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Sensing Brian Tennessee Claflin

An exceptionally magnetic person and intense and raw artist, Brian Claflin left an indelible mark on Berlin before his tragic death in 2014. Now his first posthumous exhibition, The Five Senses, at SomoS is making his mark felt once more.

Image for Sensing Brian Tennessee Claflin
Image courtesy of Greta Frau and the Estate of Brian Tennessee Claflin. Photo by Jason Harrell

How often do we stop and consciously consider how our entire understanding of the world is gathered up, mostly non-selectively, by our five senses? Everything we know is filtered through them. Our survival is dependent on them. A surprising amount of what we understand about ourselves is shaped by them. In fact, it is through sensory experience that being alive is actually tangible.

The first posthumous exhibition of Brian Tennessee Claflin, following his unexpected death in 2014 at the age of 33, poignantly and devastatingly explores these sites of life. It features a single work by Claflin, made in collaboration with Greta Frau in 2006.

Each of the five channels of the video installation features Claflin himself, his face closely framed by a low resolution video camera, in which he “performs a sense” through an intentional action. They play one at a time, and are around five minutes each. For taste, he moves his tongue, mouth closed. For touch, he watches with utter focus as he rubs his index finger and thumb together. For smell, he breathes deeply.

Performing sight, Claflin simply stares into the camera, and thus the viewer’s eyes. His gaze is steady, but also distant. His eyes are watery. The hardest to watch is his performance of hearing, which is the last of the videos. For the entire duration Claflin says “hello” over and over again, unanswered.

Image for Sensing Brian Tennessee Claflin
Image courtesy of Greta Frau and the Estate of Brian Tennessee Claflin. Photo by Jason Harrell

Despite the work’s simplicity, its effect is personal, philosophical and existential all at once. The most impacting aspect is Claflin’s unwavering focus, his complete dedication to each individual act, to each moment. In this way, he feels very much present. His ability to get at the strangeness of sensing, of feeling, is simultaneously intimate and universal.

These performances all have self-definition at their core, and much of Claflin’s work explores identity. He was born to a Mormon family in Boise, Idaho, but left home early and became a nomad, moving through several major cities in the US and travelling all over the world before finding a home in Berlin in 2006. As an artist, activist, member of the queer community and party planner, organising the PORK and SLUM weekly art and dance parties, he became a well-known fixture of Berlin’s nightlife.

By all accounts he was an exceptionally magnetic person, albeit intense and raw. While he was polarising, his good friends and collaborators were like family. Nine of them have taken it upon themselves to ensure his artistic legacy is preserved by forming The Brian Tennessee Claflin Foundation. They include curator Michael Rade, Brian’s spouse; graphic designer and photographer Mario Dzurila; musician Snax; writer Travis Jeppesen; multimedia artist Christophe Chemin; bar owner Frank Redieß (Ficken3000); dj and promoter Jared Abbott (‘Icky’ party); painter Pietro Spirito; photographer Jason Harrell; and painter Patrick Bartsch (aka Master/Mask Patrick).

Claflin has left behind evidence of his own individual way of perceiving, and thanks to his dedicated friends we have the privilege to share the experience of it. In seeing and hearing “The Five Senses” we access part of the archive of sensations he once felt. We all still get to feel them, both with him and in his absence.

The Five Senses | SomoS, Kottbusser Damm 95, Kreuzberg, U-Bhf Schönleinstr. Wed-Sat 14-19. Through December 20.

On Claflin’s birthday, December 2, there will be a reading by Travis Jeppesen of his poetry featured in the exhibition catalogue, and a live improv session by Snax starting at 7pm. There will be a screening of Claflin’s film “Moths Around a Flame” (2012) at the Berlin Art Film Festival, December 12th at 10:30pm.