from Sculpture Magazine,
by Carolee Thea
All urban voids create their own kind of cerebral
sediment, where particles and fragments make themselves known as
solid consciousness. These holes are the monumental vacancies that
define without trying, the memory-traces of an abandoned set of failures
The first Berlin Biennale, the Art Forum Berlin art fair, the opening
of the "Sensation" exhibition at the Hamburger Bahnhof
Museum, Rundgange (gallery walks) in Mitte and Charlottenburg, a
slew of openings at new alternative spaces, and endless opulent and
funky celebrations, collided in the fall of 1998 to create an art
frenzy of enormous proportions. The Germans have always understood
the economic rewards that culture brings to a city, and soon after
reunification the plan to recreate Berlin as the new cultural center
of Europe began. In the fall of 1998 the international art world
was invited for a preview.
Its location at the crossroads between East and West, an expectation
of the millennium, and anticipation of once again becoming the capital
of Germany have fueled a building delirium in Berlin. The transforn1ation
of this city over the past 10 years has been awesome. In the year
2000 it will be unrecognizable. Specifically targeted for transfiguration
by architectural glitzkrieg is the 40-year-old void at Potsdamer
Platz, the product of Allied bombing during Nazi rule and neglect
by the DDR. Rabbits and scavengers have made it their playground,
as have developers, architects, architectural philosophers, and critical
theorists. This 17-acre site and others like it in the city that
have come to represent absence and memory are now disrupted by the
glitzy architectural fantasies of a united Germany.
Mega corporations Sony and Daimler-Benz, with their principal architects,
Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers, Arata Isozake, and Helmut Jahn, have
designed a complex of apartments, theaters, a casino, 10 new buildings,
10 new streets, a central piazza, and three acres of ponds and rivulets
right on what used to be the border of East and West. Pink and blue
plastic drainage pipes twist in the dirt and cranes fill the sky
in Berlin's Mitte (the former East). Here, the streets are blocked
by steel girders, mud, plasterboard, cement mixers, rubble, diggers,
cars, trucks, and hard hats.
The first Berlin Biennale took as its subject the construction site
that presently defines this city. Seventy international artists who
have lived or worked here were chosen by curator Klaus Biesenbach,
who initially worked with Nancy Spector and Hans Ulrich Obrist. This "glocal" event
was based on Walter Benjamin's idea of the 19th-century flaneur.
The curatorial concept was to describe the "inside/ outside
of the city as construction site; the material, memory, chaos and
the desire to dissolve." The Kunst-Werke, Postfuhramt, and Akademie
der Kunste, all located in Mitte, housed the installations. Each
of the architecturally and historically distinct buildings contributed
to an ambiance that was both haunting and transitional. The Postfuhramt
is a dilapidated Baroque structure that was once a post office. Most
of the art for the Biennale was sited here. Installed near the entrance
was a Fluxus-inspired street altar made by Thomas Hirschhorn, Otto
Freundlicl'Altar, commemorating a former Berlin artist and Holocaust
victim. Made of flowers and cheap detritus, it typified an aesthetic
common in bars and cafes around Mitte after the unification.
A simple boardwalk designed by architect/artist Walter Musacchi flowed
through the Postfuhramt's maze of unrenovated interior rooms and
hallways. The first interior installation dissolved into a seductive
mazelike lounge space created by a group of hip designers, De Luxe.
Surrounding a central cylinder, small lucite sea horses were encased
in a fluid of colored lights, like aquatic dioramas from Blade Runner.
Small glass tables, bass and drum music, vibrating banquettes, and
a light show interacted with art junkies to create an interior sculpture:
a public/private place to meet, relax, or transform. A contrasting
and jarring work on the same floor was Jonathan Meese's Marquis de
Sade Room, a multi-level space containing a glut of adolescent clutter.
Natural deterioration, peeling paint, cracked walls, and stained
flowered wallpaper in rooms, hallways, stairwells, and rotunda were
incorporated in various installations, while Musacchi's recyclable
boardwalk insured directive and contrast. On the second floor, still
on Musacchi's path, rooms branching off of a central rotunda housed
installations by several artists. One of the most mesmerizing was
Heike Baranowsky's video, Passage 11 Zug 199. A taped train appeared
to endlessly leave the station but before the last car disappeared
from the screen, the train stopped and moved backward. The braking
and stopping reversed the process of departing and arriving, and
the small tape loop continued perhaps to mimic the repetitive nature
of history. In Ugo Rondinone's So Much Water, So Close to Home, a
large window covered with red cellophane overlooked Oranianburger
Strasse, near the red-light district. Speakers set into the wall
hypnotically repeated the phrase, "Everyday is sunshine" while
video monitors on the wall showed people in mundane activities. John
Bock's liquidats Aura Aromaport Folio, an installation and performance
with Viennese Actionist roots, also suggested surveillance and secrecy.
