Review: Berlin Atonal / Metabolic Rift

Last week, ADC and I visited the Atonal / Metabolic rift exhibition at Kraftwerk Berlin. Billed as “Not a festival, not an exhibition, not a tour, not a performance”, it was all of these things and excellent at that. Taking the form of an expedition through the gloom of the former power station, using lights as cues to guide the viewers through its various installations.

Now, with my brain, wired the way it is, it’s a risk going to contemporary art exhibitions. Flashbacks and anxiety attacks tend to rear up — the last one ended with me paper bagging it through an audio installation of ping-pong balls falling down an uncomfortably tight and bright staircase. So, obviously, while being led into the belly of Kraftwerk through a pitch-black corridor to a sound-bed of spectral “oohs” and “ahhs”, I had my reservations. “This is how cows feel before they’re slaughtered” was a recurring thought. But, to my surprise, the fear lifted quickly as the yellow bulbs guided us through a series of beautiful albeit dark experiences.

The first installation was partially obscured by our fellow travellers photographing the tiny video screens which made up this part of the experience. I have no idea what was on those screens but ADC says she saw a naked man through one of the smartphone displays*. We followed the yellow glow. The sound grew louder and clearer as a series of repeated half-sung mantras filled the air, leading us on to a larger, smoke-filled room. I haven’t been able to find out more about this specific piece, but a slowly melting block of ice sticks in my mind. Juxtaposed against the dark and dirty environment, it took on a life of its own: sweating, reducing, animated but not alive.

Into another larger area, where the fittings rattled along with a growling industrial drone. A soundtrack befitting the monstrous sculpture that lay at the end of the room. Bicycle parts, welded and clamped together to form a behemoth enlarged by the shadows it created. Throughout the exhibition, the building was used to accentuate the connection to the music, giving it a raw ‘rave-like’ feel. Large metal doors left partially open rattled against their hinges while lighting fixtures and metal panels vibrated in turn.

A video installation of Lillian F. Schwartz’s pencil and contĂ© crayon drawings was one of my favourite pieces. Drawn between the ages of 93 and 94, and completed with only 20% vision, these vibrant faces, angular and mask-like are compiled and spliced at speed alongside an incredible soundtrack of bass and glitches by Hyph11E.

At the top of the building, after many flights of stairs, our guide leading us upward with hand movements and machine-like vocalisations, we entered the cavernous room which housed Cyprien Gaillard’s kinetic sculpture. Brought to life by Hieroglyphic Being’s fuzzed-out sound piece and amplified by the Killasan sound system, this was probably the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in an exhibition to date. I won’t lie, I shed a tear watching the colossal air dancer twist and turn way above my head. A homage to the fluidity of movement and those moments which the ongoing pandemic has taken away from us.

At this point, the ‘tour-not-tour’ portion of the exhibition ended and we were led to a larger part of the building in order to take in the rest of the pieces at our own pace.

James Richards and Leslie Thorntons ‘Sheep Machine II’ was a highlight for me: Small housed screens, in sets of two, displayed circular images of sheep alongside kaleidoscopic images, bringing the outside in and offsetting the industrial surroundings. Congolese sculptor Rigobert Nimi’s retro-futuristic cities were a real joy to look at: Employing a retro-futurism aesthetic and brimming with all the light and movement of a city in flux. Finally, MFO’s piece was centred around four car wrecks, in cross formation, their open boots facing each other with large speakers protruding from each of them. Strobes, smoke and detailed flourishes were deployed to create an audiovisual experience evocative of a misspent youth in and around the illegal rave scene.

*I have posted photos here, but only from the larger, lighter rooms

Credit (top to bottom): James Richards, Cyprien Gaillard & Hieroglyphic Being, MFO, Rigobert Nimi