"Capital: Debt - Territory - Utopia" @ Hamburger Bahnhof

by Gregor Baszak


“Please take this with you,” reads a hard to miss sign in red letters at the entrance to the exhibition “Capital: Debt – Territory – Utopia” at the Hamburger Bahnhof art museum in Berlin. The sign urges visitors to grab a 24-page booklet on their way into the 10,000 square foot hall, in which curators Eugen Blume and Catherine Nichols have put on display a vast amount of works of art of various genres and media (130 to be exact). The exhibit culminates at the end of the long hall with a reproduction of Joseph Beuys' 1980 installation “The Capital Space 1970—1977,” originally produced for the Venice Biennial. The booklet will become a crucial companion to the visitors' experience of the show, as will become apparent.

Upon entry, one will face a two and a half minute video by artist Binelde Hyrcan (Cambeck, 2013), which shows four Angolan boys playing in a make-believe car dug into sand. The boys' fantasy play clashes with the reality of poverty: One boy boasts that his dad lives in the United States “in the good life” and that he plans on joining his father there, whereas, he says, the other boys will be left behind “in the slum.” The “good life” of Western capitalism probably awaits none of the four, and their laughing and shouting will accompany the visitors throughout the installation, as it echoes through the long, high-ceilinged hall, only clashing with the penetrating audio-recorded exclamations of the speaker of Andreas Fischer's work “Richter” (2013).

The first several dozen works on display are put under the motto “Debt,” which is a pervasive, ancient means of constituting human relations, wherein humans “appear to play an altogether passive role,” according to a description on the wall. Here, the point of the entire show quickly becomes evident: to wrest these humans out of the passive role into being active interpreters, and hopefully creators, of their social world. Nothing less had Beuys aimed for in formulating his concept of the “social sculpture,” which intended to reinterpret art's role in the world and to provide it with the power of provoking revolutionary change. The underlying idea behind the selection and arrangement of the works, in other words, is to make the viewers actively question inherited ideological assumptions in order to open the possibility of arranging the world itself in ways less subject to the anonymous powers of money, debt, and capital.

Yet, the viewer is not so active after all in “Capital”: Above almost every artifact or canvas is an overarching quote printed on the wall, which establishes the theme around which the works were selected. You read, for instance, a quote by British economist John Maynard Keynes: “Now it is true that the needs of human beings may seem to be insatiable.” Right underneath you find an original Dutch Renaissance rendition of the nativity scene Adoration of the Magi (ca. 1520), where one of the three kings visiting Jesus, Caspar, as the booklet reads, “seems to be extremely interested in his own gift, eyeing the gold coins at a time when early capitalism was on the rise.” Caspar, indeed, is greedily attracted to the gold, almost close enough to touch it while not paying any attention at all to the toddler-savior.

Just a few works to the side, the visitors are invited to put on headphones to watch a cheesy Goldman Sachs commercial, in which employees of all conceivable skin tones praise the work environment at the diverse investment bank. And if you have followed the works in their numerical order, you will have watched the 4-minute long commercial right after experiencing works by Martin Luther and Ezra Pound, who condemn usury as sinful and unnatural. In the same section, finally, the visitors will encounter Jeff Koons’ 1980 work “New Shop-Vac Wet / Dry,” a vacuum cleaner on top of a brightly lit Plexiglas box. As the booklet notes, the piece is presented to the visitors as if it were a commodity in a department store, appealing to the consumerist interests of a consumerist mass society. The work is kitsch, but its point is that all art in the postmodern age is kitsch, so we might as well embrace it.

Obviously, this twist clashes with the primarily Christianity-themed works in this section, and it tasks the visitors with drawing connections and creating a coherent whole out of the diverse set of artifacts and works of art. The exhibition as a whole thus presents itself in the garb of an “open” artwork, where the interpretative gaps can be filled by the audience only. Such is the intention, but in reality the visitors are still left with the arrangement and ever-present commentary by the curators, since the way the works are put together and commented on by the booklet entries and quotes on the wall reveal another clear intention. And while this intention is a critical assessment of capitalism in the hope of somehow encouraging the audience to think politically, the show naturally falls below the political, most assuredly because its understanding of what capitalism actually is doesn’t run very deep.

