Neighbours in Arts - Neukölln/Norway

What does living in a community stand for and what does it signify? How much responsibility are you willing to accept: as a visitor of the gallery in the Körnerpark, as a resident of Neukölln, as a temporary guest in Berlin, as a tourist - or as an artist?

And will you be able to do this responsibility justice?

Questions like these sparked off a recent fundamental debate on the subject of integration in Neukölln. A recurring topic of this borough of Berlin, that is often defined by its population which consists of many people with diverse immigrant backgrounds. Yet in this context the term integration is often seen provocative, if not inflammatory, implicating exclusion and separation. Furthermore, suggesting a cultural adaption and levelling. Indeed it is as if integration really meant the ironing over of cultural differences and social conflicts, which exist in any living community. Carrying them out in public is hard work but essentially of vital importance for the functioning of any society. Since many years the word integration has sounded like a problem, at best an insufficient remedy for a social deficiency symptom marked by an inadequate exchange inside the community.

These were also the questions to be dealt with in this exhibition, as the organiser of this exhibition, the Norwegian artist Randi Nygard started asking herself. What shape does this exchange take in her own immediate surroundings?
As Berlin attracts artists from all over the world, inevitably many have chosen to take up residence in Neukölln.. However, how and to what extent do they contribute to an exchange with their immediate environment? Nygard found that hardly any of the artists she knew could be regarded as well integrated, rather most played a part in the „parallel society“ of the art circuit. Keeping conspicuously still and to themselves, reluctant if not outright unwilling to engage in the society they are a part of, if not inapt at communicating outside of the restrictions of their art world ghetto.

Randi Nygard decided to do something about this - she wanted to draw attention to the works of art that were actually being produced around the corner, not in the format of an open studio tour to put the artists themselves on display, but as a local gallery exhibition. Although, she did not intend to make this a primarily social project, it still has a substantial social dimension with the group of international and local artists participating in a communal presentation at the Galerie im Körnerpark.

It was importantfor Nygard to reflect on the fact that many like to take pride in the number of artists and galleries that dwell in Berlin, to the point of regarding it as the metropolis of the art world. At the same time the district of Neukölln, even though recently becoming more and more attractive as a trendy place for going out, would hardly do the idea of an art mecca justice. In an idiosyncratic twist, she connected this fate to her home country of Norway, in spite of international observers taking notice of a whole generation of young Norwegian artists pushing into the international art scene. Today, she and many more of them live in Neukölln.

The show which she assembled for the Galerie im Körnerpark does not attempt to offer a complete overview of Norwegian artists working here, nor is it an advance into the global art discourse. In fact she doesn‘t even try to pass the show off as a big curatorial deal, but she is rather taking pride in aiming for it to be a decidedly local event. In this sense it is simply an attempt to show the neighbours what artists from Norway are working on next door, in Neukölln, be it videos, photographs or installations. Thereby reaching out, giving the artists not only a platform, but also a chance to connect the artists to their local communities.

Therefore this show may not function along the usual representational strategies of city marketing or an official part of Norwegian cultural affairs, far removed from a national contribution to some sort of art Eurovision à la the much discussed and overhyped Berlin art overview „Based in Berlin“.
Rather it can be regarded as a relaxed and easy alternative draft for an exhibition, which counters the overheated art and gentrification discourse in Berlin. In this it requires none of the ubiquitous rhetorics of self-legitimation that appear to be s much in fashion at the moment, but seeks to do nothing less and nothing more than actively initiate and establish a form of communication between the producers of art and their direct neighbours as a potential audience.

Some works shown here relate directly to specific qualities of the exhibition venue and Neukölln in general. As the artists selected their own works for the show, in terms of what they see fit to represent their general artistic approach, without referring to a larger or super ordinate curatorial concept, they often opted to reflect primarily on facetsof their own practice. None of the works use images, which metaphorically or speculatively exploit the aforementioned topics of national identity, migration or integration. And it is precisely for this that this exhibition can be regarded as a programmatic contribution. As for the artists this is a demonstration of presence, not only as artists, but also as members of a community, as neighbours.

But what forms does this take? Or what forms can sustain a sense of validity in this context?

