The Kunsthaus Baselland reopens with three exhibitions

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The Kunsthaus Baselland reopens with three exhibitions
Stefan Karrer, oO, 2020. Courtesy the artist. Installation view Kunsthaus Baselland, 2020. Photo: Gina Folly.

BASEL.- From Tuesday May 12, The Kunsthaus Baselland will reopen its current exhibitions by Marlene McCarty, Christoph Oertli, and Stefan Karrer which will be extended until July 5th. The museum is convinced of the necessity of culture in these times and are therefore making the exhibitions accessible to visitors again.

This is in accordance with the Federal Council’s decision of April 29, 2020 and in compliance with all the protective and hygienic measures required of Swiss museums by the Federal Office of Public Health, so that you — and they — can enjoy your visit.

"Marlene McCarty: Into the Weeds" extended until 5.7.2020
The garden at the entrance to the Kunsthaus Baselland seems at first familiar and inviting. Tender little plants will continue to stretch up through the soil over the next few weeks. Despite the time of year, some of them will even grow to display the beauty of their blooms. And, the accompanying large-format — sometimes wall-sized — drawings by the artist Marlene McCarty also seem, at first glance, to reflect the fascination and beauty of humans and nature. But it wouldn’t be a McCarty exhibition without differing levels and depths of meaning unfolding beyond this.

For decades the artist, who lives in New York but has close ties to Basel, has used humble yet direct materials such as graphite pencils or ballpoint pens to probe controversial social issues. In her vast series and cycles of drawings, which have grown constantly since the 1980s, the artist’s gaze — and therefore that of the viewer — through topics of the contemporary, but also social abysses seems to penetrate everything. Layer after layer is meticulously revealed, uncovered, as if with a scalpel, passing through textiles, surfaces, naked skin, from the superficial to the profound. Journeying through the various levels, human knowledge is shown to be animalistically unpredictable and dangerous, while the animal itself is revealed to be deeply human. The exhibition at the Kunsthaus is thus framed by a narrative that has been a preoccupation of Marlene McCarty’s work since the mid-1990s: the story of a teenager living in America, Marlene Olive, who — as a tragic act of rebellion - killed her mother and became an accomplice in the killing of her beloved father, not unlike a Greek tragedy, this crime story mirrors for McCarty the arduous and not always successful passage from socially constructed limitations to emancipation.

McCarty’s topics could hardly be more urgent today, ranging from social and sexual inequality, to discussions of gender and trans-biology. In her recent work, McCarty has focused on nature in greater detail. To this end, a large plant kingdom has been constructed in the Kunsthaus with the help of the Merian Gardens team. On the one hand, this garden takes up floral motifs of her current drawings, but on the other, it more firmly represents how the artist works. In her works she does not merely describe, document, or narrate, but instead facilitates an immediacy and a directness through the act of drawing — which creates a reality in itself. The garden does not invite the visitor to linger, but rather brings plants together in a unique way — similar to a research project. Plants which, as McCarty has found in her research, have historically been tools for women’s emancipation as well as emissaries of a (secret) female knowledge; for example, some plant seeds were used against unwanted pregnancies, or even — due to extreme toxic effects — as a last resort for self-defense. (Details of all plants in the landscaped garden can be found in the separate booklet).

But Marlene McCarty is not an artist who merely looks back on history. Once again, she manages to explicitly link current discussions concerning the distribution of power and knowledge in today’s society including it’s use of violence against the disempowered with the acquisition, cultivation, and growth of awareness concerning nature. Marlene McCarty not only renders visible the unadorned and grotesque nature of a contemporary society whose cultivated state can generally be called into question. Above all, she demonstrates that the acquisition of knowledge, the cultivation of it through detailed awareness and divetrse processes of understanding concerning circumstances other than one’s own — can give one meaning and a sense of location, which in turn can generate sustainable action. (IG)

