How a Genre Exhibits Itself by Discussing the Exhibition

Berlin – Moscow/Moscow – Berlin 1950-2000, Martin Gropius Bau, Berlin, 27 September 2003 – 1 May 2004 

The exhibition review is one of the most unmerciful genres created by literal cultures. In this context the critic’s iconoclasm takes subtle revenge for the disregard of the written word after the so-called “pictorial turn” in Western societies.

Trying a shaky balance between ekphrasis, elevating the review to the status of pictorial art, and textual criticism of pictures demonstrating the domination of verbal over visual discourse, the reviewer shifts from the position of a viewer to that of a reader, often playing off the second against the first.

While 20th century art dealt with this relationship in several forms, transforming the critic’s role into art as such and reflecting the verbal and literal comment as an integral part of the aesthetic object, critics remain surprisingly unwilling to reflect on their role and function between rhetorical enargeia as the highest state of verbal visuality on the one hand and the demolition of omnipotent icons on the other.

In the case of the Berlin-Moscow exhibition the translation of pictures into texts meets with a special intriguing situation, because the curators of this highly ambitious project are nothing but obsessed with pictures as paintings.

Although, of course, nearly all genres of visual gestures are presented, and although the curators paid tribute to the inclination of 20th century art for literal forms, graphic dimensions of paintings, and graphematic pictures, the selection of the exhibited material is based on the idea of painting as the main representative of art.

Especially the German curators of the Russian-German team took into account that their emphasis on paintings would help to avoid a historical approach, which would have reduced the show toa mere chronological text-book-illustration of fifty years of post-war debates. Thus the exhibition supports a purely artistic approach.

The critics reactions on the curators’ decision are accordingly curt. Commentaries vary from “placeless, luxurious autopanegyrics of international contemporary art” (Lothar Müller, Süddeutsche Zeitung) and “gigantic essay”, in which works of art have fallen victim of the “curators’ hocus-pocus” and were degraded to “illustrations of dull theses” (Sebastian Preuss, Berliner Zeitung, 27.9.03).

Such remarks do not really come unexpectedly, because from its very beginning, the project was seen in suspicious opposition as well as analogy to its successful predecessor in 1995, which opened up an eruditious retrospective survey of art history before the visitors’ eyes.

More interesting, however, are the critics’ counterstrategies to elevate a verbal picture to the position of an icon, which is about to be destroyed.

In his review for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (21.10.03) Karl Schlögel punishes the curators for their abuse of art as a “big sponge, which wipes over the historical scene and eliminates the turning points”.

His article then bursts out in a long enumeration of pictures not shown, facts not represented, aspects of history neglected, and knowledge ignored.

This synopsis of objects of an alternative exhibition, where Sacharov’s photography is shown next to the violet perfume of Soviet officers’ wives in Eastern Berlin and Vladimir Vysocky’s songs, ends up in an exhausted ”It’s senseless to cite more pictures.”

This citation of pictures of an imaginary exhibition, which supplements the existing one and aims to replace it, not only tries to substitute an art exhibition by a documentation, but it struggles with the impossibility to discuss the phantasma of what one sees and cannot seize in terms of narrative discourses.

Destructing an exhibited picture by superseding it with a verbal image, flirting with the critic’s incorporation as a phantasmatic curator may seem the easiest and the first step of verbal access to art.

Yet one could imagine even more intricate steps. Hanno Rauterberg presents one of these steps in his review (“Die Zeit,” 1.10.03), calling the curators of Berlin-Moscow “the last artist-heroes of the presence”.

Rauterberg attests to the show’s conveying a habitus of harmonious l’art pour l’art, thereby constructing a big lie instead of analyzing conflicting aesthetic and ideological systems.

The curators’ attitude towards art is even characterized as “colonial”, for it assimilates and homogenizes what once was foreign and heterogeneous.

While Schlögel asks for an album of reminiscences, for an almost nostalgic collection of memories, Rauterberg sees the exhibition’s function in a neutral scientific discourse of systematic examination and analysis.

An analysis, which cannot be performed, when curators and art historians start to juggle with images; an analysis, which only art critics’ ‘logotextism’ is able to provide.

A third possibility to solve the conflict between re-viewer and re-reader is to textualize the exhibition itself.

Not confronting it with a fictitious one, not comparing it to a scientific study, but regarding it as a written text.