Viewers were drawn into Bock's foul-smelling, two-level room containing
sculptures fashioned from everyday objects and strewn like discarded
clothing. The work also included a secret performance by the artist
underneath the steps leading to the top level (an element reminiscent
of Vito Acconci's 1970s work, Seedbed). Andreas Slominski's slight
piece did at least follow the inside/outside theme; for Enough Colour
to Paint the Funkturm, Slominski simply placed that many paint buckets
on skids. (The funkturm is a radio tower in Charlottenburg).
Swinging ominously from the cupola of the Postfuhramt's Baroque rotunda
was a large fan by Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, who creates
site specific installations using artificial or natural phenomena.
He says that the works he develops of ephemeral beauty "outside" the
economic system are both a critical and a romantic commentary. The
swinging fan at the Postfahramt made me aware of the scale and sweep
of the circular space while threatening to limit my movement. Other
works by Eliassen were represented at various galleries at the Art
Forum. In the same domed area, Tobias Rehberger showed a series of "portraits." Rehberger
commissioned friends to describe themselves as a bouquet of flowers
in a specific vase then each individual floral arrangement was fabricated
and assembled here to create a whimsical still life. The ornately
domed ceiling, the absurdly swinging industrial fan, and the pots
of flowers ironically conflated danger, beauty, and history. Rehberger's
work dissolves the hierarchy of art and design, everyday incidents,
lifestyles, art history, and entertainment in order to recombine
them in new forms.
Felix Gonzales Torres's posters distributed throughout the city announced
that "Es ist nur eine Frage der Zeit" (it's only a matter
of time). The phrase, with its Gothic typography, was charged with
the menace of calamity. The same work was shown in the Kunstverein
in Hamburg dedicated to the AIDS theme. The ambiguity of the phrase
relates not only to AIDS, but is based on the artist's personal experience
of the German refusal of and animosity toward foreigners. Other works
of note at the Postfuhramt were by Dominique Gonzales-Foerster and
The themes that resonated so well with the crumbling condition of
the Postfuhramt ceased to operate in the same- way in the Kunst-Werke.
After the wall came down, this DDR margarine factory became an alternate
exhibition space, the Center for Contemporary Art, the restoration
of which was completed one month before the exhibition opened.
A cobbled courtyard carpeted with Musacchi's runway/boardwalk was
flanked by a bookshop and the Cafe Bravo, designed by Dan Graham.
The first interior works were by Monica Bonvicini, who created three
separate pieces about destruction. The first, located in the entrance
foyer, Be Careful With What You Wish For, consisted of a large ventilator,
which intermittently blew gusts of 30,000 cubic feet of air and cushioned
the sound of the battering ram from the next work, a nearby video,
Swinging Housewife, a video work with a feminist slant based on a
Louise Bourgeois drawing. Bonvicini taped a naked woman, her head
encased in a metal model house, which she banged against two adjacent
walls. In the same room, Bonvicini knocked out a wall and installed
a large picture window, exposing a construction site in the rear
courtyard. The window opened through perspectival arches onto the
next street, offering a glimpse before the opening was bricked over
Next was a disheveled funhouse environment containing a series of
open cubicles where the Honey Suckle Company lived during the exhibition.
Each member had a bed, TV, and VCR. Envisioned as a shelter for the
homeless, it contained ideas for a future collective or ashram, combining
life, work, relaxation, orgiastic fun, and project development. Penetrating
this environment was Carsten Holler's indoor-outdoor, snaking stainless
steel tunnel-slides whose entrance on the third floor emptied its
players onto the first floor while also functioning as a mandatory
exit route from the building. On the second floor, Daniel Pflumm's
Call from Germany, Q&A focused on video headshots of pairs of
CNN correspondents. The captured moment of their interaction was
of a repeating a 10th of a second gesture that depicted a slight
blink or nod while each listened to another correspondent. All we
could hear was the drone of bass and drum music. This interior moment
of pause was a fascinating contrast to an exterior frenzy. On the
opposite wall from the Pflumm video was Center Peer, a work designed
by the architects Gruntuch and Ernst. A six-inch cylinder was removed
from a three-foot-thick wall; its circular interior was painted chartreuse
and with the addition of a well-hidden mirror, one could view the
symbolic Television Tower, the tallest point visible in the East
during the GDR. This tower has also been the subject for a recent
architectural proposal to expand and enhance its use and appearance.
