24. February 2015

Beyond the red carpets, during the Berlinale 2015 curator Esther Schlicht sets out on the trail of several exhibitions that revolve around the subject of archiving.

By ESTHER SCHLICHT

When one is on the road in matters of art research or negotiations, besides art museums and art exhibitions it is time and again inspiring to visit museums of a very different kind. Personally, I have a special weakness for institutions of natural history, where one can learn a great deal about forms of presentation and occasionally trace the source of inspiration of one or the other artist. Be it the American Museum of Natural History in New York with its breathtaking dioramas, the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle in Paris with its associated Musée de l'Homme, or the Naturhistorisches Museum Wien in Vienna, a mirror image of the Kunsthistorisches Museum built in the nineteenth century to house the spectacular collections of the Austrian imperial dynasty.

Thus last week, during a short visit to Berlin I rather accidentally came across the so-called wet collections at the Museum für Naturkunde. "Objects from all groups of animals are preserved in a mixture of 70% alcohol and 30% water" in this unique "repository of life." A plate reads, "One million preserved specimens in 80 tons of ethanol are arranged in 233,000 vials on shelves measuring a total of 12.6 kilometers in length." Yet beyond any superlatives, the highly aesthetic, perfectly staged ensemble could stand the test alongside one or the other artistic installation, not only by Damien Hirst. And so on this trip to Berlin, it unexpectedly joined in with a series of other presentations that address the subject of archiving--this time in an artistic way.

Within the framework of Forum Expanded, a permanent part of the Berlinale that has been devoted to cinematic forms beyond the conventional screen format for more than ten years now, the exhibition "To the Sound of the Closing Door" took place at the Academy of the Arts. Two works expressly deal with historical image archives: in his installation "TAUT," the Canadian old master of the experimental film, Michael Snow, projects an archived collection of news photographs in Toronto--while he leafs through them by hand--into a three-dimensional classroom, and in this way opens up a special field of tension between artist, viewer, and a group of fictitious students in view of the images coming to light for the first time.

In contrast, the two-channel video "Wie soll man das nennen, was ich vermisse?" by Antje Ehmann and Jan Ralske seems much more complex and clearly more subtle. The work is a gentle tribute to the late filmmaker Harun Farocki, who with his films worked on an image archive of cinematic topoi for many years. The authors now apply this motif-historical approach to Farocki's own work, and based on the motif of the door with all of its connotations of opening/closing, separating/connecting, locking up/liberating, crossing the threshold, etc., create a dense, touching compilation.

The Mexican artist Mariana Castillo Deball confronts us with a very different form of dealing with the archive and the historiography of an institution. Her "Parergon" project is currently on view in the historic hall of the Hamburger Bahnhof. The spacious choreography assembles a wide range of different kinds of objects--from Max Liebermann's death mask to a collection of tickets on a timetable stand--based on which she relates the forgotten "side stories" from the history of the Nationalgalerie. Alongside the sculptural objects in the space, the frequently tangled narrative strands are presented via a newspaper and a kind of radio play consisting in part of bizarre, poetic documents and interviews.

We learn, for example, about the repeated thefts of the painting "The Poor Poet" by Carl Spitzweg, which has been missing to this day and is one of Germany's most well known and popular paintings. About the period of the Hamburger Bahnhof as a railway and building museum. About the dubious dealings between the German and the Ottoman empires, which among other things led to the painting "The Carpet Seller" by the Turkish archeologist and painter Osman Hamdi Bey as well as the famous Mshatta Façade of a palace build in the eighth century in what is now Jordan becoming part of the collections of museums in Berlin. And not lastly about the artist's research and her own digs in the recesses of museum archives.

The artist's exhibition at the Hamburger Bahnhof was mounted as part of the Nationalgalerie's prize for young art that she won in 2013. However, with her surprising project Mariana Castillo Deball turned the tables and presented the museum, which would have hardly been in a position to produce an extensive, exciting, and artistically convincing reflection on its own identity of this kind, with a disproportionately greater gift.