Category: POLITICS

ADRIAN PIPER’S UTOPIAN GESTURE

In the summer of 2015 Adrian Piper initiated a peculiar email correspondence. Shortly after garnering the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale for The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1-3, she approached Udo Kittelmann, director of the Nationalgalerie in Berlin, trying to persuade him to buy her installation. As a Berliner by choice, Piper wanted her installation to be on display in the German capital and advertised her piece with the declaration that it cost “a mere fraction of one of Jeff Koons’s Balloon Dogs”. And isn’t it a delight, for once, to see mirror-polished white mediocracy being pushed to the sidelines for the sake of Black artistry?

As one of the pioneering conceptual artists of her generation, Adrian Piper has been exploring the topic of personal subjectivity throughout her career. Her body of work spans from an intimate meditation on Black womanhood, as in works such as Vanilla Nightmares (1986) or Cornered (1988), to more philosophically grounded themes including language and infinity, as in one of her more recent works, Everything #21 (2010-2013).

In The Probable Trust Registry (2013-2015) we see these two fields collide: a way for Piper to demonstrate that the personal and the political are inseparably linked. After the installation was on view in New York in 2014 and in Venice in 2015, the show was acquired for Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof and opened this February – marking Piper’s first solo exhibition in Germany.

Upon entering the main hall at Hamburger Bahnhof, one is faced with acorporate setting: ceiling-high dove grey partition walls divide the space into three standardized segments. In front of each partition there’s a gold and circular reception counter with a friendly staffer dressed in black smiling from behind it. The sheer endless partition screens are embossed with golden letters; each of them displaying one of the following sentences:

I WILL ALWAYS BE TOO EXPENSIVE TO BUY.

I WILL ALWAYS MEAN WHAT I SAY.

I WILL ALWAYS DO WHAT I SAY I AM GOING TO DO. 

Here the visitors to the museum can approach each desk, engage in a brief conversation with the receptionist and ultimately sign a contract to commit themselves to one, two, or all three of the declarations. Once inside the exhibition space, the viewers inevitably participate in a collective experiment, regardless of whether they decide to sign a contract or not. In this respect the piece is as performative as it is introspective.

After the end of the exhibition on 3rd September 2017, the museum will compile a digital collection of all personal declarations gathered throughout the show in order to send it to its signatories. Said documents become part of the inventory of the Nationalgalerie – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, and will only be made available to the public 100 years later.

At a time when right-wing movements are on the rise in both Europe and the US, it seems more vital than ever, to uphold democratic values. And just like society itself, The Probable Trust Registry is intrinsically political. As a collective and ongoing artwork, it reveals its success or failure subsequently to its construction. As a philosopher, Adrian Piper savors the quandary that occurs in the process of such performative pieces. Still, trust is never a given and even setting up a registry in form of legally binding contracts does not guarantee confiding relations. Thus, more than anything else, the installation’s title and its key word “probable” hint at its principle of uncertainty.

In this light especially, positioning the installation in the main hall of Hamburger Bahnhof seems like an interpretive misdirection. While the curators at the Elizabeth Dee Gallery in New York as well as the Venetian Arsenal fittingly referred to the bureaucratic lunacy of the experiment by making use of a cramped interior space, the luminous and spacious placement at Hamburger Bahnhof evokes a delusive openness. Hence, a coherent spatial strategy falls prey to conspicuous placing.

The stage-like presentation of the installation lends the act of signing a social contract an impression of showmanship. This seems hardly surprising at a time when performative politics have become a widespread modus operandi. But instead of making this ill-at-ease element of theatricality a subject of discussion, the numerous readings and exhibition talks that accompany the show circle around the obvious themes of responsibility, sincerity, and transparency. This, furthermore, reveals a curatorial concept that prides itself on taking a political stance; as if the exhibition itself were a paradigm of humanism.

While The Probable Trust Registry is certainly perceived as a meditation on moral integrity, it may just as well be interpreted as a critical reflection on the increasing rationalization and accountancy of interpersonal values. For the particular beauty of Piper’s piece lies in a utopian gesture: the impossible attempt to quantify the incalculable.

