Why is time rarely foregrounded in our experience of sculpture? Isa Genzken intends her works to function more like “moving images than as sculptures, with a new view from every angle. Nothing is fixed,” she said in a 2016 interview. She invites us to consider the relationship between space and time when she makes three-dimensional the unfelt rhythm of time’s beating through our bodies. Her sculpture tells us that time must be an equal partner to space to create a cinematic viewing experience.
The retrospective exhibition on the upper level of the Mies van der Rohe-designed Neue Nationalgalerie, in Berlin, celebrates a moment in time: Genzken’s seventy-fifth birthday. The success of the exhibition depends on how space and time are able to interact within the building. There are no external walls on the upper level, only floor-to-ceiling windows. The space itself is undivided: there are very few structural details that ensure the continued support of the steel roof. Curators Klaus Biesenbach and Lisa Botti presented this exhibition as a dialogue between Genzken’s work and the space displaying it. They chose to show how seventy-five of Genzken’s sculptures, representative of the different phases of her vast oeuvre, can utterly absorb space and dissolve time. The implication seems to be that we can do with sculpture something that architects attempt: to create a lived-in space, meant to be experienced from different angles, and brought alive by time’s passage. But walking through the exhibition, I questioned whether their curatorial approach within a space like this one could carry out the cinematic intention and potential to which Genzken’s work aspires.
To be fair, it is difficult to organize a retrospective exhibition for a living artist whose practice is thematically so eclectic. From initially embracing modernism and minimalism to later rebelling against the perceived rigidity of their intentions and coldness of their materials, Genzken has always managed to surprise her viewers by opening new perspectives for contemplation. She’s posing questions that we must answer on our own: As we search for ways to curtail time-wasting, are we limiting our ways of inhabiting the world? Should Bauhaus architectural principles determine how we spend our time? This overarching motive, that time should not be rushed, and space should not be limited, seems to be a favorite in her lifelong practice. Her work lives in different media. Sculpture is but one aspect of her embodied art that also uses photography, painting, collage, and film. I like that she rarely works in the same medium twice; she’s constantly reinventing her practice to better express a fluid engagement with time and space.
The exhibition is organized chronologically, spanning all phases of her corpus from the 1970s to the present. We are first introduced to Genzken’s “ellipsoids” and “hyperbolos,” created between 1976 and 1986, under the influence of American Minimalism. The ellipsoids are wooden structures, measuring about 20 to 40 feet long, that lay horizontally but touch the floor at a single point of convexity. The hyperbolos are their counterparts: one can imagine their concave forms being filled by the formers’ solidity, a pairing that becomes complete when you notice how the hyperbolos touch the floor at two points. Seeing these shapes in situ should enable our associative powers, Genzken hoped. Because of their sizes, we cannot see them immediately in their entirety. We understand, bit by bit, walking alongside them, how the interplay of light, shadow, and color gives rise to a constructed movement. They engaged my aural imagination too: I could almost hear them falling to the ground, like the pieces of a giant game of pick-up sticks.
The reverence we feel in the presence of Genzken’s ellipsoids and hyperbolos, which fluidly occupy the space they’re exhibited in, dissipates when we face Fuck the Bauhaus #1 and Fuck the Bauhaus #2 (both 2000). Critical of Bauhaus ideals or, rather, their contemporary deprecation, these works are handmade assemblages, three-dimensional collages of pizza boxes, newspaper clippings, and photographs—stuff commonly found in the trash of the metropolis. They are eye-catching in their use of color: saturated pink, red, and yellow whisper to us to come and see them up close. We then discover that they are too flimsy, almost too delicate in their ugliness to embody the idea that Bauhaus should be dead. Conceptually, these might work. They criticize what became of Bauhaus in the postwar era. But this interpretation is too easy. Visually and artistically, Mies van der Rohe’s space still dominates. It obstructs the cinematic character of the assemblages: they cannot move, or be seen as moving, in this unstructured, open space.
Three works from the series Nofretete (2012–18) play on our reconstructive notions of the past. The replicas of the ancient Egyptian bust of Nefertiti, which is displayed in Berlin’s Neues Museum, bring into focus the fetishization of feminine beauty, as well as of Egyptian high culture. The three busts are altered almost beyond recognition. One replica has two “functional” eyes, though the original does not. Another replica sports sunglasses, as if to shade its eyes from the brightness penetrating the glass walls. Yet another has its mouth covered by an N95 mask. Their story unfolds in time: We see one of them, we turn, and we almost bump into another. We turn again, and bam! There’s the third. It felt as if I were inside a traveling film shot, simultaneously directing and shooting around these props. By altering the appearances of these Nefertiti look-alikes, Genzken asks us to construct our own dialogues with each of the silent, distinct sculptures.
Genzken takes us into a different, anthropomorphic direction with her Schauspieler (Actors) series (2013–16). Genzken uses commercial mannequins that she dresses with her personal pieces of clothing, to humanize them. These actors are not the ready-mades of old. Dressed to seem human, in eerie masks and gloves, they are individualized but nonetheless styled to be off-putting. The effect is enhanced in the space they occupy: if the light of day touches their skin just so, we are forced to take a step back, to escape their threatening monstrosity. They voice the fear of encroaching onto someone else’s personal space, which, in the past few years, has become pathologically concrete. Although silent and unmoving, the Schauspieler work the same chilling effect on me as Disneylands’ Audio-Animatronics in its Pirates of the Caribbean ride. This is one of Genzken’s strengths: creating a cinematic vibe out of the purely static.
It takes effort and concentration to be in this space. One must carefully walk the narrow paths through the works, just like in the Uffizi. The Neue Nationalgalerie was the last building projected by Mies van der Rohe: he died shortly after its inauguration. His preoccupation with streamlined architecture and fluid integration of the outside and the inside resulted in a structure that is almost held together by pure transparency. Natural light bathes visitors from all sides, creating the illusion of unbounded space. This setting is infamously difficult for installing art. Any rhyme or reason must be carefully orchestrated by the curators’ design. But Biesenbach and Botti overcluttered it with works, stripping them of negative space. Any attempt at cinematic orchestration is lost in the disorienting noise of amalgamation better suited for storage facilities than art galleries. There is too much concreteness to the general atmosphere. A chaotic contrast between the building’s intended lightness and airiness, and the artificially induced heaviness of the works leads one to feel squeezed instead of elated.
Without a narrative line connecting the disparate temporal phases in the lifework of an artist who kept reinventing her practice, we are denied the cinematic experience the artist desires us to have. The retrospective context is artificial. All the works, flimsily held together conceptually by their origin—that Genzken made them—could have been created at the same time. There’s no indication that any time elapsed between the ellipsoids and the Schauspieler series. In this space, our experience of Genzken’s work is too fragmentary: time’s inner cadence remains emphatically unfelt.