Feature

Berlin Art Week 2019: Highlights and what you can still see

17 Sep 2019

By Sandy Di Yu and Betty Kallinikou

This year's Berlin Art Week may be over, but many of the exhibitions can still be experienced in the coming weeks. If you get a chance to visit the German capital, be sure to read through our picks so that you can curate your very own Berlin Art Week.

2019 has been a big year for walls. The 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall is this November. In July, the US supreme court approved $2.5 billion to be allocated towards a barrier wall across their southern border. Actually, that might be it for international news about walls. But they might be enough, for these two wall-related events signify the poles of our cultural climate, of freedom of movement as a human right and of segregation in a dystopic era of biopolitics and surveillance.

Between these two poles and between the dates of these two events lies the 8th edition of Berlin Art Week, which took place from September 11-15. In typical fashion, the event celebrated the city’s exceptional art scene, as cultivated by Berlin’s unique history. This year’s Art Week took on everything from the political acts of destroying walls to the consequences of building walls, around borders and around neighbourhoods. The variety of exhibitions and events reflected on the circumstances that have led both Berlin and international culture to where it stands today while speculating on where it’s headed. Tributes to the demise of the Wall, anxiety about the current political climate and the effects of gentrification are amongst the themes that weaved through the city-wide event.

Curated with expertise by the Berlin Art Week team, the participating exhibitions and events made for a week filled with food for thought and soul (and a few slightly unwholesome anecdotes). Although the week may be over, many of the exhibitions can still be experienced in the coming weeks. If you get a chance to visit the German capital, be sure to get your dose of contemporary art and check out our picks so that you can curate your very own Berlin Art Week.

Garden of earthly delights at Gropius Bau

One of our favourites of Berlin Art Week, this exhibition features nature in every conceivable form, from species protection to plantophilia (literally sex with plants). Such a description might initially prompt thoughts of biophilia, a trending movement which involves adding more plants to indoor spaces. Often co-opted by businesses in their attempt to make workers more productive and work less stressful, this is, of course, just another example of how corporations may attempt to fix the symptoms of mental health issues rather than the causes of them.

But the Garden of Earthly Delights is nothing like that. Taking its cue from Hieronymus Bosch’s 15th-century triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, which provides both the exhibition title and a conceptual point of departure for the exhibition, its thesis is found in the way nature presents new beginnings and destruction, highlighting both tranquillity and chaos, in states of transience, attachment and deterrence. It gives us a glimpse of possible outcomes of our future, forged by our often unkind treatment of nature balanced out by our human obsession for it. Forget about adding a potted plant to the corner of your dreary office, and instead visit this exhibition to lose a sense of self only to regain it again with cathartic renewal. Oh, and for the Instagram-selfie-location hunters amongst you, don't miss Yayoi Kusama's psychedelic dotted room installation With All My Love for the Tulips, I Pray Forever.

The New Infinity

For the second year in a row, Berliner Festspiele set up their Mobile Dome on Mariannenplatz in Kreuzberg, an immersive artwork that allows visitors to experience phenomena beyond our perception: infinity. Visitors lie on the floor as film installations play on the dome above, giving viewers the sense that they are a part of the work itself. The films displayed were by Agnieszka Polska, Metahaven, Robert Lippok & Lucas Gutierrez and more. While well worth the travel if you’re from out of town, the purpose behind the mobile planetarium is that it can be easily duplicated. As a result, this project can be carried out simultaneously in several locations, supporting the artists’ stance that as many people should be able to experience the work as possible. Their proclamation that “art should be there for everyone” (warmly familiar to us, as ArtRabbit’s stance is that art is for everyone) is reinforced by how accessible it is. It’s easily enjoyed without any prior knowledge of the artists or the project, or art in general, and for that, it exercises a democracy seldom seen in contemporary art.

KUNSTSTROM at E-WERK Luckenwalde

On September 14, E-WERK Luckenwalde opened its doors with a public programme which includes work that produces electricity via artistic means. Directly translated as “art electricity”, this former coal power plant shut its doors soon after the demise of the Berlin Wall, to be bought up in 2017 by Performance Electrics (art collective) as a place to house art exhibitions, residential programmes, workshops and studio spaces for artists. Located about an hour south of Berlin Central Station, this new space may be a symptom of the tech startup scene in Berlin slowly displacing artists from the city that once embraced newcomers regardless of economic status. To celebrate the opening of this repurposed space, London-based performance art festival Block Universe curated a night of performances and interventions that brought E-WERK’s architecture together with performance that teetered on the borders between contemporary art, dance and music. The results were powerful (pun unabashedly intended), and the Contemporary Art Centre housed at the location is well worth a visit when you find yourself nearby.

