Do Not Disturb

One on One
KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin
18 November 2012 – 20 January 2013

In Annika Kahrs’s For Two to Play on One, a pair of young pianists play a classical duet which stops abruptly as the visitor pushes open the baroque wooden doors. The aesthetics of interruption and the space between public and private are played out in one excruciating moment, as the intruder gingerly steps inside, watched closely by the room’s inhabitants. The title looms true. For its recent winter show One on One, The KW Institute in Berlin has built a series of white cubes within the gallery, ranging in size from cupboard-like to cavernous, each dedicated to an artwork intended for one viewer. Attendants are tasked with enforcing the single person rule and guests are handed a black door hanger upon entry to keep the rest of the world out. 

Curator Susanne Pfeffer has set up an experiment in institutional intimacy, where each untouched situation acts as a trigger for a series of smaller revelations. While performance art in large museums often leaves the performer adrift in an expanse, defenseless against the crowd, here the works containing performative elements are some of the most impressive, conveying an uneasy sense of vulnerability. Joe Coleman’s A Holy Ghost Compares its Hooves (2012), situated in a tiny room above a rickety staircase, utilises this capacity for shock, featuring a performer in the process of painting a brutal model landscape while a screen shows the raving of fundamentalist Christians condemning the world to hellfire and damnation. In a larger gallery, this kind of spectacle of confrontation can seem forced. In this context, however, it becomes capable of high drama. Perhaps more importantly, the white-walled space outside the rooms becomes a ‘pure’ gallery setting, devoid of the art on the walls but retaining a sense of anticipation for each experience to come. Those on the way out exude a smug sense of satisfaction—we know what’s behind that door. The show becomes like a grown-up advent calendar. In many ways, the very act of waiting, queuing, and interacting with those entering and exiting the sterile white doors turns the show into a relational exhibition, where the original ideal of a solo museum experience is turned into quite the opposite, and the enforced solitude of each room makes exiting gallery-goers unusually loquacious. Is this intended as some kind of reaction to the solipsistic tendencies of contemporary life? 

This setup draws particular attention not only to the artist’s hand choreographing each situation, but also the absurdities of gallery etiquette we accept as part of the art system. Opportunities for mischief abound. What would happen were someone to fall asleep inside one of the rooms, or move the objects around? Who would notice? Hans Peter Feldmann’s box of chocolate bars on a plinth rebukes visitors with a stern plaque: NEIN—disappointingly it seems that no-one has taken on the challenge. 

Showing each work, from the brilliant to the banal, behind an identical white door also worked for and against the premise of the show. As in any situation of gallery as amusement park, queues are part of the package when it comes to works relying on wow-factor. Works that may have been dismissed in a moment were they lined up on a white wall are here given more consideration, lest the visitor face the embarrassing situation of backing straight out of a room they just entered. Here, an element of surprise becomes one of the most significant factors in the experience of the work. 

The appeal of this solitude is undeniable, though it is perhaps questionable whether, as the catalogue eagerly states, this results in ‘a situation where art, time and space can all be perceived in new ways’. Robert Kusmirowski’s description of materials for Lichtung includes a laundry list of items, including ‘wall paint and sand from the previous exhibition’ and the approaching corridor smells deliciously of earth and salt. A fellow patron has already told me excitedly to make sure I go ‘around the back’. The snow from my boots melts into the sand covering the expanse of floor, a strange image. Being alone in the vast hall is disquieting, the bright light and the silence and the great mound of dirt covered in trees making me feel again like I’ve stumbled into something private. I tiptoe gingerly around the back as I’ve been told, almost tripping over a ghoulish mass of plastic skeletons half-buried in the ditch. I feel a little cheated, the gimmick exposed. Here, the spectacle falls flat.

An American I spoke to while queuing mentioned that Jeremy Shaw’s hypno-voiceover in Introduction to the Memory Personality used ‘lyrics from Prague rock’ to illustrate its mind bending imagery. The video runs for over ten minutes, cutting out only when the viewer gets up from their chair in the centre of the room. Prague Rock? I mull this over as he takes his turn and leaves me to wait in the cold. It’s not until weeks later that I figure out what he must have said. Here is a show with no time limits, cameras, attendants, audio tours, prohibitions. The artwork itself becomes beside the point, the building itself turned into some kind of social experiment. As tourists of contemporary art, what we desire is difference within comfortable constraints—and just as one treats a hotel room in a foreign country as a sanctuary, no matter how many staff also have the key, the illusion that the space you inhabit is your own is a fragile one. In the end, though, the crux of the show is explained by the same disembodied narrator: at this moment, every person in the world is doing something without you.

Exhibition view, One on One, KW Institute for Contemporary Art. Photograph Uwe Walter. 

Joe Coleman, A Holy Ghost Compares its Hooves, 2012. Video, performance and mixed media, 4.26m, H: 2.11m. Installation view, KW Institute for Contemporary Art. Courtesy the artist. Photograph Uwe Walter. 

Renata Lucas, Longplay, 2012. Vinyl record, sound equipment, exhibition wall, 14.03m. Courtesy the artist. Photograph Uwe Walter.