Am I crazy for traveling 12 hours each way to Berlin, Germany for only a long weekend? Yes. Crazy for contemporary art.
As a new transfer student to Georgetown University, I decided to abandon my dreams of studying abroad and devote my final two years of college to finding my place at a new school. However, as an art history major, I could not turn down the opportunity to visit a friend studying abroad in Berlin, and dive into the gallery scene in one of the hubs of the contemporary art world.
As soon as I touched down in the Brandenburg Airport, I pulled out my iPhone and opened the Seesaw app, an art lover’s holy grail for planning out gallery visits. I started scrolling through the gallery list and pinning all the exhibitions I wanted to see, creating a map with over 15 galleries. Below, I list the highlights of my gallery tour and the must-see exhibitions in the heart of Berlin in the Kreuzberg district.
Kreuzberg is one of the hippest districts in Berlin, known for its thrift shops, charming cafes, intense and uninhibited nightlife, and rampant arts scene. The district is located directly southwest of "Museum Island," the historic center of the city, and is filled with a variety of art galleries with artists both established and emerging. During the Cold War, the Berlin Wall ran directly through the Kreuzberg streets, dividing (communist) East Berlin from (capitalist) West Berlin. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the city’s reunification caused rapid gentrification in Kreuzberg, leading to rising prices and abandoned buildings. Artists, musicians and street performers looked to the developing district as a platform to showcase their work.
My first stop, KÖNIG GALERIE, was founded by Johann König in 2002 in a former church called St. Agnes. The church was built in the 1960s in the Brutalist style and now houses two galleries in the former chapel and nave. When I first walked into the gallery, I ran straight to the back to Miami-based artist Austyn Weiner’s first solo exhibition in Germany, titled “Vertigo.” The whimsical large-scale paintings juxtapose the archaic, Brutalist walls beautifully and dramatize the colorful, abstract splashes of paint. Weiner’s compositions mimic the whirly, dizzying sensation of vertigo. This sense of motion is successfully rendered in her paintings with circular marks and details that overwhelm the canvas. I instantly fell in love with Weiner’s mark-making and color, and could only help but ask myself, “Will this fit in my bedroom?”
Next, I made my way upstairs to NYC- based Contemporary artist David Arsham’s exhibit: “UNEARTHED.” Arsham’s first solo exhibition complements the large nave of the former chapel with large- scale sculptures directly inspired by the enormous scale of St. Agnes. According to the press release, Arsham “goes back thousands of years in history and pushes his fictional archaeological pieces from antiquity 1,000 or 10,000 years into the future” As soon as I walked into the large space, I recognized the replica of Winged Victory of Samothrace, an ode to the famous goddess of victory Nike, currently located in the Louvre Museum. Upon a closer look, the statue's abdomen and right leg are broken and eroded with crystals. All of the reinterpreted works, including one of Augustus Cesar and a bust of Apollo, are recast in different geological materials, including volcanic ash and quartz crystal. The exhibition reminded me of how the arts landscape has repurposed the ruins of Cold War Berlin.
After a quick lunch break, I headed over to another exhibition in Kreuzberg at Carlier and Gebauer to see New York- based artist Julie Mehretu’s exhibition, “Metoikos (in between paintings).” I have followed Mehretu for years, learning about her multilayered, abstract paintings in my high school AP art history class, and most recently, visiting her exhibition at the Whitney Museum in downtown Manhattan three times last Summer. While many of Mehretu’s artworks at Carlier and Gebauer were previously shown at the Whitney Museum, it is nearly impossible to become bored of her whimsical, detailed and gestural paintings. According to a press release, Mehretu’s artworks convey “a compression of time, space, and place and a collapse of art historical references”. Through the use of subtle outlines of famous classical buildings as the background of chaotic, sprawling lines, Mehretu symbolizes traffic patterns, water currents and migrations to comment on the chaos of our 21st century digital and globalized world. Words cannot do Mehretu’s compositions justice. Every time I view one of her pieces, I always notice something new.
Finally, I made my way to NordenhakeGallerytoseeNewYork- based artist Sarah Crowner’s first solo exhibition in Germany, titled “Plant Based.” Crowner is known for her geometric abstraction paintings that evoke the painting style from the 1950s and 60s; however, these “paintings” are made from different pieces of sewn canvas. Crowner redefines what “painting” means and looks to her everyday life, such as the view outside her studio in Brooklyn and trips to the countryside outside the city, to inform her artistic practice through her relationship with nature.
I was immediately drawn to Crowner’s simple yet captivating collages. Each painting has its own unique color dynamic, many in simple two-tone compositions. Upon a closer look, the raw canvas and seam lines show through to contrast the bold violets, yellows and blues. The paint strategically shifts from semi-transparent to thickly layered to create more dimension and character to each rendition. The exhibit’s seven paintings surround the small-scale natural stone sculptures in the center of the gallery. The sculptures are found in pairs in foliage-like shapes similar to Henri Matisse coral-like cut-outs. The rich varied texture of each stone complements the stark washes of color on the paintings to relay a similar understanding of the “metamorphosis of forms and patterns,” particularly in the natural world.
Ironically, my trip halfway across the world to Berlin brought me to a plethora of contemporary art by mainly American artists. While the art world has greatly diversified over the last few decades with the rise of international art fairs and gallery hot spots, many emerging LA- and New York-based artists have made a name for themselves in the international art scenes. Seesaw, which I used throughout my trip, was first created with only a list of New York galleries, but since its creation in 2015, the app now has added Los Angeles, London, Paris and Berlin. The New York arts scene’s influence may travel around the world, but the growing presence of international contemporary art galleries and artists are stealing back the spotlight. I foresee the app taking off in more cities around the world as a representation of the growing international presence in the contemporary art market. I hope to continue to explore more contemporary art exhibitions and artists in new cities— next time with more time!
Photos courtesy of Margaret Rand
Rand is a Junior in the College studying Art History. She's a New Yorker, a proud cat mommy and lover of all things art.