Near the Brandenburg Gate, in the crumbling Akademie der Kunste,
was the work of Sarah Sze. Her tenuous and obsessive construction,
a city made of wire and matchsticks, plastic flowers, lamps, and
dangling ceiling fans, was reminiscent of early Judy Pfaff. Also
in this location, Rirkrit Tiravanija exhibited Cinema de Ville, Berlin/Bangkok
(1997). Consisting of two identical large green tents, it housed
videos depicting life in each of the titled cities. Tiravanija also
cooked (or curated) the food for a fun-filled opening night party
at the Postfuhramt and participated in other Biennale events.
Transgressing art borders within a thematic context has become a
strategy in this art world culture. The same artists or their works
also appeared in different transformations at Art Forum, the Biennale,
or Congress 3000, where late night symposia, multi-media performance,
and cybercafes celebrated the psycho-geography of a metropolis in
The third Art Forum Berlin, with 145 booths, was smaller than its
older siblings in Cologne and Basel. To its credit, this energetic
event has been searching for new strategies to enliven the relationship
between art and the economy while encouraging patrons and collectors
to create opportunities for young artists. For example, one sponsor,
Bankgesellschaft Berlin, funded Art Forum to invite 31 international
curators and museum directors as prospective clients. As partner
to the Art Forum, the bank also awarded prizes for the two best booths.
One was won by the Chelsea gallerist, Xavier LaBoulbenne, and will
allow him to return next year with a larger booth even though his
sales were disappointing. Most of the participating American dealers
found the Berlin Fair an important place to do business, not always
for immediate results but for the future. The fact that the 1998
event fell 4,000 visitors short of the previous year's tally suggests
a necessary rethinking of its schedule, which coincided with the
Sao Paulo Biennale as well as having too many overlapping events
and an opening on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement.
Another link between Art Forum and industry was the establishment
of the Paul Cassirer Award donated by the German real estate developer
Groth+Braalfs, which is cultivating a central area in Berlin called "Tiergarten
Dreick." New buildings for the headquarters of the Christian
Democratic Party, the Mexican Embassy, banks, newspapers, and high-end
apartment buildings are planned to include sculptures and other artworks.
Each gallerist participating in the fair suggested one artist for
a site-specific work. The prizes, DM 20,000, were won by Monica Bonvicini
and Liam Gillick. To encourage participation by younger gallerists,
Art Forum offered l7 small affordable spaces. One from Berlin, Kunstler
Haus Bethanien, is run by Christopher Tanert. His space in Berlin,
once a children's hospital in Kreutzburg has offered studios and
stipends for international artists since the 1970s. Shift, a new
alternate gallery, is obsessed with transgressing art boundaries.
Co-founder Martin Berghaumer conducted a lighthearted experiment
at the fair by taking Shift to the stock exchange, to stimulate discussions
about a new fund-raising model that provided support for artistic
initiatives and at the same time created a synergy between art and
Art Club Berlin, curated by Klara Wallner, has been entrenched at
ArtForum for the last two years. The club is a multi-functional art
space funded by the Fair and private sponsorship. Artist Flora Neuwirth
created a social space with lighting, seating, and a bar, serving
as a platform for fashion, music from international DJs, and a video
library containing works by Erich Weiss, Mark Wallinger, Tracy Emin,
and Monica Bonvicini. There is no lack of alternative spaces in Berlin:
Pavilion der Volksbuhne, loop-raum fur aktuelle kunst, soma, conves
TV, micro e.v., are only
a few. What characterizes them all is a desire to cross over the
traditional boundaries of the institutionalized art world.
opened last year by freelance curator Walling Boers, has a program
of ever-changing exhibitions sponsored by the Dutch government. Boers
considers his space not as a classic showroom but rather as an office
that generates projects like video archives, lounges, billboards,
concerts, and fashion shows for international artists and performers.
