Article by Faye Campbell // Sept. 10, 2019
At the end of August, Berlin Art Prize celebrated the opening of nine solo shows in project spaces throughout the city, each one for a shortlisted candidate: Musquiqui Chihying, Marianna Christofides, Larissa Fassler, Esteban Rivera Ariza, Ada van Hoorebeke, Agnes Scherer, Wieland Schönfelder, Joshua Schwebel and Min-Wei Ting. The various locales of the prize exhibitions are a testament to the cultural and artistic vibrancy of Berlin as well as the artist- and art historian–led, community-driven origins of the prize itself, which is now in its ninth year and allows for an intimate presentation and understanding of the finalists’ works. The exhibitions are supplemented by free readings, performances and discussions, ensuring that the program is continuously accessible within the public realm. While the multiplicity of locations endangers the prize to appear fractured and incoherent, it instead gestures towards communal care and effort by the artists and organizers. Several of the works respond to and build off of the physical spaces themselves, making the location an intrinsic aspect of the artists’ works. This year, participating project spaces include Ashley, Display, gr_und, Horse & Pony, Kinderhook & Caracas, Kreuzberg Pavilion, The Institute for Endotic Research, Very and SMAC.
In ‘The Ground’, Schwebel uses the Kreuzberg Pavillon as a starting point to open dialogues surrounding gentrification and the tenuous position of art spaces and galleries located within the neighbourhood. Central to his project is the host institution itself, both thematically and in terms of the raw material of his project: Schwebel painstakingly removed the previous flooring and replaced it with hand-crafted woodwork using repurposed panels and other wood materials found in the area, carefully sanded down and levelled. The Kreuzberg Pavillon is located in a neighbourhood drastically affected by gentrification that has displaced long-term residents and forced business closures. Schwebel’s work is tangibly linked to this physical and geographical space, and seeks to reveal the connections between art and the larger sociopolitical context. His work is permanent, yet its longevity in the space is uncertain, gesturing to the fragile position of many of the independent artist-run spaces in the face of sweeping gentrification.
Schwebel’s material work is supplemented by found objects that mirror archaeological findings. Presented in glass cases, he has a ticket-stub and cut-outs from newspapers discovered in the walls when removing the sideboards, and leaflets and printouts that subvert PR rhetoric and marketing language. ‘The Ground’ ultimately binds the past and the present, gesturing towards the physical memory that Schwebel is also contributing towards, and, contextually speaking, the housing crisis affecting not only Berlin but cities worldwide. At SMAC, Larissa Fassler similarly examines shifting and mutating urban geographies and demographics, combining pre-war, post-war and present-day maps and imagery to specifically focus her lens on Moritzplatz in Kreuzberg as a hub of gentrification.
In ‘Goods & Services’ at Kinderhook & Caracas, Ada Van Hoorebeke builds off of her series ‘Lace Simulations’, a body of work that develops her batik resist dyeing practice. Van Hoorebeke invites visitors to interact with her works physically as they must navigate through a tangled juxtaposition of new, manufactured materials, and hand-made works mirroring traditional production chains. The entire space is transformed, and the result is a cacophony of mediums and materials – hand-dyed fabrics attached to the ceiling by rope and wood, car-fenders, dried pomegranate skins – that challenges the viewer both in the moment of viewing as well as in a larger context: they are asked to consider their own position in terms of capitalist production and globalisation. Van Hoorebeke is activating and drawing on an endangered tradition of craftswomen weaving, a trade that that creates community, enables knowledge sharing and helps to attain financial independence.
At gr_und, Esteban Rivera Ariza presents four films that collectively explore the universal obsession with preservation, both physical and cultural. Weaving the films together is this preoccupation with prolongation and continuance, presented through the lens of various protagonists: a 17th-century scientist and bishop, a Russian astronaut, a child-vampire. Rivera Ariza supplements his films with sculptural installation elements that extend the project beyond the medium of video – a small astronaut that floats above the screen, or a monitor placed within a child-sized coffin – perhaps reminding the viewer that these concerns are palpable in our quotidian lives. Punctuating the films is a pulsating red light behind the screens, highlighting the anxieties felt with the narratives and otherworldly tones in many of the works.
The various spaces engage and challenge the visitor; evaluation and critique are not readily available with an easy compare-and-contrast after an initial peripheral scan. Instead, audiences must absorb a work fully in each unique space. Berlin Art Prize therefore resists immediate comparison and rather invites individual contemplation, underscoring the intimate nature of the shows themselves.