This show at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt (House of World Cultures)—curator Valerie Smith’s first for the institution—brought together works by seven artists to investigate the boundaries of the rational and the irrational in a distinctively global context.

In the foyer, one encountered a series of flat-screen monitors. Here, Pawel Althamer, appearing thoroughly intoxicated on various substances, is seen in dialogue with Arthur Zmijewski, who generally holds the camera. Althamer is musing about “so-called waves and other phenomena of the mind,” as spelled out by the work’s title, So genannte Wellen und andere Phänomene des Geistes, 2003–2004. Under the effects of peyote, mushrooms, LSD, hashish, and, finally, truth serum, the artist becomes a kind of medium, putting himself into the service of an imagined community of truth seekers. The work updates the ancient myth of the artist’s gift as that which gives access to the divine: If the irrational has long been the border of a hidden truth, Althamer plays the part of the artist who can cross this boundary via various forms of delirium. The irrational here does not stand in opposition to reason, however; it is of an order beyond our comprehension. Today this endeavor has turned into the quest for an unadulterated universal experience, a search for “authenticity.”

Althamer is not the only artist in the show to connect the rational/irrational dichotomy with questions of authentic experience and individual freedom. The Chilean artist Juan Downey has devoted much of his career to mediating between the Enlightenment rationalization of Western capitalist society and a number of so-called primitive and non- industrialized communities, including the Amazonian Indians. Even in the twentieth century, many explorers—among them Jacques Lizot, a student of anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss—described Downey’s subjects, the Yanomami, as lecherous savages or bloodthirsty cannibals. Downey’s 1976 video The Abandoned Shabono shows Lizot and Downey in conversation; Downey responds to Lizot’s outspoken preconceptions with the help of his camera, which he thrusts into the hands of a Yanomami in an attempt to give the Native Americans a voice.

Other works in the show, too, examine the line between the rational and the irrational, often probing the possibility of conquering chaos by giving it form: Arthur Bispo do Rosário, for example, spent more than half his life in a psychiatric clinic, trying to meticulously document everything in existence in a series of embroideries—a kind of Noah’s Ark of objects—to prepare for Judgment Day; Hanne Darboven excessively recorded and systematized the daily passing of time. But the most interesting approach to the exhibition’s subject is that of Berlin-based artist François Bucher,
 who is originally from
 Colombia. His two-channel
 video installation Haute
 Surveillance (High Surveillance), 2007, refers to Jean
 Genet’s 1949 play of the
 same title. Bucher’s work
 recalls an incident at the
 University of Antioquia in 
Medellín in 1999, the same
 year three people were murdered on campus. A drama
 student received an assignment to study the life and
 work of Jean Genet. He 
wrote a detailed script with another student, and presented it with three actors, one of whom was in prison at the time and released specifically on the basis of the university’s request that he be allowed to participate in the seminar. The script called for the kidnapping of the other seminar participants by the gun-wielding convict, in order to produce a crescendo of terror and fear. Bucher’s video consists primarily of footage of the students’ recollections of the pretended threats of violence that were inflicted on them; it is impossible to tell whether these accounts are fictional or real. Hence the mere possibility of violence becomes the object of investigation—akin to Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, in which the true essence of cruelty can be experienced in the tension between the absence of violence and the possibility of violence. Here, madness and irrationality persist precisely because violence exceeds our means of rational comprehension.

Adina Popescu

Translated from German by Laura Hoffmann.