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Avital Carno gives her thoughts on Berlin-born Andrea Luka Zimmerman’s ‘Common Ground’, an exhibition of film and photography currently showing at Bristol’s Spike Island.

Andrea Luka Zimmerman’s work touches on an age-old question: life or art—which is imitator? Zimmerman’s answer in ‘Common Ground’ presents a symbiotic relationship between the two, as she drags relics from the past and transforms them with endowments of meaning. This modern, unusual exhibition is a far cry from the static walls of traditional galleries; each screen is surrounded by armchairs, a blackboard on the wall welcomes viewers to write on it with the chalk provided. A sign on a bookcase invites you to annotate any of its worn volumes.

Zimmerman’s exhibition is, in part, a reflection on roots and childhood. At the same time, she explores ideas far more wide-ranging than the simple evocation of childhood nostalgia. The touchingly and tastefully compiled multimedia collection uses Zimmerman’s personal experiences as a springboard for the exploration of emotional and political themes, avoiding sentimentality through the originality of its ideas.

Zimmerman, who grew up on a council estate and left school at 16, has channelled the mixed emotions of a coming-of-age on an estate in her film Estate, a Reverie, which documents the closure of the East London Haggerton Estate. The film forms the centrepiece of the exhibition: a projector plays on loop onto a screen surrounded by armchairs. The chairs are enclosed by a series of large head-shot style photographs, holding viewers within the walls of Zimmerman’s world. The photographs show multi-ethnic men and women, both young and old. The people in the photographs are not smiling; instead they look straight into the camera with expressions that range from amused or quizzical to weary determination.

Andrea Luka Zimmerman, photographs from ‘I Am Here’ (2009–2014)

These photographs are part of a collection entitled I Am Here, a public art project initiated by Zimmerman, Lasse Johansson and Tristan Fenell. Each of these artists were Haggerton residents, and the project was begun as a protest against the orange hoardings placed by the local council over the windows of vacated flats on the estate. The photographs, which show the residents who remained behind, were displayed outside with the intention of challenging the estate’s image of neglect.

Other films on show in the exhibition include outtakes from Estate and Taskafa—Stories of the Street. This 2013 film documents the histories of Istanbul’s street dogs, and it portrays the potential for friendship between humans and animals. Apart from Estate, the films are shown on old, boxy televisions reminiscent of the 2000s, featuring cinematic countdowns before beginning, with deliberately grainy quality.

Of particular note is Merzschmerz, a series of short clips where children retell Kurt Schwitters’s fairytales from memory. The tellers and listeners are varied: in the opening clip, a young blonde boy tells a story to an old man of African descent, while in another a teenager with special needs speaks to his mother. Merzschmerz literally translates from German as ‘Mercury’; the title reflects the mercurial dynamics which the clips convey, including the slippery relationship between child teller and adult listener, and the constantly shifting landscape of memory. ‘Merzschmerz’, however, is also very similar the German word ‘herzschmerz’, meaning ‘heart pain’, a word—and sentiment—which underlies these endearing, at times amusing, clips, filmed on different locations around the estate.

The exhibition also features one of Smart Urhiofe’s Ghana Must Go bags, which is used as a prop in Estate. The empty bag is displayed on a patch of white floor, spot-lit in the darkened room: the bags were a response to the expulsion of a million Ghanaians from Nigeria in 1983—most Ghanaians packed their possessions in similar plastic laundry bags.

The bag is just one example of objects and ideas from Estate spilling over into the rest of the exhibition: one wall is plastered with a photograph of Zimmerman’s old bedroom on the estate, which she turned into a film set before moving out.

The adjacent bookcase is filled with books that inspired the artist, ranging from texts whose connections to the art are easy to understand, such as I Lived in A Slum and Stephan Willats’s Art and Social Function, to more surprising titles like Richardson’s Pamela, the story of a servant girl who rejects a social superior.

‘Common Ground’ runs at Spike Island until 18th June 2017. Entry is free.

What were your thoughts on Zimmerman’s exhibition? Let us know in the comments below or on social media

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