Critics’ Picks

Tacita Dean, Palast, 2004, still from a color film in 16 mm, 10 minutes 30 seconds.

Tacita Dean, Palast, 2004, still from a color film in 16 mm, 10 minutes 30 seconds.


“Berlin 89/09: Art Between Traces of the Past and Utopian Futures”

Berlinische Galerie
Alte Jakobstrasse 124-128
September 18, 2009–February 15, 2010

In Berlin, where the past is omnipresent, and the assimilation of the city’s many histories is still very much in play, this year’s twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall begs for widespread reassessment. Surveying art in and about Berlin over the past two decades, this exhibition affirms the electrifying tension between history’s tenacious grip and the city’s constant regeneration.

Efforts to preserve material traces of these early post-wall years emerge as a recurring strategy, whether realized through the relics themselves or through their representation. Fred Rubin’s light-fixture installation—comprising large ’60s-era glass orbs salvaged from a disused government building—foregrounds evocative traces of East German society. Elsewhere, Sophie Calle’s The Detachment, 1996, suggests memory’s fundamental unreliability through an image-text juxtaposition, in which residents’ recollections of removed East German monuments don’t necessarily correspond to contemporary visual records.

Other highlights complicate the dominant celebratory narrative of 1989. Bjørn Melhus’s video Jetzt—Now, 1993, disrupts the official reunification party at the Brandenburg Gate in 1990 by rerecording and decelerating his own Super 8 footage so that heavily pixelated fireworks seem like military fire. Made a decade later, Wolfgang Tillmans’s cynical video Wind of Change, 2003, suggests the failure of 1989’s potential by pairing the 1990 rock anthem—here played for tourists on panpipes by street musicians—with footage of the Mercedes-Benz star logo slowly rotating atop a West Berlin high-rise, long a symbol of Western capitalism. More lighthearted, Norbert Kottmann’s Build Tatlin, 1989–93, documents the artist’s failed campaign to construct Vladimir Tatlin’s skyward-spiraling tower in Potsdamer Platz. One isn’t sure whether to take the proposal seriously, but given the site’s subsequent transformation into a commercial center, this suggestion of its early promise reads as impossibly naive. While an assembly of diverse approaches is one of the show’s strengths, its breadth seems to necessarily limit its depth. A stronger point of view might be more productive, but its absence reflects the inherent challenge of historicizing art of the present moment.