Third Quadriennale Düsseldorf
Histories of Futures

Kunstsammlung NRW K20 Wassily Kandinsky Painting with White Border, 1913 Oil on canvas 140.3 x 200,3 cm Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
Kunstsammlung NRW K20 Wassily Kandinsky Painting with White Border, 1913 Oil on canvas 140.3 x 200,3 cm Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York | © ADAGP, Paris

It’s about the subterranean, alchemy and digital capitalism. 13 museums and exhibition venues were participating in the third edition of this festival, which was launched in 2006. The common leitmotiv was: “Beyond Tomorrow” (“Über das morgen hinaus”).

“Futures?” – In Düsseldorf in summer 2014, the otherwise rare plural form of the word was in quite frequent use. Über das morgen hinaus, the motto of the Quadriennale Düsseldorf 2014, had many layers of meaning. The festival, once again large in scale and generously funded, aimed to bring greater attention to the city on the Rhine’s abundant art scene. 13 institutions had taken up the theme of the future. “Starting as early as antiquity one comes across the notion over and over again that art can even pre-empt the future, develop utopias, and function as a motor of history.” Artistic consultant Wolfgang Ullrich thus explained the dramaturgy he has worked out together with the Düsseldorf curators – a dramaturgy that admittedly was somewhat loosely constructed. Even though a meshwork of eleven connecting concepts had been invented: starting off, progress, experiment, retreat, utopia and earth are some examples.

Beneath the ground

„Beneath the Ground: From Kafka to Kippenberger was the title of the show in K21, the contemporary section of the Art Collection of North Rhine-Westphalia. Visitors were given Franz Kafka’s The Burrow as guidebook, since they saw nothing but works with bunkers, tunnels, caves and cellars, works that bear witness to human penetration into subterranean regions. In search of refuge, adventure or horror. Henry Moore recorded in drawings how Londoners found shelter huddled together in subway tunnels during the Second World War. With his bunker models, curiously suggestive of mole hills, Thomas Schütte succeeded in ironically holding the danger of nuclear war at bay. Gregor Schneider lured viewers into a bare children’s room through a huge drain pipe, causing goose bumps in the process! Bruce Naumann had a surveillance camera broadcast images from an inaccessible, buried room. Roni Horn exposed real ants in a narrow vitrine filled with soil to the gaze of the viewer. Not exactly rosy prospects. Utopias are a rarity in contemporary art. They still existed at the start of the 20th century, a fact which the complementary exhibition in K20 was showcasing with three great names and top-quality loan pieces: In 1919, Kasimir Malevich could still proclaim that: “The white, free abyss, infinity lies before us,” and celebrate whiteness as manifestation of liberated Nothing. This non-colour also led Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian on the path to abstraction. The exhibition display ordered the works of the three artists in parallel strands and in Laboratories offered insights into the scientific and philosophical thought of the period.
Kunsthalle Düsseldorf INS-Declaration of Inauthenticity, Tate Britain, London 2009 Slideshow: The Third Quadriennale Düsseldorf Kunsthalle Düsseldorf INS-Declaration of Inauthenticity, Tate Britain, London 2009 | © 2014 Richard Eaton/Tate, courtesy of International Necronautical Society, Photo: INS Department of Propaganda

The art of making gold

Is it The Secret of Transformation that has always impelled art onwards? Creating pictures, sculptures and more out of thoughts and feelings. And perhaps even gold? The exhibition Art and Alchemy treated the theme in bold and imaginative ways. It aimed to guide the viewer through all epochs and genres. Were Adam and Eve the first alchemists and Sigmar Polke, Rebecca Horn or Neo Rauch not the last? Even if one does not go along with all of the conjectures of the painstakingly researched and wonderfully presented exhibition in the Kunstpalast Düsseldorf, the course through the history of alchemy was just as thrilling as the excursion into contemporary art. Here and there one came upon surprises. Like the pictures of the Surrealist Victor Brauner or the Chymische Lustgärtlein (2013/14) by Gerda Steiner and Jörg Lenzlinger: all manner of latter-day things on a huge table with a white table-cloth come together to produce a phenomenal whole: coloured solutions and crystals of artificial fertiliser and salts, artificial and real plant parts, vessels, industrially manufactured foods as well as mirrors, crocheted doilies, cosmetic products, painkillers, CDs and LPs.

Anish Kapoor, also presented in this exhibition, sais: “In the end, it is oneself that one works with. Each sculpture, each drawing, each painting is a kind of chemistry; it is a kind of alchemy.” One can only agree with it.

Illusion as revolutionary weapon

But in the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf it is clear that this will soon cease to be relevant: under the title Smart New World, artists thematise the fact that with the age of digitalisation a society of total surveillance has arrived. One is only admitted to the exhibition if one has signed the entry form. Point 7 states that illusion is a revolutionary weapon.

Things were also turbulent in the private Julia Stoschek Collection, which was showing videos by the recently deceased American artist Sturtevant. An in the Langen Foundation, inflatable sculptures by Otto Piene, co-founder of the ZERO Group, reminded the viewer that departures into hoped-for futures are not all that long ago.