Experimental Geographies

"There is tenderness only in the coarsest demand: that no-one shall go hungry any more" – Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia (1974: 156)

From Extreme Realism to Traumatic Cartography

In between archival trips and transcriptions I was lucky enough to catch a couple of excellent exhibitions on Friday. This year’s Berlin Biennale, entitled “what is waiting out there”, adopts a deliberately politicised stance toward the relationship between artistic practice and reality. We are told in the pamphlet that accompanies the show that the “works presented in the show reject the tendency – increasingly observable in art – to turn away from reality and towards art-immanent and formal problems. They counter this tendency by insisting on a stringent view of our present and its reality.” These are laudable and ambitious commitments and speak to the urgency of trying to make sense of (and sensible) the contours of the world in which we now live. While I haven’t had a chance to catch all of the work in the show yet, I did go see a selection of preparatory drawings and gouaches by the nineteenth-century German painter Adolph Menzel that are currently on display in the Alte Nationalgalerie under the title “Menzel’s Extreme Realism.” This section of the biennale has been curated by the well-known American art historian and critic Michael Fried and, in many respects, magnifies concerns that Fried explored in his wonderful book on Menzel, Menzel’s Realism: Art and Embodiment in Nineteen-Century Berlin. Fried’s recent foray into contemporary art photography has not been without its critics and his return to the work of Menzel is a return to more familiar territory. As Fried suggests in the accompanying notes to the show, Menzel’s “extreme realism” is less about the accurate depiction of reality than the creation of an “intensely empathic vision of reality.”  The significance of Menzel’s dazzling draughtsmanship lies, if we believe Fried, in its ability to establish an almost “physical connection” with reality producing it rather than simply reproducing it. The 31 drawings selected by Fried are displayed (bravely it must be said) in a single-line hang and focus on a range of topics from detailed renderings of fallen solidiers to the crumpled folds and bulges of an unmade bed (far far more compelling in my view than that other unmade bed). Menzel produced thousands of such drawings and Fried’s carefully curated show offers us a glimpse into Menzel’s remarkable talent and technique. If these are works that seek to embody the Real (and a particular sense of being in and of the world), they also provide a much needed historical counterweight to more recent artistic attempts to grasp the complexities of the world.

Later the same day, I attended the award ceremony for the  Käthe Kollwitz Preis at the Akademie der Künste. As I noted in an earlier post, the annual prize recognises the wide-ranging contribution of an artist to the fine arts and this year’s winner is the Lebanese-born Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum. The ceremony was followed by the opening of an exhibition of Hatoum’s work in the Akademie der Künste. The ceremony was packed as was the exhibition so it was rather difficult to fully take in the work on display. The show included some of Hatoum’s earlier performance and video-based work including Roadworks (1985) and Measures of Distance (1988). Much has already been made of these pieces and I don’t wish to dwell on them here. What was of particular interest to me was the subtle use of mapping methods by the artist across a range of media. This can be seen for example in 3-D Cities (2008-2010) in which the artist adds a third dimension to conventional cartographic representations of Baghdad, Kabul, and Beirut. More specifically, Hatoum has made a series of concentric cuts into the maps of these cities. One is thus confronted with a series of metaphorical bomb craters that remind the viewer of the literal violence visited upon these sites. Cartographic abstraction is transformed into a landscape of traumatic remembrance.

Other works that draw on a cartographic motif include Baluchi (2008) in which the missing piles of an ‘oriental’ rug have been fashioned into a world map and Projection(2006) in which a similar map is produced using a version of pulp painting involving abacá fruit and cotton. The large-scale Globe (2007) uses, in turn, massive steel supports that run along longitude and latitude lines to create a work that not only reminds us of the geometric abstractions of cartography but places us in direct physical relationship to them. Globe anatomises a particular mode of address where outer and inner worlds – which is to say the world of the beholder and that which is foreign or outside of that world  – are brought into subtle confrontation. The nature of that confrontation is a running theme in the show at the Akademie der Künste and I will need to return on a quiet afternoon to properly take it all in.

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