Around the time I learned to drive, sometime in the mid-2000s, a very large billboard went up in Dubai. It was emblazoned with the phrase “His-tory Rising” and faced the highway, as these things do. To travel along the city’s arterial Sheikh Zayed Road is to see the billboards flashing the future before your eyes: new megadevelopments, like property ladders to heaven; fancy cars; and the latest smartphones, all exclusively featuring smiling white and Arab faces. Only during Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, would we see the South Asians who make up the majority of the population, in the form of Bolly/Lolly/Tollywood stars advertising gold jewelry. Absent entirely are Overseas Filipino Workers or OFWs. Behind all the signage are nesting-doll-like layers of fencing, scaffolding, mesh, and netting and so many cranes, all protectively encircling reinforced concrete shells.
Jasmin Werner’s Schloss der Republik Burj Khalifa OFW works have the same feel. The mesh is printed with building facades and hugs the scaf-folding like a dancer’s port de bras, while backlighting reminds us of the gossamer-thin liminal space—the Barzakh, in Islamic eschatology — between one world and the next. Photographs taken by Werner‘s Filipina cousin, an OFW herself, bespeak the lives behind all those screens and glass: the ubiquitous ground floor hair salon, for example, or the maximalist, curlicued style of decoration. In between these spatially imposing sculptures that rise like the scaffolding of a construction site, cheery plastic shopping trolleys hide extension cords even as they remind us that after peak oil comes peak plastic.
Dubai is a funny kind of place, where the future feels more certain than narratives of the past, which have been erased and rewritten so many times that they take on a palimpsestic quality. It is a city built with aeriality in mind, designed to be seen through a drone’s eye view, or from the Moon (and soon, Mars). A trio of austere ladder sculptures captures this yearning verticality, through assemblages of gleaming steel, plastic vegetables, and beaded, chandelier-like tops that suggest nothing so much as sombrero hats even as they refer to Pinoy sacred objects. Onesculpture in particular, Wholly Family V, which boasts some rather construction-crane-like legs, says nothing so much as Howdy. I’m the sheriff of rewriting history.
I was a nervous driver but always craned my neck to see that gigantic billboard. It featured a glossy rendering of the Burj Dubai surrounded by dancing fountains and dwarfing all the other buildings around it. Like the COVID-19 bar graphs so common today, the building was so tall that it exceeded the rectangular frame, its metal cylinders jutting elegantly into the sky. Behind it, the world’s tallest building slowly grew. During the financial crash, Dubai would have to be bailed out by neighboring Abu Dhabi. The Burj Dubai was renamed the Burj Khalifa, after its new benefactor.
That this paean to capitalist excess was built with steel girders from Berlin’s demolished German Democratic Republic-era Palace of the Republic seems right somehow. So does the Palazzo Prozzo’s replacement institution, the Humboldt Forum, which has become a flashpoint in the debates around the restitution of looted colonial objects. It is nice to think of anything, even inanimate metal, getting a second chance at life, in this case with sunshine and a killer view. And it is even more fitting that Werner’s new Burj Khalifa series and the pedestals upon which the ladder sculptures sit are themselves recycled from an older pair of City Palace-Burj Khalifa works shown outdoors in 2019 at the communal gallery Bärenzwinger, sited in Berlin’s former bear pits. In a few hundred years, assuming that climate change allows us to live that long, what will the Burj Khalifa be recycled into?
Germany may send high-grade socialist steel; other countries send their workers, and in turn these workers send back so many Gulfy goods. In 1990s Kerala, where much of Dubai’s population comes from, this might have meant bottles of space-age orange drink mixes and powdered milk, electronics, and luridly patterned plush blankets, an immigrant symbol as universal as the left arm scar of tuberculosis vaccinations that are present on everyone over a certain age. For people from the Philippines, this might take the form of the balikbayan box, the country‘s own variant of the care package. For most, it takes the form of monetary remittances to support your family at home, cash and dreams of a reunited future cast yellow under a glowing Western Union sign.
– Rahel Aima
17,000 years ago, a number of holes were made in the walls of the caves of Lascaux, in the South of France. Branches were stuck in the holes, serving as stable horizontal beams. Vertical beams were then attached, creating a structure that gave access to the ceiling. This is how the Lascaux caves were painted.
