The Polish artist Agnieszka Polska, a recipient of the prestigious Preis der Nationalgalerie (2017), has been commissioned by the Hamburger Bahnhof to produce a multi-channel video installation. Taking on the entire main Historical Hall of the former train station, converted into Berlin’s museum for contemporary art in the 1980s, The Demon’s Brain is a tour de force. Based on fifteenth-century letters addressed to Mikołaj Serafin, the custodian of Poland’s prized salt mines, Polska tells the fictitious story of the messenger entrusted with the task of delivering the letters. On his way, the young man gets separated from his horse and encounters a demon with whom he has a life-changing conversation that climaxes with the burning of the letters. While the story is set in the fifteenth century, the demon’s monologue pertains to our current moment, addressing contemporary economic, social, ecological, and technological issues. The demon explains to the messenger that he has the power to change the course of history; that “it’s not too late.” These last words resonate in the space of the gallery like a critical alarm.
The narrative is divided across four large screens that loop the same scenes but each is synchronized in order to harmoniously narrate the story. In this way The Demon’s Brain is simultaneously musical, theatrical, and performative. The screens are installed in such a way that prompts the viewer to move around, watching one screen while listening to another, or resolutely chasing the narrator from one screen to the next. On the fourth screen, the camera steadily moves into the interior of a salt mine, drawing the visitor incessantly deeper in the earth. On an adjacent wall, excerpts of the original letters to Serafin are mixed with commentaries on the various issues raised in the work, taken from essays by Sven Beckstette, Federica Bueti, Nora N. Khan, Margarida Mendes, Matteo Pasquinelli, Jan Sowa, and Tiziana Terranova. Each of these authors were commissioned to write for the catalogue of the exhibition, a document that functions as an extension of the video installation, more than a complement to the exhibition.