Feminist art collective in Berlin

“We live in compromised times in which the allegory of an uncompromised self is isolationist, privileged, and dangerous.” So opens this book on motherhood and art-making seen through a feminist lens. The Berlin-based group Maternal Fantasies continues, “We reject the reproduction of social structures, which exclude children from most public dynamics and surrender mothers into domestic isolation suffocated by underpaid and/or unpaid care work. As artists, researchers, and mothers, our economic and political survival demands a recognition of our domestic labor and the context in which we produce creative/intellectual labor (work which is often also poorly compensated).”

The introductory artist statement raises a pertinent question. “How can art exist as a site for thinking of the maternal as a participatory practice, an affective enmeshment, and a situated political prompt – in order to promote new modes of thinking-with?” This raises the following issue for those who wish to appreciate the art documented in this book. If an artist becomes detached from aesthetic criteria, how are those without a personal stake in the art able to assess and absorb the resultant art? How are we to judge the worth of art?

The authors state that because art production – like childcare – is driven by love, it goes uncompensated. By their own admission, these artists have set themselves to making art that is defiantly not commercial (films, performances, installations, interactive art) and also complain that their art is under-recognised and uncompensated. Of course, it is possible that the art that they consider most appropriate for their maternal interests are best expressed through non-commercial forms. Yet, how could poor income from collective art of an ephemeral nature be otherwise? If one did apply some measurement to the rewards of art, how could any meaningful system of payment exist?

This is a problem which is (at least partly) due to the artists’ resolute rejection of the commodification of art production. If one wishes to live on an anti-capitalist basis then this is admirable but it necessarily precludes an obvious way of funding art production – selling art to private buyers. Readers may be sympathetic to the plight of poor artists, but they may be significantly less sympathetic towards a group of artists who complain of poverty and simultaneously reject the most obvious route towards compensation.  

The egalitarian approach extends to organisation of projects. “In order to form an international and interdisciplinary collective consisting of diverse personas with differing temperaments, talents, and capacities. Maternal Fantasies has developed a rotational format as a working method. Teams take turns in conceptualizing, organizing, leading, and administering the different group projects. During our immersive residencies and studio sessions, we distribute and rotate the individual tasks, which may include conceptual development, directing, performance, pre- and post-production, marketing, grant-writing, and administration, as well as cooking, cleaning, and childcare.”

The poems and extracts from letters and journals present the thoughts of the women. There is a short entry on the practicalities and costs of daily life, which are enlightening and relatable. These outshine the photographs, which are underwhelming. The performances and events may have been more meaningful and satisfying but they cannot be properly evaluated on this evidence. The descriptions of events are rather vague. They seem to range from protests to children’s activities to mutual support. Some of the activities will be familiar to those who know the communes of the 1970s and squats of the 1980s. Many of the projects involved the children. There are some suggested projects outlined in the book. As art, it does not seem very pleasing but then the art was not made for me. As a book, Re-Assembling Motherhood(s) is engrossing and (inadvertently) revealing for the general art follower.

A long essay recounts the making of a group film, interrupted by COVID-19 lockdown. For all the freethinking regarding gender roles and art making, not a single doubt is expressed in this book about the efficacy or justice of indiscriminate lockdown of a healthy and free populace. Authoritarianism seems okay if the excuse is plausible. There is disappointing scarcity of resistance apparent in the writings. (They did not see one another during some stretches of lockdown.) If these mothers had wished to inculcate independence in their children, shouldn’t they have been defying arbitrary and cruel restrictions and presenting brave community action as a defiant response to the authorities?

There seems at least an apparent conflict between feminism and motherhood. The doctrines of female independence work against the maintenance of a nuclear family, which provides – or at least, did previously provide – a home and income to support the mother and child. The demands of motherhood can be viewed as a constraint on self-actualisation. This schism between personal duty and political action create friction. Always there is the contradiction inherent in this project. There is the recurrent focus on the personal experience (pregnancy, motherhood, emotion, memory, practicalities) and the insistent intrusion of politics. “As a collective, we strongly oppose the reduction of motherhood to a singular experience, which our individualistic Western culture tends to do.” In such entries, Maternal Fantasies appears driven by race and class guilt – a purgative, Spartan, communistic sisterhood, done to demonstrate goodness to spite the capitalist society which funds the collective. The obvious enjoyment of the members and their children undertaking the activities is heartwarming but undercut by the relentless feminism. Feminism, as a branch of progressivism/socialism, demands that “the personal is political” in an insistence of enforcing a joyless sex solidarity, contrary to the intimacy and spontaneity of family and parental relationships.  

