BERLIN — It has not been an easy crawl back from the generally derided Berlin Biennale for the KW Institute for Contemporary Art. Wael Shawky mounted an impressive exhibition in late summer, but in terms of the popular consciousness within Berlin’s art world, the institution was put on a probationary period of sorts. Even their current exhibition, “One on One,” a hallmark in soon-departing chief curator Susanne Pfeffer’s career, was approached with caution at first. With the concluding sentence of its teaser, “KW transforms into a place where art can be experienced directly and without disturbances, providing viewers with new ways of perceiving time and space while creating new forms of showing, exhibiting, and seeing,” it’s not hard to understand why one might have thought it to be yet another overreaching, underperforming instance of curatorial self-indulgence. It is not.
Without question, gimmick is at work in “One on One.” Go on a weekend and prepare to line up for hours in order to get through its 17 chambers of works, which were specifically created by the artists to be experienced by a single viewer at a time. Jeremy Shaw’s video work alone lasts 10 minutes for each visitor. At those crowded moments, it becomes a relational exhibition, the waiting lines akin to the queues at Carsten Holler’s New Museum show last fall and countless other recent examples of museum as amusement park. This secondary layer, though it may add a level of excitement and anticipation to some viewers, also robs the exhibition of a great deal of its powerful intimacy. Feign food poisoning or an important meeting some afternoon instead and visit when it’s quiet.
Gimmick remains partially at bay in the first room, a monumental installation of swamp grass, sand, and fake trees by Robert Kusmirowski in the formerly Occupied lower level of the museum. But it raises its head on the first floor with single sculptural objects like Alicja Kwade’s “Light Presence” (2012) — a clock which spins on its center to mark each passing second, placed alone in a somewhat claustrophobic temporary room. The more hardened exhibition goer will rile, feeling trapped with a piece of work they might otherwise have blown past with a couple of glances and an exaggerated pause and cock of the hip at most, should it have been placed on the KW’s wall amongst other works. But giving in to the awkwardness of blowing back out through the door on which you must hang a specially printed “do not disturb sign,” something clicks. Literally. In this space, the clock’s tick is unnaturally loud, compared to a conventional experience of museum-going in which footsteps, giggles and pseudo-intellectual conversations form an all-but-unnoticed white noise. While it may not be quite a “new way of perceiving time and space,” it is certainly a new way of looking at art.
The exhibition’s crowning achievement is that it allows a break with a panoptically influenced art routine: the slow stroll through galleries, hands behind one’s back or arms crossed, face revealing a serious yet inquisitive expression. Entering FORT’s uncanny environment of “The Charmer” (2012), a linoleum-floored, half-taupe half-white room that looks like a ’60s kitchen preserved via vacuum chamber, the sole object found is a loudly humming refrigerator. In contrast to a more outwardly displayed icebox in one of the Hamburger Bahnhof galleries — which holds beer for the very few daring visitors who open it — inside this protective chamber, away from attendants and cameras, you can simply walk up to the box with light showing through cracks in the worn door seal and peer inside. To the chagrin of many a Berliner, no beer awaits.
Similarly taunting of impulse is Hans-Peter Feldmann’s “One on One” (2012), a box of Milky Way candy bars placed on a pedestal with the word “Nein” (No) engraved on a brass plaque. With the box full, the word’s instructions win out over the temptation of action. Trisha Donnelly’s formally pleasing, though rather esoteric, untitled installation in KW’s attic space offers a trapeze-like bar connected to aircraft cables, which swing a water-filled, glass-bottomed tray suspended near the ceiling.
Were “One on One” a series of such experiments in repressed agency, it would fall flat after a pair or trio. But the exhibition challenges you in other ways as well. In Joe Coleman’s performance and video installation “A Holy Ghost Compare its Hooves” (2012), the artist sits in his chamber painting army figures on a bloody battleground, later turning on a video projection of screaming Jesus freaks yelling about how we’re all damned for eternity. Already so used to solitude with the art at the event, a companion on my visit jumped backward out of the raised box after realizing Coleman was indeed human, not some animatronic creation.
A more literal and less frightening take on this theme of intrusion is Annika Kahr’s installation, a grand piano with two players situated behind a 19th-century door. Music — on my visit, Brahm’s Walz Op. 39 — flows sonorously into the gallery before one enters. Yet when a visitor opens that second door, both players stop playing and pause to chat between themselves, have a sip of water, and wait out the intrusion, like a person only confident to sing in the confines of her shower.
Perhaps most significant about “One on One,” aside from the exceedingly high quality of most works on view, is its spatiotemporal specificity relative to Berlin. Maybe the show could work somewhere like MoMA PS1 — but its boxes would require some extra sanding and lacquer, and it would need a coat check for cynicism firmly installed at the entrance. The exhibition is a reminder of the unique risks that are able to be taken in this city, something that has lately been skirted in favor of bigger names and more polished exhibitions. Both have their place. But as Berlin at large moves towards the latter ideology, it’s an important reminder we can still be cool and new whilst slightly settling down.