Kirsty Bell

December 19, 2012
KOW, Berlin
November 10, 2012–February 3, 2013

What does it mean to be a believer or a non-believer? Is belief essential for society’s wellbeing or is it merely divisive? And is there an alternative to this antagonistic binary opposition? The group exhibition “Believers” at Berlin’s KOW sets these questions and more in motion.

The notion of belief is, of course, most usually associated with religion and the exhibition takes this as its starting point: Santiago Sierra’s NO (Pope) (2011) a large-scale photograph in which the Pope is framed by the large projection of the word “NO” immediately greets the eye, as do works by that most garrulous of blasphemers, the late Christoph Schlingensief. In his Little Shrine (2006), images of an actress playing Princess Diana become stand-ins for an absent deity. Meanwhile, excerpts taken from an eight-part series he made for MTV, U3000 (2000), shot on board the Berlin U-Bahn, have Schlingensief himself center stage as moderator/provocateur. We see him here, face smeared red, in the throes of a voodoo-like frenzy and random trouser dropping, while interviewing fellow passengers. Ritualized improvisational chaos replaces the self-conscious codes of youth programming. Next to this, a monitor plays YouTube footage of Pussy Riot’s “Punk Prayer,” the band’s notorious impromptu performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior as the musicians, their heads hidden under their trademark colored balaclavas, are bundled off stage by security guards while nuns try to stop the filming (the whole looking strangely like a Schlingensief-esque theatrical set-up). The knowledge that this action had such draconian consequences for the band members jars, however, and shifts immediately the notion of belief from religion to government. Pussy Riot’s action was after all directed more against Putin’s regime than Christianity itself. Which begs the question: can belief be separated from its structural institutions?

Here belief, or rather “non-belief,” is harnessed to attack systems of power, and the nature of the belief itself becomes an interchangeable element within prevailing systems. Alexander Koch points this out in the text accompanying the exhibition when he writes, “… faith migrates, from object to object, and is perfectly capable of renaming its deities.” Cue three text works from the late 1950s by German artist Franz Erhard Walther which demonstrate this: Ku Klux Klan (1957) and Rolls Royce (1958) being obvious examples in their allusions to racism and capitalism, while the script of auf dem Vulkan (1958), at least to a non-German viewer, remains more enigmatic, conjuring, perhaps, visions of pagan ritual.

The nature of the exhibition’s enquiry continues to broaden in the gallery’s larger, lower floor. In an anonymous photograph from 2011, graffiti sprayed on an abandoned piece of furniture reads Ob mit oder ohne Vorhaut, Religionen stinken! (With or without foreskin, religions stink!), sentiments that appear to be shared in this exhibition and are currently topical in Germany, in light of a recent debate about whether circumcision for religious reasons is an infringement of a child’s rights. Compelling works by Adrian Piper, Chto Delat? (the Russian collective who take their name from Lenin’s famous pamphlet [What is to be done?]), and Tobias Zielony bring up respectively the themes of race, wealth, and religious hypocrisy; communist versus capitalist systems; youth disenfranchisement and violence. Do alternatives really exist? Is there an outside to whichever power structure we find ourselves caught up in or will it just be replaced by another equally oppressive variant? A sculptural work by Walther, relating to a performance from 1970, suggests that alternatives are limited. Drei Kappen an Pflöcken (1970), consists of three cloth hoods, each with a long cord attached to its top and a tent peg at the end. As the black-and-white photograph shows, the three individuals wearing these hoods, with the pegs stuck into the ground, enjoyed only a limited movement within the circumference proscribed by the tautly pulled cord, that is, if they wished to remain undercover, blinded by belief?

Rather less convincing here is This is Me This is My Country (2012) by Arno Brandlhuber, a work displaying examples of “Kimilsungia” orchids, named after the North Korean president, on the gallery’s concrete steps while a series of botanical drawings of other similarly nobly christened orchids (Dendrobium Angela Merkel, anyone?) hangs on the wall nearby. That the same piece was recently shown to more convincing effect in Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt show “Between Walls and Windows” suggests perhaps that the exhibition’s more solid positions are buttressed by works of gallery artists (such as Brandlhuber) that were readily available.

That said, “Believers,” though by no means a comprehensive exhibition, is a good example of the adroit capability that commercial galleries possess, given the privately-financed nature of their enterprise, to respond quickly to pertinent issues. It pulls together a group of works that do not deal with this unwieldy subject exhaustively, but rather touch on a broad range of points within its periphery. By the end of the exhibition, the initially dominant religious aspect is largely overshadowed by the emphasis on other systems of power. The weight of these systems seems to be the point here: the power of personal belief stands little chance in the face of the collective power enshrined in the institutions of church and state.

So what is left? A belief in art? In personal expression? As Koch writes, “Compared to the vociferous lobbyists for these faiths, unbelievers tend to be quieter—they have no shared credo to sing in unison.” The exhibition ends with a neat juxtaposition of two works that may not speak in unison, but instead sum up the issues at stake. One is Dachsfalle (1998), a trap by Andreas Slominski consisting of a long metal tube on the floor, whose exact mechanism is hard to fathom but which nevertheless poses a palpable threat. The other is a painting by Chris Martin, The Last Optical Illusion of 2008 (2006–2009), in which the legs of what seems to be a roughly painted table swap void and solidity, to leave it hovering ambiguously. Faith itself, these two works lead us to believe, is both a trap and an illusion. But nevertheless, it is all around us. As such, this show is a call to attention rather than a call to action. Instead of looking up to the powers that be, it suggests, we should look around us, speak, and listen.

Religion & Spirituality, Communism, Capitalism
State & Government, Racism, Violence

Kirsty Bell is a writer and art critic. Her book The Undercurrents. A Story of Berlin was published by Fitzcarraldo Editions and Other Press in 2022.

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December 19, 2012

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