30 Years of KW

Philippe Van Snick, Dag/Nacht, 1984–fortlaufend, Installationsansicht Eingangstor KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Foto: Frank Sperling, Courtesy Tatjana Pieters

KW Institute for Contemporary Art turns 30 this year. Jenny Dirksen, who has been organising the archive of this influential post-1989 Berlin art institution since 2018, presents and comments on a specially compiled assortment of invitation cards from the KW’s various phases—from 1991 to 2021.

What at first appear to be straightforward facts of a historiography drift apart with a closer look. This invitation card, for example, marks the transition to the founding of Kunst-Werke. We mostly mention 1 JUL 1991 as the definitive day of the founding, the date when B.E.A.M. e. V. and Klaus Biesenbach of the Gemeiner Kunstverein joined forces and registered the name KUNST-WERKE BERLIN e. V. in the register of associations. But artist Timo Kahlen pointed out to me that the name Kunst-Werke Berlin had already appeared on this invitation card by then—that is, before the official naming and also before the first exhibition at Auguststraße 69, the premises in use today.

This announcement for the exhibition ›PAN AM‹ featuring Stefan Heidenreich, Daniel Pflumm, and Pit Schultz is also the only remaining evidence of that show in the archive. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, it is one of the objects that holds the most fascination for everyone who has taken a look at these early Kunst-Werke documents with me—symptomatic, in my opinion, of the continued relevance and accessibility of Daniel Pflumm’s work.

The 1993 exhibition ›trap‹—less an exhibition than a statement, according to creators Art in Ruins, Stephan Geene, and BüroBert—radically asks what is left of political activism and political discourses when they are transferred to the exhibition context, and what mechanisms of exclusion and discriminatory structures are inherent not least to the institutions themselves. These questions have been a growing point of interest in art for a few years now. Projects like ›trap‹ show that this is not the first time this has been the case. They point to an exhibition history of protest.

This is a negative inversion of a black-and-white photograph by Uwe Walter, who documented Kunst-Werke exhibitions for years and also had a studio there. It served as the cover for invitation cards to two exhibition projects in 1995: a corridor by Bruce Nauman and an exhibition on Gerhard Merz’s never-realised plans for the Lustgarten on Museum Island. The photo shows the inner courtyard of Kunst-Werke. The conflation of Nauman’s experiential artistic architecture and Merz’s monumental, controversial, and ultimately failed public arts building project with a certain kind of ruins-charm nostalgia for the Kunst-Werke’s own premises before its imminent renovation shows, in my opinion, the degree to which the rapid reconstruction of Berlin-Mitte has been reflected not only in the exhibition programme, but also in the Kunst-Werke’s self-presentation as an institution.

Café Bravo, designed by Dan Graham, is doubtlessly one of KW’s most iconic landmarks. This postcard was made shortly after the café was completed in 1998. What interests me most about it is the reference to »fresh roasted coffees, baked goods & fusion cooking«. »Fusion cooking« here could be synonymous with gentrification—a reference to the development of the ›Kunstmeile Auguststraße‹ (Auguststraße art-mile), as the press has dubbed it since 1994. Though the café’s culinary offer has changed relatively little since then, the vibe is much more sedate today: gentrification is complete.

This flyer was apparently printed and distributed in 1998 on the occasion of the 1st Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art: There was a raffle to win a flight to New York for the opening of the P.S.1 exhibition ›Children of Berlin: Cultural Developments 1989—1999‹, which constituted to some degree an extension and continuation of the Biennale. This raffle shows the institution’s close cooperation with P.S.1, personified by Klaus Biesenbach, but also points to ›Children of Berlin‹ as both the peak and swan song of a Berlin hype that many in the city criticised as reductionistic and as a sell-out.

1999 saw a number of long-cherished plans come to fruition at KW: with its renaming to KW Institute for Contemporary Art, the logo designed by the graphic design studio LSD, pictured against changing colourful backgrounds, dominated invitation cards for the next few years. This card in particular announces the opening of the hall built by architect Hans Düttmann in the second rear courtyard of the premises (the exhibition featured Sol LeWitt’s ›Cube Without a Corner‹), which expanded KW’s exhibition space by 400 square metres. The hall has since played such a central role in the exhibition scenography that it is hard to imagine KW without it.

I found this event announcement by chance in the midst of the second lockdown and immediately resonated with the questions it raised in 2001, not even a month after 9/11, about the impact on cultural practitioners and the ›global art world‹. I see a number of parallels and points of connection here. To name just two: questioning the parameters of our everyday reality in the face of crises and the role of art institutions as a place for gathering and discussion. The devastating reports and images that are currently reaching us from Kabul let me re-evaluate this card. Especially the question regarding the model function of the West asked 20 years ago can now only be answered with a clear no in light of the shameful behaviour of the Western governments.

›Crimes of the Wehrmacht‹ (2002) and ›Regarding Terror: The RAF-Exhibition‹ (2003) are the exhibitions that have brought KW the most public attention beyond the Berlin Biennale. This is why the institution is often associated with themed exhibitions that take up current debates or help shape them. And yet its solo exhibitions are often extremely impressive as well, as seen here on the cover of the exhibition booklet for ›Absalon‹. Curated by Susanne Pfeffer in 2010, it was a comprehensive retrospective showcasing the work of the Israeli artist, who died at an early age.

›The Bet—A Study on Doubt, Contingency and Meaning in Economy and Society‹ was a performance weekend that KW realised in cooperation with Berliner Festspiele in 2013, soon after the appointment of new curator Ellen Blumenstein. Some elements common to Blumenstein’s way of working appear in the programme, including her understanding of supporting programmes as not merely accompanying but essentially part of and equal to the respective exhibition, as well as a connection to local institutions and participants. Apart from offering a platform for the international contemporary art scene, as best represented by the Berlin Biennale directed by Gabriele Horn, the fostering of this kind of connection is one of the main tasks of an association like KW. The programme leaflet, seen here in its closed form, also shows a change to the institution’s graphic design: Studio Quentin Walesch replaced LSD as the KW’s graphic designer in subsequent years.

Any excursion through the history of a contemporary art association should end in the present and thus with the programme of Krist Gruijthuijsen and Anna Gritz: Exhibitions on view at KW until 19 SEP 2021 include ›Michael Stevenson: Disproof Does Not Equal Disbelief‹ and the group show ›Zeroes and Ones‹, complemented as of 21 AUG by the ›BPA// Exhibition‹. From the former, I have chosen the exhibition poster designed by Marc Hollenstein, which takes a cue from one of the exhibition’s visual motifs: the Schiphol fly, strategically placed to catch viewers’ attention.

All images: Courtesy KW Institute for Contemporary Art

30 Jahre KW
Performance & Programme
Special Opening Hours Berlin Art Week
18 SEP, 11am—10pm
19 SEP, 11am—7pm

Michael Stevenson
3 JUL—19 SEP 2021

Zeros and Ones
21 AUG—19 SEP

BPA// Exhibitions 2021
21 AUG—19 SEP 2021

KW Digital: Open Secret
16 JUL—31 DEC 2021