Adrian Ghenie, Dada Room, 2010, mixed media. Installation view.

Adrian Ghenie, Dada Room, 2010, mixed media. Installation view.

Adrian Ghenie

Adrian Ghenie, Dada Room, 2010, mixed media. Installation view.

The absurdities and coincidences of childhood can shape your viewpoint for life. Growing up in Cluj, Romania, Adrian Ghenie was taught to worship the father of the state, Nicolae Ceauşescu. At the age of twelve, Ghenie lived through the “trial” and execution of the man whose photograph hung in every school—a sudden shock that turned the world as he knew it upside down. Meanwhile, his real father worshipped someone totally different. Playing in a rock ’n’ roll band, dressed up as Elvis, Ghenie Sr. paid tribute to the first global pop icon.

The First International Dada Fair took place in 1920 in a room at a private house in Berlin. Ninety years later, Ghenie showed his own version, Dada Room, 2010. At first sight the darkened space, lit only by a single neon tube, looked shabby, even a bit filthy, but little by little the displayed artifacts, sketches, paintings, and a dummy revealed the painter’s obsessions, motives, and subjects. Historical references to the Dada era, World War II, and the cold war were mixed with personal memories. The walls were used as canvases or sketchbooks and covered with thick layers of paint in the somber coloration we know from Ghenie’s paintings.

This installation served as an introduction to, or synthesis of, the paintings in the rest of the exhibition. Thus the German shepherd depicted in the installation returned in several more paintings. The reference to the cold war and America’s nuclear bomb tests in the Nevada desert became a powerful image in Self-Portrait as a Monkey, 2010, in which we see a nuclear blast behind the artist, seated in a chair, or Blow, 2010, which shows what might be a surreal image of a camera in some kind of desert storm but turns out to be a reflection on an event that really happened: In the late 1950s, a settlement complete with houses and other structures was built by the American government, and an atom bomb was dropped on it and filmed—all to see what the result would be if an average town were destroyed by the Russians. Ghenie’s representation of this scene makes it seem iconic, yet also absurd. In That Moment, 2007, Ghenie shows us an image that doesn’t exist but which we might want to see: the bodies of Hitler and Eva Braun after their suicide in the macabre setting of their bunker, which also contains an Arno Breker sculpture. That Moment offers a way to visualize an event that lacks an image in our collective memory.

A more explicit personal comment on the Nazi period is conveyed in the shady psychoanalytical image The Nightmare, 2007. Here Ghenie imagines himself visited by Hitler, who watches over the sleeping artist, accompanied by two giant Alsatians. The tableau’s ominous colors strengthen the overwhelming feeling of approaching danger. Besides a couple of other more tongue-in-cheek paintings in which Marcel Duchamp or Ghenie Sr. and Elvis Presley play an important part, the show evoked an overall uncanny feeling that was perhaps best expressed by one of the smallest paintings in the exhibition, Untitled, 2007, in which a set of false teeth sits on a shelf. The exquisite yet gloomy way the teeth are painted sums up Ghenie’s dark viewpoint in the subtlest possible way.

Jos Van den Bergh