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Germany in the Can
The Makeshift Sculptures of Manfred Pernice

Plywood, laminated fiberboard, cardboard – at first glance, Manfred Pernice’s sculptures seem as dry as the materials they’re constructed from. Yet the "best-known unknown artist in Berlin" loads his containers and oversized cans with historical, social, but also highly personal references. Tim Ackermann explored Pernice’s work and discovered some very emotional stories.

Manfred Pernice

"The GDR is the big can," says Manfred Pernice. He’s right – but it really depends on the can’s contents. While the West German boulevards like the Kudamm and the have always served caviar, the pedestrian zones in the East tended to make do with herring. But Pernice’s work of art, which was inspired by an East German pedestrian zone, can’t even pass for a sardine: a forlorn plywood container with a window and door that stirs up bad memories of greasy fast food à la GDR. A staircase leads up to the roof of the barracks; its plain metal bars suspiciously resemble a highway overpass. A few meters away are a few old cement flowerpots with scruffy bushes and a small spindly tree growing inside them. It looks as though bums, punks, or pooches had been urinating on them on a regular basis.

Haldensleben, 2005
©Manfred Pernice

Haldensleben is the name of the small city in the Magdeburger Börde that inspired the artist Manfred Pernice to make his large-scale installation. Haldensleben, a work from 2005, can currently be seen in a solo show of the artist’s work at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne. Actually, it’s about Haldensleben’s desperate attempts to market itself; originally, it was the "Ceramic Works" there that attracted Pernice, a passionate collector of GDR crockery. In Cologne, respectable Rhinelanders will now, in effect, have the opportunity to catch a whiff of a dense concentration of pure, unadulterated East German desolation. Far from the exoticized provinces of a divided Germany, however, the Cologne show provides a few nice insights into the artistic work of Manfred Pernice.

Haldensleben, 2005
©Manfred Pernice

At a distance from the plywood container and somewhat lost in the general aura of shabbiness stands a lonely, cylinder-shaped sculpture partially painted in white. An oversized can, which is typical Pernice: cans play a key role in his work. The artist, born in 1963 in Hildesheim, became famous in 1998 when he showed his six-meter-high Main and Central Can at the first Berlin Biennale in the old Academy on Pariser Platz – as an allusion to the famous unrealized tower by Vladimir Yevgrafovich Tatlin. The special thing about Pernice’s cans is that they don’t consist of tin like the originals do, but of typical low-budget materials such as plywood, laminated fiberboard, and cardboard. The cylinders often seem temporary, fragile, glued together in a slapdash manner.

Manfred Pernices work for Documenta 2002 Courtesy Galerie NEU

The works of a manic hobby craftsman who always gives up just before he’s finished and then starts fiddling around with something else. In spite of, or maybe even due to the rough Home Depot chic of his sculptures, which are often assembled together into "can fields," Pernice is fairly successful. And not only in his hometown Berlin. The artist was shown at the Venice Biennale in 2001 and 2003, the documenta in 2002, P.S.1 in New York, the Portikus in Frankfurt, and so on. This year he will be taking part in the renowned Skulptur Projekte Münster. It’s obvious: Pernice is a new German "sculptor" shooting star. The King of the Cans. And self-avowed opponent of the return deposit: "Deposits on cans are really the pits!!" – with two exclamation points.

Although Pernice uses basic geometric forms like the cylinder and the parallelepiped for his cans and containers, he’s miles away from the polished, stylish Minimalism of a Donald Judd. His sculptures aren’t "L’art pour l’art" in a white cube devoid of reference. On the contrary: Pernice does everything conceivable to anchor those seemingly so elevated forms securely back in reality. Sometimes the artist wallpapers his sculptures with photographs or collages of texts; other works are decorated with tiles taken from the entrance to the building of Hamburg’s Railroad Police. A cylinder often stands for a particular person whom Pernice finds interesting and has, for this reason, "canned." And so, when a "can field" is temporarily assembled together for an exhibition, it’s like a transitory group of persons gathered together, with each existing in his or her own individual can shell. A pessimistic social idea about internally isolated individuals? The artist begs to differ:

Dose der Bahnpolizei: at Hauptbahnhof, Ecke Glockengießerwall/Steintordamm, 2000
Courtesy Galerie NEU

"The canned characters aren’t hopelessly hermetic cases; they act in more or less interesting ways in a can world. Being canned can also be a connection or a relationship, whether it’s an affectionate imprisonment or a torturous state of being at someone’s mercy. I picture the cans as always filled and never closed."

Both: Untitled, 1995
©Manfred Pernice
Deutsche Bank Collection

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