KW in Berlin's journey from abandoned factory to international art space

BERLIN – Three decades ago, Auguststrasse 69, a building in Berlin’s Mitte district, was a former abandoned margarine factory occupied b...


BERLIN – Three decades ago, Auguststrasse 69, a building in Berlin’s Mitte district, was a former abandoned margarine factory occupied by a motley group of students. Despite leaky roofs and collapsed floors, they threw parties, made art, and put on exuberant exhibitions without a budget.

Over the past weekend, stylish crowds lined up in front of the same building, now the KW Institute of Contemporary Art, to celebrate the institution’s 30th anniversary; its now verdant courtyard and its smooth white walls far from the crumbling facades of the 1990s.

Housed in a rectangle of buildings framing the courtyard, KW is one of Berlin’s best-known venues for the avant-garde and sometimes anarchic work for which the city is known.

In these buildings there is a large exhibition space in white cubes and airy halls, as well as a basement bar, offices and storage attics. But 30 years ago, most rooms were creaky, cold artist studios. The old buildings in the district had fallen into disrepair under communism, or had been abandoned by the suddenly free East Berliners when the wall fell.

Since then, important personalities from the art world have worked and exhibited there: German photographer Thomas Demand and Italian conceptual artist Monica Bonvicini were the first residents. American performance artist Joan Jonas worked there, as did writer Susan Sontag and fashion designer Hedi Slimane.

KW’s journey from a student-run space to a serious art institute reflects the transformation of the city around it. Berlin’s unique situation in the early 1990s paved the way for artists, curators, and thinkers to start something almost from scratch. But as an exhibition venue in a district that now contains some of the city’s most expensive real estate, KW is also a symbol of Berlin’s rapid gentrification.

It started as a kind of artist commune: on July 1, 1991, KW launched under the name “Kunst-Werke”, a non-profit art space initiated by a group of young people including Klaus Biesenbach, who is currently the artistic director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, but will return to Berlin to lead the Neue Nationalgalerie in early 2022. In KW’s early days, he was a 25-year-old medical student.

“My goal has always been to have an incredibly productive debate, discussion and collaboration with artists, and to share it with the community,” said Biesenbach, now 55, recalling a walk through his old neighborhood. The name “Kunst-Werke”, which means “works of art” in German, also had a double meaning related to its public utility mission, he said, as a gas works or a power station.

On Saturday, visitors perused the exhibition spaces and perused press clippings, invitation cards and KW flyers from the early 90s in display cases.

The sexy abandon of the early post-Berlin Wall years was manifested in performances like Tino Sehgal’s “Kiss,” a piece in which two choreographed dancers kiss passionately for hours on end. On an outdoor stage, a DJ and artist lineup included a concert by Canadian singer Peaches, a longtime Berlin resident.

The event took on a glamorous turn when Krist Gruijthuijsen, the current director of KW, appeared in a long, hot pink dress and platinum blonde wig to perform a dragster skit.

“For me, KW is a place for and by artists,” Gruijthuijsen said in an interview before the celebrations. “Berlin needs a place where artists can experiment, but it is also a gateway to attract artists from all over the world,” he said.

A first conservation experience in 1992 proved to be crucial. KW orchestrated the week-long exhibition “37 Rooms”, during which 37 curators presented exhibitions in 37 vacant spaces in or near the KW building, organized to coincide with the ninth edition of the Documenta exhibition in Kassel, Germany. For many curators, gallery owners and collectors who traveled to Berlin to see the exhibition, this was their first visit to the newly reunited city: it put Berlin on the international map of the art world. .

In the first two years Kunst-Werke mounted more than 25 exhibitions. The 1990s shows featured works by artists like Bruce Nauman, Matthew Barney, and a young Sarah Sze.

Looking back, the list of activities and names is impressive, but it was not always easy: While vacant real estate abounded in post-unification Berlin, financial aid was not. “It was all done with a lot, a lot of laces, with a lot, a lot of supporters,” said Biesenbach. His first KW fundraiser was for 60 tons of charcoal for heating, he said.

In 1995, the foundation which allocates funds for the Berlin State Lottery purchased the complex and made it available to KW for cultural use. For a time, each show required independent fundraising. Today, the majority of funding comes from the Berlin local government.

In 2005, Biesenbach, who has collaborated with MoMA PS1 since 1996, left Berlin to take up a post of curator at MoMA; her successor chief curators at KW – first Susanne Pfeffer, then Ellen Blumenstein – each brought their own vision. Since Gruijthuijsen took over in 2016, exhibitions, like the one in 2019David Wojnarowicz: Photography and cinema 1978-1992”, Have increasingly showcased the art of queer, non-Western or otherwise marginalized artists.

While Saturday’s Peaches concert would have been imaginable at KW in the 1990s, Gruijthuijsen in drag is a far cry from Biesenbach’s navy costumes, a uniform that dates back to the early days.

Gruijthuijsen “made KW a generator,” said Clémentine Deliss, curator and scholar who worked in a KW studio in 1997 and is now associate curator at the institute. “It still retains the vital aspect of being a space where artists and curators can jointly develop new ideas. You have the impression of being in a small artisanal factory, ”she added.

Bonvicini, an artist who exhibits in museums and biennials around the world, worked in several KW studio spaces in the 1990s. “KW has always been kind of a home for me,” she said in a commentary. interview. “KW’s strength is that it was born from nothing. It’s still there. I hope this will remain something honest for the city.

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