BERLIN — Walking into the Hamburger Bahnhof brings back a very formative moment in my art education. Ten years ago I came to this museum and saw a breathtaking exhibition of works by Anselm Kiefer, who promptly became one of my favorite artists and definitely nudged me closer to studying sculpture years later. Memories of raw, powerful, and masterful installations resurfaced as I entered the main exhibition hall of the Hamburger Bahnhof, only to be, at first, disappointed with what appeared to be large piles of garbage strewn about the hall.
Michael Beutler’s solo exhibition, Moby Dick, seemed like so many post-minimal exhibitions that I’ve come to disdain: an overload of chaotically displayed material with zero appreciation for craft; a Tom Sachs exhibition without content or the (albeit) obsessive appreciation of material. However, as I made my way through the space, the show grew on me as the “trash” took on surprisingly creative forms and meaning.
Below oft-ignored materials — cardboard, paper, chicken wire — Beutler discovers a hidden structure, waiting to be activated in labor-intensive constructions that are equally playful and beautiful. Their lightness, texture, and colors (if not their permanence) create forms usually accomplished by plastics, woods, concrete, and steel.
The most immediately impressive piece is “Pequod” (2015): a giant carousel form constructed from a steel frame with a milky, semi-translucent material for the skin. The entire structure, intended to represent the ill-fated boat of Moby Dick, floats on water and magically rotates with no machine assistance. You can enter and admire the spinning carousel as you sit on stationary chairs that circle the inner cylinder. Light pours through the material as it all inexplicably and silently spins.
Outside of “Pequod” is a chaos of color and material that never stopped being overwhelming. The installation “Haus Beutler,” (2014–15) (“Haus” is German for “house”) really started my appreciation of the show. The installation reveals, through physical and video documentation, the production processes, field notes, and unimaginable materials (styrofoam, rubber, zip ties) that the artist uses to build his forms, and finally convinced me of Beutler’s affinity for and understanding of material and construction.
In “Moby Dick” (2015), a series of semi-translucent sculptures replicate the architecture of the surrounding gallery space, embodying our remarkable fetishization of old buildings like the neoclassical museum itself. Europe is filled with old buildings, constantly maintained (at a cost) to remain old-looking. “Pequod” (2015) then represents the absurd vessel Beutler will ride to face this indestructible monster of architectural tradition, which Beutler’s work so flagrantly defies. This dream is embodied by “Haus Beutler,” I’d imagine, a word play on Bauhaus.
While Moby Dick shows Beutler admitting an imminent defeat in his conquest — the traditional architectural forms he references will certainly not be replaced or forgotten any time soon — he makes a valiant and bold stance. The installations will continue to be reorganized, edited, and added onto by Beutler and his assistants throughout the exhibition, maintaining an element of chaos to the work. Will Beutler’s constructions become the new norm in architecture? As the theme suggests, it is unlikely and maybe not even a good idea, but the pursuit is worth visiting.
Michael Beutler: Moby Dick continues at the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum (Invalidenstraße 50-51, Berlin) through September 6.