With Scoot now offering direct Singapore-Berlin flights, there’s never been a better time for the art lover to visit Berlin. The sprawling city has hundreds of art galleries and museums. And the city is so conducive to art-making that some 20,000 artists from all over the world have settled in Berlin – including acclaimed Singapore artists Ming Wong and Ang Song Ming.
Meanwhile, calls in the art world to broaden the canon to include non-Western art have resulted in major European institutions rethinking their curation and expanding their collections with works from Asia, Africa and South America.
The 10th Berlin Biennale opened last month with a focus on artists of African heritage, highlighting several overlooked figures. The new show at the Hamburger Bahnhof saw the museum dedicating its massive 108,000 square feet of space to art from across the world, underscoring its intention to keep pace with global perspectives.
Other famous contemporary art museums such as the Gropius Bau, the Boros Collection, the Julia Stoschek Collection and the Kindl continue to impress with their solid curation. We pick three must-see major shows in Berlin right now.
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01. HAMBURGER BAHNHOF
This converted train station situated between what was once East and West Germany is one of the largest art museums in the world. Covering the entire exhibition space of 108,000 square feet with art from around the world is no small feat; looking at all the works on display requires half a day at least.
Titled Hello World. Revising A Collection, the exhibition represents the museum’s attempt to tell the story of art from various Western and non-Western perspectives. There are 13 sections, each one starting at a different point of the world.
There is, for instance, a section on Indonesian art that begins with giants Raden Saleh (1811 – 1880) and Paul Gauguin (1848 – 1943), both offering up different notions of the Orient, and then moving to pictorial visions of Walter Spies (18-95 – 1942), a European in Bali who influenced and was influenced by the Balinese painting tradition.
Living artists such as Gede Mahendra Yasa and I Made Budi continue to create detailed, dense and elaborate paintings within that Balinese tradition, but imbue them with contemporary social commentary that subvert any romantic reading of Indonesia. The section ends with Tita Salina’s video work that also critiques the Western notion of an island paradise.
Elsewhere, a section on Mexican art begins in the 1920s and traces the impulse of artists to blur the distinction between indigenous crafts and modern art, in an attempt to assert a visual narrative of Mexican history and culture. Examples are found in the art of Diego Rivera (1886 – 1957; twice married to Frida Kahlo), which carry through to that of living contemporary artists such as Mariana Castillo Deball.
The main setback of this otherwise ambitious exhibition is the fact that the museum is relying on its own permanent collection and those of its cousins Alte Nationalgalerie and Neue Nationalgalerie, to draw links between Western art and art from the rest of the world. It’s a deliberate exercise in exposing the gaps within its own Western-centric collections.
As a non-Western viewer of the exhibition, these gaps can be mildly discomfiting. A fellow visitor and Indian art enthusiast, for instance, was disappointed that the section on India was missing works by nearly all the major figures of modern Indian art. What the exhibition represents is a valiant attempt by a Western institution to take the first step in redressing its less than international collection – and that should be taken at face value.
Hello World. Revising A Collection runs from now till Aug 26.
02. THE 10TH BERLIN BIENNALE
The 10th Berlin Biennale opened last month with much excitement over its appointed South African curator Gabi Ngcobo, who chose works by mostly artists of African heritage for the five Biennale venues: KW Institute of Contemporary Art, Akademie der Kunste, HAU Hebbel am Ufer and ZK/U Centre for Art & Urbanistics.
Defiantly titled We Don’t Need Another Hero, there is an attempt to reclaim territory from a Western-dominated art world – even if Ngcobo and her all-black curatorial team are loath to label the Biennale’s artists as “black artists”. Much of the art makes strong statements about racial, sexual and gender identities that are shunned, but the strategies the artists employ aren’t always new or exciting.
For instance, one of the most memorable works is Natasha A. Kelly’s Milli’s Awakening, a subdued black-and-white video featuring eight Afro-German women speaking candidly about the casual racism they encounter every day. Another video work titled Again by Mario Pfeiffer is a slick reenactment and deconstruction of the real-life death of a mentally-ill Iraqi asylum seeker who was beaten up by four men in Saxony, Germany in 2016.