"Stefan Karrer: oO. Solo Position A initiative" extended until 5.7.2020
“No cave, but a nice view.” Calypso’s Cave was once one of the most important mythological sites on the Maltese island of Gozo, yet this recent piece of online commentary seems tinged with an air of disappointment. According to the legend, the nymph Calypso once held Odysseus captive as a “prisoner of love” in this cave for seven years. Since 2012, however, the cave has been closed to the public given the risk of it collapsing. Now, another cave nearby serves as the locus of touristic longings and social media content. The Instagram tag #calypsocave has thus long ceased to refer to images of the original site. This development recalls the famous caves in Lascaux, France. Known as Lascaux IV, there is already a fourth identical copy of the original caves, which have been closed since the 1980s. Here too, the majority verdict among the social media commentariat seems to be that the reproduction is far more impressive than the original anyway. Furthermore, the internet now enables to access such sites via virtual tours, rendering bodily presence unnecessary. It seems that disappointment usually sets in when we physically encounter the places, landscapes, cities, exhibitions, or people that have been traveled to, commented on, and photographically transformed so many times in the virtual realm. Has the online version of the world become more attractive than the original?

This is where Stefan Karrer’s work takes off. The immersive sound and video installation at Kunsthaus Baselland features a website Karrer made, which presents a selection of photos and image captions connected to the #calypsocave tag in a loop and renders them physically experienceable. The images, comments, and varying brief descriptions of the myth of Calypso’s Cave have long ceased to refer to the original site. According to Karrer, the installation thus shows how the mythological site may have been relocated across the bay because of its instagramability — an attempt to correct physical reality so that it better conforms to its digital copies circulated in social networks. In 2019, the government of Gozo undertook digital scans of the “original” Calypso’s Cave as part of a geological examination that would lead to the cave being renovated and reopened to the public. So far, the results have failed to meet expectations. Perhaps because we’ve gotten used to other images?

As we move further into the exhibition, we encounter !Ping — a new digital assistant currently in development. It hardly seems unfamiliar. Microsoft Word had already introduced a similar assistant in the form of a cartoon paper clip with eyes who was always available to answer our questions as we worked on our PCs. Karrer’s presentation of the website now shows this digital companion in the process of development. At first it may seem whimsical, helpful, and supportive. But as soon as one starts thinking about its functionalities, a sense of unease sets in: !Ping is able to generate its own meanings from the files included in the search range and voice entries. This requires !Ping to listen to its environment nonstop and constantly be connected to the internet as well as various other systems and algorithms. Only after a long period of computer inactivity does it enter into a kind of sleep mode. In Karrer’s words, this is when it starts to “dream” of the files, passwords, and IP-addresses from its past. These “dreams” are the only time when its mouth is no longer connected to Amazon’s arrow.

Karrer shows how a tool can develop into an agent in its own right in VS, a sound installation consisting of the two best-selling synthesizers worldwide, namely the Yamaha DX7 and Korg M1. The sounds of their factory presets were used in a vast number of pop songs, soundtracks, and advertisements during the 1980s and 90s. One could thus speak of an auditory collective memory, through which both synthesizers have become part of our time. The sounds of these synthesizers became famous in their own right, but were also overused to the point of becoming cliches. The third room brings us back to Karrer’s initial theme and feature the exhibition’s titular work: oO. However poetic and sensual the image, sound, and lines of text may initially seem, their background remains soberly technological. oO reflects on the term “bokeh” — a Japanese term used to refer to out-of-focus areas in photographs — which has been heavily discussed on various internet platforms. A synthetic voice reads blog and forum entries by Mike Johnson, a former editor at Photo Technique Magazine who was largely responsible for introducing the term into English usage. He also added the letter “h” to the end of the term’s standard roman spelling in order to prevent future mispronunciations. However, it is unlikely that Johnson could have pushed the heated arguments about the term’s pronunciation and meaning that continue to rage across a variety of internet platforms to this day into a specific direction.