The ancient Greeks built scaffolds to make statues, larger than life. In the Altes Museum in Berlin there is a drinking cup from the early 5th century BC. The ‘Berlin Foundry Cup’ is painted all around with images of an ancient Greek foundry. Sculptors work on one of the statues, standing on a wooden scaffold.
We use metal scaffolds to construct our buildings.They were developed by two English brothers called Daniel and David Jones. In 1913, they built a scaffold around Buckingham Palace using their patented system, ‘Rapid Scaffixers’, to fit the metal tubes together. Their scaffolding promised change, promised progress, and stood in the way of an unobstructed view on development.
There’s no such history written of safety mesh, the netting that contemporary scaffolds are often wrapped in. Façades are wrapped in scaffolds are wrapped in mesh. The veils that shroud the work of construction in mystery.
Mesh tries to cancel the scaffold’s promise, to make it disappear before the work is even done. All it wants us to have is the grand reveal. It renders almost invisible and harmless the messiness of construction. Almost.
Mesh is not transparent, but it’s also not opaque. It’s a web that places itself between us and an object and makes us look at both, simultaneously. We see the building behind the scaffold’s sharp lines through the mesh; the veil and its objects becoming one.
In the late 19th century, widows concealed their faces behind a mesh called ‘Courtauld crape’, named after its main manufacturer: Courtaulds from England. Crape was a matte gauze made of waste silk, crimped with heated rollers, then dyed black and stiffened with starch or glue.
Strict mourning etiquette forbade all colors but black and dictated widows to wear crape veils over their faces whenever in public, for up to four years after their husbands had passed away. For the prescribed duration of the process of mourning, the widow had no choice but to present herself to the outside world as a colorless image reminiscent of the past. Like a classical façade against a rapidly modernizing backdrop, she stood out from her surroundings, performing an apparent nostalgia for times since gone.
Some women called crape ‘a veritable instrument of torture’ because, apart from this emotional labor, it was costly, kind of heavy and unpleasant. It caused irritation to the eyes and skin and stained the face when wet or damp.
“Many a woman has been laid in her coffin by the wearing of crape,” a doctor wrote by the end of the 19th century. It’s true that inhaling its poisonous particles was known to have caused death. But despite all this, the obscuring mesh supposedly served a noble cause: to protect the widow against “the untimely gayety of a passing stranger.”
Like the veil protecting the widow, mesh protects building and builders from the gaze of the outside world. And yet it seems made rather for that outside world, protecting it from falling rubble, and substituting the view on reconstruction with a promise of the reconstructed. As if that passing stranger couldn’t already recognize the widow, behind that blackest of black surfaces.
What if the veil actually served to protect the outside world from the widow? We enjoy the stability and permanence of nostalgic façades, not the instability of the ruins behind them. Mourning makes us uncomfortable, we prefer not to see the widow’s grief. But what if we invert the gaze and look back at the world? What did she see through the mesh?
“What a dark, ugly thing it is!” said Amy, unfolding and throwing it over her head; “how dismal it must be to see the world through such a veil as this!”
“And yet till one has seen the world through a veil like that, one has never truly lived,” said another voice, joining in the conversation.
from ‘The Mourning Veil’ by Harriet Beecher Stowe
By Michiel Huijben
Spot on. Senorita Latifa Sharifah with angel wings in front of–and inside–the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Facades, columns, steel, concrete, glass. Architectures of power, in which the ideology of national grandeur, or alternatively the belief in a great idea, be it capitalism or socialism, manifests itself. Viewing platforms allow the view from above instead of below, the city becomes an experience, the overview becomes a commodity. Behind the window frames: even more angels of (Un)Schuld (meaning both innocent and free of guilt and their respective opposites) but from other times. Corporate identities, one hand holding the other. Western Union and Remitly, send money online fast.
What we see in Jasmin Werner’s works are smartphone images, logos of money transfer services, and excerpts from archival reproductions of 15th-century paintings from larger sacred representation contexts, donated to the Westfälischer Kunstverein and given on permanent loan to the LWL Museum of Art and Culture, where they are shown in the current collection presentation. A kind of transfer business between those two institutions that the project space connects as an in-between space. The lamenting, mourning, praying angels are fragments from the high altar of the Benedictine monastery Liesborn. As “still usable fragments,” they were sawed out when the rest of the altar was accidentally defiled, according to the museum’s inventory catalog. The four angel fragments are therefore still of value–not least as exhibits and clues for an elaborate reconstruction of the altar, in which various experts, institutions and collections participated.
