Art and City: Berlin
Ever evolving city with continuous reinvention
The Berlin edition of Art and City curation will take you on a journey of the much dynamic art scene in the historical city, including some highlights of Berlin Biennale 2022 (June 11 - September 18) curated by Kader Attia with the title Still Present!. Some of the highlighted artworks are by artists who are showing in more than one venues.
Berlin saw much transformation since the 1990s and the local art scene was the reflection of its unique history. Many artists from around the globe moved to Berlin to seek a new sense of freedom and the city still attracts creative minds. The result is a city with many art communities that support and collaborate with each other, offering a diverse range of art.
In 12 administrative boroughs, Berlin offers a wide range of lifestyles, from infrastructure to internationality of the population. The city also gives out different vibes depending on the area. This curation will mainly focus on Mitte and Lichtenberg, exploring the history of the borough as well as what kind of art can be seen.
Mitte: the art center of Berlin
Berlin Biennale 2022 venues in Mitte
Lichtenberg: the historic center of the city
In modern history, Berlin is best known as a city that split in half after Germany was divided into four allied occupation zones (Soviet, American, British and French) in post World War II. Berlin was initially in the territory of the Soviet zone on the east side, but the city was further halved to keep away from West Germany.
In October 1986, Keith Haring (American artist whose pop art emerged from the New York City graffiti subculture of the 1980s) famously painted around 100 meters of murals of his iconic figures and shapes. The project was initiated by Rainer Hildebrandt, then the director of the Checkpoint Charlie Museum (named after the famous crossing point on the Berlin Wall), who invited Haring to use the wall for his canvas. As an attempt to demean the wall, it remains one of Haring’s most politically significant art.
The concrete barrier began to be built from 1961, and by the 1980s, just over 43 km of wall was equipped with electrified fences and some 50,000 landmines. Until the wall was broken down in 1989, the two sides of Berlin saw a very different way of life for almost 30 years; and just now just over 30 years have passed, the city welcomes visitors with different characteristics depending on the areas.
If you are flying in, the main airport is Berlin Brandenburg (former Schönefeld Airport) in the south east of the city; Tegel Airport in the north west of Berlin is now permanently closed since 2020. Berlin’s public transport is well organized, so the city center is easily reachable from the airport by car or trains, and around the city.
Mitte is also where the Museum Island on the south east side of the borough. Here, you will find more classical art from Altes Museum designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel to Neues Museum renovated by David Chipperfield.
In the north west of the Museum Island is Boros Foundation, a private collection of contemporary art in a converted bunker. Although closing in 2022, Julia Stoschek’s Berlin space is highly recommended for its world’s most comprehensive private collection of time-based art.
In the south west corner of Mitte, you will also find the recently refurbished Neue Nationalgalerie, which was originally built in the 1960s.
Most of the Berlin Biennale 2022 spread across in KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Akademie der Künste (two venues), Hamburger Bahnhof, and Dekoloniale Memory Culture in the City is in the borough of Mitte; apart from a selection of works which are in the Stasi Museum located in the borough of Lichtenberg. It is helpful to note that there is not an exhibition space, but only one work that is displayed on the shop-window at Dekoloniale Memory Culture in the City.
Biennale Main Venues
KW Institute for Contemporary Art
Akademie der Künste Hanseatenweg
Akademie der Künste Pariser Platz
Dekoloniale Memory Culture in the City
Other Art Spaces
The Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art was founded by Klaus Biesenbach and a group of collectors and patrons in 1996. The 1st ever edition of the biennale titled Berlin/Berlin occurred in 1998, curated by Klaus Biesenbach together with Hans Ulrich Obrist and Nancy Spector; it tried to describe the city’s discourse at the time and provide artists living and working in Berlin an international platform. As well as including some established artists, the aim of the biennale was to showcase a representative international contemporary art exhibition to direct attention to less known, or younger artists, which the effort continues to date.
*A biennale is a large-scale international exhibition that occurs every two years. Find out more about biennales via eazel categories.
Many artists have addressed the issue of decolonization in the past and it continued to be a highly urgent matter. Berlin Biennale 2022 highlights the remaining colonial aftermaths and looks back on the past two decades’ decolonial engagement in an attempt to create a critical conversation about how far we have come and how much further we need to go to tackle the ongoing colonial hauntology.
The modern day concept of decolonization began between 1945 and 1960 in some areas of Asia and Africa, declaring independency from their colonial rulers. It soon became obvious that decolonization is not as simple as having independent political or financial power. To completely be free from the colonial past, social and cultural decolonization was needed. Due to the highly penetrative nature of colonialism, the generational residue of colonialism is easily passed down.
