At the traditional epicenter of Berlin’s Biennale, curator Juan A. Gaitán has seamlessly arranged a collection of diverse works into the space. With its many floors and spacious atrium, KW is an expansive exhibition site, yet the works fully take over the space, creating a world in which the viewer stands most often among the works as a participant, rather than in front as a spectator.
There are many ways to go about the exhibition with map in hand, but start perhaps first on the main and lower levels, which hold the most to see in terms of quantity. At first overwhelming, especially the great, sky lit hall of the lowest level, these areas hold works of such an attention to detail and intelligent query, it’s worth taking your time to see, or rather, study, the pieces by Irene Kopelman, Tonel, or Mariam Suhail. With a bit of politics, a bit of craft, and lots of intricate works arranged quasi-archivally, these works are provocative, documentary, and sometimes abstract.
Before heading upstairs, find the curtained room that features the video work of David Zink Yi. The strangers (2014), as the title suggests, gives us a peek into a foreign world, a place normal people do not have access to: the world of mines. And yet these images of the dim underground begin to feel oddly familiar, despite their darkness and massive, noisy machinery. A place in which a worker fumbles with an uncooperative ladder and actions become a numbing routine. As the images switch from the noisy mines to completely still and silent images of rock radiating in natural sunlight, this numbing quality is only further compounded by the switch back into the darkness below, pierced by industrial lighting, swarming with the constant hum of machines. All the while, one might sense this numbness as a kind of sympathy for the paralyzing world of the mines: the constant change from lightness to dark, from silence to deafening machines, which after a while merely becomes routine.
Also on the main level, one artist especially stands out in her work’s tender mix of materials, and in her subtle narrative that emerges in the way only art seems to manage. Untitled (2013-14) by Shilpa Gupta uses mixed media in depicting the “Chhitmahal,” or pockets of India within Bangladesh and pockets of Bangladesh within India, places of perpetual statelessness. To show us this place of invisible borders, lost mail, and never-ending questions of legality, Gupta relies on interviews, photographs, historical records, markings, and drawings. But she chooses to tell the story in many poignant ways, such as drawings made with the stains of phensedyl, a codeine based cough syrup that is illegal in Bangladesh but legal in India.
With In Pursuit of Bling (2014), Otobong Nkanga presents us with an unexpected use of media, encouraging the viewer to walk around the shrine-like form multiple times. There are questions on civilization, cities, who is native, who is a stranger, and whether there is really such a difference. Look. Look Away. Look Back (2014) also has me wandering through its complex, controlled world. Here, Judy Radul sets up a kind of museum within the exhibition, using display cases, custom made cameras, control systems, live camera feeds, and prerecorded video. Themes of capturing, collecting, displacement, and display play throughout and have the viewer watching themselves watch the art, until certain moments of texts appear to make things clearer and fade again into oblivion.
Throughout the space of KW, distinct divisions frame the works to allow for moments of feeling almost utterly alone within the art. This is especially the case for the works of Leonor Antunes, where the entire floor is preserved for the piece, a secluded and pleasant land. in this land I wish to dwell (2014). You’ll know you’ve found it when the smell hits you: the warm, sweetness of teak and the slight bitterness of hemp. Intricate details and the application of materiality with hemp ropes, silk yarns, and fragile copper, create movement in static objects so that there is a constant anticipation in the stillness. Light also creates the feeling of movement among the works, always changing and guiding the viewer through the maze of this temporary world.
Sarah Gretsch has been living in Germany since January 2012. Originally from the United States, where she pursued her Bachelor’s in Art history, she is now continuing her studies in Berlin.