Ralf Ziervogel

What was this? Limbo, hell, a disco gone out of control, or just a little taunt directed at elaborate installation art? Not necessarily any of these. A torture chamber or purgatory—purgatory as a space of purification? Who can say for sure? After all, what is seen “is never found in what is said,” as Michel Foucault once put it. Still, I have to try to describe this installation, Mamaterial, 2006, by Ralf Ziervogel, a former student of Lothar Baumgarten at Universität der Künste in Berlin and one of the most promising young artists around. The installation (based on the artist’s graduate project) was conceived for three rooms, which the gallery built to accommodate Ziervogel’s plan.

On entering the gallery, one stood within a long, narrow, bright, and nearly barren room extending toward a flight of stairs. Just before the stairs descend, one encountered a raw chicken—purchased, according to the logo stamped on it, at the Berlin department store KaDeWe—which seems to have been riding a skateboard when it slammed full-speed into a thirty-pound mound of snow-white flour. That in itself didn’t augur much, even if the collision revealed a certain surreal humor.

Heading downstairs, surrendering to the darkness step by step, the visitor was soon inundated by an intense thudding, hammering, techno-thumping bass; another step and one found oneself in the middle of the room, facing four megaphones attached to the wall, under which sat an equal number of subwoofers that together let loose a droning sound track. On the opposite wall, an image of the artist’s pain-distorted face appeared—or was it ecstasy contorting his facial features? A bang, a scream, the face was gone. Filmed from a speeding train, railroad tracks and the electric wires that span them ran across the wall. Booming voices resounded; what they were saying was impossible to understand. “Mit der Bahn zur Arbeit”—“by train to work,” perhaps. The repetition of the same dull, deafening rhythm of the everyday accumulating in a room until one became martyred by it—this is how limbo might feel.

Next room: Walk through the small, soundproof double door and quickly close it again. Finally, the rhythmic droning: gone. Here it was quiet—quiet, cold, and dark. Almost romantic when one considers the burning candle projected on the back wall of the room. Then the viewer discovered a long card table and a cosmic landscape formed out of salt on the table’s surface. But under the table, leaning against one of its legs, lay a blue satchel. Caution! The silence suddenly seemed eerie. The knapsack might be about to explode.

Eerie, puzzling, full of inferences and references, serious and threatening—such was Ziervogel’s installation. The ears abused by the sound in the rhythm of a beating heart, the eyes confused by darkness abruptly broken by flashing images, the body tentatively feeling its way through the rooms—this is what purgatory might feel like. Yet Ziervogel’s mise-en-scène may have changed our relationship to “total installations” like those of Ilya & Emilia Kabakov. For, in all its seriousness, it nevertheless succeeded in mocking the melodrama of such installations. In experiencing this work, or rather in suffering it, our relationship to installation art is changed. From now on, we will confront it with a dual gaze; both a serious gaze and another that, receptive to parody, can smile.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Raymond Valley.