KW Institute for Contemporary Art was founded in the early 1990s by Klaus Biesenbach, Alexandra Binswanger, Clemens Homburger, Philipp von Doering and Alfonso Rutigliano in the former margarine factory. For the past 30 years, KW has reflected the dynamic and lively art of Germany and beyond, engaging in contemporary dialogues and discourses. KW plays an important role and has a historical relationship with Berlin Biennale as it is where the biennale was inaugurated in 1998.
Giving the illusion of movement as the floor space is also part of the moving image, the most immersive presentation from the KW is Maithu Bùi’s 2-channel video installation Mathuât - MMRBX, which is based on a virtual reality game.
Believing that remembering the past is a way to resist against the postcolonial amnesia, the work communicates with the dead through mythology. In association with a ritual of caring for the dead to rest the spritist in peace, the installation adds to the Vietnamese diaspora discourse by owning the memory and telling the narrative from their perspective.
Another highlighted film work at KW is Mónica de Miranda’s PATH TO THE STARS, which addresses the politics of ecology with an example of Portuguese invasion of Angola via The Kwanza River that runs to the Atlantic Ocean.
On the boundary of history and utopia, the just under 35-minute film takes you on a journey with the main character traveling the symbolic voyage from the past-present-future (along the river to the ocean). The film leaves you with a thought that this kind of reflection of one’s past is a brave one as it forces encounter with ghosts from the past; yet much necessary as part of a healing process.
Last but not least highlight of KW is multidisciplinary artist Deneth Piumakshi Veda Arachchige’s photographs and sculptural installation that tell the stories of her ancestors (the Indigenous Adivasi) in Sri Lanka.
Among the presented works, Self-Portrait as Restitution – from a Feminist Point of View shows the figure holding a replica skull of ab Adivasi man whoes head was violently removed by Paul and Fritz Sarasin on their scientific expeditions, just to study the head that was considered “primative”. With the accompanied writing on the right explaining how their bodies were “othered”, Arachchige pay respect and gives back the voice to the ancestors’ souls.
Hamburger Bahnhof - Museum für Gegenwart - originally was one of the first terminal stations of the German railway system, opening the line between Hamburg and Berlin in 1846. Conceived by Friedrich Neuhaus and reconstructed by Josef Paul Kleihues in 1996, then was further expanded to accommodate Friedrich Christian Flick Collection.
With 10,000 square meters of exhibition space, the museum offers spacious venue for Berlin Biennale 2022, especially for works that require large space and time to digest.
Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s AIR CONDITIONING, which has an aesthetics of light and fluffy clouds from Rococo paintings, show the violation of privacy and health of Lebanese caused by Israeli military aircrafts between 2007 and 2021.
Published for the first time and using forensic analysis of the data from the United Nations Digital Library, every centimeter of the installation references to a single day during the 15-year period. What feels like a short moment, Abu Hamdan has put those days together into an expansive horizontal installation that covers three walls of a large room.
Water is generally represented as a vital element in human life and the ecosystem, and Calida Garcia Rawles uses water as a multiple symbolic subject in her paintings of figures submerged under the ripples.
In paintings by Rawles, water is a complex entity that give passage of freedom, but also deadly at the same time in the reality of African diasporic context. The large scale paintings also embraces the audience looking up at the works, providing an immersive experience.
As you approach a room where Clément Cogitore’s LES INDES GALANTES (The Amorous Indies) is presented, there is a sound of a 1735 opera by Jean-Philippe Rameau; the opera-ballet is famous for bringing performers of African descent to the French national stage for the first time.
Made in collaboration with Krump dancers and choreographers Bintou Dembélé, Brahim Rachiki, and Igor Caruge, the film explores the spatial dynamics of aesthetics and culture in relation to race. The film addresses the need to juxtapose elements that challenges intercultural encounters.
Zach Blas’s 576 TEARS portrays AI as a god that collects and feeds on tears of human in order to become more knowledgeable, therefore gaining more power.
Rather intrusive and overwhelming - both in scale and aesthetically - installation makes you wonder the relationship between those in the position of power (with all the data) and the general population (people who have to give up their data to access day-to-day activities such as banking).
With two venues in Hanseatenweg and Pariser Platz, Akademie der Künste is an international community of artists. The academy first opened in 1696 and moved to its now venue at Pariser Platz in 1907. Less than four decades later the building was damaged during the World War II. With the division of Berlin, the western location on Hanseatenweg was built in 1960 for exhibitions and other programs.
The Pariser Platz site was renovated with a glass exterior and was part of the first ever Berlin Biennale in 1998. Many editions of the biennale have taken place at one of the two academy sites, and the 2022 edition marks the first time that the both venue are used.
Exploring contradiction and confusion, Tammy Nguyen creates addresses geopolitics, nature, and spirituality. For the biennale, Nguyen made paintings that were inspired by the former Vietnamese refugee camp in Pulau Galang in Indonesia, that was in operation between 1979 to 1996.
