PRINT Summer 1991

BERLIN: “Metropolis”

Is “Metropolis” an exhibition with a solid concept or not? That is the question you ask yourself after your initial tour of the halls and rooms of Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau. Works by 72 artists from 20 countries worldwide are displayed in some 53,820 square feet of exhibition space: “Metropolis,” teetering between position and provocation, between Modern and post-Modern, focuses on an investigation of contemporary art, that is, art in the allegedly postideological era, the period after perestroika and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, the period when artwork from the West and the East may be integrated into some comfortably unified whole. Yet Christos M. Joachimides and Norman Rosenthal, who see and style themselves as stage directors rather than as curators, are not trying to discover and show trends. Their goal instead—“approaches,” “positions,” “attitudes.” “Metropolis” is not an attempt to compare periods. It is to be construed as an international opportunity to approach the indivisible present—that is, a period and condition in which events are in flux, in which it is impossible for anyone—even the curators—fully and consistently to perceive all the links between causes and effects.

The curators seem to imply that, in its great wealth and vast range, contemporary art can be presented only as a paradox. For, however fleeting and intangible it may seem, art is also the one reality in which we can participate, the one experience we humans can claim to share. This shared experience constitutes the narrative framework of the exhibition, which is reluctantly Euro- and U.S.-centric (are we divided after all?), yet prides itself on offering an undivided view of the world; which sees the present as the expandable border between past and future and endeavors to prove that art is intrinsically a vehicle for realizing the utopia of a universal culture. All this, significantly, is unfolding in Berlin, on the site of Joachimides and Rosenthal’s 1982 “Zeitgeist” exhibition, close to where the Berlin Wall used to loom. A glance at the drab neighborhood makes it all too obvious that, at least for now, such a notion of contemporary art can be at home only in utopia—literally, “no place”—and that it can be experienced only as a mental construction.

If the word “utopia” hovers over the exhibition (though it is never really defined anywhere, in either the catalogue or the context of the show), another definitive term is to be found in the title itself: “Metropolis.” It refers to Fritz Lang’s monumental film epic of 1926, with its futuristic and dystopian dimensions; to the idea of Berlin as a now-undivided city; and to the meaning of the original Greek word: Athens as metropolis, the “mother city,” ruling over its colonial cities. Taken together, this tripartite reference is a wee bit pretentious. Thus as an exhibition site, Berlin nostalgically bows to its great artistic past in the 1920s, when it was a crossroads between Paris, Moscow, Milan, and Stockholm, and a reservoir for all sorts of creative impulses from overseas. The conceptual notion of an undivided Berlin, the would-be capital of the new undivided Germany (undivided in artistic matters too), is risky and somewhat premature. And finally, Berlin as the new German mother city, the site of new artistic impulses, is a truly utopian concept.

Still, it is interesting to see how such elements recur abstractly, symbolically, or concretely in the exhibition itself. Thus, current art has been placed in the context of—not compared to—two (perhaps even three) generations of work. To honor fully the “ancestors” (in Georg Baselitz’s case, one must consider this a nostalgic operation), the exhibition does not even ask about the forerunners of the artistic positions represented here; instead, it views the family tree as dogmatically divided between Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp. Picasso, while no longer relevant here and now, was crucial for art around 1981, when painting was the keynote of contemporary art (and for “Zeitgeist”); Duchamp, in contrast, is celebrated as the Abraham-like primal and tribal father of present-day artists in general—another presumptuous element. In this connection, a major role, as Joachimides writes in the catalogue, is played by “an experience of the world [filtered and coded] by conceptual attitudes within the various media to which it lays claim, whereby beauty and violence, sexuality and objectification, freedom and isolation indicate the human spectrum in the context of this art.” Gilbert & George, James Lee Byars, or Jeff Koons as Duchamp’s nomadic children?

The conceptual unanimity proposed by “Metropolis” is seemingly defied in the inner courtyard of the Martin-Gropius-Bau, instantly arousing memories of the division of art in the ideological era. For here, the West dominates. Four works by artists of the Western hemisphere—Ian Hamilton Finlay, Jan Fabre, Jonathan Borofsky, Mike and Doug Starn—constitute the synoptic curtain raiser for the exhibition. As sited in the courtyard, Finlay’s quasi-classical Cythera, 1990, with its double row of short, squat columns—pointing to antiquity, to the Greeks, to the human dimension, to the individual as a referential factor—achieves the “stage directors” goal of underscoring the “urban friction” inherent in contemporary art. Now, this Scotsman may be one of the least urban artists working today. But if we regard his piece as an example of “classical recall,” and if we contrast it with, say, Charles Moore’s post-Modern Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans, 1975–80, then, symbolically, esthetically, and experientially, Cythera becomes a stage set emptied of anything post-Modern. As such, it affords a concrete access to this exhibition, to antiquity as a presence, to oneself, and to the adjacent works.

Fabre, a Belgian, also offers us a physical experience (both internal and external) of his large, blue, two-chambered cupboard, entitled Knipschaarhuis II (Scissor house II, 1990), taking up Finlay’s basic theatrical tone, mysteriously transforming and intensifying it. Playing with the invisible, Fabre presents us with a form of present-day art that is authentic. Art now, his work tells us, is physical theater: its aim is for the viewer to experience rather than to comprehend. Located between dream and poetry, it needs and stages a physical world of its own in order to help human beings gain access if not to art, in any case to themselves.

In Fabre, physical experience and esthetic autonomy determine one another, which may lead us to the work of Borofsky, an American. His sculpture, Ballerina Clown, 1982–90, which is over 30 feet tall, is a grotesque tutu-clad ballerina with a clown’s head and movable legs. As a work of the playful imagination, in which the artist’s emphasis on his self constitutes a solid reference point, it rewrites in plastic form the artist/individual’s thoughts, emotions, fears, and dreams. On a conceptual level, in its melding of the male and female, for example, the work may be perceived as enacting a process of reflection.

