The Schinkel Pavillon, run as a not-for-profit space by artist Nina Pohl, is a beautiful 1969 architectural oddity. With its panoramic windows, this intimately sized, octagonal hybrid of GDR Modernism and classicism offers views onto the neo-Gothic façade of Friedrich Schinkel’s Friedrichswerder Church, as well as Berlin’s iconic television tower. Though this environment is a challenge for art, it seems as if it were built for the multi-faceted work of Isa Genzken. With easy panache, Genzken re-calibrated the pavilion’s views to fit the dimensions of her show by leaning a printed canvas of the television tower against the window, right next to the view onto the actual tower. The image led one’s gaze – like a quick zoom to a close-up – back into the room. At the same time, it evoked the idea of a tacky tourist information office, an allusion that instantly blended with other associations: nearby, a blue Philippe Starck plastic swivel chair stood next to a coffee table, together with a bath-stool for the disabled (thus sending up pseudo-young design, not old-age frailty). This constellation was, in turn, framed by two of Genzken’s pieces in line with her recent work – playful pedestal-like structures that become a pronounced part of each sculpture – in this case, more Postmodern plastic or steel-frame chairs stuck into one another and precariously balanced atop MDF plinths (which aren’t, strictly speaking, plinths, but are open on one side and covered in Day-Glo red plastic and mirror, or illuminated by car lights placed inside). To complete this acrobat-clown scenario (the entirety of which forms an untitled work,2012), a black chair was placed in the middle of the room, with its backrest turned towards the entrance, and the invitation card stuck onto it, spelling out the show’s title ‘HALLELUJAH’ in multicoloured letters. (Two more plinth-like structures had various toy figurines placed on top or inside of them.)
The black chair – a director’s chair in all but name – offered a semantic link to Genzken’s film Die kleine Bushaltestelle (Gerüstbau) (Little Bus Stop [Scaffolding], 2012), which had its cinema premiere on the afternoon after the show’s opening (the entire project was curatorially overseen by Nicolaus Schafhausen). ‘To make a jokey film is incredibly difficult,’ Genzken was quoted as saying in the press release, ‘and it only works with the most simple means, i.e. NO BUDGET. And of course I always have to think of Buster Keaton, which feels truly liberating.’ Shot in impromptu home-video style and in various locations, the 70-minute film co-starred Genzken and her friend Kai Althoff. In the first scene, the two, wearing wigs and lingerie, impersonate prostitutes lounging on a fur-clad sofa, with the translucent yellow of plastic chairs sometimes used as a kind of psychedelic filter for the image. In drag, Althoff plays the grotesque counterpart to Genzken’s laid-back demeanour; with a pressed voice, he offers hilarious descriptions about the possible uses of a curtain tassel, just after his character mercilessly slags off Genzken’s grave-sounding lament about her bad relationship with her parents. In the succeeding scenes, the two artists play out further odd-couple scenarios: Althoff as a police commissioner with a fake belly and Genzken sporting a German policeman’s hat come across pieces of wood and foil under a blanket in a Berlin artist’s studio – Genzken’s – and talk about it as if they had discovered a rotten corpse (‘You have to learn to keep it at a distance, not take it home with you,’ Althoff’s character advises in a jovial Cologne accent). In one of the funniest vignettes, the two cuddle up in bed as bonnet-wearing babies; over their heads, a blood sausage dangles like fishing bait. Throughout, fatuous improvisations ambivalently mix with the earnest truth; and just as impersonating bored prostitutes can be taken at face value as a simple comedic vehicle, it simultaneously suggests allegorical allusions to the role of an artist – as does the idea of police officers investigating dubious remnants in an artist’s studio.
Genzken’s reference to Keaton is more than incidental: in some scenes, Althoff manages to present a deadpan expression slightly reminiscent of the great comic actor and filmmaker, and, thinking of Keaton’s slapstick use of architecture, this reference led straight back to the exhibition. Another piece (Untitled, 2012) included art crates loosely stacked on top of each other, with flower pots placed on a ‘terrace’. This produced an obvious allusion to Genzken’s own building-applied-art project of a gigantic rose at the New Museum in New York (Rose II, 2007), gently mocked by leaning a found acrylic portrait of Donald Duck against the structure.
But the show wasn’t over yet, as one’s eyes, upon leaving, fell on one more work overlooked upon entering, hung behind the reception desk: a collage made of wallpaper, foil and lacquer, sketching the outline of a body, the head of which is a 1980s photograph of Genzken with her then-husband Gerhard Richter. Over at the Neue Nationalgalerie, Richter’s vast oeuvre was on display, and Genzken’s inclusion of the photograph seemed a nod in that direction, as, maybe, was the fearless playfulness and proudly self-effacing humour of both her film and ‘HALLELUJAH’.