Friday, September 23, 2005

After The Fact

That horrible grinding sound you heard a while back was the Berlin art season opening. It usually doesn't sound like that, but there's been precious little money to buy oil to grease the wheels, what with the €40-plus-billion city debt. In fact, you can assess just how messed up things are when you note that the spring-summer success at the Neue Nationalgalerie was the show of Die Brücke and its life in Berlin (which I blogged about at the start of the summer), and now, at the start of the new season, the Berlinische Galerie, over by the Jewish Museum, the hardest-to-find museum in town, has announced their fall show which is...Die Brücke! I guess because all this'll cost them is the transportation from one museum (either the Neue Nationalgalerie, which, I saw the other day, is changing shows, or the Brücke Museum down in Dahlem) to another.

Anyway, I never get invited to stuff anymore, because my fax machine doesn't work, and that's still the medium the Berlin art scene uses to communicate, but somehow I got an invitation in the mail to the opening of the Berlin Photo Festival at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, entitled After The Fact. And I'd already decided to go and write something for the blog when I got a call from Ffotogrrl in far-off Wales telling me she was coming over for it, and wanted to catch up. We'd meet at the Martin-Gropius-Bau.

Well, I wasn't sure: these openings are huge events, and crowded, but I said sure, I'll meet you there. And off I went, on a warm late-summer evening, walking down Friedrichstr. to see some art.

It's a mixed bag, this show. Lots of it very didactically political, which I guess is to be expected at this particular juncture of history. If you like being yelled at, there's a room of photos of Somali mothers with their children, and a long text about the subjugation of women by Islam in Somalia, and another room with an intallation on landmines, and another dealing with sub-Saharan illegal immigrants crossing from Morocco to Spain, with an achingly poor text (is there such a word as "clandestinity?" If there is, there's gotta be a better word for what this artist's trying to say) and a malfunctioning DVD player.

Not all the political stuff is hectoring. I found Matthew Sleeth's "Tour of Duty," a series of shots of Australian soldiers in East Timor, to be nicely angry without being over the top. It doesn't take much to subsitute Australians for Americans and East Timor for Iraq -- at least not for me -- and then step back and wonder if you've been fair making that leap. I'm not sure. And Masaki Hirano's "Holes" is really tricky: close-up pictures of holes in walls, with almost enough extra context so that you can figure them out. Some are clearly bullet-holes and other damage of fighting. Others are construction or just decay. A nice series to ponder.

Not all of the series work too well. In fact I'd say the ones that don't outnumber the ones that do. For instance Christoph Draeger's "Voyages apocalyptiques" is a series of photographs of places where terrible things have taken place, from Lockerbie, Scotland, to a soccer field in Belgium where numerous people died in a collapse to places in Northern Ireland where there have been riots. There's a picture of the World Trade Center in 1994, no doubt referring to the bomb that went off there, but he completely destroys the nice, bland effect of the photo series -- which vividly points out that horrible things can happen in the most mundane places (as I can attest, having visited Lockerbie many times) by showing how mundane they look -- by including a picture of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, yellow smoke drifting across the Manhattan skyscape.

Those who attempt the least wind up doing the best work: Jessica Backhaus' measured series of pictures of everyday country people and their interiors in Poland, "Jesus and the Cherries," conveys volumes, as do the small photos of small people by Roman Ondak, "Tomorrows," showing Slovenian primary school kids trying to be solemn while doing things like unveiling a commemorative plaque or shaking hands.

Two fine uses of color, too, stood out. Anja Jensen took photos of her luggage being x-rayed -- or, rather, photographed the x-ray images themselves -- as she flew "Palma-München-Amsterdam 1999" and the colored pictures set in a grid are a nice set of abstractions, their colors purely utilitarian, but bright and jarring nonetheless.

My favorite of all, though, was "Cyberspace," by Joachim Schmid, which made me think Matisse was in the house. They were actually photographs of banal interiors, obviously some sort of computer photo that had been messed with. But the colors! They were eye-popping! I gave them a quick once-over, since they were at the start of the show, and vowed to go back to them after I'd found Ffotogrrl, and then, way in the back somewhere, I ran into Barbara Blickensdorf, whose gallery I've also mentioned here before, and she, too, was looking for someone: "I have an artist in the show," she said, "and he's got some photos of online sex-chat rooms, which he logged onto and then told the girls to go away for a minute, after which he phogotraphed them." I went back and looked again. Damned if that wasn't what it was: one of the girls even left her vibrator behind. Dunno if Matisse would have thought of that, but it works.

I'm sure Barbara, who's more adept at these sort of gatherings than I am, found who she was looking for. I arrived 45 minutes after the opening so I could miss the lectures by the assorted gasbags, and only stayed for about 90 minutes so I could jot down notes, so I never found Ffotogrrl. Of course, she'll be late to her own funeral, so it's entirely possible she's arriving there right about now, since I came in and wrote this down right after I got home.

Anyway, I guess art will be hard to avoid for a few months. I'm actually looking forward to bumping into some more of it.

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