I (Impact and dimension of Hello World)
When you walk through the exhibition „Hello World“ at the museum „Hamburger Bahnhof“ you need time. Time to walk along hundreds of square metres of exhibition space. Time to dive deeply into history and artist movements and artists’ works. Time to rethink how the museums that we were used to until these days could face the challenge to integrate postcolonial thinking and art into their collections. What would the museum’s collection look like if there had been no colonial thinking, power and hierarchy? How do museums critically reflect their own history, their own long established way how to look at art and at their collections and their way of acquiring new works? And consequently which impact will this new approach have for curatorial practice within museums and art institutions?
The answer certainly will not come straight away. It might take time until the dimension, the meaning and the impact of this new way of thinking totally sinks through. But once these questions are asked that former way of thinking has no backing anymore. It’s the end of an area and a silent revolution.
But first, let’s take a walk through the exhibition. I will focus on those rooms that speak to me the most. This is also a restriction: The exhibition totally consists of 13 sections curated by various people. After two visits and more than 7 hours walking through the exhibition it is still difficult to give an overview. That is because each section is dedicated to an artistic movement and contrasted with a contra-position to that movement. There is no chronological order within the exhibition. Works of expressionist Russian painters are opposed to works of expressionist German painters are opposed Mexican contemporary artists that critically review landscape paintings from the 1930s that carried a colonial message. Videos of 2015 are opposed to silent movies of the 1940s. Balinese artworks are opposed to Orientalistic painters are opposed to murals of the 1930s which hang beside photographies of reliefs of Buddhist temples of the AD 8th century.
By opposing these kind of works two new dialogues open up: On the one hand we have the critical postcolonial dialogue and on the other hand a new dialogue becomes visible: The dialogue of cultural transfer and the way how ideas spread over international borders. Both dialogues themselves are rocking at the fundament of art history and curatorial thinking most intensively. This way of thinking is new. Both dialogues summon the song of how exhibitions and collections will be presented in the future.
II (The art works)
The Jungle Book Project, installation by Pierre Bismuth, 2002
Familiar and also unfamiliar. I understand what Mowgli and the other characters are talking about in the movie but also I do not understand what they are saying. Mowgli and his friends are speaking different languages. The tiger, Shir Khan, speaks English, whereas Mowgli speaks Spanish. The elephant leader, Colonel Hathi, speaks French. Still they seem to understand each other. I watch this beautiful installation from the pillows on the floor. Baloo, the bear sings his “Bare Necessities” and one immediately feels reminded of his childhood.
But what are we watching at exactly? The “Jungle Book” was written by the British author Joseph Rudyard Kipling and firstly published in 1894. The characters Kipling invented let shine through a very positive attitude towards colonialism. Which was the spirit of the time and also no wonder since Kipling was born and raised in British India. Walt Disney did not follow the gloomy interpretation of Kipling and invented its children friendly version of “The Jungle Book” in 1967. What Pierre Bismuth shows us in a wonderful way is how easily we forget to question what we are watching at. We tend forget the original context and just intellectually consume what is given to us. Because why shouldn’t we? As children we watch what our parents do allow us to watch. When they have no obligations we watch the movies and read the books that soon become part of our general knowledge. We do not question them anymore.
In this way Pierre Bismuth’s installation also creates the feeling of connectivity because many children in the world know the Jungle Book. Within his version of the “Jungle Book” and the more than 7 different languages the characters are speaking amongst each other Bismuth creates the feeling of being able to understand a foreign language just by knowing how the story goes and just by relying on your cultural heritage. It’s like the “Pfingstwunder” where suddenly all people speak one language and understand each other. But at the same time the installation critically questions our cultural heritage.
Making Paradise: Places of Longing, From Paul Gaugin to Tita Salina
In this thoughtfully curated part of the exhibition the first art work I encounter are two paintings of the Balinese painter Gede Mahendra Yasa with the title “Between You, Me & the Bedpost #1 and #2”. We see uncontrolled splashing of colour melting into each other in various shades of blue, green black and yellow. Immediately the Western art used eyes are reminded of Jackson Pollock’s famous action painting and dripping. But this is just at first glance. From the distance I realize that both paintings are the same. Each drip on the left side has its exact reproduction on the right-hand painting in the exact same colour. My eyes are not prepared to see that the second painting is the exact reproduction of the first painting. When making a closer step towards the works I see pencil squares on the ground of the canvas. Then I realize that the dripping is not just dripping. These are dripping pattern with Balinese themes and iconography.
We see demons and animals with thick lips and sticking out eyes and people riding horses in the exact shape of the melted dripping. By copying the style and themes of Jackson Pollock Mahendra Yasa misleads the eye which is used to Western art. He reaches this by making it easy to overlook the “little detail” in the right-hand painting that turn his work specifically Balinese. Mahendra Yasa opposes Pollock’s uncontrolled method of painting, the ecstatic process out of which they were the result to his thought through composition that translates the North American culture into his own Balinese culture.
