Approaching a row of billowing orange flags and the KW logo everywhere, like a medieval castle delineating its territory along Augustrasse, it is evident that Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art, is an impressive contemporary art space. The institution, founded in the late 90’s by Berlin-based artists and students, is located in an old margarine factory and collaborates with MoMA PS1 and Documenta X. From the street, a large arrow directs visitors through an entryway, across a courtyard, past KW Cafe Bravo, and to a set of bright red doors emblazoned with a large white KW…
It is a gray Tuesday afternoon and I am meeting a new friend, Jen, to view the “One On One,” group exhibition featuring installations contained within small rooms. Visitors view the works one at a time. The exhibition pamphlet ends with, “Each of these rooms generates its own, immediate and undisturbed situation where art, time, and space can all be perceived in new ways.” “One on One,” was curated by Susanne Pfeffer and features works by: Massimo Bartolini, Nina Beier, Joe Coleman, Trisha Donnelly, Geoffrey Farmer, Hans-Peter Feldmann, FORT, Gunter K., Annika Kahrs, Robert Kusmirowski, Alicja Kwade, Renata Lucas, Yoko Ono, Blinky Palmero, Anri Sala, Jeremy Shaw, and Tobias Zielony. It closes on January 20, 2013.
After an explanatory introduction from the front desk staff, I felt encouraged to seek unexpected moments in every nook of the architecture. Since this was my first time at KW, I began by attempting to enter the men’s lavatory thinking it might be the first room installation. My lack of familiarity with the exhibition space made me primed for discovery. Whether or not you’ve been to KW before, I recommend ignoring the exhibition pamphlet, with its clear markings distinguishing the art from everything else.
It didn’t occur to me until my friend and I began entering the separate rooms, alone, that this isn’t the best exhibition to see with a new acquaintance. Soon we lost track of one another and any hopes of small talk, shared interpretations, and the usual kind of gallery banter were dashed but the work was so immersive and thought-provoking neither of us seemed to mind. A curious and brave spirit is important upon entering “One On One.”
On each of three floors you are presented with a series of doors. Before entering one, you are to place a doorknob sign, similar to the “Do not disturb,” that is hanged on the door of a hotel room, to ensure that no other visitor enter. On two occasions I walked in on someone. In my defense the occupant had not placed a note on the door. I opened, she quickly turned to me, I smiled and shut the door. No words were exchanged. She had been watching a projection and turned to see me disturbing her. Had she been a part of the piece? I had no idea. Just prior, I had been in a startling room, “A Holy Ghost Compares Its Hooves,” 2012 by Joe Coleman, where a human was a part of the work and as you view other people in the galleries, you begin to ask yourself is that a person or is that a performer? Is there a difference?
When there was a performer in a space I did not take a photograph. For some reason it felt too objectifying and I am reminded of Susan Sontag who, in On Photography, wrote, “To photograph people is to violate them. … It turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.” When I felt I was in a position of dominance such as standing over the shoulder of a performer working away at little figurines in Coleman’s piece I was compelled to balance the power by attempting to follow cues for appropriate behavior. When I felt I was being dominated such as in Annika Kahrs’ “For Two to Play on One,” 2012, where I intruded upon two men playing piano, I felt compelled to undermine their authority and test the perimeters of the piece.
Later, I saw the woman I had interrupted and felt relief. I felt it better to have bothered a patron rather than miss out on one of the more confrontational pieces. What if another patron intentionally left the door sign off? Undermining the concept of the exhibition. Allowing viewers to be alone with the artwork creates opportunities for collaboration or defacement. Was I trusted not to touch or was I being asked to? In “The Charmer,” 2012 by FORT the air felt stiff and unmoving. A small refrigerator sits at the opposite end. I walked over, knelt down and opened the doors. Feeling the artist set the scenario intentionally, I left the doors on the running appliance open. Was this an act of vandalism or an appropriate response to the piece?
To touch or not to touch? The unique occasion of solely experiencing a work of art was directly explored in a few installations. The room featuring an installation by Hans-Peter Feldmann titled “One on One,” 2012 consisted of a pedestal, under spotlight, with an open box of candy bars. On the front of the pedestal, engraved on a small gold plaque was a disciplinary “Nein.” This piece is clearly toying with us and our adolescent need to touch, take, alter, or, of course, eat. In another room, Nina Beier’s “Potato Potato,” 2012, the floor is covered in a brown, long, fur-like carpet. At the end of the narrow room there is a small television with an image of a potato. Kneeling down to the low hanging screen it becomes clear that the potato is moving from within as if breathing. A sound, seemingly, from behind the screen compelled me, magically, subconsciously, to touch it. My finger tips grazed the side of the flatscreen and I got a zing of electric charge presumably from the rug. Had this been the plan for me from the moment I entered? I wonder to what extent each micro-moment has been choreographed and controlled by the artists.
By the third floor one has a system. First, let us see which doors are without dangling signs. Next, sounds heard, presumably from within, influenced my expectations heavily. Third, evaluations of the room’s exterior shape to get a sense of what we might be in for. On one exceptional occasion I discovered a fake plant hidden away between the exterior of the room and the wall of the gallery. A reward for being curious before getting another view from inside a miniature museum setting by Geoffrey Farmer titled “Untitled (Vitrine),” 2012. The moment of finding the plant before going in was exhilarating and smile inducing. To experience the total newness of each room is such an important aspect of this exhibition that I dare not post too many images or give you explicit details into the works, their locations and what other delights await you. But I cannot resist one last story.
At the end of the room containing, Anri Sala’s, “112 mm / 137 Days,” 2012 there was a small peep hole. Looking in I saw a person unmoving in the corner of a space with walls covered in papers. I watched for a bit and the person did not move. I confidently concluded that it was a statue made to look as though it was looking at the papers on the wall. I proudly explained my theory to my friend. I told her that the exhibition space next to the one I had been in was permanently marked as occupied to make it appear as though there was a real human in there when in fact it was a statue. Obviously, a subtle commentary on the set-up of the show. I decided, proudly, that I would go into the supposedly occupied space to find a stiff mannequin. I opened the door, marked occupied, to have my eyes meet those of a woman unhappy to see me. Not a statue after all. With a smile and a quick, “Sorry,” I closed the door on “Margret,” 1969-70 by Gunter K.
When one’s work is consumed by a single person at a time, in a closed-off space there is an unique opportunity for total control by the artist. KW has given artists an opportunity to control nearly every element of a sensorial experience. By giving total control to the artist, the exhibition is inherently a critique of the average exhibition experience. Visit “One On One” to see how each chose to use this power ranging from haunting to confrontational. “One On One” encourages a thoughtful curiosity that sticks with you upon leaving the galleries to perceive Berlin, full of hidden corridors and glimpsed scenes, suddenly anew.
“One On One” closes January 20, 2013
Hours: Tue – Sun, Noon – 7pm and Thur, Noon – 9pm
General Admission: 6 Euro
Thursday Evenings 7-9 pm: 4 Euro
KW Institute for Contemporary Art