The entrance of the show is marked by what at first appears a surreal installation, „Swan Song“ (2011). But Maja Nilsen‘s swan hanging head down from the ceiling is inspired by a real life event, of a an assassinated swan in a public park which at the time spiked significant controversy. A golden rope around its neck draws the dead swan to the stone that would sink it. An absurd image on many levels, bringing to mind the proverbial swan song as well as the famous solo of the dying swan in the ballet Swan Lake by Peter Tchaikovsky. But rather the installation appears to be a monument to the erratic quality of vandalism, and the neglect of public property, which is basically what the swan was. Thereby it poses questions, that reach further into the realm of the everyday, such as: where does vandalism end? In the cuts of public funding of the arts maybe, that will affect young artists first - and established, so-called high art forms later, such as classical ballet
or the canon of literature?

In the 13 minute video „A sense of Beginning“ (2011) by Munan Øvrelid, the artist takes on one of the most iconic figures of German culture altogether, the poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller. In a tour de force of a sculptural and aesthetic deconstruction, the pits three plaster busts of the poet not only against his own words on poetry, but also the logics of reason and economy, in other words, the reality of the assembly line. Placed on a conveyor belt, the busts eventually fall and burst apart, and in more of the same treatment Schiller himself is subsequently reduced step by step to smaller and smaller shards. Finally only a mountain of a crystalline white dust is left, while excerpts of Schiller‘s text „On naive and sentimental poetry“ run as subtitles, bringing nature and culture together with ideas of the sublime and perfection. The white dust, conjures up conflicting images, say, of sand in an hour glass, or, alternatively, of mountains of cocaine, both ultimately symbolising futility and vanity.

The artist Anna Særnblom also works with seemingly simplistic forms, but employs a completely different set of existential references. She shows an enigmatic ensemble of bleak prints on canvas, in an installation titled after herself „Saernblom“. Her work appears to constitute a nearly hermetic self portrait culled from disparate modernist and mythological fragments, ranging from Jean Arp to symbolist rays and a spear to material collages. Having lived in Neukölln for a while, she already exhibited here, alongside Liv Bugge, among others, in the legendary local basement gallery of the Café Warschau. Here, on Tuesdays at nine, the barkeeper allows groups of three (maximum) into the incredibly cheesy but cheerful basement, to experience the show in relative privacy. She also collaborated with Liv Bugge on the video piece „An average satisfaction“(for flute and piano). Bugge replies with the installation „Stigma Erection“(2011) , which picks up on the role of sexuality and social patterns, featuring a small watercolour on paper, installed on a wooden board, of a long haired figure carrying a stone in her (or his?) hand. The words „Ritual #2 Your Nipple Becomes a Stone“ are wrapped half around it, addressing ritualised aspects of sexuality as much as the inadequacies of the metaphor itself, emphasised by two stones lying on a shelf at the bottom of the board. A photograph of a hand with crossed fingers adds an element of narrative and suspense to the enigmatic arrangement - who is lying and to whom? Is the ritual a lie or the metaphor? Or is it the artist? Who will cast the first stone?

While Bugge incorporates the photograph into her installation, the photographer Magnus Bjerk created his own space by arranging a booth-like arrangement with four large photographs from his 12 piece series „The Inside Of The Outside Of The Inside“. Shot with an analogue camera in medium format and without the commonplace digital manipulation we have become accustomed to. Taken from inside trailers, the images construct never ending horizons, as the reflection of the landscape outside of the trailers expands seemingly infinitely inside. Thereby the trailer becomes part of a perception apparatus, an extension not only of the central perspective of the camera, but also of the eye of the photographer - and the beholder. The artist printed two of the photographs on transparent film and hung them into the room and off the wall, facing each other, a woman in the nude and a dog. They become characters in an ambiguous narrative of perspective and perception, presence and absence, domestication and sexuality.

In comparison to Bjerk‘s ambitious photographic craftsmanship the found collage „M.D.“ presented by Mai Hofstad Gunnes is an exercise in economy, with physical reduction expanding poetic potential. Picking up on another German icon, she reveals an unexpected storyline. She makes use of a damaged copy of the pocket book edition of Wolfgang Noa‘s seminal Marlene Dietrich biography, that she found at the flea market. Its purple, black and white cover features a photograph of Dietrich, that is missing to a large part. ,Having been cut out. it leaves only her long legs visible and reveals the first page of the book with a hand written note by an anonymous previous owner. The scribbles in hastily pencilled lines express self-doubts, and concerns about the feelings of his or her lover, that contrast vividly with the self-assured and conscious sexuality of the film diva, palpable even in what is left visible here, the tip of her toe.

