Applying “Applied Art”: Gropius Bau Mines Old Division Under New Direction

Chiharu Shiota, "Beyond Memory" (Installation view), 2019. Photo by Mathias Völzke. Image courtesy the artist & VG Bild-Kunst.
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    The term “applied art” can only read as a misnomer in 2019, when the line between strictly functional and purely aesthetic art practices has blurred beyond recognition. Yet, curiously, it’s the orienting theme for And Berlin Will Always Need You. Art, Craft and Concept Made in Berlin, at Berlin’s Gropius Bau. The curators’ introduction to the show reads like a conceptual work-in-progress, loosely circling local artists, the history of the institution as a Museum of Decorative Arts at the turn of the 20th century, and a vague commitment to showing handmade works of textile and industrial design paired with ethnographic objects. The museum – having rebranded as Gropius Bau last year – profits from the familial relationship between the building’s architect, Martin Gropius, and his great-nephew, Bauhaus school founder Walter Gropius. Adding to this list of muddled references, the exhibition also performs a nod to this year’s Bauhaus centennial through its focus on craft, design, pedagogical, and architectural works.

    The obsession with handcraft is not new in contemporary curating; a capitalist fatigue has drawn the artworld to more homespun and traditionally feminized forms of artistic labor. But the rebuke relies on a binary that many contemporary artists acknowledge as conceptually obsolete. While “applied” once meant “more amenable to the market,” today the opposite is true. Large-scale works of painting and sculpture – traditional fine arts – are more often purchased by collectors than their more “useful” counterparts. With And Berlin…, Gropius Bau seems to be courting and coopting this impulse toward handicraft and trying to enshroud it in institutional value; it’s a rather belated gesture, and one that likely signals the final demise of the movement’s more radical impulses.

    Installation view of various works by Haegue Yang. Photo by Mathias Völzke. Image courtesy of the artist & Galerie Barbara Wien, Berlin.

    Referencing a 1977 song lyric by contributing artist Dorothy Iannone, And Berlin Will Always Need You  features works by Berlin-based artists, and is the second exhibition under the museum’s new director, Stephanie Rosenthal, who joined Gropius Bau last year after a long tenure at the Hayward Gallery. Her inaugural exhibition was auspicious: liberating the full breadth of the museum’s exhibitable space, she mounted a breathtaking show of mid-career Korean artist Lee Bul. Since the 1980s, Lee’s work has straddled set design, architecture, and installation, with a feminist outlook rooted in popular sci-fi and cyborg theories. Rosenthal’s first exhibition freshened the air of a musty institution – one prone to conservatively presented, big-name shows – and her hands-on approach to transforming the space into an “agency for action” seems very much in tune with the local zeitgeist. There’s a housing and studio crisis in Berlin at the moment; rising rents and increased privatization are forcing artists out of their ateliers, leaving only those whose work remains profitable. The foregrounding of craft practices at Gropius Bau shows that the institution is just now catching up to a decade-long trend of fetishizing all things DIY.

    Ironically, given the exhibition’s dated categories, most of the artists in And Berlin… work to nullify such artificial boundaries. Iannone, for example, is primarily a painter. The fact that her paintings often depict decorative motifs and patterns – as in the Kama Sutra-style sex scenes of Vive La Difference (1979) – ostensibly makes them eligible for inclusion here. The curators frame Iannone’s work in terms of the Arts and Crafts movement, but the link feels tenuous: the cheeky repetition of male and female genitalia and overt sex acts is a far cry from the floral patterns of William Morris and Co.

    Some of the site-specific pieces in the show deal more directly with the history of the building itself. Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota, who has lived in Berlin since 1997, dominates Gropius Bau’s atrium with her massive net installation Beyond Memory (2019). The piece is a reference to the site’s brief history as a library, after the Nazis seized power in 1933 and the Gestapo moved into the neighboring building. White book pages are scattered in one of Shiota’s characteristic net works, rendering an otherwise thoughtful piece quite painfully literal – and a touch kitschy.

    Immaculately crafted textile works by Nevin Aladağ, Willem de Rooij, and Olaf Holzapfel hang on the walls like paintings, ironically offering a “fine art” appearance to the exhibition, their use-value eradicated. On the other end of the spectrum, works by Alice Creischer, Andreas Siekmann, and the Brukman Workers, as well as the collaborative study of the Cameroonian “cache-sexe” by Antje Majewski and Olivier Guesselé-Garai, point to the political conditions of labor, both in textile factories and cottage industries. The uniting factor here is the use of thread. Beyond that, their relationship to a tradition of “applied” arts is by no means a given.

    Olaf Holzapfel, “Chaguarbild – (Paths of Buenos Aires),” 2012- 2018. Photo by Jens Ziehe. Image courtesy the artist, Galerie Daniel Marzona Berlin, Galerie Gebr. Lehmann Dresden.

    The exhibition’s conceptual conceits, disparate and archaic as they feel, simply aren’t enough to hold the show together. But by bringing a cross-section of Berlin’s non-German artists to the fore, the museum makes a long-overdue statement . A backlash against foreigners has accompanied the rise of the far right in Europe, and Berlin is no exception. The title of the exhibition performs a retroactive welcoming and acknowledgement of the diverse community of artists who have populated the city for decades.

    Part of Rosenthal’s strategy as new director of Gropius Bau has been to diversify its program. Of the seventeen artists in And Berlin Will Always Need You, only 6 are male (and two of these work collaboratively with women artists). The museum is still a state-funded institution, and, as such, not immune to conventionality. However the new directorship has infused the museum with a trace of institutional critique and a renewed political perspective. And what this exhibition lacks in conceptual congruity, it makes up for in aspiration: by bringing together contributing artists from Berlin’s rich artistic community, most from immigrant backgrounds, the show warmly reiterates the continued need for inclusivity, here and elsewhere. While the focus on craft and traditionally feminized and racialized art practices (textile and ethnographic works) shouldn’t be confused for an inherently progressive act, a reorientation of Gropius Bau’s institutional values offers us higher hopes. Hopefully these will manifest in higher standards.

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