In his work Mahendra Yasa firstly refers to Western art, secondly he reproduces action painting in a very rational way by copying it 1:1 in a way that neglects the randomness of Pollock’s painting and therefore the nature of Pollock’s dripping itself. He thirdly translates the Western approach into Balinese art by letting the rational constructed drippings become the outline for Balinese themes. He let the viewer stumble over his own imprecise attention he paid to the painting.
Walter Spies, Deer Hunt, 1932, Oil on Canvas, 60 x 50 cm
The revision of the collection and the new approach to “hybrid art”, i. e. to the fact that art cannot be assigned to ONE culture, suddenly puts artists in the spotlight who have been ignored before. Such as there is Walter Spies, a Russian-German artist who changed his way of painting considerably when he moved from 1920s-Berlin to the Indonesian colony in Bali. When the spotlight WAS on how the colonizers have been influencing the indigenous art it NOW turns to how the indigenous art has had an influence on the Western painters. In this sense Walter Spies differs from painters like Emil Nolde, who more tend to have depictured the countries they were travelling to as a person with no interest in indigenous culture. This cannot be said about Walter Spies: He deeply immersed into Balinese culture and thinking due to his strong interest in art and music and translated Balinese cultural conventions into part of his paintings. The question now is: Which canon does Walter Spies belong to? Are his works “Balinese” or “Western”? Questions like these illustrate how invalid the conventional art historian canon has become. By looking at art in this new way artists pop up that in there hybrid way before have not met the paradigms of Western culture and art principles and therefore they have fallen through the art historian Western canon.
I Made Budi, Untitled (Puputan marga Rana di Tahun 1946), 1990-91
The works of I Made Budi, another Balinese painter, who stayed within the tradition of Balinese painting (Batuan) imports scenes of the independence war in 1946 against the Dutch colonizers into his works. We see the traditional way of Balinese paintings but depicting “modern” elements: In the middle of the painting out of an airplane a soldier fires a gun. In the right corner Dutch troops are shooting against the Indonesian people who are in the left part of the painting and fighting back. Works like these have been acquainted and since then been stored in the “Ethnologische Museum” in Berlin. By putting indigenous works of different cultures straight into the separated places, far away from “meaningful” Western art, the colonial canon and practice has been maintained. Given this, indigenous painters have rarely been put into museums’ spotlights. Works like these were bought and then “segregated” from Western art.
Where do we come from? Adapting Sculptural Forms
Being greeted by a bronze plaster replica of Auguste Rodin’s famous “Thinker” (1880) and the sculpture “Chimpanzee” by Anton Puchegger (1916-17) is a tongue-in-cheek welcome. “The Thinker” can be seen as a metaphor for the human condition and is a key piece of modern art. With an blinking eye it is opposed to the ape sculpture. Darwin and his theory of evolution introduced a complete new approach of how animal and human beings had developed. Having in mind the question where we come from, the answer standing in front of these two sculptors is obvious but also a bit too directly delivered. This part of the exhibition is dominated by sculptures, mainly those of modern times. Mainly those that were celebrated by Western art historians.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s “Standing Women” (1912) is opposed to the abstract work of Rudolf Belling’s “Triad” from 1919/24. They take us back to the colonial times when objects and artefacts were collected from all over the world to be categorized as “primitive art” and to serve as a new formal language for artists who longed to leave behind the Western art history in search of new models of representation. They served as source of inspiration to Western artists who used them to free themselves from their own pictorial traditions. So called “primitive art” was seen as the counter-part to the Western history which was supposed to have a linear development marking itself the “high” end of it.
III (How do we collect art in the future?)
In the rooms “Where do we come from?” I walk through the “treasures” of the Nationalgalerie and I miss the critical focus. I see many famous sculptures in lack of counterbalance. It seems as if the Nationalgalerie reproduces its own long established Western canon by placing emphasis on its own collection. By underlining the influence of non-European art on avant-garde artists. Where can we find non-European sculptures? Where are contemporary artworks that critically reflect the colonial approach? How many art works of the “Ethnologische Museum” are actually on display? Why is the exhibition still dominated by Western art?
After my visit I tend to have more questions than answers: Do we need Western art as a reference to justify the display of non-European art? Wouldn’t it be healthy to once knock the Modern art of its pedestal to create space for new art? In which way will museums focus on their collections in the future? Will they become more specialised or more generalized? To which culture does non-European art being hosted in Western museums belong to? Will museums give these artworks back to their countries of origin? How is this going to happen? Which role do ethnological museums play in this new scenario? What are their tasks? How will exhibition be curated in the future?
“Hello World” rather outlines how the future of museums looks like than being an exhibition. It asks many questions and in its 13 sections gives many examples. But it is just a start. There still is a lot of work to be done.
 Vgl. Vickers, Adrian, Balinese Art. Paintings and Drawings of Bali 1800-2010, S. 197.
 Vgl. Kittelmann, Udo, Schrei, Kristina, Where do we come from? Adapting Sculptural forms, in: Hello World (exhibition catalogue), Berlin 2018, S. 88.
 Vgl. Kittelmann/ Schrei, S. 87.
 Vgl. Kittelmann/ Schrei, S. 88.
Source of Pictures: Own photos.