“Neue Welt”

Let’s say this much up front: In the welter of theme-based exhibitions, “Neue Welt” (New world) is exceptional. But why? After all, it is concerned, as the curator, Nicolaus Schafhausen, states in the catalogue, with “the redefinition of the public sphere, the positioning of the individual in a spectacularized society, and the effects of a globalized economy”—that is, with themes that nowadays nearly every ambitious exhibition pursues, though usually with only middling success.

What concerns Schafhausen is the redefinition of the public sphere as a “metaphor for a complex system of interlocking spheres,” including that of art. This public sphere has long since metamorphosed into a spectacle encompassing the entire globe, in which anyone can take on the role of star—for a limited amount of time (fifteen minutes, it’s been said). And so, right at the beginning of the exhibition, each and everyone walks through Interview (Paparazzi), 2000, a flashbulb storm built by Malachi Farrell. Microphones block the way, cameras whir, lights flash. Anyone can awaken the public’s interest, but what about the integrity of the self? Why is a sense of lonliness creeping in everywhere? With exaggerated expectations placed on the self, the search for identity ends up—like the (now somewhat aged) video work by Bruce Nauman Good Boy/Bad Boy, 1986—in a rhetorical infinite loop. The most honest thing to do might be to cutoff communication altogether and shut oneself in a disco box, such as Bernhard Martin’s Single Disco (Whisper Club), 2000.

Another possibility for escaping the lonely and painful search for identity is fanaticism, as Willem de Rooij and Jane Ostermann-Petersen document in their video Leigh Valentine, 1994-2001. From a renovated garage in Amsterdam, the preacher Leigh Valentine, a blond American and former Miss Missouri, fires up a crowd of immigrants from Suriname with statements like “You got more power than the devil” and “Thank you, Jesus, that you have full control.” Power, control—who has the power, who is controlling whom, where, and when in a globalized society? The centers of power are no longer easy to determine; everyone seems to control everyone else—it gets spooky, as in Edge of a Wood, 1999, a magnificently constructed installation by Rodney Graham. What are the thundering helicopters looking for, looking to control, with their searchlights in the night on the edge of the woods?

Collapsing identity, expanding loneliness, and thirst for control are all familiar enough. So, too, are the hopeless employment offices documented movingly in photos by Paul Graham and the inhospitable parking lots of shopping malls impressively recorded by Dan Holdsworth in their nighttime illumination. In disturbing documentaries by Santiago Sierra, one can watch people who, for very little money, with masturbate in front of the camera or allow a line to be tattooed across their back. Disturbing? Yes, but this is not yet what constitutes the value of “Neue Welt.”

Rather, its value resides in suggesting there is a “new world” within art itself, unnoticed by the majority of curators and critics, but which Schafhausen has succeeded in making manifest. Metaphysical truths and aesthetic experiences—the values of European modernism—are no longer the goal. These values, like the modernist furniture photographed by Barbara Visser, have been destroyed. The new art wants to create an impression in a world of omnipresent spectacle and glamour—now, immediately, on the spot—and to bring its concerns to everyone. Looking at Gerhard Richter’s polished steel sphere, Kugel, 1989, one sees oneself as the center of the world. But the epoch in which the self could still consider itself the center has, with the process of globalization, irretrievably passed by.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.