Christiane Meixner: Kathrin Becker, your first project as the new Artistic Director of the privately-initiated KINDL—Centre for Contemporary Art in Neukölln opened without much fanfare on account of the coronavirus pandemic.
Kathrin Becker: I started here in February 2020 and had relatively little time to prepare the exhibition, which was supposed to open at the end of March. I realised only in retrospect how fortunate it was to have chosen Berlin-based artist Isa Melsheimer, because her work touches on a number of things beyond art or architecture that are also important to me—aspects of feminism, for example. It was also helpful to collaborate with Melsheimer, a sculptor, on developing the space. She put a ceramic whale heart at the architectural centre of her exhibition. A good metaphor, I thought, for the coronavirus era.
Now you’re preparing to open four exhibitions in time for Berlin Art Week. Quite a feat…
I quickly realised that I would have to plan a somewhat larger autumn presentation that would serve as a kind of calling card for what I want to do with future shows. All four exhibitions deal with aspects of critical historiography. They incorporate biographical elements that have permeated my entire curatorial life, like my interest in Eastern Europe and especially Russia, for example, which was something like my start in the art world in the 1990s. It is an area that has always had an awareness of what we now refer to as inclusion and exclusion—questions surrounding the dominance of Western discourse, for instance.
Where does that particular interest come from?
I was born in Hagen in Westphalia and chose Russian as my second foreign language at school. At 15 I visited Moscow for the first time; later I studied art history and Slavic studies and spent two years in Leningrad. One thing I noticed early on was that contemporary art from Russia is recognised the moment it becomes useful.
Exhibitions here in Germany tended to show work that illustrated and reiterated the hell of socialism, and did it particularly well. Interest ebbed in many cases as soon as things had some resolution at the political level.
The KINDL exhibition space is currently under renovation. Is that a reaction to Isa Melsheimer’s architectural interventions as well?
No. In that case it was more about enriching my programme with certain set of topics that are inherent to the artist’s work—questions about the relationship between architecture, humans, and the environment, for example.
So what’s changing in the building?
We’re setting up a new format and are currently in the process of building a space for it: the M1 VideoSpace, where I plan to show single-channel videos. The space will open with Ann Oren’s filmic work ›Passage‹. As a curator I have often been bothered by the unsustainability of art-world video displays. They’re usually built for a specific project and destroyed immediately afterwards. We want media art to be a permanent fixture at KINDL. That’s not exactly a unique selling point in Berlin, but I would like to treat video presentations like exhibitions: with their own openings and long running times.
What else is going on around Berlin Art Week?
We have site-specific solo presentations at the Kesselhaus, which had already been shown for de-celeratingly long periods under my predecessor Andreas Fiedler. In autumn we’ll have a show by Nik Nowak, whose work has engaged in-depth with historical narratives and the question as to what extent sound and audio can serve as a means of political influence and propaganda. His solo show ›Schizo Sonics‹ will be dominated by two gigantic tracked vehicles. As mobile sound units they describe a border situation including, among other things, the radio war between East and West Berlin.
How did you come to historiography as a focal point?
I quickly realised that the exhibitions need to have a shared thematic connection, no matter how different they might otherwise be. This artistic confrontation with history is a major issue at the moment—also because new, in many cases right-wing, forces are busy writing their own version of it. So the topic has relevance beyond the art world; it affects the social sphere. I had been planning a group exhibition like ›The Invented History‹ for some time but hadn’t realised it yet. Artists such as Aslan Goisum resolutely focus on bringing otherwise supressed discourses to light. His video work deals with the Soviet authority’s systematic deportation of the Chechen people since 1945. Survivors of these deportations appear on camera and say nothing, but even their physical presence is very powerful. Anna Dasović has also done a great deal of in-depth research on the Srebrenica massacre.
So visitors should expect a challenge…
There are other works as well, including a futuristic rendering of sculptures by Yael Bartana where weapons have turned into fossils. Or a video by Larissa Sansour consisting of real film and animation. I do believe ›The Invented History‹ has a high level of information density. But you also have solo exhibitions by Ann Oren or Lerato Shadi, which are more sensory.
How important is it to invite popular artists for the first big show as a kind of crowd-puller? Berlin Art Week has a number of events going on at the same time, and all compete for attention. Does it make a difference or not?
I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a consideration at all. I think there are two strategies one can pursue as a curator: the first is to work with established artistic positions as a hanger-on, which has a mostly validating effect. But I’ve always been more interested in the other approach: exhibiting someone whose work is exciting or who comes from a certain context. I have more of an explorer mentality, although many of the artists in the upcoming exhibitions are of course well known. Still, I’m sure that crowd-pulling effect can also be had with a focus on certain topics. You don’t need to namedrop. Especially here in this neighbourhood; to me it seems more interesting and obvious to invite artists from diverse cultural and biographical backgrounds.