Religion plays a significant role in colonisation, often imposing “Western” beliefs; paradoxically it then offers salvation to the people, like Catholicism in Vietnam. Pulau Galang is a small island that insects and animals roam freely. Nguyen’s paintings put the story of crucifixion in the centre, and details of nature in the background. With multiple layers on the canvas, the body of works makes the viewer create their own narrative based on the knowledge of colonial legacy, nature and religion.
Addressing the effects of state and corporate power on our environment, Forensic Architecture analyzes toxic air caused by chemicals such as tear gas used on democratic protests.
With a principle that everything can be traced back, Forensic Architecture takes on the symbolic and literal concept of clouds to illustrate the harm; clouds in paintings are sometimes seen as an antidote to the order and scientific classification, as well as having the literal meaning of depicting weather conditions.
Tuấn Andrew Nguyễn presents MY AILING BELIEF CAN CURE YOUR WRETCHED DESIRES, a two-channel video installation that is inspired by the Vietnamese ecosystem with a layer of mythology and political history making up the narrative.
Through the work, Nguyễn tells a story of the rhinos that is in extreme danger of extinction due to the colonial Chinese rulers poaching them for medicine that is not backed by any science; killing the rhinos for no good reason at all.
Khandakar Ohida’s Dream Your Museum is presented at the end room in Akademie der Künste, Pariser Platz, with a collected materials on the floor in front of the short film projected on the wall.
Addressing the socio-political hierarchies and conditions of financial flexibility as a aftermath of colonial ruling, Ohida tells the story of her uncle who collects items in rural India, that pose questions about coexistence of the objects depending on their value. What has become a domestic museum, the collection of found objects have their own journey without the surveillance of the traditional categorization.
Mitte is great to walk to places, especially in the south west part of the borough, as it has Großer Tiergarten; Berlin’s oldest park with 520 acres of land. The park gives relaxing moments between tourist attractions and exhibition spaces. You will also find a friendly wurst (German sausage) van with an understate exterior that blends into the park; it offers snacks and drinks in a relaxed atmosphere.
Other Art Spaces
Dong Xuan Center
Another borough that you must explore when in Berlin is Lichtenberg, which gives out a very different vibe than Mitte. There are many examples of block-style concrete architecture from the past, including the Stasi Museum, where a small selection of works from Berlin Biennale 2022 is presented.
The borough is popular by young families as it is one of the safest areas in Berlin, with parks surrounding Obersee and Orankesee. Obersee is also known for the architect and the last Bauhaus director Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s last project before he emigrated to America; a commision by Karl and Martha Lemke to build their home overlooking the lake, which you can visit on the walks around the area.
Lichtenberg is also where Villa Heike is located, a landmark with incredibly layered history that starts from 1881 as a canned meat factory to Soviet occupation in post World War II. Now the building provides artist studios and exhibition spaces.
Cross the street from Villa Heike is Studios-ID (a.k.a the Intelligence Department Studios), which is within the former Operative Technical Sector in the restricted area operated by the Ministry of State Security. It is one of the many artist studios in the area due to relatively affordable prices.
Stasi Headquarters. Campus for Democracy was one of the buildings in a huge complex of the Ministry for State Security, where surveillance and persecutions took place during the German Democratic Republic era (1949 - 1990). Now the site is a museum and exhibits materials about the past dictatorship and the resistance against it, as well as offering learning platform for democracy.
A handful of artworks are presented at the site by seven artists for Berlin Biennale 2022, addressing the effects of surveillance, communication, and politics of information.
Omer Fast’s A PLACE WHICH IS RIPE, makes the audience wander about the boundaries between private and public when it comes to using surveillance in criminal case such as murder.
Comparing the UK and Germany’s use of CCTVs in public places and ultimately using the information to solve violent cases, Fast addresses the political utilization of crimes to influence citizens’ opinions on technologies that benefit and influences our daily lives; whether personal information should be collected without consent just incase they become resourceful in the future.
Susan Schuppli’s FREEZING DEATHS & ABANDONMENT ACROSS CANADA exposes the political power abused by the police department in an industrial city of Saskatoon, Canada. The temperature of the area drops subzero during the winter months.
Tracing the routes of the victims, the analytic video work by Schuppli shows how Indigenous people have been subjected to racial profiling and have been abandoned in remote spots around the city, with the knowledge that the weather can be used as a traceless weapon.
As you may have noticed from the number of artworks presented in Berlin Biennale 2022, many artists with Vietnamese heritage are included, adding narratives related to Vietnamese history, especially about the decolonization process. Other than the artists highlighted in this edition of curation, there are other artists with Vietnamese background, including: Đào Châu Hải, Mai Nguyễn-Long, Thuy-Han Nguyen-Chi, and Ngô Thành Bắc.
