DAS INSTITUT is a tricky proposition, calculatedly so. Established nine years ago, it’s the on/off collaborative project of Kerstin Brätsch and Adele Röder, who both also maintain inventive solo careers. It’s a faux import/export agency whose products include trouser suits, decor and paintings designed by Röder but made by Brätsch. It’s a sidestepping of the cult of singular personality and a self-reflexive investigation into teamwork itself, where artistic proposals reflect, as the Serpentine puts it, ‘the intuitive, irrational element of human experience and relationships’. It’s uncommonly smart, strategic and feistily eye-strafing contemporary art, in short, and it’s now in a former gunpowder store in Hyde Park. Here Brätsch and Röder will, typically, complicate matters by showing both joint and solo work, including paintings and light-based interventions keyed to the body, as well as pieces by filmmaker Alexander Kluge, Sergei Tcherepnin, Ei Arakawa and Allison Katz.
Meanwhile, back in the city where Brätsch and Röder met as students but where neither now lives, it’s Gallery Weekend Berlin time once again. The present writer used to live in an English town where, to boost trade, one shopping street would host a fortnightly organic-food street market; gallery weekends, with their bells and whistles (parties and dinners) are the artworld equivalent, jazzing up the familiar. But they’re also very handy: swoop in, take a creative city’s temperature and swoop out again. Enough low-watt snark, though, as this one has an almost comically promising lineup, from the reliable (Wolfgang Tillmans at Galerie Buchholz, Carsten Nicolai at Galerie Eigen + Art, Christopher Williams at Capitain Petzel, Rachel Harrison at Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Mark Wallinger at Carlier/Gebauer, Jim Lambie at Gerhardsen Gerner) to the rising (Ed Fornieles at Arratia Beer, Megan Rooney at Croy Nielsen), to the revelatory (cosmic-ray-obsessive Horst Ademeit at Delmes & Zander). The present writer, on reflection, would like to withdraw his analogy with the hopeful cheesemongers of Tunbridge Wells.
‘Ich bin hier (Aiee-Ah!) / Und du bist mein Sofa’, sang Frank Zappa on Sofa No. 2 (1975). What he meant, of course, is ‘I am here (Aiee-Ah!), and you are my sofa’, and ArtReview will now proceed to make its greatest previews link ever as it vaults from Germany to its own charity auction project, 8 x 8 Mah Jong Re-imagined, in which eight contemporary artists have been commissioned to, yes, reimagine French furniture designers Roche Bobois’s Mah Jong modular sofa system. Collectors weary of matching possible paintings to their daybeds can now, you will grasp, do the reverse, via modified settees – variously functional, nonfunctional and conceptual – sourced from eight artists, including Peter Liversidge, Cornelia Baltes, Pio Abad and Larry Achiampong. The works will be on view at Roche Bobois’s Chelsea showroom and, excellently, sales will profit Vital Arts (Barts Health NHS Trust, which commissions art for the well-being of patients) and London’s indefatigable Gasworks gallery and studios. All together now: ‘Wir sind hier (Aiee-Ah!) / und hier sind unsere Sofas…’ and here endeth the public service announcement.
Get your defence in first, Shamim Momin clearly decided with regard to Wasteland, the show of 14 Los Angeles artists she’s curated for two Paris venues under the aegis of Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac. Yes, Los Angeles is, in the cliché view, a cultural wasteland ringed by a wasteland of desert and scrub whose main industry in turn cranks out rote cinematic visions of postapocalyptic wastelands. More classily, the show also refers to TS Eliot’s 1922 poem The Waste Land (and, we note, will be on in April, the ‘cruellest month’ of the poem’s opening line). Between them, a cream-skimming list including Lisa Anne Auerbach, Math Bass, Mark Bradford, Amanda Ross-Ho, Analia Saban and others will start ‘a reflexive, complex, multi-dimensional conversation about the poetics of despair, the search for true connection, the tenuous state of morality, and the uncertainty, yet necessity, of the future’. Which, incidentally, sounds to us a lot like Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).
Madness: ‘I am a self-taught raving maniac but not as crazy as Tomi. Or as great as Tomi,’ Maurice Sendak once said of French artist/illustrator Tomi Ungerer, whose oeuvre since the 1960s improbably spans illustrated children’s books, political satire and sexually explicit drawings. Fury: asked, at a children’s book convention in 1969, how he could write for children and produce his adult works, Ungerer – dressed as a robber – bluntly pointed out that if people didn’t have sex there’d be no children. This went down badly and the artist was effectively boycotted in America for decades. Of late, though, thanks to the omnivorous curiosity of curators and, perhaps, an increased acceptance of multifaceted creativity, Ungerer’s varied gifts have been embraced again, leading to gallery shows and institutional retrospectives (even in America, with a show at the Drawing Center, in New York, in 2015). This one is dedicated to his sculptures, assemblages and collages, focusing particularly on his work in this last medium, which tends towards the lonesome and the absurd – and, aptly for Ungerer, often emphasises human/animal hybrids, neither fully one thing nor another.
