Reality is the true abstraction

bahnhof kulisse-k

Social Sculptures, phoptography series in progress, Cibacrome, approx. 70 pieces each 70 x 45 cm and 70 x 50 cm – Mario Asef ©



Susanne Köhler

Raumprothesen-Diagram-k Raumprothesen – Diagram, Mario Asef © 2012

Urban space and its appropriation by the people who use it is the source of Mario Asef’s artistic work. In his videos, photographs, sound installations, and interventions the artist deals with architectonic as well as socio-political discourse and investigates how they are represented spatially. Like a researcher he examines the constructions of public life by working against the dominant order in subtle ways. This occurs by reordering things without notice or by removing elements specific to the location and adapting them to the art context. Accordingly, these urban objects are first apprehended as artworks when they are documented in photographs or written about in texts.

Asef’s group of works Empirien (1998-2006) presents an entire series of interventions documented in this way. For instance, in the work Fragile—handle with care/appropriation (2004), the artist placed cardboard boxes in front of the Covent Garden Theater Museum in London, which were then taken over by individuals and used as sleeping spots. By converting packaging into housing, Asef indirectly draws attention to the negative spaces of the city, which make life (survival) possible, but also to the present absence of the homeless. Like illegal immigrants or street musicians, the homeless also count among the—for the most part—undesirable users of public space.1 The artist stages this situation like an experiment. That vagrants then make use of it in practical ways undermines the efforts of local authorities.

In and of themselves the unforeseen and the ephemeral are inherent to Mario Asef’s interventions. He never knows how long his rearrangements will last or whether or how passersby will take them over and put them to use. This participation is the trigger for a non-verbal communication outside of cultural institutions. For the most part the users of the locations involved quickly grasp the initiative, deconstruct the intervention, and reestablish the usual “normal order” of things.

Raumprothesen (spatial prosthetics) can be viewed in many respects as a further development of this creative process. In this case, urban phenomena are actually translocated into the art establishment. Here Asef manifests his socio-critical stance by inviting street musicians to play at his opening. The performative evening was consciously designed to provoke interaction between the art-going public and individuals who operate primarily within the urban locations outside of cultural institutions.

In contrast to Empirien, the participation of everyone involved takes place within the exhibition space. As a result of this appropriation beer bottles, cigarette butts, and trash pile up on the floor and imprints from fingers and people sitting are pressed into the sculptural elements—the “Raumprothesen”—that the artist has integrated into the exhibition. “Prothese” (prosthetics) means here, so to speak, the artificial extension of the room that fulfills a specific function. As such the objects don’t even stand out at first. Rather, their white color and inconspicuous positioning on the margins allows them to be seen as a fixed component of the exhibition space.

A central aspect of this work involves returning the purported sculptures to the public locations where the elements that inspired them formally are found. For his work Asef initially pilfers material from the city. In this case polystyrene insulation board for acoustically isolating homes is used. In the context of his exhibition this building material is transformed into sculptures. Through their use (disintegration), mostly by the musicians to whom the sculptural elements were assigned as stages, they are, in turn, viewed as everyday objects. Throughout the entire duration of the show the viewer can observe the process of using the space along with its Prothesen. In addition the brief musical performances have been captured in a documentary video as staged memory, and are continuously on view. Here the quality of the recording plays a secondary role. Asef films more like an anthropologist who attempts to understand the circumstances from a distance. After the presentation in the art context is over, the objects and musicians alike make their way back onto the streets. Once there, people will again use the “Raumprothesen” as seating and eventually dispose of them. With this, a cycle of varying translocations and ascribing of meanings apparently comes to its end.

Whether in urban public space or within the space of an exhibition, the experience of those involved in Mario Asef’s interventions go far beyond the actual participation. Rather, through his subtle interventions, the viewer is sensitized to the processes at work in urban, social surroundings.

1 Asef’s socio-critical stance goes back to the artist’s own personal experiences. He himself migrated from Argentina to Germany twelve years ago.

The Author

Susanne Trasberger (formerly Köhler) studied cultural sciences and aesthetics at the University of Hildesheim. She curated several exhibitions in Berlin (e.g. NGBK), Worpswede and at the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg. She was director of Kunstverein Junge Kunst, Wolfsburg, production manager for the exhibition XIII. Rohkunstbau in Berlin and published various art catalogues. She currently lives in Berlin and works for Texte zur Kunst.

