Some years ago, Berlin had the first of its Biennales. I went, looked, and wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal Europe, because that was my job at the time. A few weeks later, an art critic I knew from Philadelphia came through to check it out. I caught her leaving the Postführamt, where the show was, and asked her what she’d thought. “Aaah,” she sneered. “A lot of one-liners.” An apt description, I thought. “Except…well, there was this piece by this Portugese guy…”
Oh, yes. It was called Kitsune, and it made me confront a lot of my ideas about art at that time. Basically, it was what’s called a video installation, although, unlike most video installations, which can be seen for as long or short as you feel like in order to get the idea, this one was linked to a narrative, which meant you really had to sit through the whole thing. It was worth it. The visual was fairly static: Japanese mountains, over which fog was coming and going. The text was read by two Japanese radio actors, in Japanese, and there were English subtitles. The story was simple: two old men are waiting out the rain in a teahouse, and, although both are rather shy, eventually they begin to talk, and wind up telling each other ghost stories. I loved it.
And because I’d loved it and said so in print, and was apparently one of the few people who reviewed that exhibition who didn’t zero in on the super-trendy but empty stuff there, the artist, a guy named João Penalva, contacted me about getting a copy of the review. He lives in London most of the time, and one of his dealers, Volker Diehl, is in Berlin, so he’s here from time to time. That’s where I met him almost exactly three years ago, at the opening of another video work, Bahnai. He’s short and round and has a great sense of humor, as I discovered when we had lunch at the Vietnamese place down the street.
So when I got an invitation to the DAAD Galerie for the opening of his latest piece, The Roar of Lions, on Feb. 2, I made a note to go see it. I was extremely busy at the moment getting some book proposals ready, so I didn’t make the opening, and although I used the invitation as a bookmark for what I was reading at the time, I’m ashamed to say it took an e-mail from him asking if I’d seen it, and, if so, what I thought, to get me off my butt to go see it. I used to have several friends here who were always up for gallery-hopping but they’ve all moved, so I don’t keep up as much as I’d like. But I found time to walk down to Zimmerstr. yesterday to take a look.
It’s another amazing piece. It starts with a couple of flashlights moving around in the dark, and then cuts to a scene of a frozen-over lake, the Grunewaldsee here in Berlin. The text this time is in Mandarin Chinese, which, as with Kitsune, means you have to pay attention to the subtitles. This time the story isn’t so easily described, nor do I want to give any spoilers, but at the start the narrator has just witnessed a bloody car accident involving a woman and a girl, and is talking to the policeman at the scene about what he saw. The policeman thanks him, tells him there were other witnesses, and checks his papers, perhaps a little closely. At this point, a note of dread enters the story, although you don’t quite know why. It gets worse when he gets home: unlocking the door, he finds the same policeman and a guy in civilian clothes inside his apartment, although how they got in he can’t figure. The dread gets a lot thicker at that point, in part because of what happens, but in part, also, because we can’t tell where this story is taking place or what the stakes are.
Meanwhile, we are watching the scene on the ice, as ordinary folks are walking on the ice, some (but only a few) skating, and a lot of them are out with their dogs, who are not at their best slipping around. Imperceptably, the sort of brownish-green of the video acquires more and more color, to the point where someone in a red jacket really stands out. But as the story being told gets odder and more infused with fear, the colors start bleaching out again, something Penalva also did with Bahnai. But the story has gotten so gripping by this part that you’re likely not to notice this right away, and it also undergoes a complete metamorphosis in its last few lines so that by the time the credits roll, you’re even more unsure of what you’ve just sat through than you could have imagined.
Suffice it to say that the walk home was completely different than the walk to the gallery. It was the same street (Friedrichstr.), but the experience I’d just been through had changed it utterly. The Roar of Lions was done while Penalva was here in Berlin with a DAAD grant, and if it reflects his experience here, then that might well explain my reaction. There’s also the disconnect between the images of the people out walking and playing on the ice and the narrative overlaying it, much of which occurs in the narrator’s small room. I’d really have to see it again to say anything more intelligent about it, but there’s one thing I can say:
If you get the chance, go see this. The gallery is open from 11 until 6 every day except Sunday, the piece is 37 minutes long, and screenings are every 45 minutes. The show closes on Mar. 10, so you’ve got two weeks. I’ll probably go again, so if anyone wants to join me, let me know. Just don’t expect any light-hearted banter afterwards.