View of “Revital Cohen & Tuur Van Balen,” 2015. From left: Sensei Ichi-gō, 2014; Sterile, 2014.

View of “Revital Cohen & Tuur Van Balen,” 2015. From left: Sensei Ichi-gō, 2014; Sterile, 2014.

Revital Cohen & Tuur van Balen

Schering Stiftung

View of “Revital Cohen & Tuur Van Balen,” 2015. From left: Sensei Ichi-gō, 2014; Sterile, 2014.

A few months before I left New York, someone gave me a goldfish he had won at a funfair, thinking that having a pet would help me feel more rooted in the Big Apple. I left my tiny Brooklyn apartment shortly after, but not without learning that goldfish, too, can suffer from loneliness and stress and are ill-suited to living in small bowls. I was reminded of this episode at the opening of “assemble | standard | minimal” by London-based duo Revital Cohen & Tuur Van Balen, where the first thing viewers encountered were three solitary goldfish in small, barren aquariums in a work titled Sterile, 2014. They had been bred, the press release informed us, by Professor Etsuro Yamaha in Hokkaido, Japan; nearby was Sensei Ichi-gō, 2014, an ostensibly “dormant” machine for producing sterile goldfish from previously extracted eggs and sperm, with a clinically white conveyor belt leading from the apparatus to an empty glass tank. The accompanying text claimed the fish on view were “not conceived as animals but made as objects.” This premise was effectively staged, but ultimately seemed specious: Why should the dignity of life inhere in the act of biological rather than technological reproduction? And what underlies this opposition between art and “natural” life? Anyway, it was clear enough that these goldfish weren’t having the time of their lives. It seemed they were there mainly to make us feel queasy.

I was not surprised, then, to hear that a day after this show’s opening, a vet from the Berlin city government inspected the exhibit and declared that the solitary goldfish needed gravel, a hiding place, and company—which they were promptly granted. Still, on my second visit a few weeks later, the pairs of goldfish in each tank didn’t look joyous, exactly, and I secretly wondered if any of the tank’s original inhabitants had gone to the next world and been replaced from the “edition” of forty-five Professor Yamaha had made. Other works in the space didn’t alleviate my unease. There were two monitor-and-headphone pieces, one (Kingyo Kingdom, 2013) devoted to Japanese goldfish competitions—obviously the regional equivalent of the Crufts dog show—and the other (Pigeon d’Or, 2011) about pigeon fanciers working with synthetic biologists to make the birds shit soap. The video projection 75 Watt, 2013, shows Chinese factory workers making—at the artists’ direction—a product with no function. The point was simply to choreograph the movements of the workers involved in the making of this object, which looked like an impossible hybrid of a portable vacuum cleaner and a retro clothes iron. Thus the show kept raising questions through the humans and animals used or abused in its production, drawing its force from the quandary about where, or whether, a moral line was to be drawn.

The ethical dilemmas Cohen and Van Balen’s work throws up concern not only our technologized future but also the role of art in contemporary culture. A fair amount of the art loosely designated “post-Internet” seems to be characterized by a curious amorality. So what happens when technological affirmation meets an idea of “socially aware” art as an experimental laboratory? Like a lot of shows today, this one seemed to be inviting a questioning of art’s purpose at a time when its objects often serve as props for a feuilletonistic moral drama that purports, via the medium of the exhibition, that the display of a known problem is sufficient unto itself; in many such cases, an ethical gray area simply adds frisson. Here, I couldn’t help feeling there was too little room for those of us who identify with the goldfish.

Alexander Scrimgeour