It is always a pleasure to spotlight an exhibition that seems to have slipped in under the art radar, as is the case with the group show “Quobo — Art in Berlin 1989-1999” now at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo.
Only a small slice of the usual Tokyo art schmoozers showed up at the opening last weekend — maybe because there were good parties elsewhere, maybe because last month MoT brought out everyone and their sister to the reception for its splashy Tadanori Yokoo retrospective (which is still running, upstairs from the “Quobo” show).
But “Quobo” (a neologism coined by Adib Frike, one of the participating artists) is remarkable, in large part because it documents art made by remarkable people working in a remarkable place and time — Berlin in the decade between the fall of the Wall and the eve of the 21st century. Today, German art is flourishing (saleswise it ranks second only to that coming out of the United States) largely due to the atmosphere of unbridled creative energy born in Berlin in the 1990s.
When the Wall came down, artists and curators poured into the city from all over Germany and the world. Big galleries opened, especially in the eastern sector where space was laughably inexpensive. And for former East Berliners delivered into social freedom after decades of state control, the influx of avant-garde artists was like a breath of fresh air.
Laura Kikauka was one of those wonderfully weird arrivals, moving into a happily chaotic city where, as she recalls, “nobody knew or cared who owned what.” The Canadian-born artist remembers acquiring the best part of her studio in the former East Berlin by punching a big hole through a wall and finding a long-disused space behind.
Gabriele Knapstein, who curated this show, characterizes the zeitgeist thus: “The artists took many chances. In particular, the atmosphere in Laura’s place was amazing, because she and her friends started doing open local-community stuff.”
Kikauka’s “Glowing Pickle” was a drop-in art gallery, bar and late-night performance venue. She, her musician-husband Gordon Monahan and food artist Gordon W. — all Canadians — covered the walls with abandoned East German scientific equipment and, well, everything from bottled bratwurst to tiki heads. They built it, and the people came.
Kikauka’s “M.A.N.I.A.C. (Marvelous Abundant Neglected Items Arranged Creatively)” art is represented here by “Camp Cornucopia: Someone Else’s Vacation,” which is, basically, a two-person tent totally encrusted with assemblages of interesting junk. The strains of ersatz exotica music waft from a portable sound system inside.
To get to the tent involves passing through a ceiling-high forest of interlocking Styrofoam discs by Albrecht Schaefer; and to move on from it you have to risk passage over a collapsing cardboard-and-plaster floor installation by Monica Bonvicini, and past (e.) twin gabriel’s contribution — a series of big aquariums brimming with something like pond scum.
Navigating this show is more participation and discovery than observation — a moment of fear turns to surprise as the heel of your shoe drops with a jolt through Bonvicini’s decaying floor; curiosity turns your fingers green if you dip them in gabriel’s aquariums; and the realization dawns that the surface of Maria Eichhorn’s seemingly regular pool table (which visitors are invited to play on) is purposely warped.
The art here is rough, silly, big, deep — and unapologetically human. The pieces bump and overlap exceedingly well, augmenting without interfering, to build an anarchic aesthetic that subverts both precious individualism and the sanctification of the museum space. From the seemingly disparate works, there evolves a reflection of what life was like in a Berlin undergoing tumultuous change — and going through it rather well, thank you. Nicely, there is little of the angst one might expect from “serious” German art.
Other artists in “Quobo” are Carsten Nicolai (who showed earlier this year at the Koyanagi Gallery in Ginza), Eran Schaerf, Karsten Konrad, Inges Idee, Ulrike Grossarth, Fritz Balthaus, Annette Begerow and the team of Nina Fisher and Maroan el Sani.