Berlin’s Temporäre Kunsthalle stands next to the now-vacant site of the Volkspalast, the former DDR parliament building. Each time I visit, the Kunsthalle seems—like a big semantic sponge—to have soaked up a little more of the identity of the demolished building next door. Last time I looked in, Allora and Calzadilla had filled a room with their video of the Volkspalast being patrolled, during its demolition, by an alsatian dog muzzled by a Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket. Now—in a work called ‘Echo’ by Bettina Pousttchi—the exterior of the building has been clad in photos reproducing the mirrored bronze-gold windows of the vanished ‘people’s palace’.
Inside, though, the references to the Volkspalast end. The Kunsthalle is currently showing Scorpio’s Garden, a group show which attempts to give a snapshot of the artistic production of emerging artists working in Berlin. Curated by artist Kirstine Roepstorff, it focuses on sculpture and performance. ‘For me’, Roepstorff told online magazine Art-in-Berlin, ‘Berlin is a garden situation. There’s a lot of green, a lot of wasteland, a lot of uncropped areas. It’s a piece of nature that you somehow try to get control of.’
There are also a lot of foreigners in Berlin making art, so Swedes, Finns, Americans and Brits figure prominently amongst the 30 or so artists in the show. Roepstorff is interested in fragile things, things which only exist when a community of people decides to believe in them: democracy, love, relationships. She also likes people who don’t use conventional materials, so instead of paintings she’s filled the big metal shed with constructions featuring bamboo, concrete dust, plastic furniture, milk cartons and paper. These are, she says, ‘artworks that we only recognise as such if we all agree they are’.
Performances feature every Monday night and I caught the one on 12 October featuring Gerry Bibby, Fiona James, and Egill Sæbjörnsson and Marcia Moraes, all artists not represented in the daytime part of the show.
Sæbjörnsson and Moraes began (after a few technical glitches) with a sort of absurdist live video presentation, their bodies plastered in white to make them human screens for the video projector. Raymond Scott-like music and intentionally shallow didactic narrative about ‘the mind’ made the piece feel like a patronising 1970s TV show.
Unfortunately for the artists, there’s a much more moving video installation in the show which also evokes 1970s TV: Laura Horelli’s mother was a Finnish children’s TV presenter, and Horelli’s piece shows her mother (who later died of cancer), appearing with a puppet fox in slow and freeze-frame sequences. The result packs an emotional punch Sæbjörnsson & Moraes’ performance seemed to lack.
American Gerry Bibby knocked a picnic table against a wall while reciting conversational banalities and phatic tropes, eventually toppling a beer bottle onto the floor and smashing it. The evening’s star performer, in the end though, was Fiona James, a young English artist currently based in Berlin.
James is strikingly attractive, with the lithe, athletic body of a dancer. Dressed in a short blue tunic-dress and grey tights, she marks her body with felt pen letters transcribed from a sheet of paper, repeating a series of choreographed moves which included lying flat on the floor with her legs parted, or making sweeping pointing gestures, while reading excerpts from the correspondence of architect Richard Neutra.
James then whites up her face and positions herself in front of a video screen showing an American TV interview with Ayn Rand, ‘doubling’ or ‘becoming’ Rand by superimposing her face over Rand’s, and mouthing her replies in real time. This was an impressive performance, and Fiona James is an artist to watch. The curator seems to agree: this piece, entitled ‘PLOT’, is the only one repeated on each performance evening throughout the run of the show. Other performers making an appearance are Juliette Blightman, Simon Fujiwara and Tim Davies, and language-oriented Swede Karl Holmqvist.
Scorpio’s Garden is a sophisticated show featuring a good cross-section of emerging and mid-career Berlin-based artists; a kind of scaled-down biennial celebrating a city and a scene that enjoys celebrating itself. The right people are participating, and the Monday night bar entertainment is provided by recent graduates of the UdK, Berlin’s vast art school.
On the evening I attended, a keen audience of about 50 waited at the doors to see the performances. I had the impression that they were all friends of the artists or artists themselves, and this in-groupery is perhaps the only reproach you could level at the show. Scorpio’s Garden is a selection made by, including, and for Berlin’s artistic cognoscenti, a non-commercial, non-populist showcase for 30 of its best-nurtured, fastest-sprouting talents. That may be why it feels more like a hothouse than a garden or a people’s palace; there’s a distinct whiff of Baby Bio in the air.
Nick Currie (aka Momus) is an artist based in Berlin