Berlin/Tokyo : Invitation to a car wreck


See related story:
Berlin/Tokyo : Your pick of the isms

Maybe my expectations were too high, in any case they were off target — because I found “Tokyo-Berlin/ Berlin-Tokyo” a pedestrian, listless exhibition — possibly the most disappointing thing the Mori Art Museum has ever done.

Fortune has landed me in Berlin for the better part of the last two summers. I love the arts scene there. It is raw, dynamic — bred of the everyday lives of creative people drawn in no small part by the fact that a good little studio space can be had for 50,000 yen, and a great big beer for 300 yen.

In a single day in Berlin, I toured Tacheles, a bombed-out building which squatters have rainbowed with graffiti and transformed into a living work of art; I settled in with a neo-Situationist named Horst, who hosts an invitation-only Champagne salon hidden round a corner from the city’s oldest beer garden, Prater; and I experienced a club-based mixed-media piece by Theo Altenberg documenting life in a 1970s free-love commune.

Berlin is a city of surprises.

Sadly, the most surprising thing at “Tokyo-Berlin/Berlin-Tokyo” was the appearance, across from a series of pictures of firestorms engulfing victims of the Great Kanto Earthquake, of a brand new, shiny blue BMW 760li.

Yes, there is a car parked in the middle of this exhibition. Maybe it snuck up from “Design Deutschland,” the German product promotion campaign at the Mori Arts Center Gallery on the floor below.

The Mori shows are part of the “Germany in Japan Year 2005/2006,” a project which, by many accounts, has been less-than-brilliantly organized. For example, the Oktoberfest event in Kabukicho was held in a smelly white vinyl tent, the 800 yen beer served in plastic cups; and a retro avant-garde cabaret, constructed at the D-Haus in Hiroo and intended to run for some weeks, actually opened for only one night. Late last year, an exasperated Christoph Platz, curator of the contemporary art exhibition at D-Haus, sent me several desperate e-mails complaining of “atrocious and insulting” treatment from organizers, terming the experience a “disaster.”

The exhibition “Tokyo-Berlin/ Berlin-Tokyo” was put together by a total of 17 curators and assistants, and looks like it. This is a dog’s breakfast of a show — although there is a lot of good art here, the total amounts to less than the sum of the parts. If there is a unifying theme, it is trepidation, the fear of putting a foot wrong. The show rarely grabs the viewer, and never gets up to speed.

When visitors enter one of the show’s 11 sections, few will have any idea what they are seeing: Is that a Minoru Nakahara painting looking like a Hannah Hoch, or is it a Hoch looking like Nakahara? This irritating question occurs because the inclination is toward mixed-displays of Japanese artists doing things that look German, and German artists doing things that look Japanese. Maybe “cultural mirrors” could have been a theme for one room, but threading it through makes the selections seem forced, and makes for a lot of title-card reading.

The scope of the show, covering 120 years of art in two very different cities, is also problematic — without the 52nd-floor galleries, the Mori simply isn’t big enough to comfortably pull this off. The frequent and sudden genre shifts make for a show both hamstrung by its overreach and lost in its lack of focus.

To be sure, there are a lot of good and great moments here. Any opportunity to see Kurt Schwitters collages, for example, is wonderful — how is it that, even with super-sophisticated CG image software, we find it hard to match the power of Schwitters’ work with glue and scraps of paper? The entire Dada section is good, what a delight to find scale models of the old Tsukiji Little Theater’s set for a Strindberg production!

The Mori avoided the opportunity to get political in the “Dark Years 1931-1945,” a section that addresses one of the longer time periods with one of the smallest rooms. A brave choice might have been to complement the room with images of Saxony skinheads and the blare of rightwing sound-truck vitriol, you know, as a reminder that darkness can return. But no, and there are no images of dead Jews or Koreans either, although in his catalog essay, Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit did reflect on the “destructive role” of Berlin and Tokyo in the early 20th century. Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, in his companion essay, made no such reference.

The show does finish well. The Fluxus section is where the Berlin/Tokyo parallelism is most valid — though much of the art was actually made in New York City.

There is excellent photography throughout, black-and-white prints in the early sections and C-type prints and video in the last, which is a survey of contemporary art in Berlin.

Nina Fisher and Maroan el Sani’s bleak photographs taken in 2001 in the disused Palast der Republik will send a chill up your spine (these predate an almost identical series by Ryuji Miyamoto, shown at the Taro Nasu Gallery in 2005); while possibly the most entertaining photograph in the show is “Philharmonie 1” (2005) by Martin Liebscher. This panorama, more than 7 meters across, depicts hundreds, if not thousands of images, of the tuxedoed Liebschers spread across an Escher-like concert hall scene. He plays the pipe organ, smokes backstage, spills from the orchestra pit into a foyer, hangs off stairways and so on. And, center frame, he points his camera at the viewer with a smile. Fun.

In all, a difficult show to call, many may like it — you’ll gather I didn’t.

One reiteration: When visitors pay 1,500 yen to view an art exhibition, it’s just crass to try and sell them a car midway through the experience.