Despite serving as director of Berlin’s Nationalgalerie since 2008, Udo Kittelmann has only recently launched this critical inquiry into the venue’s collection, specifically its predominantly Western focus. Located at the Hamburger Bahnhof museum, the 13-chapter exhibition, “Hello World. Revising a Collection,” features input from eight in-house curators and five guests to provide non-Western expertise.
The exhibition comprises more than 350 pieces in total, with works from across Africa, Asia, and Latin America, as well as Europe and North America. In it, Europe’s colonial past and its overwhelming power to re-write (if not eradicate) particular cultural histories are questioned. This prompted queries of my own.
First up was the issue of adequate representation — where was it? Women made up more than half the curatorial team, yet female artists are a significant minority in the collection. Likewise, only a couple of members of the curation team are from a racial minority, despite the strong presence of black, Asian, and native subjects within the work.
Secondly, I wondered if it was possible to adequately explore the ramifications of Western art while working within a European setting. A case in point: The “Agora” division includes the work of American artist Duane Hanson, his hyperreal sculpture Policeman and Rioter (1967) depicting a white officer beating an unarmed black man. While the piece is contextualized historically, its use only serves to maintain a Western focus on racialized subjects.
That said, it was refreshing to attend an exhibition that breaks away from classical art, with a variety of multimedia platforms such as video and light installations given space. Particularly impressive sections included “Colomental. The Violence of Intimate Histories,” curated by Azu Nwagbogu and Sven Beckstette, and Natasha Ginwala’s “Arrival, Incision. Indian Modernism as Peripatetic Itinerary.”
Overall, there were clear attempts to highlight the transcultural nature of art, and in many cases it worked. However, with regions such as the Middle East and the Caribbean largely untouched, and racial diversity lacking behind the scenes, there’s still some way to go.
Below are five highlights from the exhibition.
Mladen Stilinović — ‘An Artist Who Cannot Speak English Is No Artist’ (1992)
To understand the work of Croatian artist Mladen Stilinović is to become accustomed to irony. Against the backdrop of the 1991 Croatian War for Independence, Stilinović’s work examined the crumbling socialist political climate of the East in relation to capitalism in the West.
His work acknowledges the irony and humor of how two opposing ideologies can co-exist, and so his 1992 piece An Artist Who Cannot Speak English Is No Artist was born. The tongue-in-cheek assertion explores the pivotal role language plays in both dictatorial and “free” states. The emphasis on promoting “global languages,” such as English, was an instrumental tool in colonizing and conquering lands. Stilinović speaks on behalf of the colonized with the colonizer’s tools.
In effect, the piece is a case-in-point critique of why we should re-examine the ways we communicate ideas about art in light of our desire for universality.
Keith Haring — ‘Untitled, 1987’ (1987)
In the late ’70s and through the ’80s, pop-artist Keith Haring rose to fame as his signature “radiant baby” marker drawings became a fixture on New York’s walls and subway trains.
His work, often exhibited as part of New York’s Downtown School, has been recontextualized by curators Eugen Blume and Nina Schallenberg from Erich Marx’s collection, which also includes works by Cy Twombly, Joseph Beuys, and Andy Warhol, and was loaned indefinitely to the city of Berlin in the ’80s. Haring’s Untitled, 1987 is part of a wider body of work that blends the socio-political with the kitsch.
At the time of its production, Haring’s outspokenness about drugs, gay rights, and AIDS activism shone through in his work. A year earlier, Haring opened the Pop Shop in SoHo, allowing the average Joe to purchase his work. That same year, he created a 300-meter long mural along the Berlin Wall.
Haring’s work, while niche, was a recognized globally. It touched upon his own experiences and spoke out for marginalized people everywhere.
Tita Salina — ‘1001st Island — The Most Sustainable Island in Archipelago’ (2015)
For the “Making Paradise. Places of Longing” chapter, curator Anna-Catharina Gebbers explores both the Orientalist tendencies of colonial-era art and contemporary Indonesian art.
The islands of Indonesia have been occupied at different stages of the country’s history by the Portuguese, Japanese, British, and Dutch. Tita Salina’s video installation, 1001st Island — The Most Sustainable Island in Archipelago, is a response to European Orientalism and the Indonesian government’s own “reclamation project” to construct 17 new artificial islands.
The name of the work is a reference to the Thousand Islands, a tourist paradise of islands in the Java Sea north of Jakarta. Salina, with the help of fishermen from Muara Angke, created an artificial island made of leftover plastic and marine debris. The island is a critique of both the new islands and government plans to build a giant sea wall in Jakarta Bay to protect new housing developments.
Her work examines the ecological ramifications of these construction projects, and confronts the consequences for sustainability and local tradition in the face of modernization and development.
Nicolás García Uriburu — ‘Rhein Aktion — Düsseldorf’ (1981)
Never one to shy away from location-specific works, Argentine artist Nicolás García Uriburu’s has repeatedly examined the way in which art should act as both a conceptual and communicative tool.
In 1968, he caused a sensation at the Venice Biennale when he illegally colored the Grand Canal green with a harmless fluorescein dye. He later did the same with New York’s East River, the Seine in Paris, and the fountains of London’s Trafalgar Square. In Germany, Uriburu and fellow artist Joseph Beuys dyed the polluted River Rhine in Düsseldorf the same color. The 1981 project, dubbed Rhein Aktion, was then exhibited to the public as bottled, green water, with the portrait above following.
His work would become prescient. Five years later, life imitated art when a chemical plant fire in Switzerland released toxic agrochemicals into the air, which eventually made their way into the Rhine, dyeing it red and killing thousands of fish and other wildlife. Following public outcry, politicians from the region agreed upon the 1987 Rhine Action Programme to clean up the river.
Heinrich Vogeler — ‘Kulturarbeit der Studenten im Sommer’ (1924)
Art historian and guest curator Clémentine Deliss explores the work of German painter Heinrich Vogeler in her chapter, “Portable Homelands. From Field to Factory.” The exhibit houses several of the artist’s works depicting rural life in the Caucasus region of Central Asia.
During WW1, Vogeler was sent to the eastern front, traveling to Poland, Russia, and Romania, where he was introduced to Bolshevism. Deliss argues this was the catalyst for the artist joining the Communist Party of Germany and his later relationship with the Caucasus region as he traveled around the Soviet Union.
According to Deliss, Vogeler’s work functioned as visual manifestos, in which he not only aired his support for the Soviet Communist Party, but would express his showmanship by taking his paintings to local homes. In juxtaposing Vogeler’s work with different artists, notably Armenian filmmaker Vardan Danielyan, Deliss’ chapter highlights the connections between artists in an age when free movement and open communication were a privilege.
Hello World. Revising a Collection will run until August 26 at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof.
Hamburger Bahnhof Museum Invalidenstraße 50-51 10557 Berlin, Germany
For those of you outside Germany, here’s what you missed at Berlin Gallery Weekend 2018.