Another impetus maybe a desire for a disparate (largely expatriate) group to connect. The group is centred in Berlin incidentally. While the group – very multicultural and majority foreign-born – is strongly involved in their own feelings and relationships with their children, they rarely discuss interactions with non-artist Berliners, let alone other Germans. If this group is so concerned to form resilient communities, why does it seem so isolated from the native population? Why does the setting – cultural, linguistic, economic, architectural – not form a greater influence upon their outlook and art work? The collective was formed because of the rootless nature of the lives of the artists, something common in Berlin. “Having moved to Berlin to study more than a decade ago, most of us did not have the social infrastructure and network of extended family, aunts, or grandparents around for support, nor were we fortunate enough or willing to outsource care work to nannies and care workers from more precarious backgrounds than ourselves.” This anger directed at capitalist representative democracy could (perhaps with greater justification) be turned on the chimeras of feminist autonomy and socialist community, with their attendant illusions of self-sufficiency and self-actualisation.

Having lived in Berlin myself, I know it is possible to separate oneself from German Berliners and from the rest of Germany completely. However, I never did and always made an effort to understand and interact with Berliners, even if I did not have the money or opportunity to travel Germany. Berlin has hardly ever seemed as parochial and tiny as it does in Re-Assembling Motherhood(s). Of course, the totality of their existences cannot be measured in a single short book, but even so, this inward-looking approach is saddening.

The absence of men is expected. Today, for the anti-capitalist woman artist in Berlin, where she supplicates for income from a state-benefits system and artists’-grant panel, the state becomes father. Regrettably, the state is as tyrannically unreasonable as any bullying father, more controlling than any jealous husband, more intrusive than any village priest and more callous than any groping employer. The potential control, independence, dignity and privacy of a nuclear family seem – at the moment – a better bet than the modern authoritarian bio-security state.  

Overall, this is a volume for those interested in feminist art, women’s creative collectives and those studying the sociology of art.

Sascia Bailer, Magdalena Kallenberger, Maicyra Leão Teles e Silva (eds.), Re-Assembling Motherhood(s): On Radical Care and Collective Art as Feminist Practices, Onomatopee, 2021, paperback, 180pp, 60 col. illus., €18, ISBN 978 9493 148574

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Le Corbusier: 5 x Unités d’habitation

Unite_Cover_hires Kopie

Unité d’habitation was a concept of integrated housing developed by Le Corbusier in collaboration with Nadir Afonso. The concept was intended to provide a unified solution to the challenges of modern life by providing for inhabitants by making a single building for vertical living. It was intended as an advance in urban planning by centralising various services and facilities within the residential area, creating a mixed function building. Although initially conceived in 1920, the Unités d’habitation, as they came to be called, were designed over the period 1945 to 1965. Five blocks were constructed in Marseille (1947-52), Nantes-Rezé (1955), Berlin (1957), Briey-en-Forêt (1963) and Firminy-Vert (1965). Although the plan was intended to have universal application, the Berlin block was the only one built outside France.

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[Image: Arthur Zalewski, Unité d’habitation Marseille, 2018]

The creation of different zones (including private living spaces, hotel, common passages, a shopping area and a roof with kindergarten, gymnasium, running track, paddling pool, open space and amphitheatre) was intended to provide inhabitants with a wide range of facilities within a single building, making it a convenient and efficient location within which to live. The independence of the design meant that this building could be reproduced in multiple locations, theoretically obviating the need to the costs and time of producing unique architectural plans. The Marseille building was the first. It was the most complex and expensive. Later buildings were cheaper and had lower specifications. It is the Marseille building which has become iconic, with the other Unités overshadowed by the ground-breaking pioneer project. The Berlin iteration was noticeably different, partly due to climatic reasons. There was no open roof space and the shopping area was omitted. The relative isolation of the Berlin Unité – which is twice the size of the Marseille one, and therefore the largest of the Unités – and the absence of shops has made it a somewhat inconvenient and unappealing place to live, apparently. Briey-en-Forêt is on the periphery of a suburban area and residents rely on public transport and private cars to travel outside of the grounds. This seems to be a fault of the situation rather than of the building.  

