In the entrance hall of a Catholic university and former prison are six video screens. On each screen, what look like individual prison cells are being displayed.
On one, a metronome can be seen ticking in the centre of the room, marking the passage of time. On another, hanging white sheets are somehow suspended from the ceiling, swaying gently as if being blown by an unplaceable breeze. As you look from monitor to monitor you feel like a voyeur, stealing an insight into a world that is normally hidden from view. This was Exit is no Object, a collaborative exhibition between House for the End of the World, Gallery KWADRAT, the Katholische Hochschule, and the Karlshorst Museum.
For the first time in 30 years, these spaces were being used for something other than the storage of toilet rolls.
The exhibition was co-curated by artist and founder of the House for the End of the World (HEW) project Elana Katz and artist Dario Srbić. The concept behind HEW is to use forgotten spaces and places of trauma as a starting point for the creation of art. When buildings and places are converted, historical wrongs related to their former activities are often buried and plastered over. On this occasion, the building was previously the prison of Karlshorst, a detention centre that the KGB ran in the wake of World War II.
In this exhibition, a series of six basement rooms were cleared out for use as separate installation spaces. Each room was devoted to a different artist, with Elana Katz, Dario Srbić, Exildiscount, Joshua Fineberg, Achim Valbracht, Tzu-Ting Wang and K. Yoland. For the first time in 30 years, these spaces were being used for something other than the storage of toilet rolls.
The screens, and their powerful effect, weren’t originally part of the plan. Due to a lack of emergency exits in this basement area, members of the public and visitors to the school were unable to access the rooms directly to see the works. What at first might have seemed like a major problem for the exhibition was instead incorporated in an ingenious method that became an integral feature. To get around the inaccessibility, Dario Srbić had the idea to place security cameras looking into each of the rooms, and beam the video back up to screens housed in the building’s entrance hall.
To me, it brought to mind the topic of suicide in prison, and the sensation of ghosts inhabiting spaces.
In this way, visitors were able to observe the artwork without needing physical proximity to it. It also had a number of unexpected upshots. From an experiential point of view, it helped to evoke the sensation that you were an observer looking in on prison cells. In Katz’s work in particular, the metronome tick tick ticking in the mock cell immediately brought to mind the inextricable link between the prison experience and time. Katz had also made excellent use of the texture and feel of the bare rooms. What at first glance looked like an ordinary mattress in the room, turned out to be a concrete bed covered in a layer of broken mirrors. A pillow was also held against the wall by three short metal poles (which were actually found in the room during preparation for the exhibition). These objects are flipped and recontextualised, portraying discomfort and a sense of being ill at ease instead of the softness and comfort you’d expect.
The use of cameras and screens also enabled the artists to work with a frame and deliberately put certain elements out of sight. Featured artist K. Yoland used this ability to excellent effect with the hanging sheets. Observers cannot see how they are attached or what is making them billow. To me, it brought to mind the topic of suicide in prison, and the sensation of ghosts inhabiting spaces. These feelings would have been much harder to evoke had visitors been able to see the reality of how the sheets were hung or see that it was a small fan creating the unseen wind.
I’m pretty simple minded when it comes to my assessment of what I consider good art. Does the work make me think? Does it make me take pause and reflect more deeply on the themes tackled? Does it seem like a cohesive concept? Do the works relate to each other? On all these fronts, Exit is no Object hit the mark. I was impacted in a way that made me consider how we deal with the historical trauma of certain spaces, and reflect on the nature of imprisonment and justice.
Strong concepts often sell themselves, and with House for the End of the World I’m able to immediately imagine how the project can transfer its approach and concept to other historical locations. Hopefully we’ll see more of this examination and exploration of other spaces in the near future.
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