The read image as supplement for the viewed one – this seems to be one of the most popular manoeuvres of reviewers as readers.

Often enough this approach does not considerthe pictorial structure as a textual one, but it even banalizes (reduces) the exposition to a novelistic surface.

“The result is mere belletristics”, Barbara Kerneck (“TAZ,” 30.9.2003) resumes. “The works of art act like people meeting in a historic novel”.

Her review persistently follows this argument when she regards the exhibits as love-stories and cold war thrillers.

The narrative harmony Rauterberg prioritizes is artistically performed in Kerneck’s affirmative dream of romanticized storytelling.

One may still ask, what is the actual iconic starting-point for the reviewers’ reading, their imagination, and their examination? What arrangement causes such emphatic re-narration, such re-arrangement, such re-scientification?

By neglecting historical contexts, objects in Berlin-Moscow were aesthetically de- and recontextualized and turned into so called “constellations”.

Showing different conceptual focuses, every room presents a collage of objects, where often enough pictures, sculptures, photographies, and installations not standing in an obvious temporal or local connection are linked with each other.

This conception proves extremely productive in the room “The Rhetoric of the Sublime”.

Here Barnett Newman’s Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue IV (1969/70) meets face to face Fjodor Fyodor Bogorodsky’s sots-realistic hero-painting Glory to the Fallen Heroes (1945), awarded with the Stalin-price.

At the same time Newman is located next to Komar and Melamid’s sots-art painting Origin of the Socialistic Realism (1983) and with Mark Tansey’s allegory of art history Forward Retreat (1986).

Nevertheless, this precise combination of undoubtedly extremely heterogeneous material remains an exception for the whole exhibition.

Other rooms show a less motivated compilation of objects, as, for example, the strangely labeled room “Terror of Virtue”, where Norbert Bisky’s One Cannot Make an Omlet Without Breaking Eggs (2002) is juxtaposed with Georgi Gurjanovy’s Javeliner (1994) and Martin Kippenberger’s I’m Trying Really Hard, But I Can’t Discover a Swastika (1984).

Similarly far fetched is the constellation presented in the room “Phantasmagoric Interferences”, where Rebecca Horn’s grand sculpture Tree of the Sighing Tortoises (1994) is correlated with Expecting a Wonder (2000), Olga Chernysheva’s photographies, which show women in woolen caps from behind.

Neither the whispering gravity of Horn’s installation nor the filthy anonymity of Chernysheva’s photography manage to realize a successful dialogue about their phantasmagoric interferences; nor do they provide a productive aggression on this theme.

Rather, one can observe how Horn’s rhizomatic sculpture expels Chernysheva’s works in a soft and at the same time cruel and obstinate way.

Despite the different levels and focuses of the forty-five constellations, they all converge in one respect: all of them cooperate only on a highly elaborated rhetoric level.

The newly created assemblages of objects, the co-existence of which often seems more than arbitrary, demand an uttermost verbal motivation, which is given through rhetorics functioning as a genuine verbal device.

One could argue that the verbal art of rhetoric itself aims for a transformation into the space of pictorial art through iconic speech.

Furthermore one could suggest that rhetoric itself is not more than a metaphor. Still, Berlin-Moscow focuses the other way, and a constellation like “The Rhetoric of the Sublime”, which so brilliantly operates with the potential of iconic interaction, makes use of it as a painted ground for a verbal discourse.

The exhibition verbalizes pictorial art by working with paintings as if they were tropes. Thus, the basis of an exhibition, accused for its l’art pour l’art-fixation on painting, is a verbal one, being suspicious of the naked painting more than a critic could be.

The concept of the catalogue displays this structure in an interesting way. Disappointed by the exhibition itself, many reviewers turn to the catalogue, for the text should offer what pictorial constellations refuse.

The exhibition’s catalogue consists of two separate books: a picture-book with short descriptions of selected objects, which either do resemble associative fragments or do provide the reader with rough handbook-definitions, and a textbook that presents more detailed discussions of themes which the exhibition was not able to show.

It is nothing less than a reviewer’s topos that the textbook, offering written material instead of images, represents one of the most fascinating sides of the show.

But at the same time it is even more: it demonstrates how the curator’s imagology meets with the critic’s iconoclasm in a quite peculiar way; What at first sight seemed to be an obsession with images turns out to be the curator’s trust in text.

And what came along as a misbelieve in the power of painting, asks for the recreation of the image through the critic’s written discourse.