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BERLIN — The prestigious Preis der Nationalgalerie, considered the German equivalent of the Turner Prize, was inaugurated in 2000 and recognizes artists under the age of 40 who live and work in Germany, regardless of nationality. Initially the award included a cash prize, but since 2013 this has been replaced by a solo exhibition at one of the Nationalgalerie’s institutions (including the Neue Nationalgalerie, Alte Nationalgalerie, Hamburger Bahnhof, and Museum Berggruen). Though 2015 was only the eighth time it’s been awarded, the Preis der Nationalgalerie has established itself as something of a barometer for future trends and is often a springboard for its nominees; Olafur Eliasson and Katharina Grosse were nominated in 2000, Tacita Dean in 2002, Tino Sehgal in 2007, and Danh Vo and Omer Fast in 2009, just to name a few.
This year the prize exhibition showcasing the four finalists at Hamburger Bahnhof focuses on artists who, in the jury’s opinion, are expanding the definition of contemporary art through their work. The museum establishment — usually one of the most cumbersome and slow-moving cogs in the machinery of the art world — presents itself here as motivated to overcome its inertia and move towards a more varied representation of contemporary art practice. Udo Kittelman, director of the Nationalgalerie in Berlin, said of the nominated artists (translated from German): “Through the artists selected this year, the Nationalgalerie demonstrates its vitality, and thereby also the vitality of the institution of the museum. There are no longer static artworks in the traditional sense.” Or, as a wall text in the exhibition puts it, “[the nominees’] practices clearly mark a change in artistic dealings with materials and ‘the immaterial.’”
Accordingly, the jury announced Anne Imhof as the winner of the 2015 prize, on September 18th last year. Imhof is best known for her understated, tense performance pieces, although she works expansively in sculptural, video, and two-dimensional forms as well, often combining these elements into installations that either document or are activated by her strictly choreographed performances. Her work is heavily influenced by ritual, and she routinely creates a number of versions of each piece, with the various iterations being performed and reperformed in different locations across a period of time.
The installation at Hamburger Bahnhof is accompanied by half a dozen performances of Imhof’s works “For Ever Rage” (2015) and “For Ever Rage – Seances” (2015). Like most visitors to the exhibition during its four-month-run, I did not see the performances (which apparently involve a number of large turtles roaming around the room, buttermilk, indifferent performers, and Dadaesque spoken word), but experienced Imhof’s work purely in its installation form. The atmosphere she’s created within the museum space — using dim, diluted UV light installed behind the room’s glass ceiling panels — is one strangely like a Berlin techno club, if it were stripped of the noise and bodies and made uncannily clean. This sense of suppressed violence and an eerily sterile industrialism is emphasized by the trough-like cement forms positioned throughout the space and the minutely vibrating punching bags hanging from thick chains from the ceiling. Monochromatic canvases dot the walls, and a small pyramid of soft drink cans leans precariously against a pillar. The only moving element of the installation is a video documenting one of the performances, presented on a small tablet screen that lies on one of the concrete floor pieces. It’s positioned so apparently casually that it adds to the feeling of a tense relationship between unknown forces in the space. The work is difficult to connect to, and that feels like a very deliberate decision (although it’s unclear what Imhof’s motivation to remain so aloof might be); of the works in the exhibition, hers felt the most atmospheric, the most immaterial (as Kittelman pointed out), but definitely not (for me, at least) the most engaging, intellectually or viscerally.
That distinction goes to Christian Falsnaes, who produced by far the most memorable work in the show. Falsnaes also works with performance, but his pieces are of a much more intense, dramatic, and experimental (in the scientific sense) nature. Falsnaes is himself often a central component of his works, and his presence — whether loud, gesticulating and shouting, or intimate, staring at the viewer through a prerecorded on-tablet performance — has something of the motivational guru about it, a self-professed prophet with a hint of something even more unsavoury. The four-minute video/performance “Your Name is the Title” (2015) was the most surprising and affecting work I saw all last year. Saying anything more than that it utilizes hand-held tablet technology to create a performance that feels spookily intimate and plays on some primal fear that screens are watching us would ruin the surprise — but the trip to Hamburger Bahnhof is worth it for this piece alone.
“Moving Images” (2015) is the title of Falsnaes’s two-channel HD projection, an expanded documentation of a group performance he led in the style of an uncomfortable mix between an acting class and a self-help seminar. The title functions as a descriptive category, but is turned on its head by the artist to ask the question of which images move us. “I am mostly interested in the human being and I am interested in how the human being behaves,” he explains. Rather than making works about how humans behave, however, Falsnaes actually activates people through his charismatic, workshop-style performances, prompting them to act, sometimes unpredictably, within his pieces. He wants to get at real reactions to stimuli (there’s a distinct flavor here of psychology experiments from the last century, minus the monitoring of an ethics committee), despite the fact that these are elicited by clearly manipulative means. In a post-postmodernist era of widespread fear-mongering, fundamentalism, and concern about the state of the world, Falsnaes’s work feels incredibly timely; it cuts to the heart of what it means to be human in an age of moving images and mediated communication, all the while deconstructing the misguided trope of an electrifying leader who will save us from ourselves.
The other contributions to the show, by the last two prize finalists — Slavs and Tatars and Florian Hecker — both have their appeal. There’s something joyful and irreverent about Slavs and Tatars’ sculptural swings, hanging from the ceiling in the shape of prayer beads. I witnessed grown adults tittering like teenagers while climbing on them, relishing the illicitness of not only touching but swinging on artworks in the white-cube temple of the Hamburger Bahnhof. Otherwise, the overwhelming feeling I had while walking through the Slavs and Tatars installation “Qit Qat Qlub” (2015) was that the space alloted to them is too small. The reading lounge is of central importance to Slavs and Tartars’ mission: they release an artists’ book for each of their projects, and this publication is the centerpiece of the work rather than a supplement — indeed, the collective started out as a reading group among colleagues. Here, the publications — which are set up in a space like a bar, with high stools — feel cramped in their smallish room and crowded by the numerous other artworks on the walls. The dramatic lighting is also not particularly conducive to leisurely perusal of the reading material on offer. The hanging works are rich with neon, mirror, color, and layered textual witticisms; Slavs and Tatars are intellectuals who revel in springing nimbly between languages, cultural contexts, and art forms. In short: the work itself is great, but somehow the curation doesn’t feel right.
Hecker’s “Formulation” (2015), a work of computer-generated sound, is hugely elevated by the dramatic hanging of the speakers at shoulder height in the gallery. Not only does this meticulous installation create a strikingly immersive and changeable sound experience as one walks through the space, it’s also visually impressive: the presentation of the machinery/tech is almost aggressive against the saturated electric blue of the padded wall hangings. While Hecker’s installation won’t feel particularly surprising for anyone even tangentially in touch with the experimental music scene — more like something covering well-tested ground but with a higher production value — it is certainly nice to see the museum moving into less object-centric territory.
The Preis der Nationalgalerie 2015 exhibition continues at Hamburger Bahnhof (Invalidenstraße 50-51, Berlin) through January 17.