Printed on protective netting and fixed to aluminum frames, the angels, architectures, and lettering are superimposed to form montages and interconnected on an image surface. Together, the frames hanging from the ceiling and the wall or standing in the room facing the window front of the project space result in an arrangement that in its provisional materiality is also reminiscent of montage: something is (re)built and (re)constructed, something is in the process of being created. Possibly not permanent, but there for the moment, as a sign of promise. Like tarpaulins on a construction site scaffolding, printed with images of a not yet existing–or entirely imaginary–building facade.
Even without knowing the respective history of the pictures in detail,* the suggested connections become perceptible. The image montages create an associative reference system of transfer and circulation: it is about exchange and displacement of both signs and their cultural value and meaning as well as power and morality, guilt and debt. For the question of debt is never only one of money, but at the same time a political one and closely interwoven with–religiously influenced–notions of morality. Particularly in the Middle Ages, the merging of the forming world religions and trade markets produces a logic and rhetoric of debt that has changed little to this day. When we speak of dependence and freedom, forgiveness and sin, the true and the false in our global capitalist economic and social system, it still boils down to the millennia-old question: Who owes what to whom?
*Senorita Latifa Sharifah is the social media alias of Jasmin Werner’s cousin who lives and works in Dubai. Just like many other migrants from the Philippines, she regularly sends money to her family back home–and thus ultimately supports the entire infrastructure of the country. She poses in front of, or rather inside, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the world’s tallest tower at 828 meters, for whose construction steel from Berlin’s Palast der Republik was also used. Where the former GDR building was demolished in 2005, the Humboldt Forum is now being built as a reconstruction of the baroque Berlin Palace.
Marie Sophie Beckmann
They still exist, the good things.
A church window, a couple sleeping blissfully in their cozy home, the awning of a pavilion from the last garden party. Here, the world is still in order. Jasmin Werner, in her first exhibition at Gillmeier Rech, confronts the visitors with an exhibition layout that, among other things, reveals an early modern depiction of Sarah and Tobias, the Old Testament couple who represent an idealized model of marital virtue. The marriage between a man and a woman as the nucleus of society, the Christian archetype as “Home Sweet Home” fantasy, replete with puppy.
And anyway, back then when the world still was in order, we still made everything ourselves – just as Jasmin Werner does her imitation stairways, made inaccessible through dark-green dust sheeting, precisely erected with screws and metal poles. Because today’s ideals aren’t so down-to-earth after all; instead, the prevailing imperative is now one of an unremitting drive to the top. One step at a time: a fragile 5-step program of self-optimization, one that perhaps leads us (in)to nothing(ness).
And so one may, upon contemplation of the steps, half-obscured as they are from the gaze, be reminded of the lessons of Scalalogy, which investigates stairs and their effects on humans. Or of the way in which the architectural elements of a stairway embody the representative ambitions of the building’s developer, giving them both material and aesthetic form. How the rise or descent of a staircase can become a ceremonial performance that regulates the communication between “us” and “them up there.” How, in this architectural motif, the sacred – the temple entrance, the pilgrimage church on a hilltop – mingles with the everyday.
Today, it is temples of another kind (museum buildings, Apple stores) whose steps provide a glas- sy and ethereal path to higher pleasures. The models for Werner’s “Ambivalent Ladders” regulate the entrance to libraries, to places of worship, to prestige buildings of modern museums; those institu- tions whose authority has rightly come under fire for a long time, but which now at times provides comfort. Jasmin Werner’s “Status Faux” is an exhibition as pastiche-collage, and as such, it opens the way for ambivalence, for a subtle and ambiguous play with codes; one which eyes the victory podium with both desire and mistrust.
The seizure of power and the attention economy lie closer together today than ever before. Ideas of high and low, and their codes and methods of communication, are turning upside down. And here, the art world itself stands on shaky foundations.
Hanna Magauer Translation by Ben Caton