ART REVIEW: Edward and Nancy Reddin Kienholz, "The Art Show"-Berlinische Galerie

Christmas in Berlin means fewer people in line at the major museums. With that in mind, I was able to visit over ten museums and sites on my five-day trip to Berlin, taking in everything from Greek erotic pottery to the graffiti on the Berlin Wall. However, the ultimate highlight of this trip was to be found at the Berlinische Galerie: the installation of Edward and Nancy Reddin Kienholz’s The Art Show. Created in 1963-1977, The Art Show consists of nineteen life-size plaster-cast figures along with an array of mixed-media collages and paintings on the museum’s walls—it is meant to evoke the atmosphere of an art opening itself. In so doing, The Art Show plays with the audience expectations of what exactly it means to be on display.
All photographs taken by the author.
Like movie premieres and award shows, art gallery openings are often as concerned with who is in attendance as which artist is being exhibited. When I worked in Culver City and Santa Monica art galleries, I noticed that for the attendees, each show opening was more than a chance to see new art, enjoy drinks, and maybe do a little shopping—it was a chance to see and be seen, to mingle with the rich and famous, to get gussied up and make as much of an impression on your fellow visitors as the actual work in the galleries. The Art Show thus perfectly encapsulates this idea of the art show as a work of art in and of itself by creating a setting in which the audience is encouraged to engage with both the figures and the more traditionally-displayed pieces. And indeed, when taking in The Art Show, it is almost difficult to tell who in the space is real and who is part of the installation until someone inevitably moves. Further blurring the line between the real and the manufactured, the audience and the art (and making the overall experience more surreal and bizarre), is the fact that not only are the figures dressed in real 1970s clothing, but they are also based on (and modeled on) the Kienholz’s friends, and even contain an audio component of each friend’s voice, activated by the push of a button on each figure. When played together, the overall effect is, indeed, that of the muted hubbub of an art opening.
The figures themselves are undoubtedly the real star of The Art Show, despite the dynamism of the mixed-media works that vie for the audience’s attention. They stand in clusters or pairs, smoking, drinking, or sitting on benches; there are even three figures modeled on the Kienholz’ own children sitting on the ground in a corner. Yet The Art Show adds another wrinkle to the voyeuristic pleasure the audience might get from gazing upon their plaster gallery-goers: none of the figures have faces. Instead, their faces are replaced by vents that emit a moderate heat. Even though each figure approximates the real in aural and thermal, prompting the audience to want to engage with them, the lack of a face immediately creates a strong push-pull of attraction and revulsion. We want to look, but we cannot force ourselves to, because these figures are lifelike enough that their lack of faces is horrifying. By this token, the Kienholzes both acknowledge and challenge the nature of an art show as a place to see and be seen, and use this sense of repulsion engendered by the faceless figures to encourage us to follow their lead and look at the works on the walls, rather than at the plaster casts themselves. 
It is not clear if the Kienholzes aim to condemn the art show’s function as a place for people-watching, or are merely having a joke at our expense. Indeed, literally engaging with the figures—that is, holding down the metal buttons on their chests—flies in the face of what the rules of engaging with art are. As someone who has been going to museums and art shows all my life, the cardinal rule is that you never, ever, ever touch the art unless you’re told to. And even though my fellow museum-goers at The Art Show were happily listening to the audio recordings emitting from these figures, it almost felt like a betrayal of the sanctity of the art space, and I found myself unable to join in until I saw the other visitors push the buttons. Yet this aspect is another way the Kienholzes are teasing us as viewers, because if we are meant to transgress the rules of being in at an art show by touching the art, are the things we are touching then still art? And if so, then could taking in the crowds at an art show be just as legitimate as taking in the show itself? Yet the sense of alarm caused by looking too long at these faceless figures undermines this interpretation in part, if only because the longer one looks, the more unease one feels, and thus the viewer is compelled to shift their gaze from the voyeurism of people-watching to the approved objects of their gaze—the works on the walls. 

The best works of art are often those that require the audience to do a little work—that cannot be whole until the viewer reaches out and takes hold of what the artist is offering. The Art Show exemplifies the best of utilizing audience participation in order to create the artistic experience. By entering this space and taking in the Kienholzes’ work, I became acutely aware of just how much the audience of a work of art becomes not only a part of the creative process, but also part of the result as well.
The Art Show runs at the Berlinische Galerie until February 20, 2017.