In modern history, the relationship between Berlin and Vietnam goes back to the 1980s; some Vietnamese immigrants went to East Berlin (mostly in Lichtenberg) as temporary workers, and some fled the Vietnam War to West Berlin. After the unification of Germany, most Vietnamese lost their right to live and work in the country, but they still remained and started their own businesses. As a leading Vietnamese sculptors in the post Đổi Mới era (economic reform in 1986), Đào Châu Hải’s BALLAD OF THE EAST SEA in Akademie der Künste (Hanseatenweg) is a good representation of this history, as the artist is heavily influenced by Eastern Bloc aesthetics working with both natural and man-made materials.
One of the landmarks that is historic and remains representative of the modern history of Vietnamese in Berlin is Dong Xuan Center, which grew out of the small businesses set up by the Vietnamese and it is Germany’s best-known Asian wholesale market selling food, textile, leather goods and much more. As the community grew, Vietnamese postcolonial narrative naturally became part of the discourse in Berlin's art scene.
Berlin is ever-changing full of history that shapes the city’s cultural landscape, including practices of contemporary artists. Offering a diverse range of art from museums for classical art to collector run art spaces, Berlin presents its progressive and experimental qualities of contemporary art. Still being one of the most affordable big cities in the world, the environment and the support system allows the artists to solely concentrate on their practice.
If you enjoyed the Berlin edition of Art and City curation series, we can also take you to Venice, Seoul (Part I and Part II), and Hong Kong!
Artwork images credits: Keith Haring in front of his Berlin wall mural in 1986. Photo: Tseng Kwong Chi; Public transportation in Berlin; Brandenburg Gate, Berlin. Image courtesy of Daniel Welsh; View from Barbara Kruger: Bitte lachen / Please cry at Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin; Deneth Piumakshi Veda Arachchige, Jakoba, Tamil woman lower caste (Fisherman caste), Batticaloa, Sri Lanka, 2019. © Deneth Piumakshi Veda Arachchige; Philippe Van Snick, Dag/Nacht, 1984-ongoing, Installation view of above the entrance gate, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin. Photo: Frank Sperling; Courtesy Tatjana Pieters; Maithu Bùi, Mathuât - MMRBX, 2022. © Maithu Bùi; Mónica de Miranda, Still from PATH TO THE STARS, 2022. © Mónica de Miranda; Deneth Piumakshi Veda Arachchige, Self-Portrait as Restitution – from a Feminist Point of View, 2020. © Deneth Piumakshi Veda Arachchige; Exterior of Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin.
Artwork images credits continued: Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Installation view of AIR CONDITIONING, 2022. Photo: Danko Stjepanovic, courtesy Sharjah Art Foundation; Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut/Hamburg; Maureen Paley, London; Mor Charpentier, Paris. © Lawrence Abu Hamdan; Calida Garcia Rawles, A PROMISE, 2020. Courtesy George and Azita Fatheree; New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, London; Various Small Fires, Los Angeles, Seoul. © Calida Garcia Rawles. Photo: Marten Elder; Clément Cogitore, Still from LES INDES GALANTES [The Amorous Indies], 2017. Courtesy Chantal Crousel Consulting; Galerie Reinhard Hauff, Stuttgart. © Clément Cogitore / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022; Zach Blas, Still from 576 TEARS, 2022. © Zach Blas; Exterior of Akademie der Künste, Berlin; Tammy Nguyen, JESUS TAKES UP HIS CROSS, 2022. Courtesy Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, London. © Tammy Nguyen. Photo: Chris Gardner.
Artwork images credits continued: Forensic Architecture, Still from CLOUD STUDIES, 2022. © Forensic Architecture; Tuấn Andrew Nguyễn, Still from MY AILING BELIEF CAN CURE YOUR WRETCHED DESIRES, 2017. Courtesy James Cohan, New York. © Tuấn Andrew Nguyễn; Khandakar Ohida, Still from Dream Your Museum, 2022. © Khandakar Ohida; Exterior of Wurst :-) am Brandenburger Tor, Berlin; Orankesee, Berlin; Exterior of Studios-ID, Berlin; Exterior of Stasi Headquarters. Campus for Democracy, Berlin; Exterior of Stasi Headquarters. Campus for Democracy, Berlin; Omer Fast, Installation view of A PLACE WHICH IS RIPE, 2020; Susan Schuppli, Still from FREEZING DEATHS & ABANDONMENT ACROSS CANADA, from the series COLD CASES, 2021-22. © Susan Schuppli; Mai Nguyễn-Long, SPECIMEN, 2014. © Mai Nguyễn-Long. Photo: Felicity Jenkins; Đào Châu Hải, BALLAD OF THE EAST SEA (detail), 2022. Photo: dotgain.info; Dong Xuan Center, Berlin. © Mo Photography Berlin
*For the images with no credit: © eazel