The Pick - Gesamtkunstwerk: New Art from Germany

November 24, 2011

Gesamtkunstwerk: New Art from Germany

Saatchi Gallery, London, until 30 April 2012

Dirk Bell's Abgrund (Abyss) is an oil portrait of a naked woman seen from behind, her body pink against a white background. There is a neon light above her and a flowery lace curtain in front. Along the bottom of the frame is a ledge with pieces of bone and fragments of glass. Stefan Kurten paints almost photographic pictures of interiors and gardens, yet the results are either eerily empty or totally overwhelmed by flowers or fragments of foliage blotting out the scene behind.

Julian Rosefeldt's series of Soap Samples juxtaposes stills from soap operas to demonstrate how actors the world over use exactly the same repertoire of "sincere" gestures - the wagging finger, the hand on heart - to represent the same fake emotions. Zhivago Duncan actually titles a display case Pretentious Crap.

The new show at the Saatchi Gallery is characteristically bold, stimulating and irritating. Most of the 24 artists are highly accomplished in distilling what they have to say into concrete form, although it is not always clear whether it is worth saying. Viewers are very much left to their own devices, with the exhibition guide as much an obstacle as an aid.

Josephine Meckseper's work The Complete History of Postcontemporary Art, for example, is a window display that brings together a book of the same name, a sink plunger and a photograph of a "Euroslut"; a set of perfume bottles labelled "Ne travaillez pas"; a multi-coloured sock; and a rotating stuffed rabbit holding up a sign bearing the word "Oui" on one side and "Non" on the other. The effect is compellingly odd, but can it really help to be told that her work is "a chilling reminder of the excesses and distortions of capitalism, which has created a world in which, she would argue, there is no separation between materialism and political ideology: we are what we buy"?

Although the exhibition is highly varied in subject matter and media, themes of dislocation, menace and suppressed violence are recurrent; narratives are always curtailed and enigmatic; and found objects are constantly being recycled. Perhaps the most powerful are the sculptures by Thomas Helbig, Jungfrau and Vater, writhing masses the colour of tar and metallic grey, from which what are presumably pieces of children's toys - a headless torso, a bird's beak, an elephant's trunk, a lobster's claw - emerge menacingly.

The other standout artist is Markus Selg, something of a traditional craftsman who draws on imagery from many cultures. His benches and wooden sculpture could have come from a medieval church. He is equally adept in using plaster, sometimes accompanied by straw, as in small statues of a distraught Eve and a kneeling man.

While much of the work on display here is shrill and self-referential, Selg's frequently achieves a quiet emotional simplicity.

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