When the curatorial hives off: Four months with Jutta Koether and Gerard Byrne in Kreuzberg's new exhibition space "Praxes"
frieze d/e, 26. Februar 2014
The founding of the non-profit Praxes in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district last autumn caused quite a stir. This may be because its founders, curators Rhea Dall and Kristine Siegel (who previously worked at Kunsthal Charlottenborg and MoMA respectively) exude a thoroughgoing professionalism that sets them apart from the dissident understatement that prevails at many of the city’s other non-profits – even if Praxes, too, runs on the usual model of precarious funding from various sources plus committed volunteers. The logo and website are well designed and the premises, two floors of Werner Düttmann’s brutalist St. Agnes Church complex, have been stylishly renovated. Even before the first two shows featuring Jutta Koether and Gerard Byrne opened at the end of August 2013, Praxes had established its status as somewhere people felt they ought to be – as demonstrated by packed openings and a well attended programme of events.
Instead of showing only the results of artistic or curatorial processes, Praxes wants to make these processes visible. The venue’s name evokes a medical laboratory, and it calls its exhibition series ‘cycles’, suggesting long-term testing. The cycles extended over fifteen weeks and consisted of several separate phases, three for Koether, five for Byrne. Their shows were built around finished works, most of which had already been exhibited, although not in Berlin. In Byrne’s case, the result was an overview moving successively from recent to older pieces like Why It’s Time for Imperial, Again (1998–2002), before focusing in phase four on the three-channel video and photographic installation 1984 and Beyond (2005–07). Based on a discussion between sci-fi writers from a 1963 issue of Playboy, this work is an example of Byrne’s gripping film re-enactments of historical conversations.
With the reverse chronological order of the show and the increase of mixing and reprising within individual works, the curatorial concept itself reflected Byrne’s layering of past and present knowledge production. From phase two, a white tree made of plaster, the speculative reconstruction of a lost stage prop made by Alberto Giacometti for a 1961 production of Waiting for Godot, served as a sculptural supplement, occasionally changing position and animated in phase three by means of a new lighting arrangement (these gestures are part of the ongoing work In Repertory, since 2004).
Each of the three phases of Jutta Koether’s exhibition was built around one part of her sculptural triptych The Double Session, first show in June 2013 at Campoli Presti in London. Viktoria and Luise (both 2013) consist of shallow glass bowls, one oval the other round, resting on glass cylinders. The dishes hold arrangements of found objects: a wine goblet, a string of plastic beads, a fake gold bar, screws, a sticker that reads ‘Destroy’. Isabelle (2013), on the other hand, is a canvas in the shape of an upended letter L with a penis painted in pink and orange oils. Hung at chest height in the centre of the space, like a projectile frozen in flight, it was proof of the transitivity described by David Joselit in his essay Painting Beside Itself (2009) as characteristic of Koether’s approach to painting. The term ‘transitive’ could also be applied to another form of display used here by Koether for the first time, with mirrors serving as the background for paintings stood on low shelves. One referred to a painting by Poussin (Black Garland Berlin (#1: WTF), 2011), another to the contemporary Berlin icon Peaches: Souveraine Nr. 5 (after Peaches) (2009) shows the singer on her knees, between her legs a circle emitting rays. The successive presentation also promoted this sense of transitivity. At indefinite intervals during phase three, members of the gallery staff replaced some of the small paintings, adding to the ‘speculative dossier’ referred to in the handout.
With its focus on accounting for the historical, economic and social conditions of its own existence, Koether’s work seems especially well suited to an institution wishing to examine these same processes. The title of the triptych, for example, refers to Viktoria-Luise-Platz, a square in Berlin’s Schöneberg district where Koether has had informal talks about psychoanalysis two friends. The phallus in Isabelle – after Texte zur Kunst co-founder Isabelle Graw – thus stands, among others, for Graw’s interpretative authority. But does this really open up structures of debate, or does the act of naming in fact amount to a display of one’s own power? Rather than helping to examine such artistic and curatorial gestures, the concept of dividing up the triptych and allowing it to enter into ‘dialogues’ with other works merely overwrote the gestures in question with a series of new gestures.
Something similar happened in Byrne’s case. The last part of his show included video footage of actors performing in the space among his installations. In handouts, the curators listed a subjective selection of events during opening hours – the start of a video, the setting of the sun – resulting in something that read like the script for a particularly slow-moving Beckett adaptation. In both cases, the exhibition offered reflections on events that went nowhere because they were not tied to any identifiable interest.
The most striking difference between Praxes and other institutions is that truly everything is up for discussion. Finally, what is presented here, like everywhere else, are results of artistic and curatorial decisions – except that here no clear line is drawn between the two (according to the curators, the decisions during the first ‘cycles’ were taken jointly) and the reasons behind them are obscured by the Kafkaesque proliferation of more and more decisions. As well as events marking the beginning and end of the cycle, plus six individual openings for the various phases, there were also five discussion events, some of which suffered from inadequate moderation. Rather than providing a counterweight to the work, situating it and developing possible criteria and questions, curatorial activity here took on a life of its own and switched to the side of art. Engagement with the work diffused down to homeopathic levels, giving way to a quasi-spiritistic approach based on ‘letting the work act for itself’ and on subdividing time and space. Visitors are expected to come again and again, and the work is supposed to come into its own. That is a bit like the tortoise and the hare: every time you come back, you are just as far from the finishing line as before.
– Translated by Nicholas Grindell