Art & Photography

Susan Philipsz: Part File Score

The main attraction has a topical edge, but William Kherbek is more intrigued by the talent down the hall at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof

Susan Philipsz, Part File Score, Digital/Siebdruck auf Leinwand, 185 x 145 cm, 2014 © Courtesy the artist, Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie, Berlin, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York
Susan Philipsz, Part File Score, Digital/Siebdruck auf Leinwand, 185 x 145 cm, 2014
© Courtesy the artist, Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie, Berlin, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York

Residents of Berlin will often speak of the city’s ability to be infinitely surprising, but they seem to speak even more wistfully of its ability to be infinitely distracting. Possibly what the Berliners understand is that in Berlin, a distraction is not always a distraction, it may end up sending you where you should have been in the first place.

Such was the case when I went to the Hamburger Bahnhof – for those who don’t know it, it’s one of Berlin’s largest contemporary art spaces occupying an old railway station that got distracted from overseeing the coming and goings of trains. The mission was to see the Susan Philipsz exhibition entitled Part File Score in which the Berlin-based Turner Prize winner considers the life of the embattled composer, Hanns Eisler. Eisler, a student of Arnold Schönberg, was hounded out of the US during the Red Scare of the 1940s and 50s because of his connection to communism. So retro!

It would be hard to fault Philipsz’s commitment to the organic qualities of the space, and the work, which consists of twelve large prints of musical scores overlaid with text from the FBI’s reports on Eisler placed between the 24 pillars of the Historic Hall, and 24 speakers playing separate tones from film scores by Eisler, is true to Eisler’s dodecaphonic musical aesthetic as well. It’s also timely now that a database in Bluffdale, Utah knows more about all of us than the FBI could ever have hoped to know about Eisler. It’s hard not to see the work as almost a critical elegy for an analogue age of surveillance. Still though, it felt a bit pristine and perhaps even a bit too knowable in relation to Philipsz’s wider body of work where rigor and evocation are always present but usually not so overtly manifested.

Katharina Grosse I Think This Is a Pine Tree, 2013 © Nationalgalerie im Hamburger Bahnhof, Staatliche Thomas Bruns © VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, 2013

Nasan Tur Berlin says..., 2013, 2013 © Nasan Tur
Nasan Tur Berlin says…, 2013, 2013 © Nasan Tur

The Bahnhof is a big space though, and if you’re looking to be distracted from the main attraction, fortunately, it also houses a seriously intellectually stimulating show called Wall Works in the Rieckhallen down a corridor from the Philipsz in the Historic Hall. Wall Works brings together pieces by artists ranging from the canonical (Donald Judd, Dieter Roth) to the ’emerging’ – to use the artspeak term. There are highlights from both categories. Roth’s deranged sculpture-cum-garden-cum-sculpture garden is a heroic folly to behold, especially in the post-Burning Man era of ‘organic’ sculpture. There’s a fine room of Sol LeWitt’s work as well, a wall drawing which – though he’d hate the word – manages a true soulfulness. Scattered throughout the show are pieces – maybe fragments is a better term – by the late, lamented Blinky Palermo, small geometrics which comprehensively define the viewer’s relationship to the space.

Among the ’emergers’ is Katharina Grosse whose ‘I Think This is a Pine Tree’ – uprooted trees sprayed with paint which also covers part of the wall – demands and repays attention. Upon first glance it seems riotous and exuberant but sooner rather than later it becomes a meditation on mortality and environmental destruction; you can splash deforestation with sparkly paint, but the trees don’t care. Nasan Tur’s ‘Berlin Says’ has a supremely watchable ambivalence. The piece is a video work and a fresco. In the video, Tur sprays graffiti in red paint on the wall of the gallery, words overlay each other until they cover each other over, resulting in the amorphous red blob that currently adorns Tur’s wall.The gestation of the slogans is interesting, perhaps there’s even a Shakespearean reference in the piece, all the sound and fury of the graffiti artist is ultimately doomed to signify nothing as much from its sheer visibility and omnipresence as the indifference of society.

‘Part File Score’ runs until 4 May, ‘Wall Works’ until 31 August, at Hamburger Bahnhof, Invalidenstrasse 50-51, 10557 Berlin. More info HERE