I’ll admit it, I’m weak. I’ve been looking for someone who’s interested in art to go to museums and galleries with ever since the last person I knew who liked to do that moved, so when I noticed that the Hamburger Bahnhof has a free admission policy from 2 til closing at 6 on Thursdays, I mentioned it to a young woman I knew and she actually seemed enthusiastic, so we made a date for this past week.
My interest was primarily in the Brice Marden retrospective because I’d read a great review of it by Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker, yet I’ve never “gotten” Marden at all. (True trivia fact: for a number of years he was married to Pauline, Joan Baez’ older sister.)
Her interest, though, was in pain. Or, rather, Pain, the current blockbuster occupying both the Hamburger Bahnhof and the CharitÃ©’s Medical-Historical Museum. Well, she’s a health professional, I said. At any rate, we got there at 4 on Thursday, and went in first to the Marden, which she didn’t get, either, and which is so large that I knew I’d have to dedicate a whole trip to it in order to break through the surface.
Thus, we clomped up the stairs to Pain. Now, at its heart, this is a good idea. Western art is filled with images of pain, from warriors slicing into their foes to probably the most famous and universally-distributed image of pain, Christ on the cross. It’s this image which the show starts with, cleverly mixing art history with science — or at least pseudo-science. Apparently there have been dozens of works written over the centuries about Christ’s wounds, and certainly there have been plenty of representations, not only of the crucifixion itself, but the scourging beforehand, the lancing of his side on the cross, and, of course, the procession to Golgotha, wearing the crown of thorns.
Right down to the present day, there have been scientists — or perhaps “scientists” is a better way to put it — investigating the exact method by which a crucified person dies. In the past, they’ve used cadavers, but there’s a guy in upstate New York who’s invented a painless cross on which he can fix his volunteer subjects and wire them to measure their stress levels in various organs and muscle groups. Some of his apparatus is on display here, and it looks like something out of a very specialzed S&M club.
The Bahnhof wusses out, however, when it comes to presenting an actual crucifix. If you want to see pain and agony represented, you go directly to the experts, the Spanish. Their crucified Christs bleed, drip with gore, twist in agony, and wear facial expressions that are disturbing. The closest this show comes to that is a tiny wax model whose chest comes off to serve as a kind of guide to the internal organs for the medieval doctors it was created for; it isn’t even as big as it appears on your screen on the exhibition’s website. But in order to get a Spanish example, the museum would have had to engage in a loan, and pay for transportation and insurance, and, as we all know, the city’s culture funds are broke. Hence, there not being a Spanish crucifix in Berlin, apparently, we get a German one. Small potatoes. Further (and more salutary) Germanness is a room in which DÃ¼rer’s engravings of the Stations of the Cross are on display with little stands containing a miniature score of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion showing how Bach indicated pain in his score, which excerpts you can listen to on headphones. I will, however, take exception to the wall caption stating that the Passion is universally regarded as the greatest piece of music ever written, or some such balderdash.
It could hardly be said that the show wusses out much more, however. The end of the Christian part has Francis Bacon’s renowned Crucifixion, a sordid, gory piece of self-loathing that is nonetheless extraordinarily powerful, once one works out its iconography. (In case you’re having trouble, the cross has apparently toppled over, and Christ is lying on his back on the ground, still attached). You won’t miss the Nazi armbands or the two guys sitting at the bar, either. More subtle is Bill Viola’s video Observance, in which actors slowly move to the foreground, looking at something tragic, which is a cousin to the piece of his I saw in Rotterdam six years ago which re-enacts Hieronymous Bosch’s painting of the crowd mocking Christ as he carries the cross, and was similarly extraordinary thanks to the actors’ skills of facial representation of emotions.
Then it’s on to the rest of it, and a painfully mixed bag it turns out to be. A room-length spread of surgical instruments. Votive offerings, little wax representations of “where it hurts” which were left at shrines or in churches, so that divine intercession might relieve the pain. A film about scarification. A cartoon from the DDR about a guy with a pain in his knee. A vitrine with medical specimens preserved in formaldehyde. And the hard-core room, in which we get to see police photos of men who’ve died in auto-erotic situations, more photos of devices confiscated from S&M clubs, a rather sedate martyrdom of St. Sebastian, Tiepolo’s Martyrdom of St. Agatha, whose breasts were sliced off (she’s pressing a bloody cloth to her chest, but the breasts are sitting on a plate like twin puddings), and Rudolf Schwarzkogler’s Aktion Nr. 6, which may or may not show the artist slicing off his penis (all of the online sources I’ve found are coy about this, although all debunk the story that it caused his death, which was actually from jumping out a window). Oh, and a video of Josef Beuys boxing a television screen. I have no idea why this is included, except there’s probably a law in Berlin that no major art show can be mounted without something by one of my nemeses, and its connection with pain is probably explained somewhere in a 75,000-word essay referencing loads of arcane theory. (At least there’s nothing by Pippilotti Rist, who is a pain).
On the way out, you can try your skill at the Painstation, a Pong game rigged so that it ceases to operate if either player moves his hand from a metal plate. Keeping your hand there, though, subjects you to whipping by a rubber-clad piece of wire or heat from the plate when you miss a shot. People were thronged around it, waiting to try. I saw it at Ars Electronica some years ago, and passed then, too.
All in all, I thought the show more sensationalistic — and meretricious — than enlightening. That the crowds were thick didn’t surprise me in a city which celebrates guilt and punishment as much as this one does, and I left, convinced that next year’s blockbuster will be Suicide, with guest performance artists from Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, and Sri Lanka all competing for a posthumous prize. And nobody, no matter how good-looking she is, will get me to go to that.
Anyone up for Brice Marden?