John Bock: In the Moloch of the Presence of Being

John Bock Sculpture

Da-Dings-Da ist im Groß-Da da weil der Wurm im Moby Dick wohnt, 2014, Video, 25 Min.,
© John Bock, Courtesy Sprüth Magers

I first encountered the work of German artist John Bock in August 2010 at the Temporäre Kunsthalle Berlin. [1] As the name suggests, the gallery was a temporary initiative that ran for two years (September 2008 through August 2010), situated in the centre of the city next to Museum Island.   For their last show Bock had been commissioned to curate a mammoth exhibition featuring the work of 65 artists, all combined into an immersive installation across multiple levels. The promotional poster for the exhibition (which I still have a copy of safely rolled up in my closet) is probably a good indication of what the audience encountered when they set foot in the gallery – and to some extent, is perhaps indicative of the kind of imagery that Bock has become synonymous with.

John Bock Sculpture

Cowwidinok, 2013, Video, 82:30 Min.,
© John Bock, Courtesy Sprüth Magers, Foto: David Schultz

Bock’s work is inherently sculptural, and the pieces his creates display a mesmerising approach to notions of multidisciplinary practice. It’s brash, theatrical, ostensibly surreal and awash with a unique and often mystifying symbolism. That said, the core of his work actually resides in his approach to performance, and often includes nods to a more conventional and recognisable school of work. For his new exhibition entitled ‘In the Moloch of the Presence of Being,’ Bock has incorporated some previously existing works into another hugely intricate landscape at Berlinische Galerie, one of the capital’s foremost contemporary art spaces. Moving between Bock’s work with film, a medium which he has increasingly utilised since 2004’s Meechfieber (his first feature length piece), and his sculptural practice, the exhibition is in many ways a demonstration of a kind of middle ground that the artist has occupied between different modes throughout the course of his career.

As you walk through the room, the space feels deliberately crowded. Because of the variety of materials Bock uses and the often strange assemblages he creates, the initial impression of the work can be one of bemused bafflement (at one point, my companion turned to me and said nonchalantly ‘watch out for the toast sculptures,’ gesturing at a line of burnt pieces of toast laid out on the floor). What becomes clear is that the exhibition is installed in such a way as to juxtapose the film works projected on the walls with the sets which are installed next to them. The result is that the show contains pockets of work which act as place holders for his performances, the traces of which exist in the details of their construction.

John Bock Sculpture

Große Erscheinung der ins Licht getretenen TRIEBKREATUR, 2014, (Ein Vortrag von John Bock mit Kazuma Glen Motomura),
© John Bock, Courtesy Sprüth Magers, Foto: Timo Ohler

Closer inspection also reveals that the almost claustrophobic nature of the exhibition directly reflects the spaces Bock creates for his films and performances. Escape (2013) takes place in the front seat of a car, cut away to enable filming (and indeed the film itself breaks the fourth wall at multiple points pulling out to reveal a green screen and camera operators), while Suggestion (2012) takes place in a tiny cell-like space walled off with what looks like hypnotic spinning circles. One of the first works in the show is from a ‘collaborative lecture’ with Kazuma Glen Motomura entitled Große Erscheinung der ins Licht getretenen TRIEBKREATUR, (2014); it’s filmed inside what looks like an old fairground kiosk, albeit one with some fairly dystopian renovations evident within the interior. Elsewhere in the exhibition cages or cage-like structures abound, strange spaces of activity and perhaps even captivity that feel unsettling and comical in equal measure.

Attached to this notion of ‘play’ within Bock’s performance work are muted suggestions of hierarchy. This is perhaps most noticeable in the last work in the exhibition, Dünnhäutiger Butcher (2016), which closely resembles a classroom environment and features materials like an architecture model, chess set, photocopies of chess prodigy Bobby Fischer, pickled gherkins in socks, screws, cement, feathers and peas amongst other things. While the work could be seen as a nod to Bock’s history as a professor of sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Karlsruhe, it’s a dynamic that is also found in many of his other works. Indeed Bock describes his performances as ‘lectures’ in a way which both suggests the symmetry of a classroom or educational setting while simultaneously subverting it through the histrionic or otherwise demented characters which take the pulpit in many of his works.

John Bock Sculpture

Escape, 2013, Video, 7:30 Min.,
© John Bock, Courtesy Sprüth Magers, Anton Kern Gallery / Gió Marconi Gallery / Regen, Projects / Sadie Coles HQ, Foto: David Schultz

In a short trailer for the exhibition, Bock discusses some of the ideas which inspire his artistic practice. [2] Seated in the car set from the film Escape, he describes the notion of ‘summenmutation,’ (or ‘total mutation’); the result of a feeling of interdependence between the objects, the actors and the films that he makes. For Bock then, the art he creates resides in a middle point between the object, the action (performed by himself or other collaborators) and the audience. The importance of the performance element of his practice rellies on activating the inanimate objects that comprise his sculptural works and film sets, which then becomes central to appreciating his work as a whole.

John Bock Sculpture

Suggestion, 2012, Video, 16:40 Min.,
© John Bock, Courtesy Sprüth Magers, Foto: Raphael Beinder

As part of the exhibition, Berlinische Galerie is hosting a screening of Bock’s latest film Hell’s Bells, elements of which are also on display within the exhibition including the poster. The film is ostensibly within the realm of the classic Western, however Bock’s particular take on the genre is evident in some of the sculptural artefacts associated with it. The film was also the subject of a recent exhibition at Sadie Coles in London,[3] which screened the film alongside a selection of sculptural elements from the film. [4] As at the Berlinische Galerie, the intricacy of Bock’s sculptural work was matched by the theatricality and occasionally unhinged totality of the artist’s film.

John Bock, ‘In the Moloch of the Presence of Being’ is on show at Berlinische Galerie until August 21st.

By Will Gresson


[1] http://www.kunsthalle-berlin.com/en/exhibitions/John-Bock

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9429SOe57cU&feature=youtu.be

[3] John Bock, ‘Hell’s Bells: A Western’ ran from March 1- April 13, 2017 at Sadie Coles, London http://www.sadiecoles.com/exhibitions-press-release/john-bock-hell-s-bells-a-western

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZcvVDJ4ZA-o

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