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Julia Rommel Tanya Leighton / Berlin Art Week

The titles of Julia Rommel’s abstract paintings read like a trip down memory lane: Senior Year, Suburban Kids, and Rascals (all works 2018) are indicative of children testing the limits, or feasting on Fancy Cherries at fairgrounds — another title. Rommel’s bright color palette, which forms geometric planes, also plays into this rosy nostalgia. It’s only the title Ex-Husband that hits you in the stomach and throws the exhibition’s name, “Twin Bed,” into relief (note the singular suggesting one bed where people sleep apart). The nearly seven-by-seven-foot canvas includes two vast red rectangles — one fat, the other thin — divided by a blue border: two parts of a whole, now separated.

Taken at face value, Rommel’s paintings can be read as the result of yet another practice applying old-hat Greenbergian ideas of medium specificity and facture — work about the formal potential of abstract painting. She staples linens to stretchers, priming and painting before removing and restretching these on different frames, applying further paint and repeating the process on other structures. What results are varyingly sized, angular facets of color, often revealing the support and suggesting two-dimensional shapes moving in and out of three-dimensionality. For example, Happy Camper has rectangles of canary and lemon yellow underscored by baby blue, while Floater is a sea of lapis lazuli sliced through with planks of bubble-gum pink. They look like joyous harlequins, the texture of some sections smooth and thick, while others are dry and scrubby or even washy.

Julia Rommel, Twin Bed, 2018, installation view at Tanya Leighton, Berlin
Julia Rommel, Twin Bed, 2018, installation view at Tanya Leighton, Berlin. Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Leighton.

It’s the titles, and furthermore, the exhibition’s text written by Rommel, that lends another aspect to these works: one of storytelling beyond formal aesthetics. She describes her personal life: the “sadness coming in from the external world,” the momentary “good experiences” and the paintings being lively and thick when her intention was quick, thin, and light mark-making. Given that women artists continually struggle to be judged purely on their work, rather than biography or persona, this could play into a trap of feminizing abstraction, making it emotional. Indeed, this is what happens here: Rommel’s abstract paintings become about her life, her feelings — “women and their feelings!” people might shout as the gender binary digs its heels in. But everyone has feelings, whether they are taught to express them or not. The fact that Rommel pins hers to her practice with such honesty is as stirring and energizing as the work itself. I say: “Speak up and learn to listen!” — society needs it.

by Louisa Elderton

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Trisha Baga Greene Naftali / New York

Trisha Baga’s “Mollusca & The Pelvic Floor” positions the viewer at a crossroads between virtual fantasy and scientific verification. Upon entering the gallery, the viewer is ushered into a mise-en-scène of quotidian objects and oddities, all rendered in glazed ceramic: an Amazon package, a bust of RuPaul wielding a virtual assistant accessory (RuPaul: Calcified Encasing for Virtual Assistant, 2018), a shirt absentmindedly left on the floor (Elvis Has Left The Building, 2018), a pack of dogs in the shape of pyramids with fires calmly ablaze on their heads. Unbeknownst to the viewer, this confounding array is a forebear to Baga’s main attraction.

A thirty-seven-minute video, from which the exhibition takes its title, can be heard from a darkened room through a curtain of vinyl strips. Reclining on a gaming chair, behind the lens of 3-D glasses, the viewer is able to bask in splices of footage depicting scenes such as a night-time recording of the artist and her dog passing through Sicilian caves alongside sartorial mash-ups of blockbuster films such as Contact and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. As the viewer bathes in this deluge of content, a glowing blue halo (recognizable as the awakened reaction of an Amazon Alexa) hovers in midair on the screen. At random intervals, Baga’s voice commands her Alexa, renamed Mollusca, to turn on a fan, activating various appliances that are dually integrated in the installation: an air conditioner, a radio, a clock. With each request, these objects come to life. The co-display of signifiers and the signified is a recurring trope in Baga’s oeuvre. Whereas the artist would once perform in front of her video projections, here she substitutes her body with the banal everyday objects that cameo in her films.

Trisha Baga, General Fatigue, 2018
Trisha Baga, General Fatigue, 2018. Courtesy the artist and Greene Naftali, New York.

Baga’s exhibition is an attempt to reconcile the feeling of vertigo symptomatic of our current media overload. While she aptly conjures the fractured and overwhelming admission of infotainment, the lack of structure is at times too oblique for its own good. This sense of total confusion succeeds in suppressing the pure absorption that is typical of spectacle; yet the desire to grasp a connection between the layers of content leaves a somewhat nagging feeling.

Baga’s practice reflects the schizophrenic desires of our current age, in which we yearn for the authentic while compulsively yielding to virtual immersion. As the possibilities of a digitally augmented reality continue to proliferate, there is a counter desire to return to preindustrial methods of material reification — in which the magick of the machine is confirmed through something tangible. As our reality becomes increasingly abstracted by digital life-forms and AI, the pendulum swings towards a return to the real.

by Ariella Wolens

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Bodys Kingelez MoMA / New York

In 1971, military dictator Mobutu Sese Seko took control of Congo, renamed it Zaire, and campaigned for a vast cultural reappropriation: he got rid of colonial signs and attributes and advocated for Africanization instead (“Zairianization”). In particular, he sought to establish the capital, Kinshasa, as a major metropolis and to glorify his reign by instituting ambitious architectural projects.