Karrer combines a selection of forum entries from the last twenty years with suggestions about the term’s pronunciation and presents them alongside found images of water droplets. Although oO focuses on arguments about meaning and pronunciation, it has a surprisingly poetic quality: much like a dada poem, each word is a struggle, while the photographs cited seem to look back at us with their ghostly “droplet eyes,” echoing the avatar in !Ping. The digital world returns our gaze.

Herein lies the special quality of Stefan Karrer’s work. He isn’t a moralist who points fingers in his work. Rather, his works enhance our understanding and sensibilities about phenomena that have long shaped the virtual worlds we inhabit to varying degrees and determine our actions within them. (IG)

"Christoph Oertli: Sensing Bodies" extended until 5.7.2020
As soon as you step into Christoph Oertli’s exhibition, it becomes clear that this is about more than moving images projected onto various backgrounds, or even media works generally, which can more or less be avoided. Christoph Oertli’s works demand physical presence. Visitors enter rooms with constructed screens via a platform, passing by monitors and through PVC wall partitions to reach sound works. For years, this has been the defining and characteristic feature of the Swiss film and video artist’s work: people in their built environment, more artificial than natural, somewhere between reality and fiction, dreamlike or — unfortunately — sometimes cruelly realistic. Oertli’s video works show people how he lives, loves, behaves, and tries to understand and conceive his identity — globally, spanning genders and generations, close, intimate, inescapable.

In long, sometimes elaborate orchestrations, he builds the filming locations himself, not unlike a stage production, as in The ground is moving from 2010. The individuals featured within are people Oertli has met during his trips and stays abroad, some of which last several months. As perfectly staged and almost photographic as the end result may sometimes seem, the beginning is open and processual. Filming locations, situations, the people in them — they all fall into place for Oertli at the moment he himself is present in these places and countries. Typically, Oertli does not travel to these locations with a finished script, but instead finds people he encounters in Africa (Tension Box, 2014), Asia (Campus, 2013; Sensing Bodies, 2020), or European cities such as Brussels (The ground is moving, 2010; Monsieur René, 2012; Timeline, 2014; Gare du Nord, 2017, etc.), Basel, and Zürich. According to Oertli, the great challenge is the fact that you still don’t understand much about a culture after a certain period of time in a place, though you know infinitely more than you did before the journey. For him, this experience continually separates you from other people. Sensing Bodies is thus not a “film about Japan”; it emerged instead out of an interest in the use of our bodies in highly developed societies. It is the camera itself that enables Oertli to maintain a detached gaze, and also to focus occasionally on the seemingly tiny details that he points out.

In each of these settings, Oertli does not allow any of his actors to report something happening or reenact a situation. Those portrayed narrate — sometimes with fewer words, sometimes with more — their own stories, their own lives, with the utmost directness and candor. It is therefore understandable why in many works — particularly the earlier ones — the artist himself can frequently be seen: how he performs, sings, and acts in front of the camera on its tripod — with the utmost directness and openness here, too, but also vulnerability (cf. Barfuss, 2002/2020; Messages personnels, 2005/2007/2010/2020). And perhaps it is precisely this that makes it clear that his gaze through the camera, to which he also exposes himself, is not a voyeuristic one. Oertli films life — our life! — in the here and now, gently examining it and circling around it in order to get right to the middle of it with a 360-degree view. The artist’s body is just as directly present in his works — whether through the position and height of the camera and the resulting view, or through his walking, standing, breathing, or holding his breath while filming. It’s only during the second stage, when the camera is brought into the studio and the images are edited into a montage, that this direct experience of the artist is taken to an analytical level and the sequences are set in their specific rhythm and order of images.

In his retrospective exhibition at the Kunsthaus Baselland, the filmed, built environment of his works, his cinematic portrayal of interiors and architecture, now seems to have been turned inside out. Instead of voyeuristically gazing at what is projected, Christoph Oertli offers us an opportunity to directly encounter something — an experience in real time. (IG)

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