Another alternative arena with more traditional underpinnings and
probably the best bet for success is the recently inaugurated INIT
Kunsthalle Berlin. Located in a defunct supermarket, INIT is the
brainchild of a select group of gallerists who joined forces with
a few collectors and critics. They opened with the works of Martha
Since the fall of the Wall in 1989 and the reintegration of the city,
artists have come in a steady stream, not just from Germany but from
around the world, attracted as much by the revitalizing times as
by the prospect of large, cheap studios in the heart of the former
East Berlin. Generous funding for this migratory herd was another
incentive. Now the economics and sociology of unification, moving
the capital, rebuilding the city, the world economic crisis, the
merger with European markets, and a government with tighter purse
strings have significantly diminished arts funding.
Yet sponsorship for the arts is always deliberated in Germany. Banks,
industry, real estate developers, and private sponsors are being
sought and educated. Monika Grutters, a Parliamentary representative
from the Christian Democratic party and chairperson for the Cultural
Foundation for Bank Gesellschaft said, “Berlin is the focus
for all of Germany. Now that it will have capital status there is
less state money for Public Service. The designation "Pubic
Service" is sub-categorized into: education, science, research
and culture. Before unification the Federal Government gave DM600
million, per year for culture and now the number has been reduced
to 60 million. The cuts also include the compulsory retirement of
80.000 Public Service employees. Sponsorship sought from the private
sector and corporations undermines incentive by the restriction of
narrow categories for donating. One is anonymous and untaxed; the
other, called "classic," is not anonymous and is heavily
Where many wager on the success of Berlin as a city of opportunity,
others see certain realities as a hindrance. In Critical Inquiry
(Autumn 1997) Andreas Huyssen says, "Berlin already has surplus
office space for rent, yet more is being built every day. There is
good reason to doubt whether Helmut Jahn's happy tent, which hovers
on Potsdamer Platz above the central plaza of the Sony development,
will make up for the loss of urban life that these new developments
will inevitably entail."
Klaus Biesenbach, a resident of Berlin for the past 10 years says, "Berlin
can be seen as representative of an evolving international situation,
but at this moment, Berlin really presents more areas of friction
than other cities. Five years ago people thought Berlin would have
five million inhabitants, but instead the numbers are falling. Berlin
is unpredictable." Perhaps with jobs created by the newly residing
corporations and government, the equation will change.
Ostentatious architectural glut combined with the relocation of the
capital presents a larger question for the future of Berlin. Is this
a Babylonian Glitzkrieg like Los Angeles or Tokyo whose future pretentiousness
may be seen as an asset, or will it be blighted by the logistical
issues of difference, location, economics, unification and a shroud
of history that won't go away?
Carolee Thea is a writer and curator living in New York City
CAROLEE THEA INTERVIEWS KLAUS BIESENBACH AT THE BERLIN BIENNALE 1998.
Klaus Biesenbach, the curator of the 1998 Berlin Biennale is also
the artistic director of Kunst-Werke, the Center for Contemporary
Art in Berlin. His exhibitions include the Berlin Biennial (1998),
the opening of PS 1 in New York (1997), "Nach Weimar" at
the Kunstsammlungen zu Weimar (1996), "Club Berlin" and "Projected
Images" at the Venice Biennale (1997) and collaborations at
Documenta X, "Hybrid Workspace" (1997), and in Berlin, "Christo
in Berlin" (1993).
Carolee Thea: I understand that you originally studied medicine.
How did it happen that you became involved in the art world?
Klaus Biesenbach: I was always involved in the art world while I
was studying medicine. When I came to Berlin I volunteered in the
Kulturamt, the cultural administration and I was asked to found the
Kunst-Werke. There was an empty building that was planned to house
studios and an exhibition center. First everybody thought it was
state-owned and would be financed by the city but then a claim was
filed by a family who said they owned it. It turned out that we rented
it from someone who didn't own iso we had, by law, no contract.
CT: How was Kunst- Werke originally formed? Who were some of the
members and are they still involved:
KB: Alexandra Binsholm was one of the founding members as well as
Philipp von Doering, as well as myself and Alfonso Rutelliano. Alfonso
is now a lawyer in New York. Alexandra and Philipp are still on the
board. And I am the artistic director.
CT: What is the nature of the alliance that you have with P.S.1?
