capture or control it, we become like Narcissus, eternally fixated on the image of our selves. But of course, before a Kapoor sculpture, our image is always distorted, made ugly. Kapoor said during the opening of this exhibition that Martin-Gropius-Bau “has a curious and difficult history that is inexorably linked to the history of Berlin and its Nazi era … you can't make a show here without some reference to all of that.” I imagine the distortions to the images we see of ourselves have been fashioned by the same history that leaves its deep red stain on the wall where the wax slides down having been shot from a canon. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Back in Berlin

The View outside my window on Luisenstraße

It’s been years since I set foot in Berlin, and I am still digesting the rapidity at which the city has changed. I first went to Berlin in deep mid-winter in the 1980s, and then lived there for long stretches in the 1990s and early 2000s. I knew Berlin would be a very different city from the one I know and love, but I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised, somehow everything is the same, and yet, so much has changed.
Berliner Dom at Sunset
I met up with an old friend for lunch at the Restaurant Hackescher Hof, the same place we have dined for the past 20 years. We sat on the sidewalk – or the terrace as they call it in Paris – in between the umbrellas and got rained on by a summer shower that seemed to come out of nowhere. I was mesmerized by how busy the street was, the sheer number of tourists, the liveliness, colour and noise of Rosenthaler Str., a street I remember when there nothing but the cinema café, the stehcafé across the road, and a pizza restaurant around the corner with a bar in between. I even remember a time when I didn’t know Hackescher Markt because it was on the other side of the wall. This was a time when tram lines cut off at the wall, seemingly arbitrarily, when the city was divided according to where the Russians met the Allies on their push westwards.
Hackescher Höfe after the war
I wondered why, when we were surrounded by the latest macrobiotic salad bars, trendy German kneipe, and various other designer eateries, Roland and I were still easting at the Hackescher Hof? He said we ate there because it’s where we have always eaten, we like it there. I felt like one of those old ladies who wouldn’t dream of changing eateries after 20 years of loyal clientele. I recognized that despite the excitement of Berlin today, there’s something about Berlin of another era that we still hold onto. When I walked down Unter den Linden, the majority of which is a mess of cranes, tourists, tacky trinket stores, impossible to see from one side to the other for the boarded off construction sites, I imagined Heinrich Heine turning in his grave. I fear the boulevard that thrilled him in 1822, and inspired the likes of Goethe and Schiller is gone forever. And I shook my head in disbelief that tourists have to book two weeks in advance to enter the renovated Reichstag.

So much about Berlin takes place in secret, behind closed doors. In the days when my life was woven into the fabric of the city, I would go to parties that began at midnight, in warehouses, pre-techno techno music thumping, the only places where mixed crowds of gays and straights, Turks and Germans, men and women would celebrate life with each other. We knew of these parties because we heard about them from friends, found a flyer on a tree, or on the noticeboard of a café. Today, there are tours that tell visitors of the hidden histories of Berlin, tracing the remnants of Nazi occupation especially, but also East Berlin, tours that point out the sunken library in Bebelplatz where the books were burnt, the history of the re-established Akademie der Kunst at Pariser Platz, the changing relevance of the Neue Wache as each new wave of history wiped away the previous one. Because Berlin is changing so rapidly, I was reminded that the city , or rather cities, I once knew have now fallen into secret history. The colour and life and significance of 1980s, even early 200s Berlin forever effaced from the streets down which the tourists stroll. The young 20 something tour guides tell my story as belonging to a history that has been rewritten more than once since I lived it.

It’s a strange feeling indeed when the city with which I identify no longer exists.

Graffiti on Oranienstraße in Kreuzberg
As each day in Berlin went past, as I trod more familiar paths I recognized that the transformations were limited to a few “hot spots”. While the area around Auguststraße in Mitte is more like New York’s East Village, and the pre-booking time for entry to the Reichstag is longer than it is to see Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper in Milan, much about Berlin remains the same. I went for a run along the Spree through Alt-Moabit towards Charlottenburg: not a thing has changed. I caught the U7 from Gneisenaustraße to Kottbusser Tor, and the trains, the people, the view, it was just as it was 10 years ago. Even a block or two back from Unter den Linden, in the streets sandwiched in between the Deutsche Bahnhof and the Brandenburg Tor, the buildings have that same monochromatic flatness that makes Berlin in winter yet another city altogether. When I sighed with relief at the familiar, undramatic Berlin, the vast Berlin of no interest to tourists, I realized I had become old, looking for a past that no longer existed, trying to hold on to a life long gone.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Geneviève Asse, Paintings. Centre Pompidou

