The Case of the Misunderstood Wittgenstein

28.01.2021The Case of the Misunderstood Wittgenstein

There was an antenna where a LaserDisc player should have been. To figure out why, an art historian set out in search of clues in the Nationalgalerie’s collection of contemporary art at Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart – Berlin.

By Elena Then

Several people sit and stand around a table with pictures on it
Charlotte Knaup (Curatorial Assistant), Jee-Hae Kim (Collection Scientist), Sven Beckstette (Curator), Eva Rieß (Conservator) and Thomas Seewald (Depot Administration) in the library of the Hamburger Bahnhof (l.t.r.), 2020. © SPK / photothek.de / Thomas Trutschel

"Something's not right here," thought Jee-Hae Kim, as she stood in front of the old television console in a storage room used by Hamburger Bahnhof. There was an antenna where a laser disc player should have been. An art historian by training, Kim is responsible for structural organization and scholarly research regarding the media art collection at Hamburger Bahnhof. So she was naturally involved in the exhibition „Magical Soup. Medienkunst aus der Sammlung der Nationalgalerie, der Friedrich Christian Flick Collection im Hamburger Bahnhof und Leihgaben“ (6.9.2020 – 18.4.2021),  which has been curated by Anna-Catharina Gebbers. It is in this exhibition that Nam June Paik's I never read Wittgenstein (I never understood Wittgenstein) (1997) is currently being shown. The work consists of a wall painting, a television console, and a video (shown on the television). To create the installation, the artist gutted the console and put in a LaserDisc player. The console in front of Kim, however, held nothing but an antenna. "At first, I was really confused," she says.

Zwei historische Fernsehkommoden
The two television commodes from the collection of the Nationalgalerie im Hamburger Bahnhof. © SPK / photothek.de / Thomas Trutschel / Nam June Paik Estate

In addition to I never read Wittgenstein (I never understood Wittgenstein) from 1997, the Nationalgalerie collection at Hamburger Bahnhof includes two other works by Nam June Paik: I never read Wittgenstein from 1998 and TV Tulips (1998). Like the 1997 work, TV Tulips uses a television console. Although the two installations have a similar layout, they differ considerably in the technology used and the messages conveyed: TV Tulips was designed to receive a terrestrial television program through an antenna. The console assigned to it had no antenna, however – but it did contain a laser disc player. "First of all, I did some research into Paik's works and carefully studied the various restoration logs, documents and lists in the files for those artworks. During this process, it emerged that although the television consoles had originally been correctly and properly added to the collection, they were assigned to different artworks at some point later on, probably in 2018," says Kim.

She did some further investigation and made inquiries at other museums and galleries. The purpose of this was to clarify whether certain conventions had become established in how the works were exhibited, despite the fact that, in principle, the consoles could be used interchangeably for either of the artworks. Based on photographs, Kim ascertained that every curator had presented the works differently in the past, whether it was the position of the wall or even the appearance of the console itself. This led to a possible explanation for why the items could have been mixed up in the storage rooms in Berlin. For an external observer, it is impossible to tell which object belongs to which artwork, since the artist had always used different (but similar) old-fashioned television consoles for both installations.

Research Projects at Hamburger Bahnhof I - The Media Lab

The MediaLab project is the third part of the „In Preparation“ series, which offers the public a look behind the scenes at preparations for the opening of the Nationalgalerie’s new building at the Kulturforum. Each of the first two parts covered the restoration of a key work in the collection, with lectures, discussions, and public viewing. The third part is devoted to media art. In the future, MediaLab will serve as a central port of call and interdisciplinary research environment for works of media art. The team at Hamburger Bahnhof has been working to set it up since April 2020. Ultimately, it will provide the technical basis with which artworks that have technical and digital components can be viewed, inspected, tested, documented, handled, and even digitized and migrated.

The expertise of an external media art conservator supported Kim's hypothesis that, based on the different technological features involved, the console with the laser disc player was originally assigned to I never read Wittgenstein (I never understood Wittgenstein) (1997), and the other console with the antenna was assigned to the work TV Tulips (1998). "The resident and non-resident researchers, storage personnel, conservators, curators, and collection specialists all worked together very smoothly, which is a good example of how interdisciplinary the field of media art is," says Kim. "You can also see from this case that media art has special needs. Certain issues often come to light only when the works are set up and exhibited."

Kim considers that the successful reconstruction of the works of Nam June Paik perfectly illustrates the nature of work with collections in the field of media art.

"I'd like to do that for all of the media artworks in our collection," she says. There would be plenty to do, considering that the collection of media art, which comprises works that have electronic or digital components and are time-based (i.e. they have time as a dimension), includes about eight hundred pieces that have yet to be studied, recorded, and conserved. Investigating the works is a very complex undertaking, not least because they often contain multiple heterogeneous elements. They require special expertise and skills that the experts at Hamburger Bahnhof are continually honing by participating in and conducting national and international workshops, presentations, and research projects such as MediaLab and CoDoc.

Ein Mann begutachtet die Rückseite einer Fernsehkommode
Andreas Weisser (graduate conservator) supports the scientists of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin in their work. © SPK / photothek.de / Thomas Trutschel / Nam June Paik Estate

The case described above shows how important it is that a thorough examination and study is made of the collections. If the installation by Nam June Paik had not been taken out of storage, the mix-up involving the television consoles would probably not have been noticed until much later.

Research Projects at Hamburger Bahnhof II – Cooperation in Documentation

"Cooperation in Documentation: Project for the Development of Methods and Processes for the Preservation of Media Artworks" (CoDoc) is a project with several goals: developing cooperative practices for the documentation of media artworks; bringing together various strategies for the digitization of media artworks; and developing best practices for the acquisition, exhibition, and restoration of media artworks. To achieve these goals, the project organizers intend to establish closer ties with specialists within the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation) and beyond, both in Germany and abroad. With the CoDoc project, Hamburger Bahnhof is also looking into how artworks using media such as film, U-matic tapes, VHS cassettes, DVDs, and USB sticks can be preserved over the long term. Strategies for the digitization of media artworks will be assembled over the course of the project. Corresponding standards will be formulated, and cooperative practices for the documentation of these standards will be developed. Generalized best practices for the acquisition, presentation, and conservation of time-based media will be developed on the basis of specific artworks in the collection. The generation of digital records of such art will lay the groundwork for better access, including public access, to the extensive media art collection of Hamburger Bahnhof, which will in turn give rise to new opportunities for knowledge transfer.

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