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[Image: Arthur Zalewski, Unité d’habitation Briey, 2018]

The apartments are appealing. The balconies have grand views (particularly in the upper storeys), sense of privacy and good soundproofing gave residents a living experience previously enjoyed by only a few. Unlike other high-rise designs, the Unités tended to foster frequent contact with neighbours in communal areas and did not (automatically) engender alienation. For everyday needs, the buildings (with the exception of the Berlin one) are relatively convenient and self-contained.

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[Image: Arthur Zalewski, Unité d’habitation Berlin, 2018]

There is a case to be made that the Marseille Unité d’habitation was perhaps the single most influential Modernist residential structure. The ideas, appearance and materials of the Unités d’habitation influenced the nascent Brutalist movement. The buildings are largely unadorned, much of the structure of shutter-cast unpainted concrete (béton brut). The roofs are flat and the apartments are modular in nature. The internal designs, fittings and even furniture was designed specifically for the buildings. There were no architectural references to past styles and no concessions to local materials. Every part of the building displayed its function in its appearance. The architect attempted to shun the limitations of its surroundings; there was a refusal to compromise to existing architecture. The buildings are not orientated to align with the streets around them. This is in part to permit the buildings to be placed to the maximum advance to residents in terms of views and light, but it is also an act of defiant independence on the part of Le Corbusier.

Artist and photographer Arthur Zalewski has visited all of the buildings multiple times in recent years and photographed them as they are, with inhabitants and current conditions included. The photographs, curated by Peter Ottmann, are currently being exhibited at C834, Corbusierhaus, Berlin (April-November 2019). The photographs in five changing displays will be of each Unité in turn: Marseille, April-June 2019; Revé, June-July; Berlin, July-August; Briey-en-Forêt, August-October; Firminy, October-November.

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[Image: Arthur Zalewski,  Unité d’habitation Firminy, 2018]

Zalewski eschewed photographing portraits of the residents, realising that this would make the body of photographs very distinct in character. Instead we get medium-distance shots of figures within the spaces, giving us atmosphere and showing everyday functioning of the buildings. The photographs are distant views of the building, the situation of the Unités within the streets and the landscape more broadly, close views, interiors of different parts of the building and certain sample apartment interiors. The photographs are a mixture of black and white and colour. The shots show the conditions of the buildings today. Compared to many Modernist buildings by less prominent architects, the Unités are in an adequate state of preservation and maintenance, with few alterations and no apparent graffiti. The materials have aged in a largely sympathetic manner, with lichen spotting the stairwell walls in Nantes-Rezé (a block built partially over water, which in these shots is algae covered). The climatic conditions are distinct and contribute to the impressions of the buildings and how they have aged. The sheltered parapets of Briey-en-Forêt have acquired a rich patina of lichens and moss on the untreated concrete. The Firminy’s mountainous wooded location is in contrast with the situation of the Marseille’s Cité radieuse in its arid sunny setting. Briey-en-Forêt’s foggy climate and tree surrounding give the large building an incongruous impression of being hidden and protected.

The only substantial text in this large-format book is the transcript of a three-person discussion between Arthur Zalewski, architect Peter Ottmann and author Anne König. This is published in French, German and English versions. The interview is very enlightening about the varying histories and characters of the five Unités, including information about how the residents view their buildings. This book is suitable for any fan of Modernist architecture, Brutalism and Le Corbusier; it would also appeal to anyone studying social history.

 

Arthur Zalewski, Peter Ottmann (ed.), Le Corbusier: 5 x Unité. Marseille, Nantes-Rezé, Berlin, Briey, Firminy, Spector Books, 2019, paperback, 384pp, 300 illus., English/French/German text, €34, ISBN 978 39 59 05301 3

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art

Franz Kafka: a Life Beyond Literature

“There are few writers as highly regarded as Franz Kafka (1883-1924). Even people who have not read Kafka understand his blend of the sinister and absurd. Despite the reputation of being a high-brow, intellectual author, Kafka wrote bewitching tales in clear prose. Indeed, his stories are often short and ostensibly easy to understand even if the allusions and implications. And his writing is often shot through with humour – not just absurdity, but also comic misunderstandings and dry irony.

