The KW Institute of Contemporary Art is located in central Berlin’s affluent Mitte district. A former factory dating to the 1890s, its renovation carefully retains the ‘honesty’ of the building: all whitewash and exposed brickwork, industrial radiators left riveted to a wall where the floor has been removed to create a dramatic, double-height space. Such spaces now seem sophisticated, at the same time as being difficult to navigate, where awkward period features are not only a potential access issue for some, but can be intimidating for less confident visitors. That said, most sympathetic audiences appreciate such architectural projects, very much a staple of ‘The New Conservatism’ searingly outlined by Morgan Quaintance in his recent article for eFlux. Such gallery spaces might have arisen from improvisation and a lack of funds, but they can also become the ground upon which cultural capital is determined by a select few, understandably pressured to protect their patch in an increasingly hostile environment to the arts, and as such, feel all the more shook to discover they might be part of the problem.
These thoughts are present as I walk around Available Fonts, British artist Lucy Skaer’s first solo exhibition in Berlin. A selection of artworks from the past ten years are exhibited downstairs, with the large, three-part ‘Untitled (Black Drawing)’ (2016) reaching through to the floor above. Here is the latest commission, ‘Le Chasse’, (2017), a sculptural tableaux made in reference to the 14th Century guidebook for hunters, Le Livre de Chasse, apparently replete with some of the world’s finest illuminated illustrations. Knowing little about it, I search for images on my phone. On screen, red foxes leap out from the manuscript’s flatness by way of pattern, craft, and the colour that earns illuminated manuscripts their name: gold. Without the reference, I might still have sensed something vulpine in Skaer’s floor-based copper sculptures, which also suggest the blades and joints of scissors. The polished or brushed surfaces, anchored at just so angles with artfully imperfect globs of welding, recall the fur and ferality of creatureliness.
Further elements echo Le Livre de Chasse’s imagery. A grid of terracotta lozenges on the floor mimic the intricate backgrounds of the manuscript, but I find them more reminiscent of an archaeological dig awaiting classification: the sort of objects that might be boring to the average observer (a mass-grave of ancient hot-water bottles, say), but infinitely exciting to the expert.
A glass sculpture interrupts the lozenges, borrowing from their form but spilling out like disembowelled prey. Propped against the wall are three ‘flitches’, traditionally slabs of timber cut from the tree trunk; but here, two are made from aluminium, helpfully tipped into flitch-dom by the inclusion of their timber sibling. Viewed from the other side of the room they are pleasingly theatrical, cut-out trees that can’t stand up properly, feebly suggestive of a ‘forest scene’. Elsewhere, resin has been set into the windows, evoking amber and its associated preciousness as light passes through.
Downstairs, three 16mm film projections chatter in unison, at odds with their dignified visuals: a Rothko painting, the fur of a cat and the parchment of a Gutenberg bible. I read that the celluloid has been punctured by ticket punch machines used on New York’s Long Island Railroad, making the racket of the projectors a fitting soundtrack. Each punch bears a different shape, which reappear as ingots that sit in another part of the exhibition. I’m aware of how specific everything is, yet in a slippery contra-flow. I sense the artworks chasing each other around the gallery, and suspect it’s all in pursuit of something ‘big’ that I have trouble locating, which could be the point: as readers once looked to Le Livre de Chasse, I scan for further illumination in the exhibition guide, which suggests, rather elastically, that in Skaer’s work: form, meaning and value are traced through various states of formal and allegorical existence, governed by usage, trade, memory and mass production.
A corner not exactly turned, I keep moving. I try an alternative entrance to the downstairs room. A series of antique breakfast tables have been elegantly joined to form something like a centipede, inlaid with lapis lazuli. There is a gorgeousness to the piece, but it’s also sinister, perhaps because the tables and their prized stones evoke the era of colonial plundering. Later, the sculpture is rearticulated with ovoid, jesmonite tables on Eames chrome bases. These recall a modern board-room, but are in fact replicas of Skaer’s kitchen table. And here sit the ticket-punch ingots, the work named after the objects’ owners, a disciple-like list of traditional British names: ‘Rachel, Peter, Caitlin, John’ (2010).
But it is the juxtaposition of the the large wall-mounted print ‘Thames & Hudson’ (2009) set above the antique tables that I am particularly struck by. The work displays the range of possible ‘contact’ prints that can be made from a basic four-legged wooden chair. The marks create glyphs (the titular ‘available fonts’) that evidence Skaer’s preoccupation with abstract syntax. I’m reminded of the utilitarian furniture of the Shakers, a religion that practiced equality of the sexes, pacifism and communal ownership of property—hanging their ladder-chairs on the wall to eliminate clutter—now all but extinct due to celibacy. The print seems appropriately positioned above the vestiges of 19th century well-to-do domesticity, corresponding with the exploitation and inequalities it masks.
Skaer’s oeuvre satisfies an institution like KW: formally cogent and expansively theoretical. A drop-down list of ‘available fonts’ is not a bad metaphor. My final thought is only that in today’s climate, in which the art world can still be read very much as a closed economy of institutions, artists, critics etc, this compendious meditation feels very much a part of the lexicon, rather than a challenge to it.
Phoebe Blatton is from South East London and lives in Berlin. She writes fiction and criticism and is a co-founder of The Coelacanth Press