Gallery Weekend offers an impressive lineup of some of the most successful and provocative artists represented by Berlin galleries. The exhibitions effectively target the international audience of curators and collectors who descend on the city for the three-day event. But the vibrancy of Berlin’s contemporary art scene is not concentrated solely in the Gallery Weekend’s official program. More than a commercial center for contemporary art, Berlin is also a vital site for its creation. And for those art lovers longing to break away from Gallery Weekend’s white cube exhibitions and yearning to get back to the unspoiled source of the art world, a trip to Berlin’s Wedding district is highly advisable.
The neighborhood of Wedding (technically separated into the boroughs of Wedding and Gesundbrunnen) is home to the largest non-German population as well as the largest percentage of unemployed people in the city. Its abundance of affordable studio space has also made it a haven for unrepresented and aspiring artists. In a rather brilliant urban planning scheme, the city teamed up with degewo AG, Berlin’s leading real estate company, to fill empty apartments and shops with ateliers and artist-run showrooms. This decade-long initiative, known as Kolonie Wedding, successfully revitalized the derelict Soldiner Kiez, turning the neighborhood into a wellspring of creativity. Although there is a marked sense of community between the different project rooms, each of the Kolonie’s thirty spaces has a unique concept that drives their content and program. Additionally, project room coordinators handpick artists and curators from abroad to present shows in their spaces, bringing a panoply of international perspectives to this quiet Berlin Kiez.
PostNatural Organisms of the European Union, from the Center for PostNatural History, Pittsburg. On view at Art Laboratory Berlin.
The Kolonie’s non-profit status allows a more flexible platform for the artist’s personal vision than that typically seen in the contemporary commercial market. With the support of fellow Kolonie artists and organizers, these venues have free rein to host adventurous exhibitions aimed at sparking the attention of local curators and artists (as opposed to out-of-town collectors). A case in point are Art Laboratory Berlin’s back-to-back shows, [macro]biologies I: the biosphere (until May 4th) and [micro]biologies II: organisms (May 31st - July 20th). These exhibitions investigate the relationship between scientific thought and societal strains on the environment. As co-curator of the exhibition space Regine Rapp explains, works are chosen through an open call process and selected solely on the basis of how they will contribute to the concept of the exhibition. This approach gives project space organizers the freedom to host the art of less established artists as well as projects from researchers, scholars, and scientific institutions. For example, the Center for PostNatural History has lent a telephone booth-like vitrine to the show [micro]biologies I, which resembles a futuristic cabinet of curiosities. Scientific specimens, such as the Xenopus frog, are displayed in the case alongside a narration that explains the species’ role in genetic engineering, and how their mutations affected important sociological shifts for humans (these unassuming frogs ovulated when injected with the urine of pregnant women, and thus acted as the first pregnancy test).
Madi Boyd, The Point of Perception, installation, 2009/13; Photo: Amin Akhtar; Courtesy of Art Laboratory Berlin
As Wedding has become a hotspot for artists’ studios and experimental exhibition spaces, it has also become the hunting grounds for collectors “in the know.” For example, entire shows have sold out at Prima Center Berlin, one of Kolonie Wedding’s more veteran project spaces whose concept centers on art from the Balkans. According to director Jovan Balov, collectors and for-profit gallery representatives are often present at openings. While Prima Center acts as a not-for-profit venture and any sales are negotiated exclusively between artist and collector (Prima Center does not take a cut of the sale), Balov sees supporting his artists by facilitating these connections as an integral part of his work.
Kolonie Wedding’s success is also evidenced by the lengthy waiting list of artists hoping to be considered for the next available project space. Some Wedding-based artists have managed to take matters into their own hands. The Gym is a collaborative, artist-run work and exhibition space based out of the living room of one of its founding members, American-born Benjamin Spalding. The grassroots project space connects individual artists with a community of peers, enabling them to benefit from group critiques. The Gym acts as a multi-functional space: part studio, part showroom, and part self-directed art school (they have a monthly reading list and discussion topics). Set in this environment, their bi-monthly exhibitions engage the viewer as much with the process of the art’s creation as with the final work itself. The upcoming exhibition premieres on June 6th with art from Tomasz Kobialka, Benjamin Spalding, and Penny Rafferty, but until that time The Gym will be a lively testing ground for these Wedding artists’ next projects.
It’s not unusual to see a Wedding art space nestled between a Pakistani grocer and a Turkish bakery. But other, increasingly common sights in Wedding are beautified building façades and organic grocery stores. As the real estate company degewo AG likely envisaged when offering to co-sponsor Kolonie Wedding, such signs of gentrification are slowly becoming more evident in Berlin’s cultural and artistic heart.
For now, it seems that enterprises like The Gym and the project spaces of Kolonie Wedding are here to stay. If anything, with the attention they have drawn from curators, collectors, and fellow artists, they seem poised to move in even bigger and bolder directions. Wedding’s cheap rent, strong sense of a creative community, and its ability to remain largely independent while still attracting collectors has helped to transform Berlin’s poorest district into a cultural mecca. Whether it can retain this status in the long term is another question.
(Image on top: Installation view of the exhibition Workout I: Indulgence, October 24, 2013, The Gym, Berlin; Photo: Jason Harrell)