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Who cares about art?

With plastic bag swimming pools and heart-monitoring chandeliers, the Bernheimer Contemporary gathers artists to explore ideas of environmental and social responsibility in a spirited new exhibition in Residenz Monbijou. Through Aug 29.

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What is our responsibility in society? What are we doing about the environment? Who cares? These are the questions explored at the Bernheimer Contemporary’s first ever exhibition, which has gathered the work of eight artists to create a thought-provoking and vibrant collection in Residenz Monbijou, facing the banks of Museum Island. From bright conceptual pieces from Jan Kuck to dark, melancholic works by Victor Alaluf who creates images with barbed wire from the Palestine-Israel border, visitors are asked to engage with pieces both mentally and physically to contemplate what art can mean to the environment and society.

Each of the eleven rooms explores themes varying from ‘Pollution and Recycling’ to ‘Social Interaction’. Walking through these rooms, each piece provokes a response to these themes. Some pieces talk loudly, if not a bit too obvious in their statements. Take Kuck’s criticism about environmental waste in his work “Packet-Soup”, a large swimming pool filled with garbage bags. No room left for interpretation here. His “Black Gold” however, which uses espresso capsules to make gold ingots is a more ironic and playful environmental statement.

The lack of interpretation is made up by participation. With headphones and sensors, the works not only invite you to look but also to touch and listen, causing you to engage with these questions on a more personal level. Works such as Alaluf’s “Inner Compass” asks you to place a hand on a receiver. An optical heart rate sensor then sends data across the room to an antique chandelier reinforced with bright LED tubes which pulsates according to your heartbeat. In the room entitled “Recreation”, we see how Alaluf combines the ideas of human biology and art. There is an age of enlightenment look to his work. Petrified butterflies, sewing equipment and human bones make up his beautiful sculptures, many of which are exhibited in glass boxes as if we were in a natural history museum.

In the “Mental Pollution” room, Tim Wolff presents his video installation “Madness to Society”, a row of monitors showing the same looped clips of adverts. As fleeting cuts of Milla Jovovich, rapping hamsters, dancing silhouettes in IPod adverts, Gucci perfumes and the Old Spice guy flicker across the screen, one feels that this is supposed to be like the brainwashing scene in A Clockwork Orange, as the onslaught of so much advertising begins to make us feel sick. But again the work seems a little too obvious, and the idea of media saturation as a mental poison, somewhat overdone.

The diverse use of media reveals how differently each artist approaches the theme of social responsibility, but one thing they all achieve is the way they actively relate to the spectator. Johannes Buss’ “Big Bubbles Big Troubles”, which also features waste bags but this time with the UN logo on it, is another loud reminder of the importance of the international community’s role in solving environmental issues. Perhaps the exhibition tries too boldly to answer the question “who cares?” with the answer: we all should. But the ambitious collection certainly packs a punch in this small gallery, and one leaves not completely devoid of a sense of responsibility.

Who cares? Social responsibility in contemporary art, Residenz Monbijou, Monbijou Str. 2, Mitte, S-Bhf Oranienburger Straße. Tue-Sat 11-21. Through Aug 29.