Between Past and Future

© Charlotte Landwehr

This year will see the tenth edition of Berlin Art Week. Our Journal introduces a selection of participating artists and looks ahead at what is to come.

Berlin Art Week held its first edition in 2012, a year that looked rather different from the one we are in now. The art ›du jour‹ was Post Internet Art, a movement that brought the logic of the Internet into the exhibition space. The fierce politicisation push of the second half of the decade had yet to make itself felt, and the problems under discussion were different ones. Much of the discourse centred around the market (yet again, still), painting and the market (yet again, still), along with questions of format and material, issues of digital technology, Neoliberalism, this-and-the-other form of speculation, and most especially social media, which everyone, wholly uncritically, thought was absolutely great.

All that was just a few short years ago. And yet: everything that so recently faded into that blind spot of the immediate past, everything that would reappear as history in the not-too-distant future, feels a world apart from where we stand now. The massive upheavals and shifts of the mid-teens onwards have left their mark. There were no discussions about identity politics, activism, or colonialism in 2012 (not to say they didn’t happen, they were simply marginalised and ignored in the prevailing art discourse), no talk of climate and sustainability (it did exist; it’s just that most turned a blind eye), no pandemic with lockdowns and Zoom tours of exhibitions (foreseeable as it was that it might come to this one day).

Elske Rosenfeld, Hugging Angela Davies, Standbild, 2020. © Elske Rosenfeld

Tamina Amadyar, Foto: Ewelina Bialoszewska; Lewis Hammond, Foto: Rachel Israela; Mooni Perry, Foto: Musquiqui Chihying, 2021

All the same, a direct comparison with the beginning of the last decade shows that these issues have since become the cornerstones of current art world discourse—issues that were already timely and pressing ten years ago and were also discussed, but simply did not receive the necessary attention. It is a shift that is also and increasingly evident in the exhibitions and artworks featured in this year’s Berlin Art Week, held 15—19 SEP. As of now, readers can check the Journal on our website for daily features, portraits, shorter and longer interviews, questionnaires, and photo spreads illuminating the participating artists and their work, which is on view in over 50 partner institutions.

Interestingly, quite a few of these shows look to the future and focus on emerging art: the Preis der Nationalgalerie, ›ars viva‹ prize, and ›Artists of the Year‹—three renowned awards for up-and-coming artists—will be in view during this year’s Berlin Art Week. Other highlights include Gallery Weekend Berlin, which for the first time is supplementing its traditional spring date with an autumn edition. Titled ›*Discoveries‹, this autumnal Gallery Weekend Berlin puts the spotlight on lesser-known positions. (The fact that ten years ago, one would probably have spoken somewhat euphemistically of ›emerging artists‹ as opposed to ›discoveries‹ is itself indicative of a change in perspective).

Yet, one cannot help but notice how many Berlin institutions—a city that for decades has portrayed itself and its history as a story of becoming and emerging, as being at the forefront of all that is new und upcoming—have since become established. It has been been around 30 years since the founding of KW Institute for Contemporary Art, a place that is in many ways emblematic of new Berlin institutions in the years after 1989. That jubilee is being marked with a comprehensive programme. The aforementioned Preis der Nationalgalerie has been around for over 20 years, Gallery Weekend Berlin for more than 15. And Berlin Art Week, now in its tenth edition, also has cause to celebrate.

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

This specific blend of outlook-seeking and retrospection is something we also want to take into account with the Journal, which will lend equal focus to the past, present, and future of the ›art hub Berlin‹. An essay by Hans-Jürgen Hafner and Kito Nedo takes stock of the not-always-simple diversity of interests, responsibilities, problems, and opportunities in the face of a series of upcoming or ongoing shifts in the city’s institutional structure. To this end, we have asked a number of Berlin art scene protagonists, especially those in institutions, for their take on the situation: Where does Berlin stand in terms of contemporary art? Where does it go from here? What would it need to make that vision a reality?

Self-understanding always comes hand-in-hand with the stories people tell themselves about the past. An unstable today makes for a destablised yesterday—and opens the past to be renegotiated; allows all that has been sifted out, sidelined, or repressed to be made visible, to come to light. In addition to swirling debates on the politics of remembrance this is also reflected in the increased attention to the archive as it can be found in certain artistic approaches. Examples at Berlin Art Week include projects such as ›Vulnerable Archives‹ by Savvy Contemporary in cooperation with Haus der Kulturen der Welt; ›Más Allá, el Mar Canta‹ a Times Art Center exhibition Berlin focused on the history of the Chinese diaspora in Latin America; or the multi-layered practice of artist Sung Tieu—one of four nominees for the Preis der Nationalgalerie—with its emphasis on the archival and the fabrication of facts.

Christopher Cozier, Home/Portal, 2017, digitale Farbfotografie. © Mit freundlicher Genehmigung des Künstlers

Maxwell Alexandre, Conny Maier, Zhang Xu Zhan

History and the archive are also key concerns for artist Elske Rosenfeld, whose work appears in two projects at nGbK. Rosenfeld has spent recent years delving into the role of East German dissident stories along with the post-1990 disappearance of specific artistic practices and approaches that emerged in that context. An in-depth interview with her in the Journal illuminates in an almost exemplary way just how much is systematically buried, glossed over, left out in the writing and telling of history—not to mention how much reappraising, even processing it holds in store. The future, in whatever form it takes, depends directly and crucially on the stories we tell ourselves about the past. And on how such stories are told.