An ambitious collaborative project filling three floors of the Fondazione Prada in the eighteenth-century Palazzo Ca’ Corner della Regina on the Grand Canal, “The Boat is Leaking. The Captain Lied” weaves the work of German artists Thomas Demand, Alexander Kluge, and Anna Viebrock into a single immersive experience. On view in a series of interconnected spaces designed to evoke either nautical settings or a low-rent hostel, video projections and photographs suggest anxious meditations on memory, aging, and looming catastrophe. The show’s title, a lyric borrowed from Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows,” suggests the ominous tone pervading the exhibition.
Curator Udo Kittleman, who organized the project, describes the show in the catalogue as a “transmedia” experiment, as it merges the work of artists from three distinct creative fields. Demand’s large-scale photos—shots of detailed models of interior spaces that the artist constructs from colored paper—are most familiar to American viewers. Kluge is one of the pioneers of the New German Cinema of the 1960s. A selection of his films shown on large and small screens placed throughout the exhibition constitutes something of a career retrospective. Completing the trio, Viebrock is a designer of theatrical sets and costumes. Her lighting and exhibition design are key to the exhibition’s quirky dramatic effects. The three have been friends for years, but this is their first collaboration.
To help focus the show and inspire his collaborators, Demand sent them a reproduction of a work by Italian painter Angelo Morbelli, Giorni . . . ultimi! (Last . . . Days!, 1882-83), that depicts a large open room of a Milan hostel for the elderly, with downtrodden men crowding long benches and desks. (The original canvas hangs in the exhibition.) According to the curator, Kluge and Viebrock interpreted the scene as an image of retired sailors, as the room somewhat resembles a ship’s dining hall. With finely honed trompe l’oeil murals, Viebrock painstakingly transformed one of the ornate palace’s grandest rooms into the modest open space depicted in the Morbelli painting. Providing one of the show’s most stunning moments, the space features portal windows along one wall and long benches and desks in the middle, which are outfitted with small video monitors showing Kluge films. A tall, narrow smokestack appears to rise along one side of the room. Visitors can sit on the benches, just like the characters in the Morbelli painting, thus participating directly in the show’s theatrical premise.
A number of Kluge’s films are character studies, such as The Soft Light of Makeup (2007), which presents a fictional sequence of actors’ screen tests. These films complement Demand’s photos and videos, which portray public spaces and industrial interiors devoid of figures. A particularly unnerving area of the exhibition features several works by Demand inspired by the control room at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. His photograph of the re-created space, The Skala Computer in Chernobyl (2017), is accompanied by a video documentary about the 1986 disaster at the plant and an installation of video players and other electronic components from the era. Elsewhere, Demand returns to the theme of hopelessness in the face of disaster with Pacific Sun, a riveting 2012 video loop, based on images from a ship’s security camera, showing shifting furniture and objects on a cruise-ship deck during a violent storm in the Tasman Sea. “The Boat is Leaking. The Captain Lied” challenges visitors by casting them as the principal players in a melodrama that seems right for today—full of unsettling, ambiguous images of calamity with few glimmers of hope.