An exhibition at the Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin. 2 July to 6 November 2016


Joseph Beuys, DAS KAPITAL RAUM, 1970–1977, 1980, Detail, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie

‘Capital – Debt; Territory; Utopia’ is an exhibition as vast and diverse as its grand title. Vast and diverse, but not daunting. Collected into a slightly too confined space, the huge canvas of this show draws you down a corridor of fascinating objects, images, experiences and video screens, challenging and exhausting you with an assault of wonder, ideas, connections and juxtapositions, as it tries to tell a story about capitalism – from every viewpoint, including several you had never thought of.

The links between an ancient Egyptian idol and a clip of Heidi Lamarr’s film orgasm in ‘Ekstase’ seem as obtuse as the juxtaposing of Ghanian slave leg irons beside Heidegger being interviewed by a Buddhist monk; yet this show brims with connections – like those in a loose weave tapestry, often more cerebral than visible, but criss-crossing one another, disappearing then reappearing in unlikely guises in unlikely places.

Loosely grouped in three ‘phases’ linked to the three sweeping concepts of its title, this exhibition continually shifts your horizons. It doesn’t wait for the viewer, it draws you along while coming at you from every angle – now a Babylonian slave contract and videos of Rihanna or Bob Dylan; now a huge canvas by Warhol, then first edition books by Kant, Martin Luther and Rachel Carson, sound recordings of Ezra Pound and a choir singing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Here is a Rennaissance altar piece beside film clips by Paolo Pasolini and Charlie Chaplin; paintings by Caspar Friedrich, Paul Klee and Gerhard Richter alongside a recruitment video for Goldman Sachs, sculptures of tiny paper birds, video film from the trenches, the rainforest, Bonaparte, Tusalava………… wonder if you are walking through the curator’s carefully assembled playlist of artefacts or into Pandora’s box, then it’s theme comes back to you unexpectedly, commanding your interest then digressing again.

The gallery feels full : none of the 130 exhibits are given much reverential space, creating the sense of an eclectic and personal experience. Hence the playlist. The spate of modern installations and historic moments, images and exotic objects does feel connected, if loosely woven. Momentarily, the show seems like Berlin itself, city of contradictions, telling the tangled story of its being, lusting after territory, driven by debt, dreaming of utopia. Could this show happen in London, Paris of New York – or is it too provocative, too modern, too questioning, too thoughtful?

Just when it feels like the assault has become too much, that you need respite to think and absorb, you arrive at one last room size exhibit: Joseph Beuys’ huge installation for the 1980 Venice Biennale. ‘Das Kapital Raum’ incorporates motionless film projectors and tape recorders, a grand piano, an array of floored objects beneath a high wall filled with chalk-marked blackboards. Stimulating. Silent. And mysteriously linked to Beuys’ allusive definition of capital as a concept pertaining to freedom and human ability.

For no reason, I began thinking about the link with earlier exhibits, such as Lafargue’s manifesto ‘The Right to be Lazy’: and wondering how the huge turtle shell or Mendelssohn’s exquisite wood and ivory travelling case connects with the photograph of the Singapore Stock Exchange beside a bizarre crocodile skin hat, how they fit in a coherent tale of capital and whether the undoubtedly powerful experience of this show addresses or merely illustrates its theme. Flickering cameos by Andre Breton, Kurt Schwitters, Auguste Rodin, Rachel Whiteread, images of Mao, Athena and Atlas all flitted through my brain and the mass of a mighty leaden bas relief by Anselm Keifer leans over me as I leave. Capital illustrated, imagined, redefined, ploughed up, stretched over and over.

Richard Sharland

Richard Sharland is an artist and writer who runs a gallery—Terre Verte—in north Cornwall.

Volume 31 number 2, November / December 2016 p 32

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