The strategy of reusing found imagery is also employed by Marius Engh but to completely different ends, in a panel of ten photographs, arranged to a grid. It constitutes a cluster of haunted imagery, including a dramatic tomb, a door with a hole filled with the iconic film still from Stanley Kubrick‘s „The Shining“ of a mad Jack Nicolson breaking through a door, a tour poster for the 2008 Berlin show by American rock band KISS, a billboard advertising a pumpkin sale next to church in what appears to be a rather derelict area or the scenario of a horror movie, a cracked church bell with a swastika. The imagery shares formal qualities, such as the size and the snap shot look. But while the photographs seemingly innocently capture specific details of existing objects, they also mark different aspects of a popular fascination with the darker aspects of the irrational, death and evil. The artist allows the viewer to connect the dots to render the sketch of a larger cultural landscape of drab present haunted by history and a future foreboding doom.

This conjures up the idea of a „palimpsest“, a multilayered locale of possibly conflicting narratives. The neat horizontal arrangement of historical narratives are brought into disarray by Randi Nygard‘s paper works. They consist of two books that treat different readings of ideas of history and evolution. Pushing the books into each other, and cutting out and folding up the images to create what at first looks like figures of a fold-out book. But here there is a twist: these images can‘t be put back into their place back into the horizontal image, they stand out, jar into each other, creating a complex structure of dinosaurs and buildings, confined to the small space defined by the layout of the books. The title links these works to the idea of teeth, and brings to mind the German term „verzahnen“ using the image of the teeth of a cogwheel to describe the phenomenon of interlocking levels or events. Thereby she creates a striking image for the way that evolution, and all of history for that matter, today, can not be regarded as a linear narrative anymore, but as a complex process of interlocking occurrences, that happen for a plethora of reasons. Hardly anything can be seen as merely a singular event.

Works like these stand in stark formal contrast to the narrative video „Sunday Morning“ (2007) by Jannicke Låker, It shows the painful minutes of a large lady after what must have been a long night out, stumbling into her beautifully spacious Berlin flat, in a drunken stupor. In the course of the video she gets herself into increasingly awkward positions, which develop from mishaps to destruction and eventually disaster.
As a parody the story may represent different clichés to different audiences: the bohemian lifestyle of an artist to a regular citizen of Neukölln, or maybe a lifestyle that is only possible where the booze is cheap, to a regular Norwegian? Although it is not long and often quite comical, it is not so easy to stand the humiliating situation of the protagonist, even if it is not real, but simply well acted. Her overweight implies an often used stereotype of physical comedy, made famous by pioneers of the silent film era, such as Fatty Arbuckle or Oliver Hardy. In spite of these references, the main focus of this work is clearly not the history of comedy, but the existentialism of a contemporary way of life, where personal excess is only a reflection of a larger social status quo. One can see this a a portrait of a life of abundance, that extends into every niche of our western society. It reminds the viewer that it is actually true, that the private is political. And most of all, exactly the part one tries to hide or run away from, because that‘s where things go wrong.

This inherent idea of not wanting to se certain things, or of editing the domain of the visual is where Lars Morell‘s work becomes increasingly interesting. "The Symbolic Order Circle" is a series of still life photographs, with arrangements from objects and printouts from his research on the aesthetics of magic, such as posters and flyers announcing public performances by magicians or the legendary escape artist Harry Houdini. „Be Aware of Invisibility“, reads one flyer, another leaflet advertises the Dye Box Book, a legendary compendium of magician‘s tricks, while a glass bell and a rope are reoccurring props in all but one of the images, where they are substituted by a glove. Houdini is a key figure in this arrangement, as his artistry had nothing to do with magic, but with his albeit secretive skills. He considered it his mission to demonstrate, that magic is in the eye of the beholder, and essentially an illusion. It is created and therefore an art of presentation. This division between magic and illusion, or an object and its subjective perception, introduces the age we live in today, that appears to be dominated by a fixation on facts and reality, but can only process them as simplistic narratives, having become addicted to stories and their presentation, having created a whole culture based on showing or storytelling - but not on understanding.

