In most all of the world’s larger cities, traditionally the grandest buildings have been religious in orientation. As places of congregation, they were necessarily characterized by large open spaces. As conduits to the spiritual, their design included surging spires, pagodas or minarets. The current exhibition at the Tomio Koyama Gallery in Kiyosumi, “Wonderwall — Constructing the Sublime,” is an open-ended exploration of holy and sacred buildings by 10 German contemporary artists.
“Open-ended” because the show is not strictly dedicated to a survey of church architecture, far from it. Rather, curator Anna-Catharine Gebbers, long active on the Berlin art scene, uses the theme as a point of departure for a number of very different explorations of and experimentations with the concept of “the sublime.” Religious buildings appear in many of the works, serving to stimulate a dialogue on the relationship between people and these environments and their identities: we design, build and sanctify churches, mosques and temples and so on, and they in turn shape us. This is where the exhibition directs its attention, with mixed results.
Although the work represented here has a thematic thread running through it, the viewer’s gaze can get tangled at times because there are 10 very different artists vying for attention in just a couple of rooms and a hallway. The Koyama is one of Tokyo’s most spacious contemporary art galleries, but it feels crowded, and so the sum of the parts might be better than the whole this time.
If there is a dominant presence in the show, it is the two large (240 cm x 210 cm) oil on canvas paintings by Jonas Burgert, who is, Gebbers informs me at the opening, “rare, because he’s a Berlin artist who is actually from Berlin!”
“Burgert only started to paint figuratively two years ago,” says Gebbers. “He makes paintings that are very full of narratives and dreamlike surrealistic situations, which are always revolving around eternal themes like, ‘where do we come from?’ ‘what is love?’ ‘what is death?’ ‘what is the artist doing?’ But it’s always very playful.”
Burgert’s weird and iconic world of crosses, monks, harlequins and excavations possesses, like much of the work in this show, a decidedly theatrical quality — something which gives the impression that the artist can travel through the deep and thick while remaining light and detached. In both of Burgert’s paintings, amid all the strange goings on, sits a solitary figure dressed in casual contemporary clothing. This relatively disinterested party, surely not taking themselves too seriously, represents both an observer and the artist himself. And yes, as Gebbers said, it is playful.
The playfulness in the show is very enjoyable. Particularly amusing is “Cube Venice,” a 2005 photograph by Gregor Scheneider, who had proposed to organizers of that year’s Venice Biennale the construction of a huge black cube in the middle of the Piazza San Marco. He didn’t get the approval, so instead he realized the concept through collage, overlaying an image which recalls the monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” atop a postcard-style image of Venice’s best known public square. The reverse side of the photograph, reproduced in a handout available at the gallery reception, mockingly “identifies” a dozen of the camera-toting tourists in the image as leading art organizers associated with the Biennale.
Another standout is Amelie von Wulffen’s personal and imaginative 2007 untitled mixed media work. The large (125 cm x 123 cm) work on paper combines gestural painting with color photographs of a church’s stained-glass windows and an old black-and-white photograph of her father playing an electric organ in their family home. Nostalgic more than sentimental, it is a transcendent environment as seen through the eyes of a child.
There is also a video installation, Nicole Wermers’ “Notre Dame” (2002), which has more to do with perfume bottles than the famous French cathedral, a funny little wood sculpture by Andreas Slominski and a fairly large number of photographs and works on paper.
For an exhibition with a thematic identity, this collection goes off in a number of unexpected directions, both quirky and challenging, and thus it is a very good representation of the open-ended manner of creative expression that contemporary Germany — and in particular Berlin, where most of these artists are based — continues to engender.