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The Hamburger

Went to the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum, which is a modern art museum they have here in Berlin. At first I thought a lot of this conceptual art was deliberately over my head, but then I realized that, to the contrary, these objects “qua” objects were in fact designed to speak directly to me. For example, this is a famous piece by Andy Warhol. Notice how the gunslinger is shown twice. TWICE. This replication of the seemingly static, the apparently unique, shows us that art has in fact been commodified because it is replicable, and if it is replicable than it is no longer unique. This piece calls into question our very idea of what art means. This piece shows two NBA basketballs suspended in a fishtank. TWO. Not one. One would not be art, but by placing TWO basketballs in the fishtank, the artist has given a symmetry to what would otherwise be a meaningless combination of everyday objects. This treatment of sports and pet equipment calls into question our very ideas about what is and isn’t art.

These are TWO NBA basketballs suspended in a FISHTANK

These are TWO NBA basketballs suspended in a FISHTANK

This is a human head carved out of poop.

A head carved out of shit

A head carved out of shit

The title of the piece of called “Shit Head”. By using human waste as his medium, the artist Mark Quinn has breached a bright red line in terms of what is and is not acceptable as art. But is not all art acceptable? “Shit Head” calls into question our very ideas about-


Seriously, you could go crazy looking at this shit. Literally, shit. After about four seconds you think to yourself “Wow, I’ve actually paid 8 euros to stare at shit. This is calling into question my very ideas about why I bother to pay museum entrance fees.” Fortunately, there are relatively few pieces in this museum. Although I do like this one.

This one, which is a gigantic diaorama with dozens of moving pieces, all of which are making a terrible racket, is captivating for some reason.

Don't try to pick a girl up in front of this exhibit

Don't try to pick a girl up in front of this exhibit

It’s like a four-year-old managed to paste all their electric toys onto a large cardboard surface, plugged in a bunch of plutonium batteries and switched them all on at the same time. It;s great fun, all thought it completely screws with my primary goal in going to modern art museums, which is to pick up smart chicks.

Me: So, you like modern art?
Smart chick: (shouting over a violent and terrible din) Was ist das?
Me: Modern art!
Smart chick: Ja?
Me: You like?
Smart chick: Was?
Me: I think the artist is trying to express the inner turmoil of his soul with this piece!
Smart chick: Nein spreche der English!
Me: Nine sprockets are english?
Smart chick: Ja?
Me: That’s fascinating!

It occurs to me that what distinguishes modern art from so much of the art of previous centuries is its focus on the grotesque, rather than the beautiful. This, I think, makes perfect sense when one considers the history of the 20th century. At some point, Spain, France, Germany, Italy, Greece, Russia, and all of Eastern Europe came under totalitarian control. Everyone of these political systems was a grotesquerie of sorts. Most of Europe lived under grotesque, dehumanizing governments for at least part of the twentieth century, so our artistic expressions turned to the grotesque. It’s only natural.

But I do hope we’re coming out of it. I could go for a few more Rodins in the world, and a few less Shit Heads.

Athough it makes for great material for nightmares. Take this, for example,



or this.

Hold me. I'm frightened.

Hold me. I'm frightened.

If contemporary German art doesn’t give you nightmares, I swear, you’re just not paying attention.

  1. J
    August 14, 2009 at 12:00 am

    I think our “preoccupation” with the grotesque is simply an exploration similar to that of other times with pushing boundaries. While nudes and even people were passé in art for a while, and thus shocking when they came back and started to sort of “own” their own sexuality, and the abstract took hold to challenge verisimilitude, the grotesque is there to challenge our preoccupations with beauty. Beauty is, after all, only one part of life, so it seems natural to me we’re in phase with many focusing on exploring alternative parts of life (especially, but not only, considering the points of totalitarianism et al. that you mention). I think it’s not just to push boundaries in terms of seeing how hard it is to repel people, but also in terms of the sort of “stiff-upper lip” “keeping up appearances” positivist façades that took such hold for so long; just as we are trying to face the grotesqueries of imperialism and wages of colonialism rather than a cultural focus on the veneer of elite civilization, there’s an urge to explore the darkest places eschewed and denied by years of focus on beauty and purity.

    Or I’m talking out my hat. I’ll tell you what I’m not doing, and that’s getting shit done. [sigh]

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