Beyond urbanism, an impulse for reimagining a novel society was set. As a result, Bodys Isek Kingelez (1948–2015), who fell in love with Kinshasa and lived in the city for most of his life, contributed to this nascent collective dream with his urban maquettes — miniature sculptures of buildings and cities. Looking at his models (Kimbembele-Ihunga, 1994; U.N., 1995; Ville Fantôme, 1996; Ville de Sète 3009, 2000) we wonder where the lines between engineering and fantasy, architecture and sculpture, become blurred — whether theses cities are functional or simply dreams from an imagination on fire, or both. Using colored paper, commercial packaging, plastic, soda cans, bottle caps, and other cheap commercial materials, Kingelez expresses a “more harmonious society of the future.” Inspired by a welcoming utopia where all races live in peace, free of violence and disease, the structures (hospitals, campuses, towers, parking lots, electrical plants, etc.), infrastructures (roads and waterways), and meta-structures (cities) are meticulously organized to serve this common purpose. “If you succeed in building a model,” as he once said, “you visualize what is inside of you.” Thus does the architect eventually realize his true nature: he is an artist with a vision, working with a purpose. The hope for a loving, carefree mankind manifests at every level, from the microscopic details to the macroscopic ensemble. In his “ghost city” (Ville Fantôme, 1996), Kingelez said “there is no police force in this city, there are no soldiers to defend it, no doctors to heal the sick. It’s a peaceful city where everybody is free. It’s a city that breathes nothing but joy, the beauty of life. It’s a melting pot of all races in the world. Here you live in paradise, just like heaven.” In this politically corrupt setting, which would lead to the demise of Mobutu’s government in 1997, Kingelez’s sculptures would precisely entomb a naivety to propaganda, an audacity for power, and a cult of glamour all their own.

by Alexandre Stipanovich

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Alexander Kluge Belvedere 21 / Vienna

“Pluriverse” is a brilliant exhibition threatened by a fatal oversight: only a few of its fifty-five films have English subtitles. German-speaking audiences may know Alexander Kluge’s work from broadcasts of his cultural programs during the late 1980s — shows like Facts & Fakes, News & Stories, and Prime Time — but his Anglophone reception seems limited to people educated in Frankfurt School critical theory. To explain “Pluriverse,” we must balance descriptions of the films with the context of Kluge’s life and approach to film for non-German-speaking viewers.

Once a confidant of Theodor W. Adorno and legal adviser at the Institute for Social Research, the legendary filmmaker’s work is entrenched in ideas from critical theory. One example: for Adorno, thinking in “constellations” represents the relations between autonomous ideas without isolating them from the whole or forcing their integration; Kluge’s “constellative montages,” however, bring autonomous images into new interstellar clusters to release their unrealized promise. There’s a clue in the title. A “pluriverse” suggests multiple antagonistic universes, each with their own contradictory potential.

In practice, silent film–style intertitles — their text in peculiar colored typefaces to give the words new energies — interrupt the smooth flow of images. This aims to create invisible epiphanies between contrasting elements, producing antagonisms between image and spectator, who must generate the relations between the images.

The Willful Child / A Goat in the City (2018) juxtaposes a discussion between Kluge and celebrated director Michael Haneke about the bleak Grimm fairy tale “The Willful Child” with scenes of a goat going for a nighttime walk through a major German city at the same time as a public demonstration.

The triptych Forging Press (2018) places footage from a Czech factory alongside images of English industrialist Abraham Darby and Industrial Revolution–era engravings and paintings. Haggard Czech workers use machines to pick up and squeeze huge slabs of blinding-hot molten metal to a tune of grinding noise; but woodcuts of industrializing England remind us that things were once different: human beings had to be disciplined into working, and we had to subject nature to our collective will to make way for factories.

At certain points in Work. Anti-Work. Industry 4.0 (2017), Kluge contrasts the relentless toil of workers in a Chinese coal mine with a clean, automated German car factory. Covered in coal dust, the sweating, bleeding, and occasionally resting and smoking Chinese laborers are reduced to their labor-power. In the German factory, meanwhile, the movements of the machines are uncannily human. They look like arms with mouths at the end, but no digestive tract, and their movements as they attach bolts to car doors jarringly resemble those of a baby at a mother’s breast.

Kluge’s theoretical background suggests that the exhibition’s fragmentary parts (films) and constellatory whole (spatial organization) mutually reflect one another, but he refuses to reduce this to a mechanistic logic that would produce direct connections between the different elements. Their relation leaves an unpredictable remainder, simmering with prospects. Most important for Kluge is that we come away from his films filled with hope for radical social change, despite the many catastrophes we see around us every day. When I ask him if there is still a role for utopian thinking in art, politics, and theory, he responds by referring to a line from one of the films: “Utopia is becoming better and better the more we wait for it.” Kluge thinks a better future is still possible, and our task is to seize the possibility of that possibility.

by Max L. Feldman

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Katja Novitskova Whitechapel Gallery / London

I catch sight of a partial phrase, rotating like a mobile above me: “though it lacks eyes, it can still see light.” The text is printed across translucent resin, its gelatinous curves insinuate neuroimaging; black dots court red foci, arrows gesture toward some viral travel.