OPEN WOUNDS

When the KW Institute for Contemporary Art was started 25 years ago on Berlin’s Auguststraße, founder Klaus Biesenbach and his peers found themselves in a climate of upheaval and political uncertainty: the fall of the Berlin Wall and Germany’s reunification were, at the time, still very recent history. Reflecting on our own very recent history, it was in the midst of another politically charged year – 2016 – that the newly appointed director and chief curator of KW Institute for Contemporary Art introduces, Krist Gruijthuijsen, took up his position last spring. And while KW has been known for decades as an indispensable force within Berlin’s art scene, the time had come for a clear alignment, as well as a clear distinction from its fraternal twin: the Berlin Biennale.

And so last week, after a three-month hiatus and extensive redevelopment, KW reopened its gates with an abundant agenda in tow. On January 19th, press and public alike were invited to the introduction of their new program. As part of renovations advised by architectural office Kuehn Malvezzi, the main entrance was relocated to the side wing of the building and equipped with a new reception, a seating area, a book stand displaying selected publications, as well as much needed lockers. Exposing the raw brick ceiling of the former margarine factory, the exhibition area was stripped down to an industrial look. Newly opened walls in the exhibition areas make for a beautiful subdivision of space and lots of light.

South African conceptual artist Ian Wilson’s oeuvre is the key reference point of the coming exhibitions. While his art practice spans from the 1960s until present today, his work is best characterized by what isn’t there – for instance in works like Circle on the Floor (1968) or his renowned series The Discussions. Using the stylistic means of reduction and omission – and with aid of the circle as his signature symbol – Wilson examines the delicate relationship between art and language. Over the course of the next four months, solo exhibitions by Hanne Lippard, Paul Elliman, and Adam Pendleton will keep Wilson’s immaterial, yet rich body of work a constant point of debate at KW.

The inaugural exhibition by Norwegian artist Hanne Lippard revolves around experimental uses of communication. Utilizing sound installations, readings, and performances, Lippard’s work deals with the discrepancy between form and content. Her artistic medium, however, is a rather unconventional one: the human voice. Born in Milton Keynes, England and raised in Norway, she grew up bilingual – one of several reasons why the spoken word bears special importance to her. Her work at KW is entitled Flesh and takes up the entire hall on the ground floor. At the center of the room lies a spiral staircase with 29 steps mounted to a single, load-bearing pillar. The beige-painted metal railing leads the viewer, or perhaps one should rather say ‘participant,’ up to a new dimension.

This top room, a light-suffused cube with a view of the roof garden, barely reaches a height of one and a half meters. Its floor is carpeted in a peculiar shade of brownish pink, the color of “an open wound” as Lippard describes it. Here, there is nothing but Lippard’s voice emerging from the speakers. Hers is a language full of piercing consonants and rich vowels that forms a musical interplay of rhythm and melody. “To me, the title is almost onomatopoeic. You feel the word flesh when you say it,” says Lippard. She perceives her art practice to be personal as well as public: “I think you can hardly work as an artist without being political in some sense or another. Especially if you work with the female voice and with language.”

Today, in light of social media, communication seems to be ever-present. And therefore “language can be a dangerous, albeit necessary tool,” Lippard ponders. The resurgence of reactionary movements, a growing disbelief in science, and the distortion of truth (like Kellyanne Conway, Donald Trump’s adviser, whitewashing blatant falsehoods as “alternative facts”), seem to be the order of the day. But if we really lived in a post-factual age, communication would be nothing but a one-way street – and don’t we know better?

As a matter of fact, now is the time to listen: Extensive dialogue is what we need more than ever. The obvious upside to this geopolitical mess is the recent rebirth of protest culture, like the Women’s March on Washington and the solidarity demonstrations it spawned worldwide.

Lippard’s conception of language as political is one that corresponds to the newly-redeveloped program at KW. Whether it’s the return of the legendary Pogo Bar (now: Bob’s Pogo Bar) or the newly launched event series The Weekends, Krist Gruijthuijsen’s new direction envisions the art space as a community hub, one that fosters a mutual exchange between artist and audience. Artistic discourse as a form of political dialogue? In 2017, KW Institute for Contemporary Art might just become the place for that.

 

This article first appeared on hey-woman.com in January 2017 under the title “KW Institute for Contemporary Art: Krist Gruijthuijsen & Hanne Lippard”.

Foto: Hanne Lippard, Detail der Installation Flesh, 2016, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, 2017; Courtesy die Künstlerin und LambdaLambdaLambda, Prishtina; Foto: Frank Sperling