From May 2 – 4, all the nooks and crannies of Berlin were filled by 50 pop-up exhibitions as part of the annual Gallery Weekend Berlin, now in its 10th year. The celebrated contemporary art event, supported by prominent partners like Tate London and the Centre Pompidou Paris, consistently attracts collectors and patrons from across the world, with over a 1000 visitors rolling in this year for the short weekend programme. Hopping from gallery to picnic to gallery again, I spent that weekend roaming Berlin like a tourist, trying to find hidden gallery spaces tucked behind the greyscale walls of banal DDR-era buildings, and my favorite artists among them.
The moment we set foot into the Neumeister Bar-Am (NBA) gallery space, co-owned by Barak Bar-Am and Jean-Pierre Neumeister, we are greeted by associate director Ché Zara Blomfield who walks us through NYC-based artist Kate Steciw‘s newest (and first solo German) exhibition, Actife Plassity.
We walk the edges of the single exhibition room around walls strewn with flattened collage-style works sliced and sporadically fitted into structural shapes littering the floor. All the pieces are comprised of stock images, for example, five to be exact, which are duplicated and layered into a single Photoshop file and exported into the physical exhibition pieces shown in the gallery. The works on the wall appear swarming, the five stock images echoed repeatedly and layered over the smooth rounded lines of one another.
I immediately recoil, having always been taught to look for acute angles and generally more drawn to sharper geometric shapes, but there is something soothing and innocuous in Steciw’s work, like a blue popsicle on a hot summer night. The stock images dart on the canvas, the low hum of pop culture blended and bent into a singular piece that says everything and nothing at the same time.
When I ask about Steciw’s inspiration, Blomfield points me in the direction of The Overloaded Man, a short story J.G. Ballard in which the protagonist, suitably named Faulkner, narrows his perception of the world which in turn becomes nothing more than an array of abstract forms and colours. As Ballard writes:
The death of affect, which forms the moral thread of Ballard’s tale, is how one feels walking through Steciw’s work. The bland, saccharine images of the stock archives compete weakly with one another, losing all representational meaning through their composition. At times, they disappear into each so completely that all one detects are the skeletons of patterns, infinitesimal fractions of the whole.
But once completely devoid of meaning, they begin to find it once again –in the rose petals that hang suspended in the corner of the canvas, in the netted image that curls across the bright orange of an indeterminate shape. The abstraction obliterates shape as experienced every day, blurring and distorting it and giving it the freedom to become something else. Tentatively, then joyfully, the shapes begin to tell a story outside of their own contours.
We see a different means of freedom in the upper floor of the gallery space, where Steciw and Rachel de Joode have set up studio for the day with the third installment of their performance and installation project Open for Business. In the attic-style studio we find the two artists –de Joode curled before the glowing screen of her computer, Steciw floating across the studio in a state of arrangement. In the far corner rests a tripod with a camera fixed firmly in place, and on the opposite walls are the products of the day, now coming to a close. Trading roles, the two artists spent the day photographing objects, everything from clay moulds to close-ups of their hands holding various objects.
“Is that sushi?” I ask incredulously, leaning in to take a closer at one of the finished pieces displayed on the wall. “Yes,” Steciw answers matter-of-factly. “We had sushi for lunch.” The whole thing feels a bit silly and thrilling, and we all giggle, because, sushi. Later, de Joode spins around in her chair to tell us that Open for Business is about the de-mystification of art more than anything else. That taking the process and opening it to the public acts as a means of connection, as a way to counter the insulation of artists within the cocoons of their industries.
We loop the small studio space a few more times, playing Paint By Numbers-style games with the various objects scattered across the studio, threading pieces of salmon to the disembodied fragments that span the wall, the clay mould to every echo of grey, the fingers of a hand directly back to Steciw’s own wrist.
It’s like the Internet itself, I say half-aloud, and Steciw jumps to agreement. Dynamic, hurried, leaving traces of its earlier self behind like shed skin, the studio space seems like the physical representation of the digital process. As we filter out of the space and say our goodbyes, I think to the end of “The Overloaded Man” where Ballard writes:
“Steadily watching it, he waited for the world to dissolve and set him free.”
I think back over my life to the ways in which I’ve invariably chased the abstract, devouring poetry, obsessing over expressionism, and I feel at that moment that I know exactly what he means. **