The inability to create an own narrative of relevance is what agitates the characters in Goro Tronsmo‘s video „Muscle Temple“ part of a five week project documenting different young actors while they struggle trying to come up with an idea of their own, for the project they are part of. Self-mockingly the artist described her work as depicting „a bunch of hipsters that talk about projects without ever getting anything done“, which sounds like a caricature of much of Berlin‘s self-celebratory youthful art scene.
As an artist who is also a director of staged events, she devised a kind of happening for the opening of the exhibition, by having a huge cake produced in a local bakery. Again she hardly gave instructions but went with the flow, leaving it to the shop assistants to decorate the tart, in a „Norwegian style“, with the standardised decorative elements they had available.

As the final product turned out too big for delivery or transportation, the artist resorted to the spontaneous help of some young men passing by in their convertible, who drove it to the gallery. Here it was given away for free, to the bewilderment of the local kids, who after having their piece immediately left again, only to drag their friends into the exhibition. In effect the cake became a vehicle for the arts, by attracting many people, who under normal circumstances would hardly have visited the gallery, thereby turning the opening into a veritable block party. In this her work finally fulfilled the unspoken promise of the show, and established contact.

But Tronsmo‘s cake wasn‘t the only one at the show. A second "Cake" (2011), is a contribution by sculptor Trygve Luktvasslimo, and consists of a multi-layered structure, reminiscent of display furniture for shop windows from the 1950ies. Not at all edible, but with a surface cold and black, it is also quite the opposite of what a birthday or wedding cake usually represents, a joyous occasion. It appears to be more of an inversion, pretty, but gothic, and dark, as if in mourning. A second piece, a wooden structure entitled "That Way", a man-sized capital "T" leans against the wall, covered in drips of oozing goo, consisting of melted wine gums. It could be regarded as reminiscent of a cross, as if one would get crucified for being „That Way“, which is different from the others, whatever way one would choose to read it. But this also work suggests a more personal reading: the artist is plannning to use the structure for a happening on occasion of his 33rd birthday, the age Jesus had when he was nailed to the cross. The artist‘s first name begins with the letter T, and after all, even if it looks like a prop from a horror movie, the melted wine gum is still not only edible, but also probably still quite sweet, making for a sculptural self portrait, that has all the charm of a complex idea quickly and easily executed, with the narcissism of a sprayed tag, yet in full three dimensions.

Like the one Anders Kjellesvikfound on a piece of wood in a public park, that inspired the painter and printmaker for his installation, that crosses over into sculpture. Similar to a whole tree that the artist had charred, turning it into a gigantic stick of charcoal, so big it is rendered unusable, and was shown at a biennale in Moss dedicated to drawing. His current piece is positioned in front of an assemblage of images, that appear like a vault of the motifs he has exploited for his paintings and silk screen work in the past, ranging from private snaps to landscape imagery. The tagged tree trunk in front of the piece on the wall could be seen as an act of vandalism turned into exhibition furniture. Yet it also addresses the difficulty of approaching nature as a topic in art - and painting in particular - without resorting to traditional perspectives and stereotypes. In this sense this work is a piece of true contemporary romanticism, an attempt of artistic appropriation as much as any tag, but also a painterly claim, to reach out and grasp - or at least touch - what defines nature or landscape today.

There is a similarity here to the work of Anna Karin Stjernløf, as evident in her video titled „Closing in“ (2011), showing a hardly moving scenery accompanied by a meditative soundtrack, to be listened to over headphones. It appears to invite the viewer to become immersed, to consume the landscape offered on the screen as a place of projection of yearning. Somehow the image refuses this. Pretty as it may seem, it resists an easy identification, staying immobile - neither near nor far, but removed from the actual site of the exhibition. As if it was about addressing the impossibility of being in two places at once, however much one would dream of transgressing the obstacle of the space that separates one from the object of desire.

References to nature, classical and popular culture helped to make the works on display if not comprehensible so in any case accessible, even to an audience completely unacquainted with strategies of analysing the complex language of visual art. But education was never an issue here.
Still, with more than fifteen hundred visitors at the opening weekend alone it can be safely said, that the mission of establishing an initial contact of the local Norwegian artists with their immediate surroundings has been achieved. Now, it is a question of expanding this relationship, and the question arises, who will be next?
Certainly the success of this exhibition has helped to put the location of the Galerie im Körnerpark on the extensive Berlin map of art spaces to look out for. But for the artists, the show has already achieved much more - it has marked a point of arrival, not only as artists in Neukölln, but in this sense, as real people, as neighbours.

Andreas Schlaegel (2011)