On Hamra Abbas’ MoMA is the Star

Written as a contribution to the catalogue for Abbas’ solo exhibition at Green Cardamom, London, Adventures of the Woman in Black Nov-Dec 2008

Combined stills from Hamra Abbas MoMA is the star (2004) digital video
Combined stills from Hamra Abbas’ MoMA is the star (2004) digital video

At the Berlin Biennial this year [2008], I like everybody else visited the Neue Nationalgalerie. Such visits seem to be made up of seven parts distraction, three parts attention, and when I was caught between a sugar low and a Susan Hiller my eye fell on a small black and pink sticker. Das MoMA in Berlin it announced, in cheerfully bombastic graphics.

Stuck on the corner of one of the invigilators’ stools, and fuzzy at the edges, it was still a sharp reminder of the Nationalgalerie’s past engagements. In 2004, a selection from MoMA’s collection visited Berlin. Following a recent hit show of East German artists, whose audience reached a respectable 220,000 visitors, the museum had hoped to equal this for its next blockbuster. Das MoMA in Berlin got 1.2 million visitors.

Berlin today is populated by little reminders like the old sticker I found; memories of other times when monolithic foreign bodies of thought have arrived here, running cartwheels across the city, dropping monuments here and pronouncements there, until everything leaves and the city falls silent again. Hamra Abbas’ video work MoMA is the Star (2004) records the scenes of Nationalgalerie’s honoured American guest drawing awe-filled crowds, wrapping the building in loving queues in order to catch a glimpse of this famous collection.

As the documentary MoMA in Berlin records, “Everyone believed that what was inside the Neue Nationalgalerie was no less than the history of Western art, and that what was outside was not”. The notion of the show’s North American ‘cultural colonialism’ did not go unremarked by the German art establishment. In Abbas’ video, the use of Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, now inseparable from its use in the giant-leap-for-mankind scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, parodies, at the very least, a demonstrative sense of cultural triumph.

Abbas, however, is more interested in the show as a popular phenomenon; appropriating its graphic identity and filming the crowds, she records the carnival as it happens at the museum entrance. ‘What was outside’ the canon of Western art was the jumble of opportunist entertainers, gawkers and hawkers – jugglers, masseurs, kissing lovers, buskers, pyrotechnics, ’MoMA’-branded t-shirt-wearers, and, apparently, people camping from 3am. Carnival versus canon; low culture versus high. For however drily theorised the act of looking may be, isn’t it strange that with art it should begin with a hot pink logo, your museum brochure as a makeshift fan, your only sustenance the coffees and ice creams peddled near the museum entrance?

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