Berlin

Fritz Balthaus

Berlinische Galerie

How site-specific can you get? Fritz Balthaus tried to find out by constructing the biggest possible sculpture that could fit into the Berlinische Galerie. One might expect the result to be a massive cube with the dimensions of the municipal gallery’s largest exhibition hall. But it turns out that the white cube is not so cubic, at least if one takes into consideration, as Balthaus did, the path from the loading dock, via the service elevator, to the basement depot and then to the exhibition space. I Colli (German shippers’ argot for “package”), 2006, is a mobile, made-to-measure structure of plywood and mirrors, whose size and form were determined by those of a path that lies beyond the exhibition space yet firmly within the institution. An accompanying video that documents technicians moving the sculpture from its assigned place in the depot to the exhibition hall explains the work’s quirky angular shape. If anything—a crate, construction materials—was standing in the way, Balthaus simply removed enough of the sculpture to facilitate its passage. However minimalist in appearance, I Colli is both the dynamic imprint of the Berlinische Galerie and the all too brief travel diary of a new acquisition that could hardly be shown elsewhere without changing its shape again.

Balthaus’s gesture may appear as a traditional museum critique, lending visibility to both the institu- tional framework and the physical labor of the technicians who sustain it. Yet I Colli must be understood in relation to his earlier intervention outside the Berlinische Galerie, marked space–unmarked space, 2003–2004, a thirty-six-foot-high white wall whose composition is so similar to the building’s that most would mistake the free-standing structure for a decorative architectural detail. These two large-scale works—conspicuous inside and next to invisible outside—suggest how artists’ formal choices are limited and polarized by the museum: Do what you like outdoors, but anything indoors must at least fit in the elevator. This condition guarantees that the institution will envelop, if not dwarf, the artworks it houses. Installing a work outside, while solving a technical problem, only underscores the impossible status of the museum, which must melt into the background while making the exhibited artworks visible. Where does the exhibition site stop and the art begin?

Balthaus’s site specificity—which takes the gallery as an almost absolute, if not absurd, formal measure for shaping his work—points to the crumbling autonomy of the artwork, and of the artist, who can hardly comment on an institutional frame without becoming part of it. The critical distance once taken by an artist like Hans Haacke in relation to institutions has all but disappeared. Attempts to revive this distance through a geographical detachment from the museum—works with communities and social spaces—have raised more problems than they have solved. As mobile artists create made-to-measure works for points across the globe, they are asked to combine what seems to be a contradiction in terms: international visibility and local vitality. If the fate of I Collis’s journey is any indication, the most radical gesture may be to stay put.

Jennifer Allen