Utopia, Romance, and “Young Art” at the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum

Tomás Saraceno, Cloud Cities, installation view, image courtesy Berlin Art Link

This winter the Hamburger Bahnhof’s exhibitions are (mostly) devoted to artists influenced by utopian architecture, a decision made to coincide with Tomás Saraceno’s Cloud Cities, an investigation into sustainable living that borrows heavily from the language of visionary architects and futurists like Buckminster Fuller.

Saraceno’s “biospheres” are fun, enormous and inviting, with long lines of art-goers waiting for a moment of awkward repose over the Bahnhof’s hangar.  They allude to the plasticity of our “futures” (Saraceno prefers the plural) but they also seem kind of garish, like giant floaties at an eighties-themed pool party in West Hollywood.

When compared to Saraceno’s epic balloon opera, the drawings and models of early German modernist architects like Bruno Taut and Hanzel Weblik are pleasingly modest.  These are displayed downstairs, in small dark alcoves as part of the sprawling Architektonika exhibition.

Architektonika offers up a few real gems, among them Dieter Roth’s scrappy and feral Gartenskulptur, a garden-environment-installation that was added to, catalogued and maintained for thirty years by the artist and his son. Then there are photographs and remnants of Gordon Matta Clark’s 1977 Office Baroque in which the artist sliced open a building in Antwerp and created a teardrop shaped hole in the façade (which was slated for destruction).  The result emits a bodily pathos unusual for the inanimate.

Paul Laffoley, The Orgone Motor, 1981, courtesy of Kent Fine Art, New York

Upstairs Paul Laffoley offers his take on utopia as part of the Hamburger Bahnhof’s new Secret Universe series.  I’m really excited about this exhibition series, which will last for three years and focus on visionary artists whose multi-disciplinary practices may have been overlooked by the larger art community.  Finally, we can see what the weird uncles of the art world are up to.

Laffoley is a former architect who merges Eastern religious dogma, Futurism (among many other “isms”) and Carl Jung into intensely weird diagrammatic paintings.  His aims are lofty, and he seeks to illustrate complex imaginary systems like time travel, the fifth dimension and “Absolute Life.”

Laffoley, an artist devoted to the possibilities of other worlds spent many years making these paintings in a one-bedroom apartment he dubbed “The Boston Visionary Cell.”   Mandala-like, they aspire to a kind of “utopic space” with their own visual hierarchy.

In a lecture given in 2001, Laffoley stated about his mission to explore utopic space:

I have developed this task by means of symbols, perhaps the only way an individual can approach such a project. Real symbols move the mind up to and through metaphor and finally beyond to a semiotic state that has never been successfully named.

Laffoley goes on to claim that the concept of utopic space should serve “as a neutral sounding board for all attempts at plumbing or prophesying the future.” His paintings are filled with repetitive symbols including eyes, circles, stars, outstretched hands multicolored rays.  In another context, this could be a Bikram Yoga invite hidden underneath a windshield.  But with Laffoley, these symbols read as sincere parts of a dense personal lexicon.

Laffoley offers the occasional autobiographical nod, charting his lucid dreams in black and white panels, in one recounting sticking his finger into someone’s “soft eye.”

Paul Laffoley, The Renovatio Mundi, 1977, courtesy Kent Fine Art

He offers advice culled from Eastern ideas of non-resistance in vinyl letters, claiming that “All suffering is the separation of boredom and care.” His works are taped off, crisp and obsessive, but possess a kind of sympathetic craziness, like Laffoley isn’t being intentionally obtuse, he’s just your everyday Shaman, trying to spare you psychic pain.

Presenting a less utopian vision of the future is the neighboring National Gallery Prize for Young Art, exhibition, which shows the work of the four artists who competed for Germany’s annual 50,000 euro award.

Cyprien Gaillard, Artefact, film still 2011, courtesy Sprueth Magers Gallery

This year, the prize went to French artist Cyprien Gaillard, a headline-grabber who moves between mediums like beer and neon.  At the Hamburger Bahnhof Gaillard shows the more nuanced “Artefacts,” a slow moving cinematic collage of contemporary Iraq, which weaves together tropes of Babylonian antiquity and American militarism.  Gaillard lingers both on the famed Ishtar Gate as well as soldiers shooting green lasers into a receding desert.  The film was shot originally on Gaillards’ Iphone, but was transferred later to 35 mm, creating an anachronistic loop, which is reinforced by the repeating phrase “Babylon,” from the David Grey song.

Klara Lidén, a beloved Berlin artist whose urban interventions, sculpture and performative acts are usually so sharp, offers up a lackluster contribution in the name of institutional critique. Liden presents a video of herself climbing into a trash can, set to the tune of “Helpless” as well as a manicured hedge at the museum’s entrance in the shape of a dumpster.

Andro Wekua’s film and adjoining installation are more ambitious, but rely too heavily on saturated colors and the tropes of surrealism.

Kitty Kraus is the only artist to eschew video, but her kinetic sculptures share a sequential and rhythmic similarity to film nonetheless.  The pieces, like minimal metal characters, are forged from found handles and made in reference to the guillotine.  They seem dangerous and unhinged (literally).  Kraus’ work questions the way we move in the world with austere and poetic precision.

Theo Solnik, Anna Pavlova Lives in Berlin, film still, 2011, courtesy of the artist

A new addition this year is the National Gallery Prize for Young Film-Art.  The winning film Anna Pavlova Lives in Berlin by Theo Solnik is an enthralling black and white character study of a party girl whose exploits in Kreuzberg seem more elegiac than depraved.  Through drugs, alcohol and sex, Anna Pavlova clouds her own reality, creating a romantic vision of herself and the world.