From the roots "slab" and "building," "Plattenbau" is the German term for the Socialist pre-fab tower block–a typology dominating the urban landscape of former Soviet states. The ham-fisted, thick-ankled, dim-witted cousins of more sophisticated international style prototypes, in form and function East Berlin’s Plattenbauen bear only a faint resemblance to the elegantly minimalist geometries and corporatist utopian intentions of, for example, a Le Corbusier. Showcasing well-worn, mid-century DDR architecture, Alexanderplatz’s perimeters are lined with such structures, which march with monotonous regularity down adjacent streets. At its northeastern terminus, the Karl Marx Allee connects with Memhardstrasse, a side street straddling a down-at-heel no-man’s land located between Berlin’s newly gentrified Mitte neighborhood and the oppressive functionalism of Alexanderplatz’s putty-toned concrete vistas.
In an instance of art imitating life, one passes by Memhardstrasse’s Jet Express photo-finishing shop and the Jet Clean Laundromat before reaching Jet, a not-for-profit gallery established by Lena Ziese in September of 2005. Jet approximates its surroundings like camouflage, but Ziese’s project is remarkable–non-profit exhibition spaces are a rarity on the German art scene. The second in a series of shows organized by invited curators, Jet’s current exhibition Was Wäre Wenn #2 (What if #2), features works by German and Polish artists Anna Degenkolb, Andreas Grahl, Jozef Robakowski and Peter Piller, on view from December 1, 2005 until January 14, 2006. Selected by curator Doreen Mende, Was Wäre Wenn #2’s installations, drawings and films instantiate the unfolding of possibility even as they, like the gallery itself, blur distinctions between art and its environment.
Appropriated from a Plattenbau storefront much like those lining Memhardstrasse, the ordinary advertising lightbox of Andreas Grahl’s installation Anderthalb (2005) continues the modernist tradition of the displaced objet-trouvé. Like Marcel Duchamp with his pedestalized bicycle wheel, Grahl intrudes upon the lofty realms of art with the banality of the everyday. Hung within a corner of the ceiling, the innocuous nature of the standard lightbox is enhanced by its placement within the gallery: visitors frequently pass beneath his artwork without noticing its presence.
On closer inspection, the found object transfigures its environment, complicating the distinction between installation and sculpture, gallery and art. Grahl schematically removed sub-ceiling tiles to create a smoothly contoured aperture–reminiscent of a pane glass window–through which to view the lightbox. Framing the object, their absence also dictates the visible form of the artwork, which includes not only the sign but also its immediate surroundings. Stripped of its plastic signage, it takes on the guise of a Dan Flavin florescent tube sculpture, and Grahl’s strategic consideration of its placement produces formal continuities between the objet-trouvé and the gallery space. Its rectangular regularity is replicated by the linear trajectory of pipes normally hidden within the ceiling’s interior, now exposed and brightly lit by the nearby florescent tubes. Random strands of electrical wire and the shoddy bi-tonality of the painted walls beneath the subceiling seem almost intentional when viewed as context for the lightbox. Functional elements usually hidden–lighting tubes, waterpipes–become, through Grahl’s intervention, objects for aesthetic contemplation. Grahl pierces the discrete space of the gallery to include its interior within a carefully contrived composition, but he also extends its purview to the building’s exterior by incorporating the sort of lightbox that hangs above Jet’s door.
Anna Degenkolb’s untitled installation (2005), created specifically for Was Wäre Wenn #2, radicalizes the notion of permeability introduced by Grahl. Like Grahl, Degenkolb transforms the gallery through its inclusion within a work of art, generating interplay between already existing architectural elements and her own redefinition of the space. Both Degenkolb and Grahl removed ceiling tiles as intrinsic components of their artwork, but while Grahl’s intervention created the effect of a transparent picture plane, Degenkolb’s displacement exposed the horizontal grid of interlocking aluminum members. Using these as a template for the first section of her installation, she hung precisely spaced strands of weighted string to create the vertical dimension of a striated cube that is completed by a graphite reproduction of the sub-ceiling grid marked onto the floor. Reminiscent of a Venetian blind, a second grid laid out on the gallery’s back wall also extends into the viewer’s space–near its bottom, Degenkolb attached pieces of string to walls on either side producing a stratified rectangle that juts out in front of the back wall’s grid, replicating its design in three-dimensions.
The weak link in Mende’s curatorial chain is Peter Piller’s series of 24 Bürozeichnungen aus Vorzüge der Absichtslosigkeit (Office drawings out of the advantages of non-intentionality). Penned on blue and white stationary taken from the advertising agency in which he works, they emerged from the tedium of the artist’s obligatory day-job. More reminiscent of mid-90s ironic carelessness than of the aggressive deskilling of canonical modernists, Piller’s stultification results not in high-minded conceptualism, but rather, dull art. That these drawings are a positive effect of his boring office job accommodates the exhibit’s theme of potentiality, but in comparison to the more nuanced work of his colleagues they deliver only the superficial impact of a clever one-liner.
Shot from a Plattenbau in Lodz, Poland, Jozef Robakowski’s super-8 film From My Window 1978-1999 (2000) acts as a touchstone for the exhibition. Documenting events that take place on the street, sidewalk and parking lot outside his tower-block window, each minute of the film constitutes one year within a 20-year period. Robakowski’s voice-over narrates short stories about neighbors that wander into his field of vision–like an informant he notes their addresses, professional affiliations and personal contacts. Spying on ordinary people living out mediocre lives is a mundane task, a fact that is emphasized in the film when police perform random, and fruitless, car searches on the street in front of his building. It seems like nothing much happens from moment to moment, but over time astonishing and seismic shifts occur within his immediate vicinity. Just as Robakowski’s camera bears witness to the dismantling of the USSR and consequent new construction projects, Jet gallery speaks to the radical transfiguration of its own formerly Soviet neighborhood.