Savitri Era of those who adore, Om Sri Aurobindo and The Mother.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

At Berlin Biennial, Art Fits Anywhere

By STEVEN HENRY MADOFF NYTimes.com: April 11, 2006
BERLIN — During the opening weekend of the city's fourth biennial, some 7,500 international art patrons milled up and down Auguststrasse, a storied street in the former East Berlin that starts poetically at one end with St. Johannes Evangelist Church and terminates at the other with the Old Garrison Cemetery. But visitors were not simply making their way to and from a museum or some smartly retrofitted warehouse, the usual location for a big contemporary art survey. They were waiting in the cold spring air to enter private apartments, an office, a ballroom, a shuttered school, a former horse stable, the church, the cemetery and the white-walled galleries of the Berlin Biennial's organizer, the KW Institute for Contemporary Art.
Inside this unusual array of sites, on peeling walls in several cases, or in someone else's living room, they viewed works that ranged from ominous — Mircea Cantor's chilling video of a deer watched by wolves inside a stark white gallery; Robert Kusmirowski's reproduction of a boxcar headed for the concentration camps — to droll, like Aneta Grzeszykowska's deadpan family photo album, from which she digitally removed every single image of herself. The biennial, which runs through May 28, was a focus of intense art-world curiosity in the months before its opening in late March — not least because this year's curators, Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni and Ali Subotnick, are art stars in their own right.
Apart from his renowned and darkly ironic artworks, Mr. Cattelan is internationally known for his curatorial partnership with Mr. Gioni and Ms. Subotnick, which famously spawned The Wrong Gallery, a sardonically named tiny exhibition space that closed last July in Chelsea. (It moved on to the Tate Modern in London for a three-year run.) Together, the three publish books and articles, give lectures, open their nomadic galleries and organize exhibitions on both sides of the Atlantic.
The question in the art world was, What would they do? Something clever and subversive? There was every reason to believe they would when, six months before the biennial, they opened a gallery at 50A Auguststrasse with a suspiciously familiar name: the Gagosian Gallery.
"We thought the real Gagosian might close us down," Ms. Subotnick said, laughing as she sat with Mr. Cattelan and Mr. Gioni at the KW Institute the night after the biennial opened. "But he never contacted us."
By using the Gagosian Gallery's international brand name in a humble space and highly local context, Mr. Gioni said, the curators sought to "create a kind of tension between the global and the local."
This was all part of their questioning of "what a biennial can be," he said.
By rough estimate, there are now some 200 biennials around the world. With so many similar festivals filling interchangeable white galleries, their usefulness is a subject for colloquiums and dinner conversations from Venice to Istanbul to São Paolo. Are they here to capture trends or to advance artists' voices in a larger social dialogue? Do they promote international understanding or local interests? Are they bully pulpits for curators turned ideologues, or are they simply there to tap the art market's stopwatch till the next survey of hot new things draws the attention of an ever expanding universe of collectors?
With a budget of about $3 million from the German Federal Cultural Foundation and nearly two years to prepare, the curators had ample resources to come up with an answer of their own. Typically, they broke the standard biennial rules, focusing neither on new trends nor on the latest crop of artists.
"You know, we say art doesn't go bad, it doesn't rot like food," Mr. Gioni said. "Art used to be about making something eternal. Now it's about a product with programmed obsolescence, almost with an expiration date."
"But what we came to understand in Berlin were the incredible layers of history and all the different ways that artists work and show here — not just in institutions, but in temporary spaces, apartments," he said.
"We realized that we could build a show out of the whole street, with artists from many generations, a show whose spaces capture 250 years of life, not just the vacuum of a gallery's white cube, as if nothing came before."
For months the curators traveled, mostly within Germany, building up dossiers of 720 artists they had visited or had heard about before narrowing the list of participants to 84. They chose artists whose works seemed to speak in some way to the curators' emotional touchstone: a single building on Auguststrasse, at Nos. 11-13, the former Jewish School for Girls, with its history of hope and tragedy. Opened in 1930, when the neighborhood was alive with Jewish culture, it was closed by the Nazis in 1942.
Once they had negotiated the use of the building, which had become a technical high school but was closed a decade ago, the exhibition's narrative became clear, and they gave the show a literary title, "Of Mice and Men," borrowed from John Steinbeck's 1937 novel. In an interview in the exhibition's catalog, Ms. Subotnick linked the book to the mood of the show, saying: "There is definitely a certain sadness in the show, a sense of darkness, and, of course, loneliness. And Steinbeck's novel was also bittersweet, mixing the sentimental relationship with a tragic, seemingly inevitable end."
The street's varied character became the loose organizing principle for the exhibition, which is strung along Auguststrasse like a collection of tales. Though the street bursts with local histories, for the curators it also represents an overarching sense of life, from birth to death, from innocence to the burdens of experience.
If anything, the art on view is about "an atmosphere of anxiety," as Ms. Subotnick put it, both past and present. In the terrifying video "Burn," by Reynold Reynolds with Patrick Jolley, viewers watch a domestic world turned into incendiary hell. Other works have an air of ethnography and loss, of precariousness and richness, like Michael Schmidt's atlas of photographs of German life since the 1940's and Tacita Dean's "Presentation Sisters," about the fading days of a convent in Cork, Ireland.
The curators' approach was greeted largely with approval by the art crowd in Berlin.
"The sad history of the street adds enormously to the art," said Jeffrey Deitch, the New York dealer. "And unlike all of these biennials in city after city, where the curator flies in for three days, chooses 25 local artists and flies on to the next place, the curators here did their homework."
"They clearly meditated on the power of the place as a microcosm for a larger understanding," he continued, "and there's a deep sense of place here, a deep sense of the way that different environments affect the way we look at art."
Mr. Deitch added, "It should be a model for a lot of biennials to come."
"Of Mice and Men," the Berlin Biennial, continues through May 28. Information: www.berlinbiennale.de.More Articles in Arts

