Aesthetics and Reality

The Akademie der Künste in Berlin examines the effect of art on reality itself, and how it is constantly adapting and transforming according to the viewer.

Art is commonly perceived to come from the artist. In the case of many of the world’s most renowned creatives, such as Gilbert & George or Marina Abramović, the artist is the art. In proposing a perception of art as stemming from the practitioner, a work is also seen as a reflection of the individual’s inner experience and the environment around them. One of its beauties is the manner in which visual representation enables us to escape realities and empathise with the worlds of others. However, why not also consider the manner in which art reflects on existence and the debate over the effect that creativity has on reality? The positive effect of art, and its ability to engage audiences, is long-acknowledged, not least through public grants to institutions and governments’ attempts to widen access for all.

In an attempt to redress this balance, and open the notion of how visual communication affects the world in which it exists, the Akademie der Künste in Berlin is holding a series of events examining “the construction and reconstruction of reality in the arts.” Encompassing more than 40 lectures, performances, conferences, concerts, workshops and tours, Vertigo of Reality is a multidisciplinary event that presents an ever-evolving interrogation of the role of creative practice and aesthetic production in society today.

Similarly to the Royal Academy in London, Akademie der Künste is “an exhibition and event location, a meeting place for artists and people interested in the arts, where public debates on art and cultural policy take place.” Founded in 1696, it has 400 current members across the six disciplines of visual arts, architecture, music, literature, performing arts, and film and media art. In addition, its archive of more than 1,200 bequests is “one of the most important interdisciplinary archives of 20th century art.” While its events programme of exhibitions, concerts, debates, readings, award ceremonies, and film, theatre and dance performances presents “contemporary artistic positions to the public and is dedicated to safeguarding cultural heritage,” Anke Hervol, fine art curator, also emphasises that “our main focus is fixed on the research about subjects which could not be shown in the classical teaching institutions, cultural institutions or museums.” This emphasis on subject matter outside of the remit of traditional presentations means that “we are following the aim of deepening subjects with cultural, political and social significance.” Hervol highlights this as the reason behind the choice of curatorial team, “of several people with specific ideas and backgrounds,” which is “to construct a many-sided exhibition.” Hervol’s co-curators are: Wulf Herzogenrath, director of the fine art section of the Academy of Arts; curator, art historian and specialist of video and multimedia-art, Mark Butler; cultural scientist, futurologist, and research associate at the Institute of Art and Media of Potsdam; and Niels van Tomme, curator, researcher, and critic working on the intersections of contemporary culture, politics and aesthetics.

Vertigo of Reality promises to examine how “the profound changes in artistic practice as a result of new media, in particular digitalisation, have resulted in a stream of new strategies tackling ways to construct or deconstruct reality in and with art, attempting to make a contribution to enlightenment and resistance through critical appraisal.” At its heart is the exhibition itself, which will, in turn, have the work Metabolic Office for the Repair of Reality at its centre. Its esoteric title reflects the spirit of Akademie der Künste’s motivations, which are invariably obscure and difficult to pin down. While Manos Tsangaris, curator of this work, describes it as “a very practical thing” and “a place and a structure to work in between all the activities of the experiential programme,” its purpose, to the visitor, is less explicit if one looks beyond its function as a meeting point for the various facets of the programme. Tsangaris emphasises that it has such variety, which brings with it “everyone, every discipline with its characteristic linguistics constructing and generating their own terms of reality and swindle;” the Office seems to be a place to make sense of it. The fact that this piece never hesitates to use the language of work, labour and commerce highlights that Vertigo of Reality is an exhibition that expects to take from its visitors as much as it does from its artists. Engaging with the display and its concepts is as much an act of work as it is of pleasure, and it is a constant negotiation of one’s own thought processes, and those of the curators and artists. While the arguments and concepts behind the exhibition are incredibly relevant, although complex, Tsangaris still highlights the need for some kind of “traditional borders and limits” and perhaps this is where the Metabolic Office comes in, as a place for visitors and the curators to explore and discuss the consequences of the exhibition.

With the metaphor of work at the forefront of this piece, Tsangaris highlights that “the use of aesthetics in our lives [has] very concretely become an instrument for political interests, powers and intentions,” and that everything has become political. For the team behind the programme there are inherent links between the arts and the political sphere because the arts are constantly used to make an argument, “so effectively, we become instruments for this ourselves.” This is a significant contributor to the exhibition – the idea that “art and art theory analyse this and work on the invention of antidotes.”