Perhaps the most powerful work in the Biennale is Dineo Seshee Bopape’s installation which takes over the main hall of KW Institute of Contemporary Art. Bopape has created a scene of terrible destruction, with broken pipes and columns lying amid piles of debris, all lit in angry red. Amid the messy landscape is a TV set showing Nina Simone singing in concert; Simone in her later years became a fearless activist fighting for black and women’s rights. Bopape seems to be conjuring a world that’s thoroughly destroyed; its only hope rests in the visions of mavericks like Simone.
The Biennale also finds hope in important black artists who may be celebrated in their countres but are largely overlooked by the global art world. Late black female artists such as Belkis Ayon, Mildred Thompson and Gabisile Nkoso have their powerful works respectfully displayed at key sections of the Biennale.
To be sure, the Berlin Biennale is no stranger to controversy: the 2012 edition invited members of the Occupy movement to participate, while the 2016 edition explored the nebulous and nascent concept of post-Internet art. This 2018 edition feels quieter because the works, despite their firm statements, aren’t as wild and confrontational. But it’s nonetheless a groundbreaking one because it places the au courant issues of diversity and intersectionality at the centre of attention.
The 10th Berlin Biennale runs from now till Aug 9.
03. GROPIUS BAU
Gropius Bau has long prided itself as a venue for cutting-edge art. Its current exhibition on immersive spatial art since the 1960s is one of the best things in Berlin right now. Titled Welt Ohne Aussen (World Without Exteriors), it is curated by contemporary artist Tino Sehgal and author and dramaturg Thomas Oberender, and completely challenges the relationship between art and the spectator.
Sehgal, if you don’t know, is a German artist who’s been upending the rules of the art market since the 2000s. He doesn’t sell paintings, sculpture, photographs or anything tangible; instead he creates “constructed situations” in which the art visitor unexpectedly finds herself in and must navigate.
For instance, one could be walking in a museum lobby when one comes across a couple rolling on the floor in romantic ecstasy; one could be strolling in a garden when a stranger suddenly bursts into song. Unlike other artists, Sehgal generally prohibits the photographing and documenting of his works. In other words, you have to be there to experience the work – otherwise you wouldn’t see it at all.
The exhibition of Gropius Bau is then a kind of extension of the art he makes. Many of the works do not make sense if they’re captured on camera – you have to be there in person. For instance, one of the works is Wolfgang Georgsdorf’s olfactory machine. It pumps out scents that transport you to a dozen different rural and urban landscapes within the span of 10 minutes. One moment you’re smelling strong coffee that evokes scenes of a cafe, the next moment you’re hit by the pungent stench of dense foliage in a hot, humid jungle.
In a work by Virtual Reality pioneer Nonny De La Penna, you put on a pair of VR goggles and get whisked into a tight prison cell with a prisoner. As the prisoner relates the near madness-inducing frustration of being confined to a small space, you know exactly what he means. The space is so tight, you could see his tattoos and the insides of his toilet bowl. Another work by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster plunges you into complete darkness with nothing and no one to interact with, except for an ominous all-knowing machine ala HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Meanwhile, several rooms are reserved for “live works” which require your participation in the making of the work. They include a tea room where an ongoing tea ceremony bids you sit down, sip tea and truly taste the tea’s complex flavours; a breathing class that asks you to “listen carefully to the blood coursing through your veins”; and ambient dances that put you in touch with your playful inner child.
These artworks and experiences are designed to throw your perception askew and create a new awareness of your body and environment. The wonder of it all is that artists have been creating such mind-bending immersive art for more than 50 years – Doug Wheeler’s shadowless white room, Larry Bell’s disorienting glass maze, and Lucio Fontana and Nanda Vigo’s neon-red cube-cave were made in the 1960s.
Welt Ohne Aussen offers a rare and surprising look at art that occupies the sweet spot between visual art and theatre. If you’re a fan of both, it might be worth taking that Scoot flight to Berlin.The show is on concurrently with solo exhibitions by Philippe Pareno and Ana Mendieta.
Welt Ohne Aussen is on till Aug 5.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.