KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin.
September 28 through November 16, 2008
Artists: Manon de Boer, Robert Bresson, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Miroslaw Kijowicz, Angela Melitopoulos, Gianni Motti, Chloe Piene, Wolfgang Plöger, Jeroen de Rijke/Willem de Rooij, Gregor Schneider, Norbert Schwontkowski, Taryn Simon, Fiona Tan, Clemens von Wedemeyer Curator: Susanne Pfeffer
The title, one can begin there. Gesscholssene Gesellschaft says, in translation, ‘Closed for Private Party’. The lucky ones admitted, the others left on the outside. KW’s autumn exhibition, curated by KW’s own Susanne Pfeffer, is a party of sorts, with those on the inside and those on the outside coming together for a sustained celebration, if that is not too much of a misnomer, of art work around the theme of the show: imprisonment. One is tempted to consider it an easy rubric, safe ground to cluster artists around, but these days, with Guantánamo Bay still operational, it does seem worthwhile to see what the artist can say about this oddest signature of the civilized beast.
And collectively, the work in this show did have a very worthwhile impact, for me it highlighted two novel aspects of contemporary life. Firstly that we are all, in the Western World, squarely part of, inherently connected to, the imprisonment extent within society. Second, that the modes of, and reasons for, imprisonment are changing, have always been changing through time, and this results in a wide spectrum of accepted forms of incarceration. These changes occur in line with received notions of retribution, notions that could be a metaphor for the pluralism of the times.
Clemens Von Wedemeyer made Big Business six years ago, and with his star ascendant in the interim, I was most interested to see this early video work. This remake of the Laurel and Hardy classic from 1929 showed up that unifying connectedness of westernized imprisonment. The video is shot in the grounds of Waldheim prison, one of Germany’s oldest, with inmates playing the roles of the Christmas tree salesmen, in summertime, and disgruntled potential customer. These same inmates, when not making video-artworks, are employed in the business of prefabricated housing. This is clearly within what Michel Foucault would term the ‘carceral system’: the prison, in its totality, and how it operates, including its own failure and allowance for prisoners not to reform themselves. A controlled microcosm of the outside world. We watch on as the two inmates destroy the house of the disinterested customer, who in turns destroys their car.
The originality of this piece comes in the reverse-focus scenes of the beginning of the video, highlighting the foreground to recreate a claustrophobic, obscure atmosphere, moving through to more defined, slapstick destruction we can all more easily identify. Within the space, The Making of Big Business, a video of almost the same length, was shown on a smaller screen just to the left of the main feature. Von Wedemeyer is often want to include such videos on his filmography, which is reasonable, but here it was a strange distraction in explication that only seemed to water-down the main video. These people on screen are not actors, the arrangement ended up saying to the viewer, they’re prisoners and in such a themed exhibition this becomes too conspicuous.
Curiously the curator placed around the corner a TV with the episode 101 from the first series of an MTV show, Juvies. This ‘reality’ TV show follows inmates of a juvenile correction centre in Indiana, US, following kids from when they enter the correction centre to when they leave – I found it very odd entertainment, but nothing surprises anymore. The choice is an interesting one because it asks questions about what Von Wedemeyer is doing making his art in Waldheim: pretty much the same thing as MTV? To sit and watch Juvies was in a way disturbing, certainly surprising, and after work by Jeroen de Riljke/Willem De Roolj, Gianni Motti and Taryn Simon which all held my attention to the appalling realities of the various versions of US imprisonment and State justice (including the death penalty for the mentally disabled as in Texas, US), it becomes even nauseating. A TV show for teenagers about teenagers in real prison. The carceral system indeed! Surface engagement and five minute installments between commercial breaks, a totally mindless media appropriation of humans locking up their children. A part of everyday reality perhaps, for a country where one in every thirty-two adults are imprisoned, more prisoners than any other country, even China – that is, America has a quarter of the world’s total prison population.
Gregor Schneider’s fabulous High Security And Isolation Cell (No. 4) 2005, was a highlight, a harrowing one. A fabulous highlight because it is located roughly in the middle of this large show, an installation you must enter and move through to continue the investigation of man’s ‘technologies of punishment’ and you, as viewer, are made to move in the space of imprisonment. A stripped down, denuded cell appears in the horribly uniform corridor; you enter, feel trapped, the foam mattress, the disgustingly sterile metal toilet. It is an anemic space, a travesty of the word room, and a reality for millions day after day.
