BERLIN: It’s not every day you find art in an old crematorium. Descending the dim concrete ramp that empties into the cryptlike Betonhalle, visitors find the wall above the interior entrance illuminated by a projection of open water at nighttime. Accompanied by the faint tinkling of bells, four women swim toward the camera.
They sport synchronized swimming regalia - plugged nostrils, swim cap-enclosed hair, luminescent swimsuits - though their goggles and the energetic wave action suggest they’re not in a swimming pool.
The bells give way to percussive drumming and handclapping, a man’s solo voice and droning ensemble accompaniment. The lyrics are in Khaliji-accented Arabic, their delivery reminiscent of Tibetan throat song, sometimes accentuated by husky roars.
By now the swimmers are posing, elevating their legs and gesturing as a unit, the way you’re accustomed to seeing (or fleeing) during televised synch-swim competitions. As their movement follows the song’s crests and troughs, the camera conforms to broadcast convention - overhead footage of ensemble choreography interspersed among shots of swimmers at water level.
“Diver,” Monira Al Qadiri’s four-minute video, is amusingly constructed incongruity. Located in a contentious stretch of open water off the coast of Abu Dhabi, the 2018 work sets the performance of a frequently mocked aquatic sport (choreographed and performed by Emirati residents) to a traditional Gulf pearl-diving tune.
The piece shares the textures of Qadiri’s earlier work - inspired by the region’s pearling heritage, mingling archival seriousness with high production values and a sense of humor.
“Diver” is the first of 16 works to greet visitors to “ANTIKINO” (The Siren’s Echo Chamber), the group exhibition distributed among the three spaces of the Silent Green Kulturquartier the decommissioned crematorium facility housing Galerie Ebensberger Rhomberg, Luxoom Lab and the newly renovated Betonhalle.
“ANTIKINO” (Anti-Cinema) was assembled for The Forum Expanded, the Berlinale program that (with The Forum) is devoted to work that speaks dialects of experimental cinema and contemporary art. Most pieces here are time-based works that reflect upon the construction and reception of the moving image.
Qadiri’s is among the more playful pieces and in the exhibition hall foyer you are immediately greeted by the somber 2019 piece “glory.” James Benning’s two-hour-long film comprises a single shot from a lighthouse surveillance camera, a ragged U.S. flag fluttering before a dangerously roiling ocean.
Twelve hours after this footage was taken in 2018, Hurricane Florence battered the North Carolina coast but the backstory isn’t actually needed. The show’s longest video is the one whose meaning is immediately grasped.
More elaborate, and arresting, is “4 Waters Deep Intimacy,” the 2019 collaboration of Arjuna Neuman and Denise Ferreira da Silva.
Nominally structured around Plato’s four elements air, water, fire, earth the 30-minute work is a gracefully multilayered series of images and voices. Some are directed, others “found.”
The voices include intertitle-driven authorial narration noting, for instance, that outside Mytillini (on Lesbos, a port of call for refugee migration west) a sign reads “Welcome to hell” in Arabic and English.
There are also layers of voice-over in various languages, sampled and otherwise. In halting English, one female voice-over describes how the European mind is distinct from others because it’s been freed of “reason.” She contrasts this with how non-European minds are still conditioned by “environmental factors.”
It’s sometimes unclear how these remarks are meant to be read.
The same is true of the film’s powerful and varied images.
In its opening seconds, “4 Waters” moves from U.S. Air Force war footage, shot through night-vision filters, to an old encyclopedia illustration of a tropical fish, to a few seconds within a refugee-laden rubber dinghy, to a luxuriating overhead tableau of ducks feeding in shallow water, a field of submerged concrete forms visible below.
Like this last image, some of the work’s footage is spectacular. Occasionally a scene like a time-lapse sequence showing the underbellies of storm clouds, swelling and jostling above an inhabited landscape is so striking you wonder whether it was shot or conjured up in postproduction.
At times trustworthy, sometimes not, the images and voices in “4 Waters” reflect a wider conversation about how cinema relates to art, entertainment and activism, and the relative imperatives of aesthetics, authenticity and accuracy. These matters elide nicely with the critical implications of “Anti-cinema.”
In this regard, several works have been curated around Harun Farocki’s 2006 “On the Construction of Griffith’s Films,” a dissection of early filmmaking practices that brings resonance to several of the video installations in “ANTIKINO.”
One of these, Clarissa Thieme’s 2019 “Can’t You See Them? Repeat,” uses first-person accounts and video footage to recollect a traumatic moment during the 1992-94 siege of Sarajevo.
Serbian gunmen are sighted penetrating a residential district and a friend urges the camera operator to film them. While the footage that emerges does capture the militiamen, it better documents the photographer’s anxiety.
The poor footage and voice-over are accessible on a small screen and headphones on a dimly lit wall of Betonhalle’s main hall.
More prominent is a flood lamp mounted on a tripod with a motorized swivel. Activated by a motion detector, the lamp recreates the panicked camera movement, briefly illuminating the onlooker and an expanse of wall.
The installation’s principal object - a canvas reproducing a film still of the militiaman - remains in the dark.
Alongside Thieme’s piece is Ala Younes’ 2018 “Drachmas,” the lone sculpture in “ANTIKINO.” It emerged from the artist’s study of the history of Arab daytime television, as archived in the VHS tape collections of soap opera consumers.
The work comprises 40 small-scale models of the interior and exterior sets of several well-known dramas and the figures who inhabited them. Alienated from their complex cultural, social and political backstory, which defy sculpture’s narrative capacities, Younes’ reproductions of ephemeral moments from Arab popular culture are toylike, not unlike the entertainments on which they’re modeled.
Mounted in Galerie Ebensberger Rhomberg, Shadi Habib Allah’s 2018 work “Did You See Me This Time With Your Own Eyes?” is embedded within a more obscure, but timely, narrative.
It’s said Bedouin in the Sinai who smuggle goods across national borders have developed a cunning system of communication. Using a coded form of their already obscure local dialect, they communicate via old 2G mobiles, to which the Egyptian state’s surveillance technology is ill-suited.
This premise has inspired Habib Allah’s hybrid work. One part is an installation of vintage mobile phones, wires and circuits, representing the guts of a 2G phone monitoring network Habib Allah commissioned from Palestinian engineers. The other is a seven-minute film of a conversation between two men (engineers? intelligence technicians?) trying to figure out what their subjects are talking about.
The sole work at Luxoom Lab is Akram Zaatari’s sweetly comic 2018 video “The Script.”
The seven-minute work opens upon a family salon where a young father wearing a “Knowledge is Power” T-shirt prepares to pray.
For his two young sons, Dad’s routine of silently standing, bowing, kneeling and standing is the stuff of play.
The little boys take turns climbing onto Dad’s back as he prostrates himself. One boy clings to Dad’s head when he stands, pulling himself up to sit on the praying man’s shoulder. The other giggles delightedly as he rides his kneeling father’s bows like a slow-moving carnival ride.
Zaatari then relocates this amusing tableau to a theater stage. After Dad finishes his prayers and reaches back to collect his giggling son, the reverse shot scans the terraces of seats before him, all empty.
ANTIKINO (The Siren’s Echo Chamber) is up at Silent Green Kulturquartier through March 19. For more, see https://www.silent-green.net/en/.