Geneviève Asse, Ligne blanche intérieure, 1971

Geneviève Asse’s paintings tick three of the most important boxes on my list of what I love about painting. First, they are about painting, second she spends a lifetime exploring the space between things, making that space exist, like giving vision and tactility to air, and third, she does all this in a palette of blue. For most of the tourists visiting the Pompidou Centre in August, the two rooms of Asse’s paintings in this small exhibition on the fourth floor were an opportunity to have a rest. In an unusual tendency for the Pompidou, there were two long benches to sit on, presumably because as the catalogue explains, the paintings require time to reveal themselves. For me, these paintings were so rich and provocative that I sat on the benches and marveled, once again, not making it upstairs to the Pierre Hantai paintings on the 6th floor, my reason for being there.
Geneviève Asse, Le Cercle Paysage, 1966
Asse’s paintings are about blue, shades of blue and white, the moment when blue becomes grey, blue in its verticality, horizontality, in the polychromatic scale of lulled blue. The paintings are about light and space, they remind me of so many things, but rarely of anything representational or figurative. There are times when Asse paints doors and windows, in white, blue and grey, though I am only able to recognize the these objects because of the painting’s title. What’s so fascinating about them is that unlike Rothko, the longer I sit with the paintings, the more real they become, the more concrete, the more the spaces open up and the space between an open door and its frame becomes a reality. The longer I sit with the paintings, the less relevant the objects become, the more significant the space between them. A painting such as La Porte 1967 is also about a door being opened, about movement as well as giving substance to the light that enters into a space, a light that was previously not there. The verticality of the painting mirrors the shape of the door, ensuring that the door is not forgotten.
Geneviève Asse, La Cuisine, 1946-47
I see Chardin in the sill lives such as La Cusine, in which space is made an object, and objects fall out of space. There is also something Vermeer-like about the paintings, which is not mentioned anywhere in the literature on Asse, critics preferring to underline the connections to Giorgio Morandi, for example. Like Vermeer, Asse captures different spaces, and the light begins to fall through three-dimensions, and indeed, over time creating the dimensionality of the space. And then eventually, the paintings move into abstraction. Standing before a work such as Cercle Paysage, 1966, a work in which Asse digresses from blue to paint a red circle through it, I also see the influence of Nicolas de Staël. Though of course, I might have seen the correspondence to de Staël in other of her paintings because it is as if they are executed in the same breath. Like de Staël’s paintings, Asse’s are about the air, about luminosity, space, volume, dimension, never centred, never logical, always making real the things that don’t exist.

Geneviève Asse, Stèle no. 4, 1996
As I do when I look at a  de Staël painting, I see the sea and sky in the 7 huge vertical blue and blue images. These works also remind me of Brice Marden’s works in grey, but the surface resemblances of the image is where the similarity between Asse’s work and anything being produced in the postwar period in America stops. In Asse’s seas and skies, the horizon has been made vertical, a verticality that troubles if we are to see it an horizon. Perhaps it is not figurative at all. In the sketchbooks also on display here, notebooks filled with paintings, the images are more clearly figurative, the seascape being more convincingly represented. Many of them are done at a place by the sea, and she has painted sailing boats, the sun, as well as the sky and the sea with the horizon that separates them.

Geneviève Asse, Sketchbook Pages

In all of these works, the middle of the painting is troubling: whether it is vertical or horizontal, the middle becomes a problem. In some works Asse places a vertical metal strip down the middle, a harsh band that divides, but never fully defines what lies on either side of it. The metal band is also the place where the paint stops, where there is a space between colours, between parts of the painting meet, but never quite meet. Even though he figured this place differently, it’s the place on the canvas that reminds me of Marden. Also, Marden’s paintings were grey – somehow Asse’s works are not pushing at the same limits of abstraction because they are blue. Blue has a significance that grey does not – blue is the colours of the sky, the sea, the air, the space between things. We could also be reminded of Newman, the zip as the most troubling place on the canvas – but again, unlike Newman’s Asse’s abstraction never really becomes fully complete: the window frames and doors and other defining shapes are always coming out of these spaces. There is always or nearly always a dimensionality, an object, something concrete, often thanks to the framings within the images, that can be found on these blue canvases.