Cut me apart
Berlin has for some time now ceased to suffer from a lack of palaces. On the contrary, of late we have tended to see new palaces added, and all those that have somehow survived are being restored and modernized. That includes Schloss Biesdorf, one of the strangest, most idiosyncratic and yet also idyllic of the palaces in the city. Although Schloss Biesdorf is actually located exactly between the East Berlin districts of Marzahn-Hellersdorf and Lichtenberg, which are not really renowned for anything like idyllic conditions.
Nevertheless, the park, which straddles four hectares, boasts old trees, crunchy gravel paths and a wooden teahouse, serves to transpose visitors into a trance of tranquility by the time they get to the front door. The tender rosé of the palace’s façade shimmers behind the verdant green of the trees. A truly over-Romantic building that arose here in 1868 presumably with the participation of architect Martin Gropius and taking its cue from Italian palaces. It features loggias flanked by pillars and a octagonal turret in the southeast corner. From the belvedere in the turret you can in the distance spy the yellow subways cars of the Line 5, which rattle along a wide curve of track high above the ground here, which kind of prevents you hallucinating that you are in Tuscany.
Cutting palaces with a chainsaw
What would Gordon Matta-Clark (1943-1978) possibly said of all this calm? Perhaps he would have cut the palace in half with a chainsaw, slowly skinning it or at least hanging a few large-format photos of the nearest garbage dump in the park. The New York artist was not exactly known for being a friend of the idyllic. He later split townhouses in half ("Splitting"), banged large holes into houses earmarked for demolition ("Conical Intersect"), or had a cute red delivery van drive onto a huge garbage dump where it was promptly flattened by two dozers ("Fresh Kills").
All the more interesting, then, that now it is precisely here that a major retrospective of his work is being shown. Because since 2016 the pleasantly renovated palace is home to “Zentrum für Kunst und öffentlichen Raum” (ZKR), and the current exhibition is only the second show of this brand-new art space which will no doubt soon find its place in the densely populated Berlin art world. A permanent conflict between the content and the palace and its park seems to be inevitable. However, if it is always exploited as ingeniously as this focused exhibition then it may turn out to be a highly fruitful conflict.
Blowing up the Berlin Wall
That said, the basic mission facing the new director of Schloss Biesdorf, Katja Assmann, is anything but simple. She is supposed to make certain that all exhibitions in ZKR combine contemporary international positions with those of artists from the GDR. This creates some shackles, but in the case of Matta-Clark they have been integrated with leisurely brilliance. Thankfully, the New Yorker was invited to West Berlin in 1976, where he wanted to dynamite part of the Berlin Wall and was evidently only dissuaded from so doing after his friends talked to him at great length. Instead he stuck ad posters on the Wall and painted an out-sized “MADE IN AMERICA” next to them, filming it on Super-8 as he did the extensive ID checks by the West Berlin police.
Thanks to this film, the five curators have created an extremely successful dramaturgy for the show. On the ground floor you initially move through a series of rooms showing artistic work from the East Berlin of the late 1970s and 1980s. These prints, paintings and photos bring to mind the strangely frozen, empty and half-finished (or half-destroyed) state of that truncated downtown — which also feels weird now, when looking out through the palace's windows and into the green idyll of the park around.
In the last room hang marvelous black-and-white photographs by Sybille Bergemann; she took them in 1980 in East Berlin and in 1984 in New York – they went on show in 1987 in East Berlin without any captions, simply one hung next to the other, so that the two cities did not seem to be opposites at all. On the contrary, it is very difficult to guess which image belongs to which city. From here it is then but a small jump over the Wall to Matta-Clark’s “The Wall”, which is how the tour of the ground floor ends.
The foundations have thus been laid and the exhibition on the second floor is composed far freer. Here, works by Matta-Clark are combined in each hall with contemporary works by the likes of Isa Melsheimer, Tomás Saraceno or Marjetica Potrč. Some of the dialogs are great, other times the linkage is somewhat mysterious or imprecise. Although he died so young, Matta-Clark left a thematically very broad portfolio and therefore, with a little effort, one can link one of his works to practically any other artwork — the line dividing a greatly unsettling combination that spawns new perspectives from a total arbitrariness is sometimes very thin indeed. However, in the spacious rooms with their great views out, the show definitely succeeds repeatedly in creating exciting interaction, for example between Andrea Pichl’s photos of prefabricated tower blocks and Matta-Clark’s “Day’s End” or when Simon Faithfull departs on a North-South trip along the imagined line of the prime meridian and on the wall opposite Matta-Clark very slowly and very thoroughly takes a chain saw to a nice wooden house and splits it into two halves: “Splitting” is probably one of his best-known works.
The palace’s tranquil aura and the few visitors on a Wednesday afternoon help to underpin the very focused exhibition design. In other shows Matta-Clark’s works all too often seem a little lost, hanging between exhaustively documented performances. It is above all his Super 8 films that have survived, and what tend to be small-format coarse-grained photos. Here, these works enjoy the necessary space and calm that they need to unleash their full unsettling brutal power – and they have all the more of an impact in such an idyllic space as this. There is much food for thought to ponder when wandering between those big old tree back to the subway.
Until October 8, 2017
Zentrum für Kunst und öffentlichen Raum ZKR
at Schloss Biesdorf, Alt-Biesdorf 55, 12683 Berlin