I sauntered into Johann König on Friday night with few expectations, but admittedly a bit of excitement. The gallery was buzzing and I was looking forward to immersing myself in the latest installation by Natascha Sadr Haghighian. This is the artist’s third solo exhibition with the gallery and I am quite fond of her previous work—I find it probing and thought-provoking with a tinge of slapstick. For me, it is the perfect mix for a conceptual practice that rarely takes the same form twice.
As I write, I notice myself gingerly approaching this review. On the one hand, I am big fan of Haghighian’s work and would herald her successes from mountaintops if given the opportunity. On the other: this recent exhibition leaves something to be desired in more ways than one. The single object on display, a rectangular island in an otherwise empty room, is described as a "prototype". This model comprises stacks of warehouse pallets, Lego base plates, and sixty headphone jacks arranged in a circle into which participants connect headphones to listen to various sound recordings produced by the artist and her collaborators. The structure is said to represent a scale model of the Leopard 2A7+ battle tank with the headphone jacks mapping the circumference of the gun turret. All of this information is gleaned from the essential press release, without which the exhibition’s tacit secret would be lost on me from the start.
The installation’s construction is a major point of contention. At first glance, it appears to be a shoddy version of a children’s museum exhibit. Brightly colored bricks draw your attention to a game of headphone swap through which one may gain useful knowledge of the world around them. I spent the majority of the evening ignoring my acquaintances and painstakingly plugging my headphones into each outlet in order to take in the sound recordings. I listened to all of them, except for the ones that did not work despite repeated attempts to adjust my headphone jack into place. Some tracks were intriguing and slightly spooky, while others were downright droll. Many of them recalled sound footage I had heard being made by freshmen in a first year studio class at an unnamed art school in California. I kept asking myself, “Am I missing the concept? Am I just not ‘getting’ it?”
Shrill sounds crackled and warbled, voices mumbled, and systematic distortion seemed to be used in heavy-handed ways. I waited for the recitation of the German Armaments Export Report, as promised in the press release, in hopes of acquiring some solid footing in the imaginary environment supposedly evoked here, but it never came. I have a feeling this recording might have belonged to one of the faulty headphone jacks. An unexpected surprise came in the form of the waffle-like indentations I discovered on the palms of my hands after listening to the final sounds. The Legos had made their mark much more than the actual content of the work.
As disappointment took hold, I slipped out of the gallery and into subzero Berlin. On the walk to dinner, I could not help but think I had missed some sort of appeal in this showing. Haghighian’s installation has obviously produced a visceral reaction in me, but I don’t think it is the type that either of us had hoped for. The entire installation seems to hold an air of mystery about itself. From the construction, to the soundscapes, to the artist’s given explanations I am left with the unsettling feeling that there is some secret, perhaps hidden in the pssst whispered in the exhibition’s title, and I am totally missing out on it. I know I will go back to gallery and attempt to find it—but I am also worried that there is nothing to be found.
(All Images: Natascha Sadr Haghighian, pssst Leopard 2A7+ , mixed media, 45 x 376 x 772 cm; Photo: Roman März; Courtesy of the artist and Johann König, Berlin.)