24. July 2017

With the M/L Artspace project Marie Karlberg and Lena Henke develop temporary happenings and challenge the customary format of the exhibition.

By Marie Beckmann

In actual fact Marie Karlberg and Lena Henke are M/L Artspace. After all, the exhibition project the two artists have been running since 2013 is not bound to a specific space, but operates at various places, takes various shapes and forms, and usually disappears again after a few days, sometimes after just one night. Rather than exhibiting in a white cube, which eludes connections and contexts they prefer to present in a nail bar, beneath a railway bridge, in one of their bedrooms, or on a Californian ranch.

Nicolas Ceccaldi, A Day On The Bridge, 2013, Installation view Under the BQE, M/L Artspace, 2013

“Under the BQE” took place on 28 September, 2013 in New York, “from 5pm to dark” as it read in the invitation. The “guerilla gallery under the Brooklyn Queens Expressway” was closed again when it turned dark. Beneath the railway bridge between heavy iron pillars, in the trunk of parked cars, on the asphalt and in the midst of the usual collection of urban rubbish (plastic bags, glass shards, cigarette butts) works by Henke and Karlberg and their contemporaries and friends were shown including Nicolas Ceccaldi, Marlie Mul and Nora Schultz. “Under the BQE” is the slightly exaggerated somewhat cynically formulated answer to the contradictory demand that art should be political, authentic, young, dirty, as long as it conforms to the market and sells well. “Art looks good when it comes from dirty places”.

Art with a difference

Cool stone floor, old windows with green fly screens, heavy wooden furniture. For the exhibition “Please Respond”, which could be seen for three days during the Venice Biennale 2015, Italian curator Marta Fontolan made available a private apartment, which once belonged to her grandmother. In the courtyard of the block of houses “Lady Unique on the train from Venice”, one of Anna Uddenberg’s figurative sculptures could be seen bending in a contorted position over a suitcase. The breasts of the female torso are only barely covered by a bright orange-colored waistcoat; the typical backpacker rucksack looks about to slip from her shoulders. “PARASITES”, a T-shirt edition by Marie Karlberg and Stewart Uoo is attached to a cable by a peg as if hanging in the Venetian sun to dry. Adriana Lara drapes a banana skin on the light steps that lead from the courtyard to the apartment. Some of the works in “Please Respond” seem to fit quite naturally in the everyday scenario of the residential area, others deliberately stand out of the contextual frame, come over as happily out of place.

Alisa Baremboym_Gregory Edwards, Local Industries, 2013, Installation view Under the BQE, M/L Artspace 2013
Please Respond - , Venedig 2015, Installation view

When Karlberg and Henke become active in commercial or institutional contexts then they make references to the very same in their performances and installations. For the performance “M/L Reads” in gallery Greene in New York Naftali the artists and performers wear white tights. “M/L” is emblazoned beneath the waistband – the name of a brand or a reference to their size? A short text can be read on the calves – biographical or fictional? – about a disillusioning meeting with the schoolday heart-throb. As editions 50 pairs of tights are packed in small boxes that might just as easily contain noodles from the Chinese take-away – and arranged on a shelf. Ready-to-wear.

Revealing conditions

By taking place in the 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art 2016 M/L Artspace was for the first time involved in a large institutional presentation. In Karlberg’s and Henke’s installation “In Bed Together” visitors can get cozy in ruffled sheets on a four-poster bed and watch a home video together. The specially designed bed linen collections represent a retrospective for one of the projects realized in the last three years. Specifically, each set of pastel-colored pillows and covers was printed with visual documentations and texts of the exhibitions, happenings and performances.

M/L Artspace, M/L Reads, Greene Naftali, New York 2013
M/L Artspace, In Bed Together, 2016, Installation view 9th Berlin Biennale for contemporary Art, Academie of the Arts, Berlin

The intertwining of artistic and curatorial practice is nothing new. As long ago as 1855 French artist Gustave Courbet opened the “Pavillon du Réalisme” in Paris as an alternative exhibition space to the world exhibition taking place simultaneously. As a protest against an increasingly commercial-ized art world, in the 1960s artist initiatives realized exhibitions in warehouses or empty buildings. In Germany, there are likewise numerous non-commercial exhibition spaces run by artists, but only in recent years did the debate about “artist-curators” gain public relevance through numerous pub-lications and symposiums. Exemplary for the contemporary artist-curator hybrid is the four-strong New York collective DIS, who curated the last Berlin Biennale. In other words, when artists like Marie Karlberg and Lena Henke conceive exhibitions and in doing so create contexts for their own works this is not done so much as a strong protest against the art market or museums. Rather, if the roles of artist and curator coincide this can be seen more as a self-reflective practice through which the (economic) structures and (socio-cultural) conditions under which art is realized, seen and sold can be considered, revealed and challenged.

M/L Artspace, In Bed Together, 2016, Installation view 9th Berlin Biennale for contemporary Art, Academie of the Arts, Berlin