Shifting the Focus

Fiona McGovern

01 Raumprothesen – Mario Asef © 2009

The opening of Mario Asef’s exhibition Raumprothesen für frei zusammenwachsende Sozialorganismen (Spatial Prosthetics for Freely Integrated Social Organisms) at arttransponder was a big celebration. As announced on posters in the exhibition space, various Berlin-based street musicians, invited by the artist, played one after the other. The musicians hailed from northwest Africa, Turkey, and Russia, and also included a World Music DJ from Argentina. Toward the end of the night the musicians spontaneously improvised together. For viewers the gallery visit became a musical journey through world cultures whose sounds and voices became increasingly mixed over the course of the evening. At first the musical event seemed to be the focus here, however, during the remainder of the exhibition the essential conditions and multi-layered referential structures of the project became evident.

02 Raumprothesen – Mario Asef © 2009

The “Raumprothesen,” which give the exhibition its name, served as individual stages for the musicians. Made out of insulation board, the abstract geometrical shapes in the form of ledges and steps inconspicuously extended the stark architecture of the White Cube into the space. While the artist-designed objects that add to the existing architecture are certainly a focus of the exhibition, their designing points more significantly to a symbolic shifting of the categorization-defying architectonic remains—which Mario Asef groups under the neologism “Raumprothesen”—from the realm of urban public space to the (institutional) art context. In the sense of the dualism of Site (here: public space) and Nonsite (here: gallery room), once formulated by Robert Smithson, a kind of displacement also occurs here that changes our perceptions. Both of Smithson’s terms also explicitly refer to their respective phonetic equivalents of Sight and Nonsight: what consciously enters our field of vision first affects us and holds our attention. Shifting the Raumprothesen from urban space to the gallery space leads therefore not only to a revaluation of these elements, which are completely neglected—if not repressed—by city planners and architects, but generates literally and figuratively a platform for street musicians. In one’s perception of public space, illegal immigrants are—like some of the participating musicians—often degraded to objects that seemingly belong to the cityscape. Shifting the location of the musicians also signifies for them, in analogy to the Raumprothesen, a revaluation of their musical playing and their recognition as subjects of our society. If insulation board typically functions to isolate rooms acoustically, the voices of immigrants are now the focus of attention on top of them.

03 Raumprothesen – Mario Asef © 2009

This new form of public appearance didn’t seem to put all of the invited guests at ease; the fact that the Romanian musicians didn’t even show up for the opening night might be an indication of the explosiveness that goes along with this shift. The White Cube as an exclusive space closed off from the outside world becomes itself a far more open platform here; the borders between the experience of art and the urban everyday are permeable. Thus everything that transpires in the exhibition space also always points to its external reality. At the same time remnants from the opening night, such as scattered beer bottles or candy wrappers, become a part of the work as much as they are an index of a prior and potentially missed event. These can be appreciated during the concert-free period with a video from the opening celebration that plays on a small monitor in a corner of the room. Via this shift in medium a direct relationship is made to the video work Violinparis (2007)—presented at the same time in the exhibition—whose symbolism forms the point of departure and the basis of the questions being addressed here: with very little concern for technical effects and no subsequent editing, Violinparis presents the portrait of a Parisian street musician who plays her Turkish Rebec undisturbed and uninterrupted in front of the Centre Georges Pompidou while museum workers busily measure the square around her without paying her any attention. Over the years she has, as a matter of course, become a fixed element of the square, the sound of her instrument has become the constant soundtrack to local events. If, at best, she makes waiting in line for the Centre Georges Pompidou easier to deal with as a result of her playing, then in an exhibition context she is granted a presence and recognition that she hardly ever benefits from in everyday life—even if, or precisely because, a surprising number of visitors remember her from their visits to Paris.

04 Raumprothesen – Mario Asef © 2009

In a final action at the end of the exhibition, Mario Asef converts the here-mentioned shifts into a circular flow, thus turning the previously ideal repercussion of this project on external space into a material. As an art object, but mainly as prototypes of architectonic blank spaces, he places the slowly disintegrating insulation board-constructions in central locations around Berlin such as Potsdamer Platz, Alexanderplatz, and Mauerpark, reintegrating them (back) into urban space. They become a part of skateboard ramps, incorporated into graffiti, or used for seating. Now it’s only a question of time how long the impermanent material can hold its own ground.

Via this intermingling of two distinct spaces, each with their own inherent social customs and unspoken rules, Mario Asef’s exhibition project Raumprothesen für frei zusammenwachsende Sozialorganismen ultimately becomes itself a test case for urban development. A test case that demands a new way of looking at our architectonic surroundings and social interactions—both in the urban environment as well as the exhibition space.

05 Raumprothesen – Mario Asef © 2009

The Author

Fiona Mc Govern studied art history and comparative literature in Göttingn and Berlin. Since Spring 2009 she is a research associate at the collaborative research centre Aesthetic Experience and the Dissolution of Artistic Limits, Freie Universität Berlin and works on the adaption of curatorial approaches by artists since the late 1960’s.