Preis der Nationalgalerie 2017 at Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin

By Raimar Stange

Sol Calero, Amazonas Shopping Center, 2017 (installation view. Photo: Trevor Good. Courtesy the artist and Laura Bartlett Gallery, London

This year’s shortlist for the biennial Preis der Nationalgalerie (or National Gallery Prize) offers up an unequivocal statement: all four artists – Sol Calero, Iman Issa, Jumana Manna and Agnieszka Polska – are women, and none of them was born in Germany. Outwardly, this is a welcome declaration in an age of both growing nationalistic rightwing populism and increasingly visible misogyny; but such a proclamation always comes at the cost of individual qualities that may not fit its message. Some days after the opening, the four nominees published a statement against the thematic shortlist. In their opinion, they were being instrumentalised by the museum in the services of political correctness and sponsorship relations; they also complained that they received no fee for the show.

Despite all that, the jurying has led to a unified aesthetic constellation, one where the works contrast each other effectively. Sol Calero presents her multipart spatial installation Amazonas Shopping Center (2017). In the tradition of Belgian artist Guillaume Bijl’s displacements, the work assembles functional spaces into a cheap-looking shopping complex in the exhibition space: a hair salon, a salsa studio offering dance classes, an Internet cafe, a travel agency, a money-exchange station. The Caracas-born artist wrapped the ensemble in a Caribbean aesthetic full of lush sensuality, one that’s long been a cliché for an exotic Latin American lifestyle. At the same time, the economies gathered here tell of a precarity that globalisation has brought about in big cities over the past few decades. Also on view in the Amazonas Shopping Center is the 30-minute telenovela Desde el Jardin (2016): filmed as a queer opus with over-the-top acting in collaboration with Dafna Maimon. The telenova delivers the modern-day ‘opium of the masses’, television as a leading distraction from our everyday precarity.

Iman Issa’s Heritage Studies (2015–17) focuses not on the power of excessive sensuality but rather, and conversely, on strict conceptuality, as we know it from art-market-critical work of the 1980s. The Cairo-born artist creates geometric sculptures that are reminiscent of minimal art and react to examples from antiquity. This reaction is, however, structured less through mimetic reproductions than it is through an interpretation of Issa’s impressions of the past. The artist calls her reconfigurations ‘mental prints’ – subjective remembrances, seemingly, less to do with how something looked than how it felt – about which she then comments via short texts that read like museum information labels. The work HS 22 (2016)for example, consists of two bowling-pin-like structures stuck into each other; the accompanying text points programmatically to the original’s fictional location: ‘The Global Museum of Ethnic Arts and Culture Collection’.

Princeton-born Jumana Manna shows several works, including the video project A Magical Substance Flows into Me (2015), with which she brings a more documentarian aesthetic to the exhibition in lieu of a fictional narrative. The starting point was Manna’s exploration of the work of Jewish ethnologist Robert Lachmann, who researched traditional Arab music in 1930s Palestine and assembled this into a radio programme. Manna then searched for Palestinian musicians from the same demographic groups with which Lachmann worked, and filmed them playing music researched by him. The film thus positions history and the present in a tense dialogue, in which traditional cultural heritage functions as a kind of catalyst for narratives on life in Palestine today – some scenes are shot in the musicians’ apartments. Even if the film isn’t particularly original in terms of its aesthetics, it is convincing, thanks to the political weight of its subject matter.

Finally, Agnieszka Polska presents her two-channel video What the Sun Has Seen (Version II) (2017). The film is partly animated, combining computer-generated images with real footage from everyday scenes. A cigarette butt, for example, seemingly flies through the film screen; a busy street is shown in fragments; and sun and earth, rendered like emojis, show up again and again. Amid this flood of images and words, the sun and earth – gifted with ersatz mouths – tell of our environmental problems, at times with a comedian’s humour, at other times with a scientist’s gravitas. But all in all, and despite its virtuosic handling of animation’s possibilities, What the Sun Has Seen remains trapped in smart pop-cultural convention and is thus the weak point of this otherwise interesting exhibition. Ironically, given that Polska walked away with the prize. The decision seems a wrongly drawn conclusion from Documenta 14: that political art is acceptable, but only when it behaves itself.

Preis der Nationalgalerie 2017, Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, 29 September – 14 January

From the January & February 2018 issue of ArtReview