Monday, April 10, 2006

Step Right Up to the Anatomy Lesson

By FRANCIS X. CLINES NYTimes.com: April 10, 2006
So, what did the show's artfully skinned, well-posed human cadavers ever do for a living? And how much pure P. T. Barnum gawking underlies the sober tones of education as crowds of paying customers at "Bodies the Exhibition" move wide-eyed and close-up past the anonymous fellow posed like Rodin's "Thinker"? His skin has been peeled off to display the gorgeous complexity of muscles, vessels, organs and gray matter underlying humanity — all vividly preserved in a special plasticizing process.
Actual corpses are theatrically lighted in living color, some partitioned like puzzle pieces, others sectioned as giant slide displays. All are beyond animation and the knowledge of what has become of their own remains.
"Guy was alive, a whole person," said a wary teenager as classmates checked out the thinker. "It's not my place to stare."
But the lad did. The cadavers — 22 of them — pretty much stared back.
It's like that at the Manhattan exhibition and at a growing number of shows in cities around the globe as rival companies tap for profit ($24.50 per adult visitor) into startling new dissection techniques. Bodies become virtual performers in balletic still lifes revealing their intricate parts in living color. Filigrees of complete blood and neural systems hang like mobiles. The muscle sheaths of one posed sprinter are teased out from his back like the wings of Mercury fleeing some abattoir.
Critics fear that the scores of beguilingly tweaked bodies dispatched like vaudevillians may come from black marketeers. But purveyors insist each body comes with firm legal documentation of natural death, unclaimed and available for purchase, just as anatomy professors have obtained cadavers for years.
Public reaction is as varied and visceral as the body displays. A doctor exults at such firsthand education for the public; another thinks forensic evidence of foul play is discernible.
Living voyeurs trump the corpses as the attraction. A teacher happily lectures a class mesmerized at the palpable truth of a halved heart. At the lung display, a young smoker named Jen is gleefully summoned by her classmates to see the shiny black lungs of a dead smoker. Some pause at the message at one undone body: "It's never too late to start that workout."
But wait: that fellow extended athletically with a baseball in his flayed right hand (split-finger fastball, it seems) was allowed to keep his eyebrows for human emphasis. This invites pathos to blur the science: what's the witless man's history? Who was he really?