In a video interview from 2012, the German artist John Bock mutters about his career. With crazed eyes, he explains that breakthroughs have always proved elusive, despite a long and unbroken string of projects. Walking through his latest show, ‘In the Moloch of the Presence of Being’, at Berlinische Galerie, it’s easy to imagine why. The exhibition is a sprawling confabulation of slapdash sculptures, food, DIY architecture, frenzied videos and ghoulish mises-en-scène. But, in spite of this, Bock’s problem here isn’t the shock factor, it’s that the show has a benign familiarity: Paul McCarthy haunts the work as does Otto Muehl, the granddaddy of scatological performance. Given Bock’s enthusiasm for food and entrails, however, this regurgitation of artistic influence makes a strange kind of sense.
Though intended as a retrospective of singular works, ‘In the Moloch of the Presence of Being’ has the motley cohesion of a psychotic squatter’s warren. Two structures dominate: Sexy Socks (2010), a canopy made from latticed tube socks, and Da-Dings-Da ist im Groß-Da-da weil der Wurm im Moby Dick wohnt (2014), a children’s fort constructed with colourful blankets. Both assemblages toggle between sculpture and detritus: a yellow farmer’s plough, burnt pizzas, toast, straw bundled into a quasi-voodoo doll and a floral deckchair that serves as a backdrop for so many grotesque puppets. Incorporated video projections illuminate each of the structures, and recur throughout the show. In one, an actor slathered in make-up and cake sings a shrill tune, while mashing a puppet’s face into red clay flowers. Enfolding Muehl’s passion for food-play with Kelley’s operatic stylings, it’s sufficiently unhinged to scare off any child from watching puppet theatre for life.
It’s a little disheartening that Bock gives familiar form to such transgressive intention. But move past the work’s dated style of abjection and dense, contradictory thickets of motif, gesture and material come to the fore. So discordant are the physical contents of the works that my own attempts to parse them have been plagued by anxiety. How, for example, are we to reconcile a piece like Dünnhäutiger Butcher (2016) with Escape (2013)? While one comprises the scattered relics of a performance – toilet paper tubes, feathers, a rubber glove – the other is a camp video in which a woman
drives a car while her male passenger examines his own entrails. Bock’s extrapolating of such ridiculous ideas into full and vivid works is innately engaging. Moreover, this chaos has a cathartic quality, a warped reflection of the mixture of bodily mystery, social performativity and repressed desire that simmers within each of us.
Having zigzagged through a smattering of glowing animatronic installations, visitors to Bock’s show then encounter a makeshift cantina. Entitled Große Erscheinung der ins Licht getretenen TRIEBKREATUR (2014), the shack offers neither the succour of food nor the reprieve of drink. Instead, we’re served an agitating tableau. Behind a hanging steel contraption, a single light bulb glows against stained wallpaper; nearby, a small monitor shows a woman trapped within the very same concession stand. This image pushes Bock’s show from conventional bad trip to horror film. The last thing we need is more imagery of women being tortured by misogynistic psychopaths, but the disquieting video gives us a sense of the scabrous pathologies that the artist seeks to excavate. As it stands, Bock’s flair for grotesque pageantry becomes mired in stylistic proficiency – a kind of incessant reiteration of art history’s most abject of practitioners. All the same, I’ll happily take in the rare concentration of piss and vinegar that he brings to this recitation, as he toils towards that ever-elusive breakthrough.
Main image: John Bock, Hell's Bells, 2017, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Berlinische Galerie, Berlin