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Knight Moves – Again / Project Description

Art as Link to the Global Present

by Angela Rosenberg

The objective of the “Knight Moves – Again” project was to use contemporary artistic perspectives to extend the permanent exhibitions at select locations in the Ethnologisches Museum. It sought to facilitate alternative views of objects and their presentation by means of direct interventions in the existing collection, yet without turning the permanent exhibitions upside down. The interventions produced for the project by Nevin Aladağ, Kader Attia, Sunah Choi, and Mathilde ter Heijne illustrated in an exemplary way how to subjectively engage with objects in the collection and how these interventions can thematically and formally supplement the theoretical discourse of museum presentation. Like its predecessor, the project “Knight Moves” at Probebühne 1, “Knight Moves – Again” created leaps of thought to bridge wide differences of theme, region, culture, and time. Unlike the knight in the game of chess, however, which inspired the title, winning was not important for “Knight Moves – Again”; it was more a question of the cooperation of exhibition pieces as well as of the artists, curators, and the various collections’ restorers.

The Interventions

Sunah Choi engaged with objects in the Oceania collection in two projects. Her series of cyanotypes titled “Belichtet” (Exposed, 2015), was produced using objects from the Oceania section storerooms. This photographic process dates to the nineteenth century and is based on the principle of the photogram, where objects leave unexposed areas on photosensitive paper – blue tones in the case of cyanotypes. The photogram technique was popular with the Surrealists as a simple means of producing highly evocative images. Sunah Choi situates her works between this associative approach and exact registration of outlines. She presented images of ten tools and objects unknown, or unusual, in this form in Europe, but which are everyday items in Oceania, thus setting up a precarious balance between scientific image and speculative transfiguration.

For “Projektion” (Projection, 2015), she arranged three vitrines displaying exhibits from the collection on geometrical patterns found on Oceanian tapa (barkcloth), thus challenging current thinking on order and presentation in the museum context. Lit from above, the objects lay on sheets of polypropylene from which tapa patterns had been cut out. Together with the shadows on the base of the vitrines, the ensembles created two-dimensional images, projections that brought out essential features in the issue of reduction.

Nevin Aladağ, by way of contrast, worked with the transcultural and poetic qualities of musical instruments. Her “Musikzimmer” (Music Room, 2015) in the Ethnomusicology section dealt with the production of sound and the effects of music on the human mind. The objects are hybrid musical instruments made from items of furniture: a guitar armchair, a side table with chimes (percussion instrument), and an umbrella stand drum. These musical items of furniture develop their own acoustic properties as resonating bodies to challenge prevalent notions of functionality, ergonomics, and tonal purity. The “Musikzimmer,” then, called into question the intrinsic functionality of the items of furniture and extended it in unexpected ways. The artist was reacting to exhibits in the ethnomusicology section where, for conservational reasons, objects are displayed in vitrines. Her musical furniture drew attention to the unplayed instruments and their absent music, pinpointing a silence precisely where music is at stake.

For her video installation “Pulling Matter from Unknown Sources,” (2015) Mathilde ter Heijne translated the contemporary cultural practice of West African vodou religion into an artistic form, bringing objects of this culture to Dahlem. In 2014, as a novice priestess, together with the Togolese vodou priest Togbé Hounon Hounougbo Bahousou, at present living in Berlin-Weissensee, the artist made video recordings of vodou ceremonies in Benin and Togo. Central to these ceremonies was an altar dedicated to the thunder god Toulabo. The same figure in the exhibition was surrounded by five monitors – up-to-date, modern showcases – opposite the vitrines of the permanent exhibition and the masks they contained. The video sequences presented vodou as a living, everyday practice and activity, and displayed things, processes, and intermediary zones from surprising angles, sometimes entire, sometimes abstract. Alongside views from the standpoint of a sacrificial goat, nocturnal/infrared takes, and so-called aura images, there were scenes in a German abattoir and the artist’s Berlin studio. The artist positioned herself confidently among documentaries from other contexts and regions in the museum’s permanent exhibition. The installation was ritually looked after during the exhibition and so illustrated the everyday handling of a functional object that, though removed from its original context, remained spiritually active, seeking dialogue – on a level that seemed to combine the artistic and the spiritual – with the historical masks and documentaries in the exhibition “Art from Africa.”

Kader Attia’s works address post-colonialism, operating with fracture and repair as a comprehensive cultural and societal task. The suggestive juxtapositioning of his own mirror sculptures in “Mirror Mask” (2014, 2015) and the objects on display in the exhibition “Art from Africa” created an estranging effect. Dogon wooden masks, acquired by the artist in Mali, which he covered with pieces of mirror, returned the viewer’s gaze and cast its fragmented reflection across the room. Attia’s sculptures brought together the art-historical reference to Braque’s and Picasso’s cubist fragmentation, deriving from their artistic exploration of African masks, and a contemporary image of fracture and estrangement. Ancestor figures, portraits, and twin figures became a counterpoint to the artist’s own contemporary interpretation of the mask. Viewers were faced not only with their own fragmented mirror images but with reflections of the sculptures and exhibition around them. “Fragment in order to repair” is Attia’s motto; it established relations between the viewer and the exhibits that did not stop at regional and cultural classifications.

Shifts of Perspective, Extended Field of Action

The “Knight Moves” projects in Dahlem entered into direct relation with exhibits. They invigorated the ways in which the permanent exhibitions are viewed and they extended the museum’s field of action by underlining additional thematic, formal, or aesthetic areas that challenged existing arrangements and shifted both viewer and institutional perspectives. It is a strategy that also facilitates intervention in the future Humboldt-Forum exhibitions by drawing attention to, problematizing, and, if necessary, challenging interpretative priorities. The interventions can be inconspicuous, or sometimes obvious; but they invariably invite the viewer to engage with the objects in new ways. In precisely this manner, artistic interaction with objects in the collection can enrich scientific and theoretical discourse within the museum context. This kind of expanded contextualization also establishes a link to the present without being overtly didactic. Ultimately, the “Knight Moves” projects bring into focus the importance and relevance of the Ethnologisches Museum collections by using contemporary art to appeal playfully to museum visitors and their varying horizons of experience.

Angela Rosenberg is an art historian, curator, and writer living in Berlin. For the Humboldt Lab Dahlem she curated “Game of Thrones” (2013) with Konstantin Grcic, Kirstine Roepstorff, Simon Starling, and Zhao Zhao at the Asian Art Museum, as well as “Knight Moves – Again.”

You can find further reading on this project here.