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Berlin Art Week offers a flurry of events putting women artists front and centre

Marking the official start of the art season in the German capital, the action-packed festival celebrated the city's wide range of art spaces and its art-hungry audiences.

by Hili PerlsonPublished on : Sep 24, 2023

Berlin’s art scene never sleeps. There is no real summer break, or a noteworthy hiatus during the hottest months. Indeed, Berliners are spoilt for choice all year round, European heat wave or not. There are art festivals dedicated to the city’s vibrant artist-run project spaces and its dynamic performance art scene throughout July and August; it’s also the weeks during which elaborate exhibitions are being put on by the city’s major galleries in bucolic locations outside Berlin; and there are one-night readings, performances and art events in many of the German capital’s institutions. Nevertheless, September still traditionally marks the beginning of a new art season where everyone, from the commercial galleries to the state-owned institutions, partner up for the Berlin Art Week (BAW). This year’s edition, which took place from September 13-17, saw more than 100 partners listed on the five-day festival programme, which attracted a reported 130,000 visitors. These are undoubtedly impressive numbers and, for once, it felt as if there was truly something on view for every taste, interest, and orientation.

Pangolin, 2020, Sculpture, Lin May Saeed | Berlin Art Week | STIRworld
Pangolin, 2020, Sculpture, Lin May Saeed Image: Courtesy of Georg-Kolbe-Museum

A quiet stunner of an art exhibition came courtesy of the Georg Kolbe museum, which featured sculptures by German-Iraqi artist Lin May Saeed. Just two weeks before the opening, Saeed, who was only 50 years old, passed away after a long battle with cancer. The artist’s works have been described as “encouraging empathy with animals” and the setting of the small museum in Berlin’s far west, with its verdant sculpture garden and humanly scaled exhibition spaces, couldn’t be more suitable. It is a delightful yet stirring exploration of enchanting animal characters, poignantly titled The Snow Falls Slowly in Paradise (until February 25). Elsewhere around the city, the focus on women and female-identifying artists set the tone. The Neue Nationalgalerie, which became the official hub of BAW, extended its opening hours to allow more visitors to view Isa Genzken’s triumphant exhibition (until November 27). The museum also hosted, for the second year, a series of live happenings and performances, which featured a rare highlight: Yoko Ono’s seminal Cut Piece from 1964. The museum’s director Klaus Biesenbach shared with journalists that its appearance was a matter of personal trust—Ono doesn’t usually let this work be restaged. Berlin-based performers enacted the work, in which the audience is invited to cut off a piece of the performer’s clothing, one by one. How far they choose to go is up to the situation, which becomes the palpable immaterial substance of the piece.

Perimeters I, 2023, Lithographic-Etching, Kameelah Janan Rasheed | Berlin Art Week | STIRworld
Perimeters I, 2023, Lithographic-Etching, Kameelah Janan Rasheed Image: © Kameelah Janan Rasheed

Further towards the former "East" part of the city, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, which Biesenbach co-founded more than 30 years ago, opened three different exhibitions across its three levels, all by women artists. The ground level hosts a retrospective survey of the Cuban-American artist Coco Fusco’s work, entitled Tomorrow, I Will Become an Island (until January 7); upstairs, there’s a solo show by the American artist Kameelah Janan Rasheed, titled in the coherence, we weep (until January 7); and on the top floor is a group show with artists Ruth Buchanan, Otobong Nkanga, Collier Schorr, Rosemarie Trockel, Joëlle Tuerlinckx, and Andrea Zittel. Entitled Skin in the Game (until January 7), this exhibition considers the personal sacrifices artists make and the moments of realisation that solidify their stance as artists. It is indeed a fascinating aspect of art-making, that the show’s curator, Clémentine Deliss, sought to delve into. But it might require a hefty publication to answer these questions more coherently. For now, until the catalogue is published, we are left with an undoubtedly alluring and enthralling exhibition that invites reflection, but that ultimately remains opaque and demanding.

Footpitch, 1999, Otobong Nkanga |Berlin Art Week | STIRworld
Footpitch, 1999, Otobong Nkanga Image: Courtesy of Otobong Nkanga

Fusco’s three-decade spanning career—which includes theory and writing as well as video, and performance, among other media—has been a key voice in the art discourses around institutional critique, postcolonialism, racial representation, and feminism. The year 2023 is an interesting point to revisit her work, at a time when it feels like certain areas of cultural production have caught up, at long last, with some of the crucial issues Fusco has been highlighting for years. But the test of time can be tricky, and some of the works on view in the exhibition can seem a bit out of touch today. Holding a mirror up to society, Fusco’s incisive voice is peppered with humour in ways that sometimes recall the type of satire one would find nowadays in a Sascha Baron Cohen production. A case in point: between 1992-94, Fusco documented the work Couple in a Cage, where she and the performer Guillermo Gómez-Peña pretended to be members of a hitherto unknown Indigenous people, put on display in a cage as part of a touring exhibition that travelled the world. Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West shows the two performers emulating a made-up culture, performing fake “traditional” dances and speaking in tongues. Unsuspecting members of the public are then interviewed about the “Undiscovered Amerindians”. But rather than expose the viewers’ assumed racial biases, some of the candid audience statements, given in good faith, reflect more negatively on the ones holding the camera in the interviewees’ faces, at least from today’s point of view.

Bare Life Study, performance, Coco Fusco | Berlin Art Week | STIRworld
Bare Life Study, performance, Coco Fusco Image: © Coco Fusco , Courtesy of KW Institute for Contemporary Art

Meanwhile, many commercial galleries also put women artists in the spotlight, including Esther Schipper, who launched her representation of Korean conceptual artist Anicka Yi with a solo show titled A Shimmer Through the Quantum Foam (until October 21). Yi has transformed the gallery’s main space to resemble a deep-sea realm, complete with a distinctive scent and inhabited by slow-moving, light-emitting robotic jellyfish. Over at Galerie Sprüth Magers, Pamela Rosenkranz—who, like Yi, engages with science and scientific research in her art practice—presented Alien Blue (until November 11) in the gallery’s storefront space. The complex layers of references to medical research, art history, and the capacity of the human eye to distinguish colour are just some of the many topics that this small but enchanting group of works touch upon, in a moody presentation presided over by a group of blue-light emitting pieces.

Haus am Luetzowplatz VR Kunstpreis Theatrum Radix, 2023, still, Marlen Bart, Coco Fusco | Berlin Art Week | STIRworld
Haus am Luetzowplatz VR Kunstpreis Theatrum Radix, 2023, still, Marlen Bart Image: © Marlene Bart

On the gallery’s top level, the Croatian artist Nora Turato unveiled her solo exhibition Not Your Usual Self? (until November 7). The show, which includes a spatial intervention and five wall-mounted works, takes a hard look at the language and marketing around self-optimisation and the strive for a so-called authentic self. The wall works, emblazoned with texts such as “This Place Is Sick” and “How Many Layers Does This Onion Have?” in a font developed especially for this exhibition, appear like portals into other states. There’s an ominous sense of push-and-pull throughout: you want to step through the loopy portals, and follow their twisted grids, but then again it could very possibly land you in a brainless zombie scroll on your quest for self-improvement.

Palais Populaire,La-Virgen y el cordero, 2022, La Cola Poblete | Berlin Art Week | STIRworld
Palais Populaire, La-Virgen y el cordero, 2022, La Cola Poblete Image: ©La-Cola-Poblete

As for Berlin Art Week, there might not be much need for any further tinkering. The variety of offerings all across the city, and the programme’s function as a catalyst for more projects and spaces to put their best foot forward, has now set a new standard.

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