As Theodor Adorno argued in his provocative essay “Commitment,” ostensibly “political” art often sacrifices complexity in favor of simplistic propaganda. As a result, you receive a problematic, short-sighted critique of capitalism, a critique, furthermore, that doesn't understand capitalism as an anonymous phenomenon of social mediation, but rather as one of moral failings on the side of its individual actors. For religious anti-capitalism, then, the sinful sides of capital must be rejected; for Koons’ affirmative postmodern attitude, you can’t but embrace them.

Though even if a “political” work of art aspired to greater complexity, such critique cannot be expected, according to Adorno, to result in unprecedented conversion moments; rather, he writes, self-described political artists are merely “preaching to the saved,” as the typical audience for such shows can be expected to be liberal enough already.

It is, of course, altogether imaginable that a fairly apolitical person goes to experience “Capital” and is provoked to think further about her role in the social hierarchy. What will she realize as she leaves the gallery to go and explore possibilities for making her voice heard? Surely, that politics is a complex process of the expression and mediation of the will of specific social groups, usually formed around political ideologies and programs and acting through political parties to realize said will. Where will this person go then?

Problematically, the curators hint at an answer in the show's “Utopia” section: In a display box toward the end of the hall we can find a black-and-white photograph of Petra Kelly, one of the co-founders of the German Green Party. According to the booklet, “Kelly was convinced that a collective, non-violent means of civil disobedience would engender a society without egotism, profit and war.” The Green Party, of course, went on to support the first German war effort of the post-War period in the Kosovo in 1999 and was instrumental in transforming Germany toward a thoroughly neoliberal economy. Today, the Green Party receives its electoral support primarily form urban middle-class voters, often with university degrees, who hold mostly socially liberal views. Naturally, such voters assent to a critique of capitalism that primarily condemns the moral failings of its subjects.

However, the show's “Utopia” section points indeed to the redeeming quality of art within neoliberalism: In an ingenious selection of works and quotes, we encounter ambitious paintings by Paul Klee and Cy Twombly, among others, which are accompanied by a noteworthy quote by German philosopher Bernhard Waldenfels: “The act of paying attention, within which the conspicuous takes shape, is itself . . .  a kind of response.” Klee's 1927 painting Departure of the Ships places abstract shapes resembling boats next to a red arrow pointing right (no endorsement of Hillary Clinton's campaign intended there, presumably). The painting is supposed to be understood as a challenge of Klee's to the viewers to engage in close reading. The booklet reproduces a quote in which Klee states that modernist artists “reveal the reality that is behind visible things, thus expressing the belief that the visible world is merely an isolated case in relation to the universe and that there are other, more latent realities.” “The act of paying attention” to works of art, in other words, is likely to produce in the viewer a keen sense for complexities that might otherwise have been hidden behind the immediately apparent clutter of capitalist reality. The reduction in complexity by ostensibly political works of art may hinder rather than encourage such questioning gaze.

Cy Twombly's 1955 work Free Wheeler fits well in this context, placed closely to Klee's painting. The massive canvas reveals a seemingly infinite crayon line on a white background. As representation had given way to abstraction by the mid-20th century, Twombly uses the means of the medium of painting to reveal that this did not signify a reduction in possibilities of expression; rather, the twists and turns of the line allow for constant rediscoveries by the spectator, who struggles to locate a beginning or an end point to the line. Yet again, we are encouraged to penetrate the canvas searchingly.

All this is to say, in short, that the show's aesthetic ambitions diverge from its political views: the latter reduce complexity in favor of hollow moralizing, while the former invite the viewers to encounter an immense accumulation of fascinating works that provoke an intense intellectual examination of their qualities. Capital is assaulted the best by a “ruthless critique of everything existing,” according to the young Karl Marx. This entails our own inherited prejudices to be sure, but it tasks us to go beyond questioning our own supposed moral failings in favor of getting at the “reality that is behind visible things.” To transform this reality, however, we need politics, and it is doubtful which contribution can be expected from a political art that merely reinforces our already held views.


"Das Kapital: Schuld - Territorium - Utopie" ("Capital" Debt - Territory - Utopia") opened on July 2, 2016 at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin. It closes on November 6.

Image from Goldman Sachs commercial "Working at Goldman Sachs" (2013).

Image from Goldman Sachs commercial "Working at Goldman Sachs" (2013).

Exhibition poster for "Capital: Debt - Territory - Utopia." 

Exhibition poster for "Capital: Debt - Territory - Utopia."