KB: It is a conceptual alliance. For me it was important to go first
through the renovation with P.S. 1 and reconceive the institution
in order to learn to do this in Berlin.
CT: In the past you worked with the Hochschule in Berlin. Will you
continue to work with younger artists?
KB: Definitely. I have been a guest lecturer at curatorial programs
and I also work with some cultural institutions in New York and New
Jersey. I think it is interesting to work with emerging artists or
students who are just learning to be artists.
CT: How will Kunst-Werke function now?
KB: That is a question for the cultural ministry that provides the
funding. That's really an important question-- if they will be able
to provide enough support for the Kunst-Werke to become a real institution.
Before it was more of a student initiative and now it has become
an internationally known space in the city. I think the city has
to decide if they want to invest or not.
CT: Kathrin Becker said that Kunst-Werke started as an interesting
co-op hut and has now become the "Kempinsky" of the art
world in Berlin. First it was a very small hotel and now, a very
KB: I like the comparison. The difference in the metaphor is that
it is still a place for emerging artists. The Kempinsky has different
clients than a small hotel. We will stick with the young guests.
The service is improved and the young guests remain, it is perfect!
CT: The Berlin Biennale is like a laboratory for contemporary art
and culture. How were the artists chosen?
KB: The artists were chosen by a team. The idea was to choose emerging
artists who became more visible in the '90s, who have worked or lived
in the city of Berlin or around it, and who have an interdisciplinary
CT: Will you do the Congress again?
KB: Yes, I will. The Congress was a very important component of the
Biennale. It helped to produce a new piece by Christoph Schlingensief
and performances by Pipilotti Rist, Jonathan Meese, John Bock, and
Honey Suckle Company. They all performed for the first time on a
CT: I liked the boardwalk in the Postfuhramt It functioned like a
parcours while retaining the special character of the architecture.
Especially In the rotunda, along with the work of Tobias Rehberger
and Olafur Eliasson, the dialogue between the architecture and boardwalk
and the sculpture was very successful.
KB: Walter Musacchi designed it. He is very creative and is able
to improvise in difficult conditions like in the Postfuhramt. He
proposed a boardwalk through all the buildings. The Postfuhramt,
in its original state, was like an archaeological site. Creating
another level allowed the possibility of bringing in the artworks.
It cost nothing because the wood was sponsored. It is wood you use
to shape concrete and will be recycled afterwards.
CT: Although the Kunst-Werke is a beautifully renovated building,
the Akademie and the Postfuhramt worked better conceptually. What
do you think?
KB: We originally wanted to use the Kunst-Werke as a construction
site and remove one ceiling, but the whole building threatened to
collapse. Four weeks before the opening, the building itself was
in danger. We were forced to put concrete around everything to secure
the building. We had to install steel beams inside, and because of
fire construction laws, they had to be covered with concrete. For
this reason we couldn't use it as a rough space. It was an emergency
so we decided to paint it and leave the floors raw instead of having
an unpainted but renovated site.
CT: In the original press release there were three curators mentioned.
I was surprised when I arrived to find that only you were remaining.
KB: Putting the concept together and achieving a realization under
incredibly difficult circumstances was impossible for three people
in different locations. It was clear that we had to enlarge the team
because of the interdisciplinary approach and the different aspects
of the show like the Congress and the book. We realized that one
of us had to be here to get this project on earth. The Kunst-Werke
was under heavy renovation at this time so it was like putting a
show into a museum while the museum was being built. It became clear
that one had to be here continuously to direct things and to make
fast decisions. Because of the situation of working closely together
for two years on a very conceptual basis was an arrangement of trust.
Every decision was rechecked with the other ones and the show was
put up in the presence of the curators. Yet certain decisions could
now be made alone freeing the situation enormously. I think all three
of us are pleased to see the concept realized without a loss of too
much energy. We also feel that we found a very contemporary form
of presentation with the enlarged team.
CT: What will happen to these building(s) after the Biennale:
KB: The Akademie is going to he rebuilt by Guenther Behnisch. The
future of the Postfuhramt is unclear and the Kunst-Werke will be
reopened next year as a Center for Contemporary Art, with or without
me. At the moment two floors are occupied with the Biennale and two
more floors will he opened after the completed renovation next year.
CT: Will you do the Biennale again?
KB: I think a lot of people invested a lot of energy, so actually
I think I will do a second one in the year 2000.