The Artworld in Berlin
We rarely experience a newsworthy event firsthand; rather, we encounter and consume it through breaking news reports, caps-locked headlines, montages of video clips, grim reporters, and emotional interviews. As we have seen, perhaps nothing provokes such instantaneous spectacle as surely as terrorism. It is this relationship between terror and spectacle that the exhibition “The Uncanny Familiar – Images of Terror” explores. The exhibition, whose opening corresponded with the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, is currently on view at C/O Berlin.
Such an exhibition must be careful of two obvious potential pitfalls. First, it risks becoming a mere extension of the very spectacle culture it purports to critique. Second, by representing terrorism in a contemporary art space, it risks aestheticizing and fetishizing these images of terror. “The Uncanny Familiar” is guilty of both, but not disastrously so. Ultimately the exhibition’s inconsistencies grant it great variety, which in turn allows for more nuanced and critical conversation.
The efficacy of particular artistic expressions has a lot to do with timing. From conception to production to reception, no part of the artistic process takes place in a temporal vacuum—and the effects of timing can be hard to predict. For instance, some art manages to seem so frustratingly irrelevant that it wiggles its way back into relevance.
Let’s get this out of the way: “Cloud Cities”—the grand exhibition of Tomás Saraceno’s large-scale works in the foyer of Berlin’s largest contemporary art museum, Hamburger Bahnhof—is pretty. The gigantic translucent spheres seem to float against the white space of the museum. They fill up the spacious former train station with surprising ease, stretching from the floor and captivating the attention of visitors waiting in line for tickets. But for all the spectacle that “Cloud Cities” produces—including bouncing children, uneasy parents, and stern security guards—it is a particularly spectacular example of how contemporary art goes awry.
Participation seems to have become a buzz word in contemporary art. It is supposed to designate something new, something engaging and emancipatory in the relationship between viewer and artwork. But participation in artwork often turns out to be a lot like participation in brushing one’s teeth. You can do it wrong if you try, but the expectations and guidelines are pretty self-explanatory, and the results are not surprising.
Nearly every time I go to a museum, I’m asked to move. I’m blocking someone’s camera or camcorder. Outside, I run into a related problem, walking regularly into someone’s picture or straight into someone. It’s painfully funny how the visitor’s approach to the museum and the tourist’s plan for a city mirror one another.
Maybe it always was this way and only now is it so evident, but the purposes of traveling and of going to a museum seem to have both become simply to fulfill expectations and to document them as such. The tourism industry and the museum education office encourage the former; for the latter, the tourist and museum-goer turns to the camera. In turn, the two create and perpetuate a terrible cycle that makes the complexity and ambiguity of cities and artwork into something static and stale.
As in the rest of the world, so in Berlin: art is displayed in an environment consisting of industrial glass, white walls, the dull sheen of concrete, and other diluted staples of modernist architecture. The space, though vast, feels cramped due to the sheer amount of foot traffic. The service encountered ranges from the overly bubbly to the clearly bored. Non-native speakers dish out English efficiently. The food aims to be much too gourmet and ends up much too expensive. We can add the art space—gallery, museum, or art fair—to the list of universal institutional non-spaces like airports and hotel chains.
If Berlin weren’t in this art fair–cum-exhibition’s unfortunate title, abc or “art berlin contemporary,” the location of the entire ordeal would hardly be obvious, despite the incessant chatter about the city’s need for an art fair or biennale to keep it on the international art circuit. Paradoxically, what might maintain Berlin’s status—abc shovelling contemporary art into an old refurnished postal railroad station for five days before crating it back to its respective galleries or new owners—has little to do with the city itself.