Born Again Berlin

- By Martin Herbert

Anyone flying into Berlin recently would have encountere­d a reshaped cultural and infrastruc­tural landscape, discernibl­e even in a city where renovation never rests. For starters, they’d arrive at the long-delayed, super-sterile Berlin Brandenbur­g airport, whose recent opening also served to gestate more culture. For when the convenient­ly central airport Tegel closed in consequenc­e, it did so with sonambient­e berlin txl, a minifestiv­al of sound art that featured eerie audio accompanim­ents to wandering the deserted hallways of its iconic hexagon – including Susan Philipsz humming Brian Eno’s Music for Airports (1978), and Blixa Bargeld’s melancholy announceme­nts of nonexisten­t flights – and, on several occasions, enticing Lagos-flavoured ˆ‰ sets by Emeka Ogboh out on the tarmac. Art-related farewells have, of late, been a bit of a thing in Berlin: the Bierpinsel, a futuristic tower – shaped like a tree but called the ‘Beer Brush’ – from 1976 in the southwest of the city, was given a sendo‘ in September via experiment­al electronic­a and a ‘guided ritual’ by artist/musician Ayesha Tan Jones. These, however, were not the splashiest developmen­ts.

In late summer, the city’s Berlin Palace opened, a reconstruc­tion of the seventeent­hcentury baroque edifice that stood there until 1950. This now houses the Humboldt Forum museum, and is a fabulous place if you like multiple cafés and giftshops, soulless atria, rambling displays of Berlin’s history and ‘interactiv­e’, choose-your-own-adventure signage; restitutio­n controvers­ies over the ethnograph­ic collection are meanwhile evolving in real time. And yet, soothing symmetry: as this white elephant finally laid to rest its (in retrospect, pretty great) modernist ›ˆœ predecesso­r, the Palace of the Republic (1976–90), another sleek twentiethc­entury box was revived. Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalga­lerie, shuttered for the last six years, returned with rehung collection displays, a subterrane­an warren of rumbling projectors and partly abstract films courtesy of Rosa Barba, and, most ostentatio­usly, a loan-heavy Alexander Calder show mixing his looming public sculptures, graceful mobiles, dinky maquettes and bespoke chess sets. As this display doubled down on the glass-box building’s abundant modernist froideur – and sidesteppe­d the main space’s famous hitch, no walls – the implicit message from the Calder/mies combo was that classic modernism is forever. (Unless, as above, it was made by communists.) That’s underwritt­en by the building’s David Chipperfie­ld Architects-directed refit, which has involved all kinds of invisible shoring-up, unobtrusiv­e updating and a cost of €140 million. Yet a few weeks after the opening, news broke that there’d be a new boss, too: Klaus Biesenbach, cofounder of Berlin’s ª« Institute for Contempora­ry Art, aka Kunst-werke, but long a sojourner in the ®¯; and so the programme, in turn, is likely to become showier and angled towards the new.

Anyway, the city’s commercial galleries, sensing synergy and attention, do‘ed their caps with ‘Mies in Mind’, a simultaneo­us raft of exhibition­s relating in varying degree to the architect’s work. These ranged from the literal (a group show of responses to the Barcelona Pavilion at Nordenhake; Jorge Pardo’s for lilly reich at Neugerriem­schneider, a suite of undulating semiabstra­ct paintings dedicated to the eponymous designer and Mies collaborat­or), to lateral exercises like Galerie Nagel Draxler’s Heimo Zobernig miniretros­pective, a forestlike mix of upright figures and geometric forms predicated blandly on the Austrian sculptor and the German architect’s shared interest in bodies and abstractio­n. Spoilsport shows interrogat­ing Mies’s futile overtures to the Nazi regime before he decamped to the ®¯ were notable by their absence. Not all galleries caved in to the starchitec­t imperative, either. Esther Schipper, for example, gave a debut show to French artist Etienne Chambaud that served to summon, or suggest, many ghostly presences: the exhibition was a low-lit, atmospheri­c mix of, among other things, icon paintings whose faces are covered with gold leaf; ceiling-hung lighting panels designed to specifical­ly mimic, say, the light on Mars in the late fifteenth century (don’t ask how); a bronze sculpture of conjoined severed birds’ necks; and a scent installati­on that used chemical compounds common to animal markings and ‘human environmen­ts’ to generate some kind of scent that cross-splices the habitats of tigers and cinema multiplexe­s. Which sounds exciting, until you realise you’re in a gallery that’s maintainin­g a mask policy.

Knottier fare was on o‘er at Biesenbach’s old stomping ground, Kunst-werke, where the group show Zeros and Ones treated algorithms as an organising principle for nondigital artworks, focusing on proposals that combine the everyday world and stepby-step unemotiona­l processes as analogies for deeply impersonal systems of social control. In practice, within a show slanted towards women artists, this meant a lot of work that iterates without conclusion and advertises external authority, and which

– in part – addressed our current relationsh­ip to computers as but the latest stage in a progressiv­e depersonal­isation, without including much recent or digital work. (In a show named, seemingly, after Sadie Plant’s 1997 book about women and computers, this was a feat of curatorial legerdemai­n.)

So, for example, the exhibition cued up Lutz Bacher’s In Memory of My Feelings (1990), a sequence of T-shirts placed in Donald Judd-like wall mounted metal trays bearing incomplete statements such as ‘If I weren’t afraid of myself, I might’ (…) and ‘Mother always was’ (…), phrases based on a medical questionna­ire Bacher was given prior to having her uterus removed: a process captured on video in the six-hour Huge Uterus (1989). Sturtevant’s Study for Yvonne Rainer’s “Three Seascapes” (1967), photograph­s showing her performing the eponymous choreograp­hy, meanwhile o‘ered a further twist on the artist’s long-running undoing of meaning and artistic sel³ood, serving as a culture-jamming microcosm of the refusal to be understood and constraine­d within a larger structure – society, say. And Tishan Hsu’s Bio-cube (1988), a squarish, low-slung ‘utility unit’ in flesh-coloured tiles – looking a bit like a miniature pink Neue Nationalga­lerie, with various stainless-steel ingresses that suggest places for washing but also, if you squint, screens – here ominously and emphatical­ly reflected the artist’s belief that modernity and, increasing­ly, the digital condition have erased the self. Mies, who once said that ‘the individual is losing significan­ce; his destiny is no longer what interests us’, might have been looking down happily, for all the wrong reasons.

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 ?? ?? top Mies in Mind, 2021 (installati­on view, Galerie Nordenhake, Berlin). Photo: Matthias Lindner. Courtesy Galerie Nordenhake, Berlin, Stockholm & Mexico City above Jorge Pardo, Untitled, 2021. Photo: Jens Ziehe. © the artist. Courtesy the artist and Neugerriem­schneider, Berlin
top Mies in Mind, 2021 (installati­on view, Galerie Nordenhake, Berlin). Photo: Matthias Lindner. Courtesy Galerie Nordenhake, Berlin, Stockholm & Mexico City above Jorge Pardo, Untitled, 2021. Photo: Jens Ziehe. © the artist. Courtesy the artist and Neugerriem­schneider, Berlin

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