To Dream, to Collect

Follow

We see railway lines in a no-man’s-land between the Berlin districts of Wedding and Prenzlauer Berg, on the former border between East and West. The bicycle sets off (we never see it, nor who is riding it, but we know from the camera movements). Cut. Someone has written “Baselitz Immendorf Polke Richter” on a stairway leading down from a footbridge. Someone else has crossed out “Polke” and “Richter”. Cut. The bicycle passes through Oderberger Strasse (and then other streets in Prenzlauer Berg). A voice – that of Luca Vitone, the artist who made the video – sings the names of restaurants and shops in passing to the tune of the Internationale, a song that may have been sung more often in the “Red Berlin” of the early 20th century, when the rickety children of the proletariat hung around in the cramped courtyards of the tenement blocks, than it was in the 40 years of the GDR, the self-styled “Farmers’ and Workers’ State”.

“Arise, ye workers from your slumber,” becomes “Sukho Thai, Eisstübchen Madlen”, and “Arise ye prisoners of want” becomes “Oderquelle, indisches Restaurant”. “For reason in revolt now thunders / and at last ends the age of cant!” becomes “il Giradischi, griechische Küche, Labyrinth, Singapore, Asin”. And “Away with all your superstitions / Servile masses, arise, arise!” becomes “Glaserei, repariert fast alles, Kapitalist, Coffeeshop”. The original’s poetic description of the struggle against injustice is replaced by the bustle of the present that is “played its own tune” (to paraphrase a much-quoted line from Marx) to make it reveal its dwindling stock of energy and ideas.

 

 

Vitone sings with an untrained, light, solemn, slightly broken tenor (I am reminded of John Baldessari intoning Sol LeWitt’s statements on conceptual art to the tune of well-known American popular songs). But he follows the tune and phrasing of the classic battle song of the international workers movement so closely that it is easily identified, in spite of the Dadaistic text substitution (Dadaistic in the same way that Kurt Schwitters extracted “Merz” from “Commerzbank”). And on he goes, arriving in Mitte. Passing cars also supply lyrics (“Menütaxi, Express24”). And Vitone even manages to include “Kino Internationale” on Karl-Marx-Allee, at the point where the song mentions “... the Internationale...” – although he continues not with “... unites the human race” but with “Moskau Restaurant”. Finally, the bike comes to standstill on another bridge, the camera pans round into a sunset over the railway tracks. The end.

This video entitled Der Zukunft Glanz (The Future’s Splendour) (2014) is the focus and starting point for the Italian artist’s exploration of his relationship with the city of Berlin where he has been living since 2010. It is also the focus and starting point for an eponymous group of works. The title has the old-fashioned sound of a pathos-laden declaration, as if the rays of the sinking sun really did promise a better tomorrow. (When I google the phrase, I come across Der Tyrann der Welt, a 1930 play by Eberhard Dennert, an evangelical opponent of Darwin’s theory of evolution, in which a character called Friedrich announces: “Now, brother, the future’s splendour beckons”; I also find an 1804 poem by Count Friedrich Julius Heinrich von Soden, including the line: “A God lent this heart its wings; the future’s splendour gilds them”). Taken together in their twofold solemnity, both old-fashioned-romantic and combative-pathos-laden, the title and the tune of The Internationale make it clear that the work is about Vitone’s relationship with Berlin – and about more than that. It is also about Berlin’s relationship to itself, to history, to the world and the shining sun: Berlin as a point of crystallization for several bright lights of art and political struggle in the 20th century; but also a place of the darkest crimes against humanity; and finally a few (deceptive?) glimmers of hope in the darkness of a warlike present.

 

Reorganizing and expanding a group of works developed and first shown in Berlin (at Galerie Nagel Draxler), for this show at Galleria de’ Foscherari in Bologna, Vitone has chosen the new title 192010 – combining the year of his move to Berlin with the 1920 of the Weimar Republic and the “Golden Twenties”. This connection makes sense, and is in fact quite logical when the theme is Berlin,since Galleria de’ Foscherari has a long tradition of dealing in work by, among others, George Grosz, the uniquely direct visual chronicler of 1910s, ‘20s and ‘30s Berlin who highlighted the looming disaster in his pictures. The Prussian characters in their stiff collars, the piggy faces with their pince-nez glasses, the elegant consumptives: no one escaped his grotesque exaggerations. At the same time, he was making commissioned portraits like that of Frau Plietzsch (1928) whose typically bourgeois blend of élégance and ennui he also captured unmistakably in oil.