‘Have technical devices, originally designed to satisfy our desires, enslaved us already, or will they enslave us in the future? Or rather, do they open new ways of thinking, acting and creating?’ Search us. Still, that’s the animating inquiry of The Promise of Total Automation. The 36-artist group show at Kunsthalle Wien takes the timespan from Fordism to the Internet of Things as a backdrop for practices in which ubiquitous mechanisation is not necessarily a calamity but, at best, an opportunity, a counterpoint to ‘improvisation and a sense of wonder’ that perhaps even makes explicit how necessary those human qualities are. A cross-generational affair that stretches from Thomas Bayrle to Cécile B. Evans via, among others, Athanasios Argianas, Mark Leckey, Magali Reus, Peter Halley and Melanie Gilligan, The Promise… ought to illuminate not only where we’re at but also how we – and those robot waiters now entertaining diners in the Far East – got there.
Art Sheffield takes place in a city famously retooled by industry – specifically its material relationship with steel – and then transformed again by the fallout of the postindustrial era. That’s a process which artistic director Martin Clark, who now directs Bergen Kunsthall but studied in Sheffield and curated his first show there, is marking by setting works by his chosen artists (including Florian Hecker, Beatrice Gibson, Charles Atlas, Richard Sides, Hannah Sawtell and Michel Auder) in not only the city’s institutions, but also suggestive sites including electricity substations and former industrial buildings per se. Expect, amid this, a focus on what grew out of the South Yorkshire city in the Thatcherite/Cold War era, particularly the electronic music scene of the 1980s, from Cabaret Voltaire et al to Warp Records, and the politicised scratch video contemporaneous with it. Expect too that the locations, each spotlighting a single artist, will add up to what Clark calls ‘an exploded group show, exploring the dream life of the city’.
Brazilian-born and Goldsmiths-educated, Erika Verzutti neither hews to tropes of tropical modernism nor fabrication-driven conceptualism. Instead, as Swan, cucumber, dinosaurs at Pivô, São Paulo, will confirm via four sculptures dating from 2003 to the present, she’s a confident fantasist, delving into both the past and a pastoral imaginary. Her small sculptures in concrete and bronze nestle little egglike forms and cast fruits, suggesting rustic Hans Arp works, or sit propped on wheellike geodes; elsewhere, she arranges cobblestones and coloured rocks into querulous faux cemeteries, and the results – ‘denizens of alternative worlds located somewhere between the real and the fantastic’, says the Guggenheim – have an ethereal charm that descends from multivalence. Here, clay-based sculptures refer to Tarsila do Amaral’s 1929 painting Sol Poente, with the modernist painter’s view of a tree trunk transforming into cucumbers and swans’ and dinosaurs’ necks. In other words, they’re archetypal Verzutti: funny, sociable, sometimes sexualised, ominous and timeless-feeling due to their use of classical materials and natural forms, and yet, within contemporary art, a new wrinkle.
Staying with the funerary, Ho Chi Minh City-based trio The Propeller Group – formed in 2006, operating as a fake media agency, sending out deliberately garbled brand messages while exploring the concerns of contemporary Vietnam – here returns to New York, where for the 2012 New Museum Triennial they hired an ad agency to market communist ideas as filtered through capitalism. ‘We like to let ourselves get ingested into the bellies of big social beasts such as television, advertising, or the various manifestations of pop-culture,’ they’ve written. For the 21-minute film The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music (2014), set to show at James Cohan, they return to contemporary Vietnam, the country’s tradition of spectacular funeral processions and specifically a wake lasting several days: we encounter street performers, brass bands, mediums and ‘professional criers’ through a classily shot, wrong-footing mix of fluent documentary and reenactment, reality and illusion.
We’re not foolish enough to end this column with Marco Basta just because his name means ‘enough’ in Italian: it’s a total coincidence. Anyway, in his mixed-media solo show Green, Blue and You, the rising thirty-year-old Milanese looks likely to continue his already-established scenography of restrained gestures, in which isolated forms and specific tints – orchids, hands, feet, solitary doughnuts, often inked on warmly yellowed paper – associate with discrete emotional states. In this case, underwritten by colour associations with tranquillity and melancholy, some works allude to the containing form of vases; glazed ceramic sheets offer hints of a landscape; and a circular neon suggests antique lace embroidery. It might not sound like much, but because Basta understands the weight of restraint and the orchestration of mood, it’s enough.
This article was first published in the April 2016 issue of ArtReview.