Checkpoint California
The Villa Aurora in the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle

In the summer of 2013, the artists’ residency program Villa Romana in Florence made a guest appearance at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle. Now, the Villa Aurora comes to Berlin—the legendary house in Los Angeles where exiled German writers such as Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht convened in the 1940s. Today, the Villa offers residencies to international artists. In the exhibition “Checkpoint California,” which features well-known fellows like Thomas Struth and Christian Jankowski as well as performances and readings, the Villa Aurora shows what transatlantic cultural exchange can mean today.
Fun, Fun Fun, California Girls, Good Vibrations: since the early 1960s, the Beach Boys have symbolized the carefree life of the West Coast. Their hits instilled a longing in the minds of America’s white middle-class youth—pleasant dreams of endless summers and eternal youth, of sun, beaches, and surfing. Michael Just’s series Al, Dennis, Brian, Carl, and Mike performing Don’t Worry, Baby gives an idea of how these dreams turned into nightmares: some of the band’s members became mired in drugs and psychosis, or were caught up with the sect leader Charles Manson. Currently the movie Love & Mercy also shows the darker side of the Beach Boys. Just’s blurry portraits of the five musicians look as though they were photographed from an old black and white TV set; they offer a counterpoint to the band’s colorful, optimistic promotion photos.

The Beach Boys are an integral part of the Californian legend. No region embodies the American dream as much as the Golden State on the Pacific. This is where Hollywood and Disneyland manufacture the stories and images that have carried the American way of life to the entire world, and this is why an investigation of pop and entertainment phenomena forms one of the main points of focus of Checkpoint California, the exhibition project commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Villa Aurora at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle.

A “real mansion on the sea”—this is what Thomas Mann called the house in the hills of Santa Monica, where the writer was a frequent guest. As the exile residence of Marta and Lion Feuchtwanger, the Villa Aurora provided a meeting point for German émigrés and their American friends throughout the 1940s. People like Bertolt Brecht, Ludwig Marcuse, Albert Einstein, Arnold Schoenberg, Kurt Weill, Fritz Lang, Charlie Chaplin, and Charles Laughton came here for readings and musical evenings, celebrations and arguments. The Villa has long been a locus for transatlantic exchange, a forum for intellectual debate.

This tradition continues into the present: since 1995, the Villa Aurora has offered residencies to around 250 fellows from the areas of art, composition, film, and literature. Now, Checkpoint California documents how its creative atmosphere has again and again inspired a variety of very different artists. Selected works by nine Villa Aurora fellows are on view in the KunstHalle: along with Michael Just, Thomas Struth, Sabine Hornig, Christian Jankowski, Rosa Barba, Nairy Baghramian, Albrecht Schäfer, Philipp Lachenmann, and Peggy Buth were invited to take part. The exhibition is augmented by an extensive program of concerts, performances, readings, films, and discussions.

Checkpoint California begins with a rather ambivalent homage to Hollywood: for her installation Stars (Politics of Selection—Blanks/Shifter), Peggy Buth photographed stars along the Walk of Fame that haven’t yet been awarded to anyone. In approximately 200 black and white photographs and 80 color slides projected in a loop, she portrays the uninscribed floor plates, some of which are covered in graffiti or already eroded. The serial nature of the work lends visible form to the dream factory’s ruthless machinery. At the same time, the Stars resemble placeholders for unfulfilled hopes and dreams.

Among other things, special effects professionals are there to make sure that Hollywood’s illusions seem as perfect as possible. The Brothers Strause are some of the best of their trade worldwide, as they’ve demonstrated in blockbuster films such as Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow. Greg and Colin Strause collaborated on Christian Jankowski’s film 16mm Mystery. Using a projector and a mysterious film, the artist protagonist causes an entire skyscraper in Los Angeles to collapse. Poised between concept, art establishment, and the entertainment industry, the film questions Hollywood legend as well as the images that get stuck in our minds—whether they derive from cinema, art, or from real-life catastrophe. (Find out more about 16mm Mystery in our interview with Christinan Jankowski)

Thomas Struth’s photographic works also shed light on phenomena that, like Hollywood, have helped forge our image of California: Disneyland stands for the entertainment industry; the Armstrong Flight Research Center, where innovations in airplane manufacture are tested, stands for space travel and state-of-the-art technology. Struth’s sharply focused large-format works feature a fake Matterhorn with palm trees growing peacefully alongside fir trees at its base, as well as the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle used in the trials that preceded the moon landing. For Struth, the two objects are “materialized sculptural products of thought” in which dreams and utopias become visible.

On the other hand, a play with perception and reality characterizes the photographs of Sabine Hornig. In her images of storefront windowpanes reflecting streets and buildings, interiors are superimposed onto exteriors, giving rise to a complex game of deception entailing reflections in which the eye sees and then sees through things. In Spilled Light/Einfallendes Licht, Berlin encounters Los Angeles: while the photographs depict streets in the German capital, the form the installation takes recalls typical Californian patios with their sliding doors.

Transit, impermanence, journeying between two worlds—these are the themes that have dominated the discourses at Villa Aurora since the time of Marta and Lion Feuchtwanger, themes that the Iranian-born artist Nairy Baghramian’s sculptures play off of. Her works frame a reference to globalized trade: the objects titled Moorings resemble the hooks on the huge cranes used to load container ships, while her amorphous Silos filled with rock wool and hardened building material are reminiscent of sacks used to transport goods.

A historical transatlantic dialogue inspired Rosa Barba to make her installation Western Round Table: in 1949 the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco organized a symposium with high-profile participants, among them Marcel Duchamp, Arnold Schoenberg, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Following the collapse of the modern utopias, they discussed the future of art. In Barba’s installation, two projectors communicate with one another; the work can be interpreted as a symbol for the intellectual exchange that has been taking place in the Villa Aurora since the 1940s—an exchange that gives rise to commonalities, differences, and contradictions.

Checkpoint California – 20 Years Villa Aurora in Los Angeles
Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, Berlin