The accompanying text to this piece stating: ‘Since January 11, 2002, the US government has kept around 800 persons in prison at the military base Guantánamo Bay in Cuba in prison. It is presumed that almost 80 percent of the current 300 prisoners are being held in isolation with no legal foundations.’ Inevitably, from the beginning of the show, Guantánamo Bay informs quite a few of the works here: from Motti’s The Victims of Guantánamo Bay (Memorial) to De Rijke/De Roolj’s capture of the colour orange. Their piece, Orange 2004, makes for a direct reference both to this cul-de-sac in American foreign policy, but also refers to the artists’ domestic Dutch issues, such as the rise of nationalism. Resulting in the expulsion in 2004 of 26,000 illegal immigrants, that is the controlled dominance of something undesirable. That is, Europe: Closed for private party. The likelihood of Guantánamo Bay’s closure in the foreseeable future is to be celebrated, but this exhibition demonstrates that it has left its mark. The fight that is upheld for freedom and democracy, these works remind succinctly, is deflated as long as such blackholes as Guantánamo Bay exist.
Politics are abundant elsewhere, showing the long-standing relation (or conflict rather) between opposing political beliefs and the power of incarceration. The inclusion of Angela Melitopoulus’ DVD Antonio Negri, The Cell, released this year, is a deft nod to the history of revolutionary forces imprisoned, or you could say neutralized by the state machinery, (sometimes falsely in the case of Negri) in the last fifty years. The RAF in Germany – the à la mode and iconic Meinhof and Baader notably absent from this show – to the Red Brigades in Italy. The prison often becoming the sad stage for the leaders of these groups to self-destruct. Negri’s reports of prison life are telling, rather like Foucault’s, in that he identifies the move away from disciplinary punishment in for the form of simple incarceration and surveillance, to the more sophisticated cerceral system of prisoner reform and rehabilitation. The ‘disciplinary careers’ of psychologists, doctors, criminologists all operating in an encompassing, totalizing impact on the world of the prisoner. One thinks of A Clockwork Orange, or those fearful last lines: He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.
Norbert Schwontkowski’s Gefängnis, 2008, is a small painting, complete with his trademark rolly-polly figures, trudging behind the wire-topped wall, Don Bosco painted ethereally across it. The text tells us the original motto of this Italian priest was ‘Be Happy, do good, and let the sparrows sing.’ We’re also told that the prison that helf the radical Left political prisoner Adriano Sofri was called after him. Funny how neatly this little painting fits into the overall structure of the show: concise, simply executed, a mournful and muted comment on political imprisonment/neutralization.
Around the corner, after a disappointingly slight piece by Hans-Petter Feldom, comes Robert Bresson’s masterful Un condamné a mort s’est échappé ou Le vent soufflé oú it veut from 1956. Totally engrossed by Bresson’s amateur cast and the true story of the film, I passed away most of my time in the exhibition here, still not even managing to see the end. For the show is big, sustaining an engagement with its theme for much longer, and more pleasantly, than I had at first thought possible.
On the next floor Wolfgang Plöger gives us the last words of the condemned in a nice installation with projectors, Last Statements, 2007 and Miroslaw Kijowicz’s animated film Klatki from 1967 was a real pleasure, a hopeful protest after so much despair. Before finally, in the top floor, the darkened attic, we’re given Johny Cash in Quentin:
I find it very, very easy to be true.
I find myself alone when each day is through.
Yes, I’ll admit that I’m a fool for you.
Because you’re mine,
I walk the line.
The private party of the prison was easily proved to be not so private. A closed world no doubt but one to which we’re all inexorably linked. Walking back through the exhibition on the way out, hours later than I had planned, a strange, unexpected sensation came to me. For every man, woman or child imprisoned, there must be a little bit of you or me imprisoned along with them. Though I must admit, this sentimental sensation probably is not the intended outcome at all. But then, private parties are there to be gatecrashed..
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John Holten is a novelist, poet and editor. His website is found at www.johnholten.com