ART AND ALPHABET - an exhibition in hamburg

Given the fact that Hamburg is Germany's second largest city, its culture scene is not exactly overwhelming.

Friederike Feldmann: Brico
Friederike Feldmann: Brico (acrylic on wall)
Poetic, tender painting of imaginary lettering - yet unlasting

However, after the Kunsthalle, the art museum housing Hamburg's most complete art collection, got remodeled from 2014 on, two years and 15 Million Euros later the curators seem to catch up with art venues in other German cities - like today's opening of ART AND ALPHABET pleasantly proves.

Yes, it's true, I'm still turning up my nose a little bit when I read that the Kunsthalle claims to have one of Germany's most important art collections. I'd say for important art collections go to Berlin and Munich, for important temporary exhibitions go to Düsseldorf and Frankfurt (or to one of the many small places from my blog's category 'Art trips in Germany').

However, the Kunsthalle is ideally located, especially if you are a day tripper, since it's right next to the main station. That's a good thing. The Kunsthalle consists of three buildings. That's a bad thing.
It's bad because nobody seemed to care to give these three parts an architectonic connection whatsoever like they managed in an exemplary manner at the Singapore Art Museum and in a actually thrilling way at the Neues Museum in Berlin.
The two old buildings - the first one built in the mid 19th century in a classical historistic style and the second one from 1912 to 1919 in a neoclassicist fashion - are like carelessly slapped together; no effort to forge an artistic bridge. The Modern Art Gallery, a cube made of limestone that was added in 1996, doesn't make things better. At least they didn't patch this one together with the older buildings.
Actually getting from the older parts to the new one through a tunnel-like hallway in the basement is quite inspiring, especially since you walk under a luminous banner by Jenny Holzer.

Blick auf Galerie der Gegenwart und Gründungsbau
View on the oldest part of the complex to the right, and the newest one to the left - and on Hamburg's city lake Alster.
© Hamburger Kunsthalle  Photo: Wolfgang Neeb 

And you have to get to this very part to see the current exhibition ART AND ALPHABET on fonts and letters and codes and all their synonyms. Curator Dr. Brigitte Kölle assembled 22 artists from 15 countries to contribute their individual view and expression on this topic.
Many of the participating artists created something completely new for this exhibition, some are present with their 'classics' such as Richard Artschwager and John Baldessari.

We've all heard it through the grapevine - Prince Charles is talking to plants. And in his film from 1972, John Baldessari is 'Teaching a Plant the Alphabet' - probably to enable it to hold an educated conversation.
Howsoever, this film is also screened at the exhibition, right next to a related art project by New York based Irish artist Katie Holten - related insofar that Holten created an alphabet from plants, namely from trees. For her "Tree Alphabet" she drew a tree whose name begins with the corresponding letter. This is not just a quirk, Holten goes back into her Irish history where during medieval times the Ogham-alphabet with letters depicted from trees was common.

Tree Alphabet
Katie Holten: Tree Alphabet

Here are the five pieces of ART I liked the best - AND rightfully in ALPHABETical order:

I - Michael Bauch

Extremely colorful and playful, one of the 'friendliest' pieces in the exhibition. Michael Bauch picked a couple of discarded metal letters from a construction site and placed them whimsically on a carpet - creating a "Buchstabenzirkus" - an Alphabet Circus.
Of course there are many explanations about the deeper meaning...blablabla...I just leave it like this - it's a cute, fun, alluring sculpture. Period.

II - Natalie Czech

A room with five photographs of bouquets - stripped down to sparse assemblies of twigs and single flowers; nothing sumptuous here. The white background makes them look almost aseptic. For her series "A Critic's Bouquet" critics wrote about an exhibition of their choice and eventually tagged their texts with keywords. Natalie Czech put the bouquets together according to these tags, using a "Language of Flowers". This is based on codes stemming from the Victorian era when every flower was attributed with a particular meaning and categorized in an encyclopedia. Knowing about these codes allows reading pictures differently.

I picked the following bouquet because it's based on Fischli and Weiss' 'The Way Things Go', one of my favorite works from two of my favorite artists.

