Echo Chambers

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In many ways, the areas that make up Berlin’s center still offer themselves as a vast no-man's land. Those just east and west of the wall, especially – damaged by war, separation and neglect – were rebuilt in view of restoring the area to its former financial and administrative gravity, but today they feel vacuous and impersonal, an unhappy yet peaceful cohabitation of monuments, corporate aesthetics and the odd surviving ruin. An obtuse sense of alienation and non-identity is felt all along the perimeter, getting stronger as you approach the epicenter of this hollowed-center phenomenon, at Potsdamerplatz; it pervades and indeed dominates Layover Dreams, the first solo show by artist Mia Gourvitch, exhibited at an apartment hotel in nearby Stresemanstraße, a street pulling south from the Potsdamer junction, as part of the WAS Biennale.

Layover Dreams was intentionally sparse in its choice of images, with roughly one photographic print chosen for each of the four rooms of the high-end hotel suit in which it was housed. Geared towards executives stays, the décor at 99 Stresemannstraße is understandably generic: the couches and lampshades, going from beige to burgundy, are unnecessarily gigantic; the kitchen, which opens to the living area, in stainless steel; and bedrooms in muted brown. An arched strip of windows facing the streets gives a view towards the state of Berlin’s parliament building, flanked from right by the neo-renaissance brick formation of the Martin-Gropius-Bau. Nothing about this place betrays that fact the hotel has, in fact, already shut down, some two years at that. After changing hands it now awaits a complete overhaul by a world-renowned architect noted for his deconstruction; in the meantime it operates only partly, with the more mundane extension at Stresemann 97 lent to refugee organizations.

The aesthetics of this place could not be farther removed from Gourvitch’s. The artist’s dark, photography-based prints are almost exclusively in black-and-white, extracting from reality just what is necessary to enact their enigmatic choreography of signs. There is a clear reason why, however, the sharp dissonance of site and photographic intervention is barely perceptible in this well-calculated photographic installation: The images were captured on site, in the very building or in the adjacent branch. Employed by the realtor that now owns the hotel, Gourvitch has been commissioned over the past two years to document development projects across stages of renovations, to capture the stripping down of mostly Altbauten (pre-1920 residential buildings) from layers of plaster and amenities, down to their bare structural “bones”. The hotel project, then, in both its immediate modernity and function, is not a typical one; less so the byproducts that emerged as a personal side-project to become Layover Dreams. Here the artist is on a self-appointed mission to capture the spiritual remnants of ultimate sleepovers, of what remains, perhaps, of dreams.

Just as the interior hardly gives away the interim stage in which it finds itself, so the images – despite the grave blackness that dominates them – don’t shout out their presence. With sizes ranging from the medium format to a very tiny diptych, the framed prints offer themselves as unsuspecting pictures on the wall, possibly an integral part of the decorative scheme. But the very thing that ties them to this place, the eerie overlap of subject matter and site specificity, is the very thing that slowly releases a creeping sense of unease. With a total of four prints, all showing comparable hotel rooms with beds in various configurations of made and unmade, the white of the sheets glowing in the dark – the photographic intervention distinguishes itself from its drab up-scale surrounding firstly by its stark black-and-white; the black especially so deep and devouring that the leap into another dimension, from actual premises to haunted awakening, operates the uncanny doubling of a David Lynch.

There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with the place. But with the knowledge that this site, nonetheless, is set for complete overhaul, these highly-saturated prints begin to announce something like an impending doom. They dig an additional layer of emptiness to the one already inherent in a place that is intended, by its nature, to facilitate transition; to retain nothing. Hence, in the back-and-forth movement between picture and premise, what is framed is a lingering absence, a sense of dislocation at a place that, as befits its function, is equally a “nowhere” and an “anywhere”. Capturing the aftermath of final layovers – of guests that are, and have always been, temporary – they channel a state of in-between, the hazy moments before falling asleep or the shackles of a deep and disorienting sleep.

Gourvitch is an artist who works primarily with photography. She explores the medium in its materiality, making the print an echo chamber of signifying objects that reverberate a reality. In Layover Dreams, the contrast between the immediacy of photographic exposure and a lingering present creates a parallel between the suspension of a moment in time and the inhabiting of a physical space, however temporarily – for a stopover, a sleep, a stay. Here, as even the hotel’s staff and the last of the guests have already long gone, the rooms become populated with ghosts and relics, portents of a previous existence. These dark images, with their performance of signifiers popping up against a Caravaggian back plane, present us with something like a haunted theatrical scene. In an altered state state of perception, the place we visit is dislocated from within.

Gourvitch's Layover Dreams was on show in November 17–21 2016. Curated by Chiara Valci Mazzara

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