Sven Jon exhibition in Cologne: The East is a “model region” – Culture

In August 2020, Sassnitz, the small coastal town on the Baltic Sea on the island of Rügen, made international headlines. Three members of the Senate threatened by a US letter to impose US sanctions on the city’s port. They wanted to prevent the completion of Gazprom’s Russian-German Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which has been under construction since 2018. “We have to prove to the world that we will not allow ourselves to be afraid,” said the mayor of Sassnitz at the time. Excitement subsided. The $1 billion German-Russian pipeline has been completed. But it was not connected to the network due to Russian aggression against Ukraine. Nord Stream 2, the ruin of political investment, is now a symbol of many serious mistakes in German foreign, security, and economic policy. It also represents the dashed hopes that are almost automatically associated with such an industrial project in a structurally weak region.

The black tape with which the Berlin artist Sven John drew the route of the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines on the official chart of the Baltic Sea looks like a blacksmith’s ray. The collage with the dry title “Nord Stream 1 +2” is from this year and can currently be seen at John’s solo exhibition in Cologne. It might also be something like a farewell photo. If Nord Stream 1 also closes in the near future, there will be “two dead lines, 1,200 kilometers long, 17 billion euros at the bottom of the Baltic Sea,” explains the artist, who was born in Bergen in Rügen in 1976 and lived in the late 1990s, studied at the Academy Leipzig for graphics and book art in the early 2000s. A huge underwater monument to the era of German-Russian petroleum policy, which must now end sooner than planned.

“Navel der Welt” is the name of another new script work by John. It’s such a large-scale portrait of Sassnitz that John and screenwriter Sebastian Urlach hired for four weeks last fall in order to speak to the townspeople. At the end of the research, John produced a digital collage about two and a half meters wide and about one and a half meters high, with fifteen different views of the city and port from a bird’s eye view. It is a modern historical painting that gives one the paradoxical feeling of looking directly at the present. The black and white photos are high-resolution and very sharp. Instinctively, you delve into the details, such as the order in which pipelines are stored. But what can you learn about the reality of Sassnitz when you hover over the surface like a missile at a safe distance?

For John, the “East” is a kind of “model area” where developments can be seen more clearly.

The artist used the computer to insert short texts into the illustrated scene, which read like thought bubbles from restaurants, real estate dealers, local politicians, police officers, welfare recipients, Corona walkers, fishermen, and fish sandwich sellers. Together they create something like the mental landscape of a small German town. John himself calls the text miniatures, created during a four-week search at the site, “cries for help.” They talk about the effects of climate change, frustration with the Corona period or concerns about price hikes when money is tight. The port landscape looks like a model, and the quotes are far from imaginative.

The Pegida protester addressed Putin directly with his video message: Sven John hired an actor for “Dear Vladimir Putin” (film still image, 2017).

(Photo: VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022 / Sven Johne Klemm’s, Berlin and Nagel Draxler, Cologne)

The artist also wants it to be understood in this way, because for Johnny the “East” is a kind of “typical zone” where general developments and phenomena such as “structural change”, “privatization”, “political liberalization” and “isolation” or “shift to the right” “Sometimes it simply happens that it shows more clearly than anywhere else. In the cities to the east you often see things that are more obvious also affecting the west,” says John over the phone when asked about the details of the East in his art.

An actor, as a Pegida protester, sends a video message of allegiance to Putin

By combining research and imagination, Johne often succeeds in creating meditative stories that contrast with reality. The old video “Dear Vladimir Putin” made in 2017, is such a work. The artist had an actor playing a protester against Pegida from Saxony delivering a video message of allegiance to Vladimir Putin. The artist came up with the idea for the film, which can be found online, when Russian flags appeared during the PEGIDA demonstrations in Dresden. He does not want it to be understood as a specifically German or Saxon phenomenon. After all, there are people who understand Putin in France and Italy, says John.

The artist is currently working on a research project entitled “From an Archive Perspective”, which will be shown at the beginning of July as part of the Bitterfeld Kulturpalast East Festival. Together with artist Falk Haberkorn, John combed the municipal portrait archive in Saxony-Anhalt in search of pictures kept there in the early 1990s. What artists found about the period of deindustrialization and population displacement was essentially “non-images” that condensed into a “real gap in tradition”. But this form of archival fiction also depicts a kind of reality that provides material for art.

Sven John: Nabel der Welt, until August 20, 2022, Galerie Nagel Draxler Cologne East, Bitterfeld-Wolfen Festival, August 1-17 July,

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