Several similar signs border Katja Novitskova’s “Invasion Curves”the latest iteration of her roving project, which has traveled from the Venice Biennale to KUMU museum in Tallinn, to London’s Whitechapel Gallery. Here, Novitskova’s scaffold drips in limp, tentacular wires; a sequence of egg-shaped microbial close-ups introduces a hemisphere of bedazzling baby rockers.

Human life has no profound influence; its presence is relict or ostracized. The attraction to colonial expansion is less geographical and more biological, and in this light we rely on the technosphere — big-data analysis, genetic engineering, AI, digital pattern processing — to see in unprecedented depth and detail. In this regard, “Invasion Curves” solicits no projective future, nor science fiction. Rather, Novitskova uncovers and conceives new dimensions previously imperceptible to the naked eye: the surface of Mars, individual neurons of a lab-test worm, or satellite images of storm patterns. Particulate and celestial, the material is produced not only by machines but for other like-minded technologies. With this imaging we recognize the proximity between realism and science fiction — that their difference lies in the level of representational energy each expends to either reflect a past reality or project a parallel one. Novitskova manipulates this coalescence: that to translate the eminently real is to only visualize a further fiction.

Stylistically, Novitskova reduces her complex source material into flat cutouts or kitsch assemblages in ways that ape the stupor induced by big data. Though the resin signs appear liminal, it is the baby rockers that assume the most defining presence. Each is embellished with robotic bugs, Swarovski crystals, stress pills, silicon stress eggs, tree mushrooms, and acrylic massagers. In their laser-strewn jittering, cradling digital scans and accompanied by Kareem Lotfy’s glitchy lullaby, they appear goofy yet sentient, as though humanity were mere precursors to their evolution.

“Invasion Curves” hints at the paradox of automation, that the more machines learn, the more humans unlearn. It is a flirtation with the obliteration of human dominion, a subordinating side-eye. Novitskova recognizes that we are metabolically involved in the world via the data we harvest from it, that the simulation of the world is part of the world, that natural ecosystems are increasingly artificial.

This is true of Annual Reports (2018), sixteen digital prints on clay finished in metallic nail polish. Their information from weather satellites, extinction graphs, and MRI scans are deliberately abstracted and bear the most unsettling and literally graphic tone. It is like a mirroring of what a human eye can recognize — significantly less than what the machine captures or the algorithm calculates. Eyeless yet superior, and as a nearby sign reads: drunk with power.

by Alex Bennett

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Danh Vo Statens Museum for Kunst / Copenhagen

Nemo propheta in patria is a saying valid for many, but not for Vietnamese-born Danish artist Danh Vo. His art speaks a language, tonally and thematically, that is very close to the prophet’s ability to evoke historical events through images of great emotional impact, thus influencing collective thinking. Many of Vo’s most famous works are powerful and sibylline, sensual and often subtly uncanny. In Oma Totem (2009), the artist creates a bizarre fetish of immigration by piling the objects donated by social services to his grandmother upon her arrival in Germany; or in Christmas (Rome) (2012–13), the shadows left by religious artifacts on velvet wall-coverings once used in the Vatican’s museums are transformed into a visual memento mori.

These and several dozen other pieces constitute “Take My Breath Away” — the almost omni-comprehensive survey of Vo’s production that, after being presented at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York last spring, has recently taken over a large part of the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen. The exhibition rightly rejects chronology and focuses on an installation system that underlines the force of Vo’s artistic personality: that of a “borderline archivist” who combines sources and eras with no apparent criteria, mixing highbrow and popular culture with nonchalance, winking at globalism while celebrating the singularity of each story.

But many choices in the show are perplexing. In one of the two exhibition rooms, the storage shelves take the archival note a bit too literally, and the spotlights create a theatrical atmosphere that exaggerates the works’ dramatic charge, depriving them of that cool touch that suits them so well. The exhibition catches its breath in other areas such as the entrance hall and SMK’s Sculpture Street, where Vo displayed the scattered pieces of We the People in 2013; but if on the one hand these in-between spaces are more appropriate for a less inhibited experience of Vo’s art, on the other hand they become a set for a series of ad-hoc collaborative projects that, among other things, see the artist restyling the auditorium’s cushions and redecorating the new cafeteria with plaster statues borrowed from the Royal Cast Collection.

In general, there is a certain anxiety in curating an artist who is very good at curating himself, and this does nothing but provide him with opportunities to broaden his brand of “serial appropriator.” The impression is that everything Danh Vo touches becomes gold; but as we know from the myth of King Midas, this can be a blessing as well as a curse.

by Paola Paleari

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