Anne Imhof at Buchholz Gallery

A favourite around the ArtRabbit office, Anne Imhof’s Imagine is her first solo presentation with Galerie Buchholz. Following Sex, the acclaimed first of three chapters in her newest performance project, the paintings and sculptures presented here take their aesthetic cues from the performers’ wardrobe as well as props and backdrops used in Sex. Her painting series “Sunsets” (2019) collapses the horizons in vibrant oils, referring back to her performance series and lending form to sex and movement, abstraction to allegory.

Ground Zero. Christopher Kulandren Thomas at Schinkel Pavillon

What does 9/11 have to do with Sri Lanka? As much as it does the rest of the world. This global event, which in itself cost the lives of thousands of individuals, rippled out into the world to affect global consensus on biopolitics and revolutionary movements. Thus was the result of the Tamil homeland of Eelam, an autonomous state born through a neo-Marxist revolution that was wiped off of existence by the Sri Lankan army’s ethnic cleansing in 2009. Not long after that, the first white cube commercial galleries, pregnant with its whitewashing powers, opened up in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo. From this background, and having opened on September 11, 2019, Ground Zero features the film Being Human (2019) projected onto a screen through which paintings and sculptures by two of Sri Lanka’s foremost contemporary artists can be seen. This “exhibition within an exhibition” examines creativity as a humanist fiction with algorithmically synthesized pop stars (Taylor Swift is making a special appearance) and acclaimed artworks presented as readymades.

Joshua Schwebel at Kreuzberg Pavillon

Nominated for the Berlin Art Prize, an opportunity for underrepresented artists to gain funding and an exhibition, conceptual artist Joshua Schwebel’s work consists of interventions whereby the host institution becomes his raw material, unfolding through his engagement with the organisation. In direct response to the state of gentrification currently faced in Kreuzberg, his work at the Kreuzberg Pavillon considers the developers buying up and reinventing neighbourhoods through economic displacement. Here, Schwebel rebuilt the ground so as to subvert the material vocabulary used by the displacers. Whilst this exhibition isn’t particularly easy to understand without the context of the Berlin housing market, you just read about it so you’re all primed for viewing the work. You’re welcome.

Statista. Staatskunst, Pioniernutzung, Repräsentation at Statista

The 50,000 m2 former East German office building with gashes of broken windows and graffiti adorning its many facades and interior walls was the location of several neighbourhood initiatives that acted as a test to find out whether working in the spirit of the Commons is possible in the context of city development. Situated next to Alexanderplatz, projects include Bee Coin, a cryptocurrency reflecting the reproductive labour of bees, and fallingwild, a forum for interspecies solidarity.

No photos on the dancefloor at C/O

If you’ve ever stood in line for one of Berlin’s industrial-concrete-slab-turned-techno-clubs, you know the hours upon hours of waiting is filled with an air of contradiction (against the equality that Berlin proclaims to espouse, even if this is allegedly such a quintessential Berlin experience) and fear (what if you don’t get in and your life is ruined because of it?) And there’s always that one American bro bumming everybody out by yelling about how ridiculous it is that he didn’t get in even though he knows half the club owners in Miami.

Well, here to recreate this allegedly quintessential experience is CO Berlin in their exhibition No Photos On the Dance Floor! Berlin 1989-Today, featuring photos that document the history of Berlin’s club scene since the fall of the Wall. But you might not get the full Berlin club experience, waiting and rejection included, unless you were attempting to attend the opening reception and party. With Modeselektor on stage and an unforgiving bouncer who apparently wouldn’t allow anyone not on the guestlist in, the opening of this exhibition was anything but inclusive in its execution. A weirdly meta aspect of the exhibition, though perhaps in poor taste seeing as it’s a part of a city-wide initiative to make art more inclusive and open to everyone.

If you make it to Berlin in the following weeks, get inspired and be engaged in conversations about biopolitics, tributes to the fall of the Berlin Wall and criticism for gentrification with the array of participating exhibitions still happening throughout the city. Check out the umbrella event for more.

More exhibitions and events in Berlin

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About the writer:
Sandy Di Yu, London-based writer, art theorist and artist.

Betty Kallinikou is ArtRabbit's Berlin and Frankfurt correspondent.

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