 

 

Vitone was able to include this very painting by Grosz in his Bologna show, as well as a number of other small-format works on paper including Grosz’s Vive La Kommune (1926), a collagelike watercolour in which the crushing of the Paris Commune manifests itself in the faded blood-red “1871” written across the bodies of those killed, beside them the gun barrels of the firing squad and the raised sword of a skull-headed officer. In the tension between these two pictures – the calm confidence of the portrait and the acidity of the memory of the Commune – Vitone unpretentiously positions his own works. In front of the video projection stands a carousel made out of three bicycles. Anyone wishing to do so can sit on one of the bicycles, that are held together by a jointed steel construction, riding in circles around a central flowerpot standing on a round table printed with a droll duck pond motif. The splendour of the future, the dreams of international solidarity, go round in circles, caught in the playground-like foolishness of the present – or so one might think. But it would be wrong to believe that Vitone was interested only in symbolizing the present in culturally pessimistic terms: his intonation of The Internationale is too wistful and tender, the fun of cycling around the flowerpot too tangible. Instead, this constellation must be viewed in connection with the other works in the group that represent a kind of historical test drilling in the sediments of Berlin.

Perhaps the key work here is Der Zukunft Glanz (Haus für Hyänen) (House for Hyenas) (2014). It is based on a bundle of yellowed architectural plans for a hyena house at Tierpark Friedrichsfelde (the former East Berlin Zoo) acquired by Vitone. One of the drawings is framed like a work on paper (presented like this, it is a work on paper) and on the frame sits a small plastic toy hyena. In front of this, a white-painted wooden balcony door with a window, a typical Berlin design, leans against the wall. Behind the glass, framed like the hyena house drawing, there hangs a page from the East German periodical Das Magazin with a black-and-white photograph of a young Italian actress who was working in East Germany at the time, posing proudly in front of representative buildings in the centre of East Berlin. Another work consists of a large map of Berlin from the years of the Wall, in front of it another balcony door, behind its windows a marble gravestone (a certain Ambrosius Jung lived from 1875 to 1946). The third element, half concealed by the doorframe, is a small engraving in a black frame, a historical view of Berlin. Here, it becomes clear that Vitone treats his found materials like elements of a collage in space: as if 13 he were putting on different pairs of glasses, one after the other or even at the same time, as a way of obtaining a broken but sufficiently focussed view of Berlin’s historical peculiarities.

Marcel Duchamp’s Fresh Widow (1920) played on “French window”, and in Vitone’s work, too, the windows and balcony doors become artworks not only because they are transferred into the gallery context, but also because they generate a linguistic and visual context. Whereas Duchamp’s windows are blacked out, Vitone’s lean against the wall, surrounded by and connected with other pictures. The illusory window of classical painting becomes a collage window, a window for time travel into Germany’s post-war past, including its aura and its fine modulations. The windows themselves are remnants from classic late-19th century Berlin apartments, originally built for the bourgeoisie of the German Reich. As such, they already carry history within them, as materials. Out of the everyday experience of an extended bike ride in today’s Berlin, unhindered by the former partition (but also unhindered by the traffic congestion of most other big cities), Vitone distils another, more recent stratum of history: that of the still-young 21st century. Together with The Internationale and the window works, this constitutes an entire century, torn between the fighting spirit of the proletariat and the glorious moments of bourgeois bohème, the dark abyss of fascism and the subsequent torpor of the Cold War, followed by the brief happiness of new globalized possibilities and finally a coming to terms with a present threatened by all manner of collapse.

What also becomes clear here is how this group of works follows the compelling logic of Vitone’s earlier works, but without redundantly repeating their gestures. Take Ultimo Viaggio (Last Journey) (2005), for example, a work shown at the Nomas Foundation in Rome. On the sand-strewn gallery floor stood a red 1970s Peugeot – the Vitone’s old car from Genoa. In the summer of 1977, the Vitone family made a long journey in this car, from Italy via the Balkans and Turkey to Iran. Just before the Islamic Revolution. A photograph shows the teenage Luca on a bridge in Istanbul. Other objects lined up on a shelf – Muslim prayer beads, a pair of worn-out straw fans, a travel guide in Farsi, etc. – have basically turned from souvenir to memento mori of an irretrievable experience, a family trip of a kind that has long since ceased to be possible. Made impossible by large-scale political developments, but also by the small-scale facts of personal biography. In Vitone’s work, the conceptuality of readymades and linguistic construction becomes part of a literary-narrative sensorium. The artistic legacy of Duchamp, Grosz and Baldessari becomes the horizon whose light casts the everyday present into relief, as well as Vitone’s own contribution to this same legacy.

View Luca Vitone artworks selection on Kooness here

Text by Jörg Heiser

Courtesy Galleria de' Foscherari

Share

Newsletter

I read the Privacy Policy and I consent to the processing of my personal data