Exhibition Review
“Don’t Mess Around When No One is Home”

  14th Ocotober 2021

Apartment and art—these two forms of life subsistence (or luxury, one can say, depending on their level of class consciousness) together compose a tried-and-true format of showcasing contemporary art in urban settings. Don’t mess around when no one is home sounds just like another apartment art show, where the host invites their friends and colleagues to conduct a convivial ceremony that christens the minimalist white or rustic brick walls of an interior. In many ways, it is a show like that: On the evening of the opening, walking through the ground-floor apartment dotted with art in Wedding, Berlin, I felt a touch of familiarity and thereby the smallness of our world.

But I don’t intend to suggest a sense of homogeneity shared among apartment art shows globally, for that is a gross summary of our livable events. It is, more precisely, a pulsating sensation of warm familiarity, one that invites and stays inviting, causing new experience and knowledge to amalgamate and, eventually, percolate to the fore. As I jotted down the paragraphs below, I was remembering my ocular, somatic, and mental encounters had within the perimeter of the apartment on a Friday evening. To communicate the coming together of the arbitrary (to many) but particular (to some) time and space was, to me, a key concern of the exhibition.

Opening the door and stepping onto the audible mats created by trngs was already a memorable incident. My inability to describe sounds accurately results, here, into the hasty words of “intermittent cacophony,” but if you can trust me, the work body grain was a series of impersonal sounding but bodily sensitive notes that drove you to move forward, half-curious and half-embarrassed, until you reached the living room.

At this hall of busy foot traffic and conversations, it was easy to feel disoriented while the treasure hunt of locating works awaited. Luckily, the first work that jumped into your vision was equally adrift. In the video, cleo miao created a levitating and rotating feminine body, which was reminiscent of the silhouette illusion always called a “spinning girl” or “dancer.” An act of mimicry is likely rich in irony; yet, miao seemed to have wanted to balance the association by rope-tying the iPad playing the video onto a mirror, giving in to a self-reflexive episode of artists initiating conversations around the body. Liming Lin’s curtain installation rested on the two sides. Each featuring a pair of hands that tightly grasp the hilt of a sword, the curtains used their wavy and wall-clinging soft form to hide their assertive message.

Like many modern apartments rising up in Berlin, the apartment that contained Don’t mess around when no one is home boasted an open design for the living room and kitchen. So, naturally, I walked past the space-separating kitchen island to the fridge to find out more. One of The automatons of the Electrolux planet by Rashiyah Elanga was supposed to be cooling and playing video inside the refrigerator, but now it was taking its respite on the floor, leaving its perishable friends and family in jars, cans, and bottles enclosed in the icebox. The pastel colors of the automaton coincided with the palette of Julia Wolkenhauer’s Extremophilia, a Deebot vacuum cleaner retrofitted with some messaging tools. It was a meet-and-greet of consumer appliances, rightly at the kitchen due to its normally high concentration of such devices. The Island at the End of Everything by Haiqing Wang sat in and above the oven and entangled itself partially around a fluorescent tube on the side—a detached witness to the electric others nearby, it told stories from the biosphere that seemed remote from but were nonetheless wired to the kitchen.

The other half of the indoor exhibition was on the other side of trngs’s sound installation, so before venturing outdoor, I needed to walk again on the mats. This time, it was not the backward playing sounds but the smell of putrefying fish that took me by surprise. Looking around, I found on the ceiling one of Sophie Schweighart’s “fish-eye cameras,” the words of which are to be taken literally to understand their compositions. My gut reaction was to remove myself quickly from the scene. I did exactly that, but later I learned it was a futile move, as the eyes had populated themselves in every room.

At the end of the hallway was the bedroom, a medium-sized space that deliberately hosted only one work but contained a plethora of other objects, many of which, such as the pile of clothes seemingly sampled from the host’s life, were to do with the intimate context of the bedroom. For Deeper, deeply , a video work played on a laptop sitting on the bed, Yasmine Anlan Huang produced a poetic monologue for a sex doll named Margo, the former love object of bodybuilder Yuri Tolochko. At least to me, the calm voice of Margo appeared to have a titillating quality, partially perhaps because she was reciting a love poem in a bedroom, but I knew I sensed so because of her perceived identity as an object. Although moralizing, this semi-meta-thought was still rather depressing. Amid the other audience that were attracted to the clothes and jewelry in the room, I had to leave, and soon I found myself in the dusking light of the ground-floor apartment’s yard.

Across from aaajiao’s combinative work with a bonsai, Styrofoam blocks, and pebbles, which precariously hanged onto the yard’s dividing wall like some vines, there were the floor vents that allowed air to flow in and out of the basement. Before 7 pm, this downstairs space had been prepared for a performance titled FC Faggot Convention by Elvirar Axt and Angel Hafermaas. Along with a few others, I watched the performance from above the floor vents, a.k.a. key sites of the performance as Axt and Hafermaas entered the basement through them. Dressed the same in long black wigs with bangs, blue soccer T-shirts, white shorts, and knee-high white socks, Axt and Hafermaas, after entering the basement, appeared to be engaging in a celebratory foul play during or after a soccer match. Seeing only the legs and feet from above ground, the full picture of the performance has since remained unclear to me.

That reminded me of my hitherto partial experience of pretty much everything else shown in the apartment and my ultimate irrelevance to them, and this insight did not come in any poignant fashion. As a temporary visitor to the apartment art show that would be taken down in mere two days, my walkthrough of the architecture and artworks only minimally interfaced with the host(s), whose absence/presence was heightened by the title of the exhibition. In this logic, the art that I had the privilege to see momentarily did not permit me to speak of them in any enabling or inhibiting manner. Sensing a healthy and conceptualized dose of distances between me and the host, me and the building, me and the artworks, and maybe among the entities “at home” themselves, I gained relief when leaving the exhibition. Rarely does an exhibition truly gets relegated from the capturing will of thematic concerns, and it seems that apartment art shows tend to prioritize distilling themes or focusing on monographs so that new meanings could arise and finally transcend the mundanity of the home. Don’t mess around when no one is home has given up that strategy. In the meantime, it joins the alternative track, directing us to eye its short-term configuration as an exhibition while not forgetting to hint at its other social roles, irrelevant as they may be to us the audience.

Jacob Zhicheng Zhang

Jacob Zhicheng Zhang is a Chinese-born writer and researcher of modern and contemporary art living in Berlin, Germany by way of the United States. His writings can be found in issues of THE SEEN, LEAP, The Art Newspaper China, and Berlin Art Link, in addition to exhibition catalogues.