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Stick Figures & Robotic Systems: At Berlin Gallery Weekend
John Quin , September 19th, 2020 09:10

John Quin goes out and has a good time at the Berlin Gallery Weekend, visiting works by Philippe Parreno, Ugo Rondinone, Nina Canell, Olafur Eliasson, and more

Exhibition view: Ugo Rondinone,nuns + monks,Esther Schipper, Berlin, 2020 Courtesy the artist and Esther Schipper, Berlin. Photo © Andrea Rossett

With the cancellation of Art Basel Miami (and much of the upcoming Frieze Art Fair being a hybrid online affair), Berlin has seized the opportunity to underline its global importance as a leading centre for contemporary art. A more intensive track and trace policy, as repeatedly advised by the WHO at the beginning of 2020, has enabled the city to cautiously reopen for business. The city’s art week (9–13th September) saw a repurposed Berghain stuffed with over 100 works, a Biennale spread over four sites, and openings from more than forty galleries. Let’s get moving…

A blast of colour is a fine way to see real art again. At Tanya Leighton New York based Brian Belott has abstractions that, from a distance, look like paintings but up close are seen to be constructions made from coloured cotton batting and other unusual found materials such as violin necks, portable fans, faux fireplaces, and tissue dispensers. Nardo (2020) is particularly pleasing with its appetising scoops of avocado green looking like portions of mushy peas. Belott’s work references classic American abstract expressionism but strips away any lingering portentousness with childlike glee.

Staying in the Potsdamerstrasse area there are two shows at Esther Schipper. Taking a lift to the first there’s yet another strong exhibition by Philippe Parreno, his eighth for the gallery. As ever with Parreno we confront a space with many disparate objects: robotic systems, a CGI film, atmospheric sensors, lights going on and off seemingly at random, an ice sculpture slowly melting. He admits frankly that this is a deliberate riddle by making reference to the Ptyx, one of Mallarmé’s inventions that the poet described gnomically as an “abolished trinket of sonorous inanity”. Make of that what you will but the thrill of discombobulation here seems all. Encountering Parreno’s world is akin to watching Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph (2012), a manic sugar rush of stuff happening, a sense of struggling to keep up with what’s going on. Highly recommended.

In the gallery’s more cavernous lower hall Ugo Rondinone has a set of giant sculptures that immediately recall his multicoloured boulder towers, as with Liverpool Mountain (2016) outside the Tate at Albert Dock, or Seven Magic Mountains (2016) in the Nevada Desert. Here there are only two forms, one smaller head above an oversized body, each coloured separately. Rondinone calls these “nuns+monks” and they do indeed bear a resemblance to figures dressed in ecclesiastical stylings. They are not made of found rocks but of bronze. Despite having obvious heft and presence these creatures are mute, waiting on our petitions, silent and grand. Their beauty is obvious but it’s hard not to see them as unhelpful to the moment, their indifference a cruel rejoinder.

Abdulnasser Gharem Prosperity without growth II, 2020 (Detail) “Smart Obedience / Kluger Gehorsam” Installation view Galerie Nagel Draxler, Berlin 2020

Over in Mitte there’s some light relief where BQ lets David Shrigley turn the gallery into a shop that mocks and celebrates tat as art. Here you can buy T-shirts with messages like “I’m so hungover I wish I was dead”, ceramic mugs that show a poodle with text that reads “I want to look like this”, and prints that show a frightening Hydra identified as “The Government”. Another drawing has a stick figure Sisyphus pushing a boulder labelled “SHIT” up a steep hill. Shrigley’s comedic despair accurately reflects the current madness afflicting his homeland.

Another, darker, craziness is down the road at Nagel-Draxler where Abdulnasser Gharem, an artist of some daring from Saudi Arabia shows The Safe (2019), an installation that refers to the foul murder of Jamal Khashoggi. We see a padded cell, a chrome dissection table, and in a corner of the room a copy of the baldachin at the entrance to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. This was made infamous by its regular showing on the news footage capturing Khashoggi’s final minutes alive on CCTV. The mood of doom intensifies at Galerie Neu with the restrained palette of Romanian artist Victor Man. His paintings Self Portrait With The Yellow Shadow of Christ (2019) and Untitled (Adieu à Satan) (2020) might suggest a desperate longing for the Second Coming.

Installation Nina Canell, Galerie Barbara Wien, Berlin, 2020. Photo: Nick Ash

Colour makes a return at several other spaces. Olafur Eliasson, famous for The weather project (2003), that big sun at Tate Modern, shows at Neugerriemschneider. Here are more of his hand-blown glass works, as with Collective sea flares (2020), ten layered panes in different colours dotted with circular apertures. Nice, but arguably a hifalutin variant on the more intricate craftsmanship seen in half the shops on Murano. More intensive, near hallucinatory blasts of lurid colouration are to be found with Austin Lee’s work at Peres Projects. A New York-based painter, his acrylics major in pillar box crimson and supersaturated cobalts. His faux naïf imagery is somehow simultaneously beguiling and disturbing. Capitain Petzel shows yet another New Yorker, Ross Bleckner, veteran of the 80s AIDS epidemic, whose new paintings like Love and letting go II (2020) are still lifes, oils of flower arrangements. Not unreasonably the gallery blurb makes a tame comparison to Emil Nolde; that’ll be a deeply depressed Nolde, mind.

Optimism could be said to arrive over at Plan B where Ran Zhang shows prettified prints of human proteins, fictional objects are wrapped around images of cytoplasmic structures. Best of all the Swedish artist Nina Canell exhibits her sculptures at Barbara Wien: here be a scattered group of works featuring rain guttering and frequency generators. Pick, pack, pock, puck, as Joyce would have it: glitchy sounds bounce around the space whilst high voltage disconnectors abut the walls. Gurgler (2020) is well named as burps rumble in a section of fired clay pipe. Like the Parreno show it would be easy to spend all day here as if trapped in a post-industrial theme park soundtracked by Pole or To Rococo Rot: a locked-in locked down.