A Critic's Bouquet - Peter Scott on Fischli and Weiss 'The Way Things Go'
Natalie Czech: A Critic's Bouquet...
A Critic's Bouquet - Peter Scott on Fischli and Weiss 'The Way Things Go'
...according to Peter Scott on Fischli and Weiss 'The Way Things Go'

III - Ayşe Erkmen

During the tour through the exhibition, a little lady walked in and coyly joined our group. She seemed to be maybe a housewife getting a peek at an exhibition during her grocery shopping or so.
As we reached the hall were Ayşe Erkmen designed a wall with some unusual lettering,
turns out it was no one less than the artist herself, currently over-present in the German media for her ingenious art project at the Skulptur Projekte Münster: She created an installation that enables visitors to 'walk on water'. (I wrote a review on the Skulptur Projekte a couple of days ago).

Ayşe Erkmen, On Water
Currently at the Skulptur Projekte in Münster: Ayşe Erkmen's "On Water" - a truly Christian experience...
© Skulptur Projekte 2017, Foto: Henning Rogge

At ART AND ALPHABET, Ms Erkmen explained her wallpainting in the following way: She invented a new font by creating letters from the signs on a typewriter -
for instance the A is an / and a ) crossed by a -. The B are two│and two ). And so on.
Using this lettering, she wrote in different sizes the sentence "the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" - because this sentence includes all the (standard) letters of the latin alphabet and is therefore suitable for checking the semblance of a font.

Not only is this an original idea, I also find that Ayşe Erkmen's font looks really cool.

Ayse Erkmen: Typed Types
Ayşe Erkmen: Typed Types

IV - Paulina Ołowska

Writing, calligraphy, lettering - all this can be very artistic; but often it's rather elegant and sophisticated and not very colorful and bright. It's more impressive than expressive. About 75 per cent of the work presented in this exhibition is monochrome, soft-colored or black and white, which is fine when you visit the exhibition. But I suppose it's a bit of a challenge for the marketing people to find a loud, flashy iconic piece.

Paulina Ołowska: Alphabet 
1 of 26 cards in 4c (one for each letter of the alphabet)
© Courtesy Galerie Buchholz, Berlin / Cologne / New York

So thank god there are Paulina Ołowska's photographs of herself, wearing a blazing red dress while forming the entire alphabet with her body. You'll find her on every piece of advertising material such as cards, posters, and the cover of the tiny catalogue.

At the exhibition, you have the chance to see a film of a performance at the MoMA in New York in 2012 where dancers - of course in blazing red - put short poems on stage using Ołowska's alphabet.

V - Ignacio Uriarte

A placard with the letters A S D F G H J K L Ö - and a powerful voice reading these letters out loud.

Igancio Uriarte: ASDFGHJKLÖ

Uriarte's explanation of his at first a little irritating work was intelligent, hilarious, and a bit sentimental at the same time. Being - like he said - 'traumatized' by his former nine to five office job, his art revolves around topics deriving from work and activities at offices.
Here Ignacio Uriarte is dealing with the order of letters on a key bord that initially were put in that order to avoid that the types get tangled when typing. Hence today - now that we are all typing on computers or smartphones - this order lost its meaning and necessity, however it has never been changed.
The order on the placard is the mid row of a keyboard (adding the Ö on the German keyboard).
The person who reads these ten letters over thirty minutes is a German underground icon, Blixa Bargeld, singer of the 80s band "Einstürzende Neubauten" - a band that used heavy machinery like hammer drills and jackhammers - hence the connotation with work environment.

This exhibition is absolutely worth a visit. That the organizers were keen to make it - like the entire venue - as barrier-free as possible is absolutely praiseworthy.

Visually impaired people can feel some of the motives at little boxes that are installed next to the exhibits - here for instance the lettering by Ayşe Erkmen.

There is a nice little booklet with photographs of the works and descriptions in both German and English available at the gift shop; it comes with ten picture postcards of selected pieces and costs € 10.

After the Deichtorhallen and the Kunstverein, the Kunsthalle is the third venue on the "Kunstmeile Hamburg" that I am writing about. If you want to visit, a special ticket - the "Kunstmeile Pass" - grants you one time access to each museum for € 36 during one year.

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