“A recently completed three-volume biography by Reiner Stach, superbly translated from German by Shelley Frisch, uses newly discovered sources to capture Kafka’s life and reflect on the origins and meaning of many of his writings. Stach takes time to correct previous biographical misconceptions, and observes that while there are mountains of academic, theoretical and literary overviews of Kafka, there are few biographies.

“Stach attempts to be scrupulously fair to Kafka’s parents. Hermann Kafka was a self-made proprietor of a fancy-goods store in Prague, selling fabrics, clothes, household goods and toys…”

Read the full review of the new 3-volume Reiner Stach biography online at Spiked Online (28 February 2017) here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/kafka-a-life-beyond-literature/19511#.WLWjhfl_s5k

 

David King: John Heartfield

“In May 1916, two disillusioned German artists vented their spleen by composing a nonsense collage consisting of newspaper and magazine illustrations. Those two artists were George Grosz and John Heartfield. Their act of rebellion placed them at the creative heart of the dada anti-art movement and gave birth to the satirical photomontage. Although the use of collaged elements had existed in art since the cubists, who used swatches of newspaper, wallpaper and trompe-l’œil fabric in their pictures, the birth of the photomontage turned reassembled photographic elements into comprehensive statements rather than subordinate adornments.

“Dada was born out of a sense of despair and anger at a time when it seemed wartorn Europe had gone mad. Photomontage was soon transformed from a nonsense form into an overt form of social criticism, and was used as a weapon against politicians, field marshals and industrialists. While Grosz later moved on to making drawings and prints, Heartfield stuck to making photomontages and the practice became his sole means of expression. He went on to become one of the most famous and effective political artists of the time. John Heartfield: Laughter is a Devastating Weapon offers a fascinating overview of Heartfield’s work.

“Heartfield was born Helmut Herzfeld in Berlin in 1891…”

Read the full review on SPIKED, 19 June 2015 here: http://www.spiked-online.com/review_of_books/article/a-nazi-baiting-master-of-the-photomontage/17091#.Vd-UDPldU5k

Smashing Statues: The Chilling Desire to be Free from History

“In the previous week, two examples of iconoclasm have been in the news.

“In the first, one colonial-era statue of Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Townwas removed from campus after protests. What’s more, a statue of Queen Victoria, among others, was defaced with paint in the coastal town of Port Elizabeth. The University of Cape Town authorities had initially suggested the compromise of moving the Rhodes statue to a less prominent position. On 8 April, the statue was removed with no agreed plan to have it relocated. The leading activists who are supporting the destruction and defacement of the monuments are members of South Africa’s black majority.

“In the second case, the Ukrainian government has passed a law ordering the removal of all Soviet-era statues. (In an audacious display of apparent even-handedness, the government also banned public Nazi monuments – there is none.) All public buildings, spaces and streets named after Soviet figures will be renamed. The destruction began on 11 April, with activists destroying three statues in Kharkov. Although the law had not yet been approved by the president, Ukrainian police did not intervene to protect the statues.

“Soviet-era heroes are targets for Ukrainian nationalists. They do not fear a re-imposition of Soviet communism, but do fear Russian nationalism, because of the military strength of Russia and the ethnic mixture of the Ukrainian population. There is a paucity of overt, Russian nationalist public symbols in Ukraine, so Soviet-era statues act as proxies. During the Stalinist era, policies were put in place to suppress Ukrainian nationalism and subjugate the population, and so Soviet symbols are widely considered Russian nationalist in character.

“In both South Africa and Ukraine, the iconoclastic activities were instigated for political reasons and were not spontaneous. They were parts of long-term struggles for political supremacy between ethnic factions….”

Read the full article on SPIKED, 14 April 2015 here:

http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/smashing-statues-the-chilling-desire-to-be-free-from-history/16870#.Vd-QCPldU5k

Read the German translation of this article on NOVO-ARGUMENTE here:

http://www.novo-argumente.com/magazin.php/novo_notizen/artikel/0002031