Field Trip #12: Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin

Berlin: a city where gothic meets space age architecture…

Fired up on caffeine courtesy of a beautiful cafe in north east Berlin (Anna Blumen), I rock up at the Neue Nationalgalerie, where construction is underway.

The glass exhibition space is loaded with crates and construction gear, and a man with industrial earphones is gesturing at a pitchfork truck driver. Unsure of whether or not this is a new (and poorly judged) breed of performance art, I make my way down the steps at the entrance to discover a sprawling underground exhibition space.

Berlin’s Neue NationalGalerie’s current exhibition is titled The Divided Heaven, a theme which reflects upon Berlin as a beautiful city that has seen dramatic changes over the last century – an area that was carved up into four occupation zones by Allied Forces, but remained broadly defined by the East/West relationship. The exhibition focusses on the period between 1945-1968.

The first piece that captures my attention is a sculpture of a white policeman beating a black man. It’s separated from the gallery space by a barrier, but even so makes for uncomfortable viewing. The policeman’s helmet and baton set against the naked vulnerability of the victim is a powerful visual representation of the abuse of power. Impressed, I move on.

The opening section of the exhibition is held together by the vague theme of animals depicted by artists pretending to be scientists. Heinz Trokes’s Animal Landscape is a biological composition, with what looks like a microscope slide that has been tuned up by an artist’s imagination – the beautiful reds and blues create an amalgamated amoeba that contains semi-recognizable elements of other creatures – jaws, feet, eyes and veins.

Another painting from the first room, Harald Metzkes’s The Shark, is brutal. The creature sits on a pristine dinner table, its jaw frozen in a grimace, totally out of its element. Fish hooks are still attached to the body, and the belly has been sliced open in a parody of an anatomical specimen. The painting is cartoonish, but just realistic enough to make me wince a little.

Moving through to the larger exhibition space is the centerpiece of the next theme, The Red Cloud (La Nuvola Rossa), by Italian artist Renato Guttuso. Guttuso is famous for his identity as one of the great left wing political artists in Europe, whose work drew inspiration from Picasso and challenged the fascist ideology of the time. The Red Cloud is a simple painting that manages to capture the artist’s sense of foreboding and excitement born of drastic political change; the red paint seems as if it is about to start seeping through the open window and out into the real world.

Then comes Otto Piene’s Light Room installation. This is a room of approximately 10×10 meters containing two large reflective boxes, dotted with pinholes that emit light. In the corner of the dark room is a smaller box that is a more powerful light source and runs an automated sequence, in which different sections of the room are illuminated by different panels of the box. The light bounces off the reflective cubes and sends little clusters spinning around the room. In the corner, a mock satellite dish above the light source whirs and clicks. Very beautiful but with an edginess that comes from being alone in a dark room with loud, clever machines.

A final section comes across as an opportunity for the curator to namecheck titans of the 20th century art world, Warhol, Bacon and Picasso, as well as a brilliant working robot made from scrap, set against a strange soundtrack that echoes through the Neue Nationalgalerie. Distorted strains of All you need is love blast out from a hallucinogenic screen in the corner, proving that Liverpool follows you wherever you go.

All in all, an impressive variety of art that manages to switch between experimental and avant-garde, political and tongue in cheek: The Great Divide is well worth taking time over. I leave Berlin’s subterranean Neue Nationalgalerie wishing that there was time for a second visit.

Oli Rahman

Posted on 09/08/2012 by thedoublenegative