A new exhibition of work by Berlin-based artists raises questions about the hidden powers that affect our lives, and the results are impressive.
Big questions brought from Berlin
We see four men taking a drive through a summery dusk in the Everglades as sun-kissed marshes glide past their windows.
It could be idyllic, until some unnerving details start to emerge: all four men are wearing the same black-trousers, white-shirt outfit and, more oddly, they all look exactly the same. Yet, even more disquieting, is why the man in the back seat looks so uncomfortable, and why his accomplices keep staring so incredulously at him. We can't shake off the sense that something bad has just gone down and that the man in the back is bearing the brunt of it.
Niklas Goldbach's video works capture the subtle menace that underpins House of Cards, a group show at Grey Noise, produced in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut Gulf Region.
The curator Viktor Neumann has brought together works by four Berlin-based artists that explore both the fragile and opaque nature of many societal structures that affect our lives.
"We are in a global financial crisis right now and every day journalists, philosophers and economists try to explain what's going on," says the curator. "But no one can really explain what's happened because [the financial world] is a very opaque system in which a few people decide things that have such a big influence on the conditions of the masses."
Goldbach's videos are a good introduction to this idea. Some deep-seated power struggle takes place in that 1950s gas guzzler, but we're not entirely privy to it. We sense the struggle only from the gestures and attitudes of these identical men, but not its outcome or origin.
Prologue, another video work by the same artist, shows a brilliant blue sky suddenly invaded by a multitude of vapour trails from planes, like a squadron scrambling to defend. "You have this moment of opaqueness in these videos and you don't know where the obvious threat is coming from," Neumann explains.
The title of the show, House of Cards, explicitly refers to this mood of latent menace: "The taller the house, the bigger they fall," says Neumann. He describes the world as systems, using the term broadly to refer as much to financial systems as the way cities grow. "It's part of the [global] interdependency of our systems that means they can collapse and this is a menacing situation."
Part of this menace, he explains, lies in the opacity of or distance we feel from these systems. It's an idea explored by Danilo Correale in an untitled series of works where the artist has pulped hundreds of unsuccessful lottery tickets to produce a rough, ink-spattered piece of grey paper from the mass. The act of casting dreams or wishes into a lottery - a system full of promise but wholly out of our control - echoes the detachment we often feel from the inner workings of the world.
Julian Göthe's silk-screen assemblages, collectively titled Oooo!, also spark with buried threats. The artist has placed photographs of archetypal catastrophes - be they real (the Hindenburg zeppelin disaster) or imagined (Godzilla ploughing through power lines) - next to images of colossal bodybuilders and his own childhood sketches of cathedrals and skylines.
A widely exhibited series, Oooo! questions how we construct ideals of power. A bodybuilder's thighs, worked by weights into angular torpedoes of flesh, and New York's jumble of skyscrapers (Göthe's childish but accomplished depiction shows a plane flying ominously in) are both in some way expressions of power.
Yet Göthe's meeting of imagery implies some fragility: taut muscles soften, zeppelins can fall, cities can be disastrously toppled.
A way out is subtly suggested in the course of the show. Judith Hopf's impressive sculptures appear to alter the very materiality of metal - making hard chains stand upright like a charmed snake. But more explicitly, Hopf has placed a long whip against the wall with its rope bound haphazardly to the wall by sticky tape. There's some undermining process going on here, as if the charged connotations of power suddenly diminish once this object is leaning against a gallery wall. Instead, it becomes purely material, somehow flimsy once it's offered up for our perusal.
• Grey Noise, Alserkal Avenue, Dubai, until December 25.