BY Jennifer Allen in Opinion | 01 JAN 11
Featured in
Issue 136

Concrete Hopes

Berlin’s search for a kunsthalle

BY Jennifer Allen in Opinion | 01 JAN 11

Bettina Pousttchi, Sculpture Project Echo 10, 2009/2010 (970 paper posters on the facade of Temporare Kunsthalle Berlin). Photograph: 115 x 165 cm.

In my mind 2010 will remain linked to the last hurrah of the Temporäre Kunsthalle Berlin (tkb), which closed its doors at the end of August. The final group exhibition, curated by John Bock and titled ‘FischGrätenMelkStand’ (FishBoneMilkingStand), comprised a cow-milking system with a herringbone-like network of tubes running from each stall to a central vat and brought together 63 artists, including architects, filmmakers, designers and even a few ghosts.

Despite his nod to cows and fish, Bock treated tkb’s empty interior like a gopher treats a barren field: he invaded the homogeneous white-cube space with a maze of passages and cubbyholes. Held together by massive scaffolding, the structure was 11 metres tall, with four floors and 600 m2 of exhibition space – not including a hole dug in the ground by artist Adrian Lohmüller, a balcony jutting out on one side of the building and a viewing-pad sprouting out from the roof. Inside the favela-like structure it was hard to know where the curating ended and the art works began: Saul Fletcher’s photographs were hung on tyres, Matthew Hale’s collages on stuffed socks.

Bock’s makeshift approach was a fitting finale for the temporary space, closing, as planned, after a two-year run. He had already been included in the group exhibition ‘36 x 27 x 10’, organized by Coco Kühn and Constanze Kleiner, in the Palast der Republik in December 2005, before that building was demolished. Kühn and Kleiner went on to orchestrate a kunsthalle proposal, which won a competition organized by the Berlin senate in December 2007, as well as extra cash (although the lion’s share came from patron Dieter Rosenkranz). Yet the tkb’s advisory board got off on the wrong foot by presenting only solo shows that failed to capture the spirit of the expanding Berlin art scene. After the board’s resignation in February 2009 things got better, with subsequent group exhibitions curated by Berlin-based artists.

tkb is not the city’s first kunsthalle. The municipal Staatliche Kunsthalle on the Budapester Strasse in the former West Berlin was closed down by personal–political clashes in 1993. init Kunsthalle was run by gallerists Christian Nagel and Alexander Schröder and curator Karola Grässlin from 1998 to 2000 in an old supermarket on Chausseestrasse in Mitte. Many proposed sites have come and gone, from a flower market to a municipal pool. tkb – like the Palast der Republik that once stood a few hundred metres away – will be torn down to make way for a reconstructed replica of Prussia’s old Berlin City Palace (owing to budget cuts, the start of construction has been delayed until at least 2014).

Given the inability of buildings to persist on this particular site, and Berlin’s problem of finding a permanent home for a kunsthalle, I was struck by Bock’s focus on the search for home and origins. Yet he replaced the domicile with the squat, and historical origins with mythical tropes: not Prussian heritage but Africa (Christoph Schlingensief’s opera village in Burkina Faso), ghosts (a ‘para’-normal cabinet about spirits of the dead) and original film memorabilia (a cigarette with traces of actress Jane Russell’s lipstick). There were nomadic living spaces, from Björn Braun’s bird’s nest in a rucksack to a trailer home with works by Vinyl Terror & Horror. Matthew Burbidge seemed to have lived for weeks in the building’s technical room, redubbed ‘Backstage’ and filled with endless artefacts: drawings, collages, snack foods, taxi receipts.

‘Mutter Tod mit Pepperoni’ (Mother Death with Pepperoni) honoured every artist’s beautiful failures with a Martin Kippenberger ceramic (a spaghetti bowl with a hole in it), his portrait by Heimo Zobernig and almost 200 pepperoni pizzas, burnt just enough to rest vertically on shelves, like poorly produced statues of a single saint. Pizzas have never made me think of halos before, or of Kippenberger’s penchant for errors and artist’s assistants, yet it was easy to imagine one of Bock’s assistants telling the chef, after a few false starts: ‘You must burn these pizzas better.’

This call to defeat – like Samuel Beckett’s ‘Fail again. Fail better’ – could describe the history of Berlin’s search for a kunsthalle. And, of course, the future holds another one. Just as hope and funding were evaporating, the mayor, Klaus Wowereit, revived the project in October. Curators Angelique Campens, Magdalena Magiera, Jakob Schillinger and Scott Weaver will select Berlin-based artists for a group show slated for this coming summer, while the advisory board of Klaus Biesenbach, Christine Macel and Hans Ulrich Obrist will oversee larger elements, such as choosing an architect to build a space, perhaps at Humboldt port (an empty site right next to the Hauptbahnhof, and across from the Hamburger Bahnhof museum).

This story reflects not only Berlin but also the erosion of public space and community spirit the world over. Art used to revive old factories; nowadays it’s public facilities such as municipal swimming-pools. Private collectors who used to back museums and kunsthalles now open their own institutions, like private collector Thomas Olbricht’s Berlin space, aptly titled ‘me’. Perhaps help will come from the many countries who support their artists in Berlin but do not dare open institutions. A foreign-financed Berlin Kunsthalle would be a revolution. The latest attempt may fail again. But in the light of the city’s wealth of artists, every failure does get better.

Jennifer Allen is a writer and critic based in Berlin.