KW in Berlin’s Journey from Derelict Factory to International Art Space

BERLIN — Three many years in the past, Auguststrasse 69, a constructing in Berlin’s Mitte district, was a derelict former margarine manufacturing facility occupied by a ragtag group of scholars. Regardless of leaky roofs and caved-in flooring, they threw events, made artwork and mounted exuberant no-budget exhibitions.

Final weekend, fashionable crowds lined up outdoors the identical constructing, now the KW Institute of Modern Art, to have a good time the establishment’s thirtieth birthday; its now-verdant courtyard and clean white partitions far from the crumbling facades of the Nineties.

Housed in a rectangle of buildings framing the courtyard, KW is one among Berlin’s best-known venues for the edgy and typically anarchic work for which town is thought.

In these buildings are an enormous white-cube exhibition area and ethereal halls, together with a basement bar, places of work and storage attics. However 30 years in the past, most rooms have been creaky, chilly artist studios. The district’s previous buildings had fallen into wreck beneath Communism, or have been deserted by East Berliners all of a sudden free to transfer when the Wall got here down.

Vital art-world figures have since labored and exhibited right here: The German photographer Thomas Demand and the Italian conceptual artist Monica Bonvicini have been early residents. The American efficiency artist Joan Jonas labored right here, as did the author Susan Sontag and the style designer Hedi Slimane.

KW’s journey from a student-run area to a severe artwork institute mirrors the transformation of town round it. Berlin’s distinctive early-Nineties scenario set the stage for artists, curators, and thinkers to begin one thing nearly from scratch. However as an exhibition venue in a neighborhood that now incorporates among the metropolis’s costliest actual property, KW can be a logo of Berlin’s fast gentrification.

It started as a type of artists’ commune: On July 1, 1991, KW launched as “Kunst-Werke,” a nonprofit artwork area initiated by a bunch of younger folks together with Klaus Biesenbach, who’s presently the inventive director of the Museum of Modern Art in Los Angeles, however will return to Berlin to direct the Neue Nationalgalerie in early 2022. Again in KW’s early days, he was a 25-year-old medical scholar.

“My objective was at all times to have an extremely productive debate, dialogue, and collaboration with artists, and share it with the neighborhood,” stated Biesenbach, now 55, reminiscing final week on a stroll by way of his previous neighborhood. The identify “Kunst-Werke,” which implies “artwork works” in German, additionally had a double which means that associated to its mission as a public utility, he stated, like a fuel works or energy station.

On Saturday, guests wove by way of exhibition areas and perused KW’s early-’90s information clippings, invitation playing cards, and fliers in vitrines.

The horny abandon of Berlin’s early post-Wall years got here by way of in performances like “Kiss” by Tino Sehgal, a bit in which two choreographed dancers passionately kiss for hours. On a stage outdoors, a lineup of D.J.s and performers included a live performance by the Canadian singer Peaches, a longtime Berlin resident.

The occasion took a glamorous flip when Krist Gruijthuijsen, KW’s present director, appeared in a protracted hot-pink gown and platinum-blonde wig to carry out a drag skit.

“For me, KW is a spot for and by artists,” Gruijthuijsen stated in an interview earlier than the celebrations. “Berlin wants a spot the place artists can experiment, nevertheless it’s additionally a gateway to convey in artists from across the globe,” he stated.

An early curatorial experiment in 1992 proved pivotal. KW orchestrated the one-week exhibition “37 Rooms,” in which 37 curators displayed exhibitions in 37 vacant areas in or close to KW’s constructing, staged to coincide with the ninth version of the Documenta exhibition in Kassel, Germany. For most of the curators, gallerists and collectors who made the journey to Berlin to see the present, it was their first time in the newly reunited metropolis: It put Berlin on the worldwide art-world map.

Within the first two years, Kunst-Werke mounted greater than 25 exhibitions. Exhibits in the Nineties featured works by artists like Bruce Nauman, Matthew Barney and a younger Sarah Sze.

Trying again, the checklist of actions and names is spectacular, nevertheless it was not at all times straightforward: If vacant actual property was plentiful in post-unification Berlin, monetary help was not. “All the things was executed on many, many shoestrings, with many, many supporters,” stated Biesenbach. His first fund-raising drive at KW went towards 60 tons of coal for heating, he stated.

In 1995, the inspiration that awards funds from Berlin’s state lottery purchased the complicated and made it accessible to KW for cultural use. For a time, every present required elevating unbiased funds. In the present day, nearly all of funding comes from Berlin’s native authorities.

In 2005, Biesenbach, who had collaborated with MoMA PS1 since 1996, left Berlin to take a curatorial place on the MoMA; chief curators succeeding him at KW — first Susanne Pfeffer, then Ellen Blumenstein — every contributed their very own imaginative and prescient. Since Gruijthuijsen took over in 2016, exhibitions, like 2019’s “David Wojnarowicz: Photography and Film 1978–1992,” have more and more highlighted artwork by queer, non-Western or in any other case marginalized artists.

Whereas Saturday’s Peaches live performance would have been conceivable at KW in the Nineties, Gruijthuijsen in drag is a far cry from Biesenbach’s navy fits, a uniform that dates to the early days.

Gruijthuijsen has been “making KW right into a generator,” stated Clémentine Deliss, a curator and scholar who labored in a KW studio in 1997 and is now an affiliate curator on the institute. “It nonetheless retains the very important side of being an area the place artists and curators can develop new concepts collectively. You get the sense of being in a small craft manufacturing facility,” she added.

Bonvicini, an artist who exhibits in museums and biennials all over the world, labored in a number of KW studio areas in the Nineties. “KW was at all times a type of residence for me,” she stated in an interview. “The power of KW is that it was born out of nothing. It’s nonetheless there. I hope it stays one thing sincere to town.”

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