In cities the world over, food couriers have become a regular fixture. With their brightly coloured outfits and insulated delivery boxes, the minions of app-based services like Foodora and Deliveroo are now such a familiar sight that you would be forgiven for asking: where, exactly, did we order food from before? Since 2013, such startups have come to represent a major branch of the gig economy, subjecting something as rudimentary as buying a warm meal to digital logistics. According to ZITTY, a Berlin listings magazine, Deliveroo alone worked with more than 500 freelance riders in the city in 2018. This number may include many artists: ‘The relative flexibility works for me as I’m studying and working as an artist and illustrator,’ wrote the London Deliveroo courier Katie Horwich for the Guardian in 2017: ‘Nearly everybody is doing something else. Fellow riders are students, actors, architects, coders, cleaners.’ The trend has now begun to leave its mark on urban space, with ‘ghost restaurants’, which cater only to couriers, replacing more conventional establishments.
In ‘Quaderna’, a two-person exhibition at the project space after the butcher, Berlin-based artists Sunah Choi and Marcus Weber reflect on this ever-changing urban landscape through two distinct media. Weber, whose work has often depicted park and street scenes (see the painting G-Park (Yellow Dog), 2011, or the ‘Adalbertstrasse’ series, 2008–10), has taken the proliferation of moving insulated backpacks of turquoise and magenta as a cue to produce paintings. Faced with these pictures, swarming with hordes of cartoonish couriers, it’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry. Rather than merely reflecting a new visual aspect of city life, Weber’s paintings engage with the political, architectural, economic and cultural issues raised by this phenomenon.
When the cuboid delivery boxes almost slip into the realm of geometric abstraction, as in Deliveroo (1) and Deliveroo (5) (both 2017), we find, amongst other things, an allusion to the old enthusiasm for the geometry of infrastructure that is expressed in classic modernist works such as Piet Mondrian’s grid-like overview of Manhattan, Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942–43).
Such elements of urban design and the associated transport logistics are also evoked by Choi’s minimalist installations. Four metal poles in different colours are installed vertically between floor and ceiling in the L-shaped exhibition space, their red, blue, green and yellow recalling the signage systems used to provide orientation in, say, multi-storey carparks. But their design and matter-of-fact colours also bring to mind the supporting poles that passengers grasp when riding various forms of public transport. (The specific shade of yellow that is used for such fixtures in Berlin’s buses, for example, is part of the transport company’s official corporate identity.) For Quadaroba (Giallo) (2019), the artist has hung a standard shop-bought net of four lemons on a small hook attached to the yellow pole. Two other poles, Quadaroba (Rosso) and Quadaroba (Blu) (both 2019), were complemented with a grid each, of the kind that might be used to fence-off properties or building sites. Choi finishes those grids with irregular, organic-looking perforations: a promising, playful gesture that tends toward permeability.
Functional objects from urban life frequently find themselves dissolved and captured in art. It is an approach both precise and diffuse – one that can sharpen the viewer’s awareness of their surroundings as a cultural construct without ever needing to be explicit about that intention. Perhaps this double exhibition – of two distinct bodies of work that discretely complement each other – also points to an obvious and fundamental fact: works of art can fulfil many purposes (or, at times, none at all). This show could be as much an artistic reflection of the ever-changing urban landscape as it is a testimony to the diversity of artistic gestures, pictures and objects that register and respond to them.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
Sunah Choi and Marcus Weber, 'Quaderna' was on view at after the butcher, Berlin, from 16 February until 20 April 2019.
Main image: Marcus Weber, Untitled (6) [detail], 2016, oil on paper, mounted on nettle, 50 × 128 cm. Courtesy: the artist and after the butcher, Berlin
First published in Issue 203