Finally, in this introductory ensemble of forms, we find Film Sphere with Pipe Clamps, 1990–91, by Boston’s Starn twins, a piece extending from the ceiling of the inner courtyard out into space. This work redefines the dynamics of composition in space. The playfulness of creation has a serious goal: the huge photographic representation tries to reframe, rearrange, and resee—reconstructing the world in a provisory way. A certain innocence here cannot be overlooked.

Presented side by side, the works of these artists—born in 1925, 1958, 1942, and 1961 respectively—provide a generational basis for the synoptic inquiry pursued by this exhibition. But both concordances and distinctions could have been made clearer. Thus we could only hope we were following the proper line of thought when, after passing from Finlay’s neoclassicism to works by Günther Förg and Gerhard Merz, we were led to further reflection. Or when, on viewing Borofsky’s efforts to overcome the rigid, reductive principles of Minimalism and Conceptualism and to find new possibilities for subjective reality and content/meaning, we were reminded of Bruce Nauman, or even of Koons, Haim Steinbach, Jon Kessler, or Georg Herold. Was it quite right that, on being stimulated by Fabre, we took time for contemplation in Jannis Kounellis’ roomful of wooden ship fragments? Or, finally, that, on leaving the Starn twins’ photosculpture, we were led to meditate about the photographs of Thomas Ruff or those of Clegg & Guttmann?

But just what are we meant to get from the proximity of works by the so-called “ancestors” and those of their heirs or the numerous artists of Eastern Europe, whose work really doesn’t stand up at all? Presumably, the exhibition wishes to fix the precise moment of the turning point from the post-Modern “anything goes” to the de-post-Modern state of present-day art. But in looking at the work on display one can wonder if the selection process had as much to do with the workings of the market as it did with the inherent value of the artworks themselves. So the fact that some 50 percent of these works are, in spite of the curators’ claims to a new world order, by American or West German artists can probably not be understood as an unconscious or accidental indicator of the future.

The condition of contemporary art is meant to provide information about society at the end of the century—information that perhaps can be interpreted as “symptomatic,” “connotative,” or “parallel.” Accordingly, the present, in conceptual terms, has been expanded backward for one or two generations—that is, retroactivated. Thus “Metropolis” tries to move from the pre-Duchamp period, when art, for better or worse, seemed to live in harmony with itself, to the period of the here and now, in which, after Duchamp caused things to explode, the utopia of a universal culture through art seems attainable. In the meantime, other worlds opened, in which art—with its own movers, visionaries, and prophesiers—appeared. We can now see “Zeitgeist” in that light—an exhibition from which “Metropolis” has taken over a total of only eight artists. The “stage directors” are apparently unruffled by the fact that these artists are doing what they have always done, that they, as in the case of Baselitz or Gilbert & George, are virtually overexhibited and overexposed. Quite the opposite: Joachimides and Rosenthal talk about the consistency of concepts; why not talk as well about fighting against the times or about how George Foreman conquered old age to make a heavyweight comeback?

“Metropolis” gives lip service to the rejection of any limitation to Western art. Now some artists are or should be conspicuous by their own strength (say, Pedro Cabrita Reis, a Portuguese) or, through weakness, are not or should not be conspicuous (say, Guillermo Kuitca, an Argentinian). As a result of that alleged “Metropolis” policy, however, they have all been squeezed into a synthetic philosophy of art that tries to demonstrate that present-day art, with its cycles of phenomena, is approaching a free, utopian state. In this sense, the most current art in “Metropolis” should show a faith in progress—but presented in negative terms. Art now adjusts more and more to the human environment; it feels the need to answer questions about society; it seeks to approximate existing positions in order to survive. Few artists in the show manage to resist, save perhaps Cady Noland, Mike Kelley, or Richard Prince. Their works, to put it crudely, contain barbs. In their overarching adaptability, many of the other works seem only to prove that, more and more, different forms of art are becoming more and more dependent on each other.

The artificially composed entity “Metropolis” takes a stab at this differentiation within integration by insisting on “focal points”: installations, environments, sculptures. It uses public space. It describes the hermeticism of the artwork, yet contrasts this hermeticism with the elements of alienation and suggestion and the mise-en-scène of space. “Metropolis” presents an art that now sees the entire world as a found object or a readymade. Evidently, it must point to the outside world, and it does so in the most diverse ways. This approach can be (allegedly) direct, as in Merz’s Pavillon für eine Monochromie (Pavilion for a monochrome, 1991), which, with its view of the outside, seems to associate itself with the order of the former Prussian parliament building opposite the Martin-Gropius-Bau. It may be platitudinous, as in John M. Armleder’s 30 cosmetic mirrors, which bring urban object-shopping into the realm of art. Or it may be subtle, as in the work of Robert Gober, who processes the myths and fears of his own childhood and of society. It can even involve a recycling of objects and materials, as in the works of Kessler, or of Maria Eichhorn.

But the “fascination of an esthetics of adjacency” is not enough to make a whole if the emphasis is on an art concerned almost exclusively with political, social, and media issues. For it is safe to assume that these issues constitute only some of the factors that art has taken in from the outside, and that art can mean many other things and be made in many other ways. Yet, according to “Metropolis,” these concerns are to be understood as currently offering the greatest impetus to artmaking, and understanding these issues to provide the surest access to contemporary art. No thanks. We don’t buy it.

Norbert Messler is a writer who lives in Cologne. He contributes regularly to Artforum.

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.