The form which these antidotes to the political posturings of art should take is, however, unclear; in fact, in presenting the idea that art influences our very reality and that its effect on the world can change its outcomes, the curators of Vertigo of Reality have opened up a greater debate, which is impossible to bring to a resolution in the course of one exhibition. However, what Vertigo of Reality does do is neatly position the viewer at the centre of the art-making experience. In line with Roland Barthes’ Death of the Author, the practitioners behind the exhibition are, according to the curators, almost subservient to the viewers themselves. In focusing on the audiences’ perception of a work and how it interacts with reality, the role of the artist is changed to that of an enabler. Hervol points out that we should avoid talking about “visitors” or “viewers” because “the visitor becomes – if he wants to – the participant or even the performer himself.” While Vertigo of Reality “presents artistic strategies and methods of working which focus on the viewer’s perception,” this means that “the artwork materialises only in and through the viewer themselves,” that the originator has a selfless role to play in “developing the idea and giving it as a proposal to the participant.” The show inevitably engages with relational aesthetics and the concept of audience participation. Butler says: “While we did not have relational art in mind when the exhibition was conceived, it is definitely there and can be seen as a necessary consequence of the breaking open of the hermetic circle between the creator and artwork, with the audience on the outside as beholder of the finished product. Once the visitor becomes a part of the process and is transformed from observer to participant the myriad relationships involved in the production of the aesthetic experience are put front and centre and become a focus of inquiry.”

Vertigo of Reality combines 1960s and 1970s works (which arguably show the heyday of conceptual art) from people such as Nam June Paik and Bruce Nauman, right up to the works of today’s leading figures, including Bill Viola, Olafur Eliasson and Marina Abramović. In doing so, it shows the progression of art as a tool that can alter reality, and highlights the profound changes in practice enabled by digitalisation. Butler explains that while “the exhibition retraces a development in which the media assemblage increasingly moves into focus,“ this, in turn, means that the medium itself becomes as central to the work as its end result: “the methods that are constitutive of every act of perception and communication become the focus of art itself.” Because of the development of digital technology and the widened, heightened and instant communication of the internet, innovators have utilised “diverse strategies of manipulating this threshold [so that] the act of perception itself becomes a phenomenon that can be experienced.” In addition to this, and in a similar vein, Butler argues that “the role of the individual on the receiving end changes fundamentally from being a passive receiver to someone who actively participates in the creation of the aesthetic experience.”

Hamish Fulton’s first public walk for Berlin, Walking East-Walking West, explicitly references the city’s historical and contentious position as a cultural and political crossroads between east and west, capitalism and communism, and is interesting because it’s the only project that, according to Hervol, “engages directly with the city and its public space.” In a way, many of the other artworks are much more removed from their context, and more internationalist in their outlook, particularly because of the manner in which technological advances have not only made this possible but have also made the artists’ outlook more international. Hevol suggests: “While in the 1960s the new technical imaging and communication capabilities used for film and television were incorporated into their work processes, today this new generation of artists is drawing on the opportunities of the internet, social media platforms, devices such as smartphones and tablets, and their respective programmes and applications. The threshold between digital information and analogue users, between machine and man, between virtuality and body, has long since become a key dialectic subject of contemporary art.” Works such as Thomas Demand’s Control Room (2011) and Thomas Wrede’s Real Landscapes (2012) subsequently display an internationalist no-man’s-land of sorts, which is difficult to nationalise or to place in any one specific context. Conversely, while these pieces encourage viewers to look out and examine the external, reflections such as Jeppe Hein’s Rotating Mirror Circle (2008) are unavoidably insular, and again highlight how central the viewer is to the artwork itself. It creates a disjuncture between the reality of the room and the observer and what they see in front of them, distorting both their face and the world around them in a manner that reflects the rapid change and evolution of the role of art today. As if in conversation with Rotating Mirror Cicles, Olafur Eliasson’s Mirror Stack (2010), in turn, distorts itself, each mirror gradually distorting further away from a perfect circle but in an inverse way to the order of gravity. Eliasson’s work not only highlights the effects of the laws of nature but also hints at mankind’s capability and strong desire to overpower it.

Furthering this argument, the Akademie der Künste has taken the unusually (but increasingly common) step of including video games in its remit for display. There is a whole section of the exhibition dedicated to game art (including Gold Extra’s Frontiers (2008), Bill Viola’s The Night Journey (2010), Molleindustria’s Unmanned (2012) and Tale of Tales’ Bientôt l’été (2002)). Butler also explains the Akademie’s plans to “exhibit works that are positioned on the border of game art like Paidia Institute’s experiment series Laboratory: feedback or Robin Arnott’s virtual reality piece SoundSelf stating, “it must be said that the entire show is pervaded by a playful paradigm.”

Ultimately the questions of reality and art’s effect on it are manifold and complex, and they provide a continual topic of debate. As Butler argues:“Art offers us new ways of perceiving the world and of acting in it. By doing this it opens up a relationship with reality that is open to change.” For Butler it is the activity and engagement of art that releases its potential, and prevents us from being passive. “This mode of being-in-the-world is fundamentally different from one simply accepting things the way they are. Instead of submitting to
the given, it encourages us to participate in the production of reality. As such, art invites us to play with actuality, to gain aesthetic pleasure from new and unusual ways of experiencing and interacting with the world and ourselves.” The curators have brought together a complex system of events, mediums and artworks, and one that raises as many questions as it answers.

Vertigo of Reality will be on display at Akademie der Künste in Berlin from 17 September until 14 December. To find out more, visit

Ruby Beesley