Mixed-media artist Tobias Bernstrup is not one to shy away from difficult topics. As he has said about his approach: “Without being pretentious, I would rather create alternative routes to experiencing and understanding the world, understanding what it means to be human today.” In his current solo exhibition at Andréhn-Schiptjenko (his third at the gallery) he takes stock of the state of the world, and our place in it, through a new series of paintings, sculptures, and a video work, full of dark, dystopian imagery tinged with optimism—or is it irony?
The exhibition takes its title from that of his video, South of Heaven (2014), which serves as its anchor. Bernstrup’s fascination with and indebtedness to video games is apparent in the work’s computer-modeled imagery and its hyper-real aesthetic. It opens with a scene of an airplane flying high in a cloudy sky and releasing a bomb onto a desolate, wintry landscape. This landscape is a re-creation of Caspar David Friedrich’s early 19th-century painting, Monastery Graveyard in the Snow, which was destroyed during the Allied bombing of Germany during WWII and now exists only in the form of a black-and-white photograph. As much as the video serves as an homage to or meditation upon Friedrich’s lost painting and the war-scarred German landscape, it also has universal appeal. Through it, the artist suggests that the ideal worlds we dream of and build are all, ultimately, subject to destruction.
In other works in the exhibition, Bernstrup pairs words associated with optimism and industriousness—like “promise” and “hope”—with images that suggest their opposites. In a sculpture titled Promise (2014), for example, he constructs a high-rise-like tower out of the word, “promise,” which appears partially bombed. Or could this be about potential, rather than destruction, if the word “promise” were taken optimistically? Perhaps this is an old building slated for demolition to make way for the new. It is up to us to determine how to read these intentionally ambiguous works, and to decide if what lies “south of heaven” is the earth, or hell.