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“Living here abstracts everything”

LAST CHANCE! British multimedia artist Mathew Hale came to Berlin before the hype hit – 10 years ago – with his partner, the visual artist Tacita Dean. A local show proves his art is still as unfathomable as ever.

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Slide from “Die Münze” (three-channel slide projection) by Mathew Hale, 2010. Courtesy of the artist and Wentrup

British multimedia artist Mathew Hale came to Berlin before the hype hit – 10 years ago – with his partner, the visual artist Tacita Dean. A local show proves his art is still as unfathomable as ever.

The centrepiece of Wacht Schatz, Hale’s third solo exhibition for Wentrup Gallery is a slide projection. The images cross-fade from a contemporary newspaper photograph of the recovered corpse of Rosa Luxemburg to a page-three model that appeared on the adjacent page. The slides then move from an oil painting of a young woman (Lilo) in a rowboat to a series of trysts with Courbet-style images of female genitalia. It’s a love affair between “Lilo and Miriam” or “Frau Münze and Frau Münz”, with commentary by Astrid Proll, who drove a getaway car for the Rote Armee Fraktion and is now a photographer. “A coin has two sides,” she says. “Heads. Tails. We pretend not, to each other.”

Why did you choose to work with Astrid Proll?

It’s quite difficult to get a German who can speak English without sounding like a cliché Nazi. I got her to read bits of text, then they got mixed up and reassembled. It’s a form of collage – a milieu constructed by me, set in the past: Astrid, the 1970s, West Berlin. In Berlin, it’s very easy to find street corners and people that belong to the 1970s or 1980s.

There’s a main character, “Miriam”. Is that an alias for Astrid?

Kind of. I’m changing the titles of my works, but “Miriam” is always in there. It’s also about a lesbian couple: there are slides of an oil painting that show the other character, Lilo. There are no photos of Astrid.

The titles also come with page numbers, as if they’re handfuls of pages you’ve torn out of a novel.

It’s an appropriate image, though it’s not true. I lay out the slides in books, but I give the page numbers randomly: I pick them out of a pot.

A special pot?

Yes. It’s a Tupperware pot filled with raw plugs, and they all have numbers folded up inside them. I guess that sounds eccentric. It was a way of managing it.

Why is the piece called “Die Münze”?

Money appears in the images. The capital “D” and “M” fade up red, so you have the idea of the deutschmark, of something in the past. The piece began as an installation for the [Swiss art fair] Art Basel last year. I showed the projection between four paintings. The slides showed the reverse side of the paintings, which show the information about their commercial value. Basel is a big shop. Everybody’s going round, asking, “What can I buy?” It was a basic way of highlighting that. But here, it’s different. You have to see it!

How do you make your works?

I sit at my table with an empty head. I really do that! I have a ritual. Half of what you come up with is cliché, but it’s fresh, because of the impulse of the moment. I used to be a big planner, but in Berlin I found the freedom of not planning. I edit with an obsolete computer programme that was used for car launches in the 1990s.

And how do those works ‘work’?

Using slides brings two things into conjunction, to really detonate. It’s involuntary: the truth erupting in the mind of the speaker. It’s unruly. It’s about making things awkward and foreign.

Is that effect, of “foreignness”, what you seek in Berlin?

I love the way living here abstracts everything a bit: social relations, signs, advertising. My German is still terrible. I love walking around in the middle of a bubble, not understanding what everyone’s saying.

WACHT SCHATZ | Wentrup Gallery, Tempelhofer Ufer 22, Kreuzberg, U-Bhf Möckernbrücke, Tel 030 4849 3600, Tue-Sat 11-6, www.wentrupgallery.com. Through June 7.

Mathew Hale’s work is also appearing in a group show:

ART | Haas & Fuchs, Niebuhrstr. 5, S-Bhf Savigny Platz, Tel 030 8892 9190, Mon-Fri 10-18, Sat 11–16, www.haasundfuchs.de. Through June 30.