XENOPOLIS: Deutsche Bank KunstHalle explores
the language of cities

The French philosopher Roland Barthes says that the city is like writing and we are the readers. But how do artists read the city, with all its different languages, customs, rules, and longings?
The first time Simon Njami came to Berlin he arrived early in the morning. He still remembers the drive in the dark, the watchtowers and border guards, the allotment gardens along the train tracks, the lights of Kurfürstendamm. Njami went to jazz clubs, drove to Zehlendorf, where the Americans were stationed, and to Kreuzberg, a “mixture of youth and desperation.” When he returned after the fall of the Wall, the city had undergone drastic changes. “The Berlin I rediscovered after 1989 was like a sea of debris that tried to reproduce my memories. That’s a city too, the ideal burial place for our accumulated memories.”  

Nearly three decades later, the exhibition maker and author, who lives in Paris, is world famous. The curator of the trailblazing exhibition Africa Remix (2004) and cofounder of the art magazine Revue Noire, he has changed our perception of contemporary African art. Now he is returning to Berlin. Along with six international artists who live in the city, he has created a “labyrinth of perceptions” in Xenopolis at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, an exhibition that is part of the Stadt/ Bild project. The show explores myriad facets of cities—not just Berlin, but all the world’s metropolises, which have to continually be re-remembered and rethought.


For Berlin Art Week 2015, four leading institutions in the German capital have joined forces for the second time: Berlinische Galerie, Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, and Nationalgalerie - Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Under the title Stadt/Bild (Image of a City), their exhibition projects explore our perception of modern metropolises, particularly Berlin, and how our picture of urban life is changing. The show focuses on building developments as well as social, aesthetic, and cultural aspects. It reflects on urban space and the boundaries between public and private, as well as issues around participation and communication.

berlinartweek.de, 15.– 20.9.2015
stadt-bild.berlin, 16.9.– 8.11.2015

For Njami, the globalized metropolis is a “free zone” in a liminal state between placelessness and rootedness. This also creates opportunities. If we accept that we are all outsiders in a sense, we can develop hybrid identities and spaces that are no longer filled with fear or hate—where we can learn to live with unsolved problems, paradoxes, and ambivalences.  

In keeping with Njami’s image of the city as a burial site for memories, the Kenyan-German artists Mwangi Hutter work at a disused cemetery. On a side street near Südstern in Kreuzberg, you arrive at a park with a hall of honor for soldiers who fell during World War II. More than 4,900 people are buried here. Entering the silent “Temple of the Fatherland” is like entering the realm of the dead.  

Since the end of the 1990s, the Nairobi-born artist Ingrid Mwangi and the German Robert Hutter have appeared as the artist personality “Mwangi Hutter.” In their actions, films, and installations, they make all their decisions jointly. “When we work,” says Mwangi, “we set ourselves in relation to each other, to environments and situations—under the premise that the duality between ‘me’ and ‘the others’ doesn’t exist.” Hutter relates how the day before people on a regional train heading to Berlin stared at a young woman, the only black person on board. “They scanned her from to top to toe. I know this feeling when I’m in Kenya.”  

In their performances, they go to great lengths to explore people’s fear of “the other.” For The Cage (2009), Hutter put himself in a cage in a black neighborhood of Johannesburg, pasted his eyes shut, tore his clothing, and asked passers-by to write slogans on his upper body. The idea was to turn the stares around, from the colonized to the colonist. In Mwangi Hutter’s works, the body is a setting for racist projections and a medium of encounter. For Fields of Joy, their contribution to Xenopolis, the artists cast their arms in wax. A sea of black arms surrounds two white arms—an architecture of body parts that speaks of community and ostracism.  

Like Fields of Joy, Loris Checchini’s installation Monologue Patterns (2009) is a poetic model of hybrid identity. His transparent campers, says the Italian artist, united his ideas of city, movement, and nomadic space. These sculptures-cum-functional objects are also autobiographical. For each show, they are filled with different objects and plants. His living units not only reverse inside and outside, nature and civilization, but also address the issue of private space becoming increasingly public. Checcini doesn’t make clear political statements, but explores a world that is becoming increasingly mobile, modular, and virtual due to the combination of art, ecology, and technology. The bright studio not far from the planetarium on Prenzlauer Allee where he and his wife Jade organize his worldwide projects is like an aesthetic scientific laboratory.  

Less than a kilometer away, a cosmos at least as surreal unfolds. London-born Theo Eshetu, the son of an Ethiopian man and a Dutch woman, just moved to Berlin from Rome and hasn’t furnished his apartment yet. He suggests meeting at Café Wohnzimmer in Prenzlauer Berg. The 1970s wallpaper pattern is fitting, since his films and installations tend to be overflowing and ornamental. They can deal with his family history, the Bowie choreographer Lindsay Kemp, African myths, or purely formal issues. Kiss the Moment, his work for Xenopolis, is a sort of video musical in which he processed his experiences when he was in Berlin on a scholarship. At a housewarming party at his empty studio in Wedding, the guests were thrilled even though no art was on view. “Then it dawned on me what was so beautiful—the giant windows looking out onto the park. And so I thought, let me just imitate this window with its view on nature.” In Eshetu’s installation, 18 monitors form a gigantic “window grille.” An associative city trip unfolds: parks, dance performances, burlesque shows, architectures, love stories. In his work, Berlin can look like the setting for a romantic opera, for a Fritz Lang movie, or the tiles in the zoo aquarium. The Tiergarten, a recurring motif, becomes an archaic landscape. “The myth of the forest so closely tied to Germany is also very African,” says Eshetu with a grin. “Myths about going into the jungle and meeting your ancestors spirit and killing a wild animal to obtain manhood. I intuitively try to find such links between cultures that meet in Berlin.”  

Different cultural settings also overlap in the contribution by the artist and composer Jan-Peter E.R. Sonntag: early twentieth-century Berlin, the Mexican Revolution, Mexico City today. Sonntag is currently converting his former apartment into a second studio. It’s like a chamber of marvels. Old wind instruments hang on the wall, and there are piles of books, notes, and photographs on the table. Talking to him is an intellectual adventure. First we talk about the synthesizer the media theoretician Friedrich Kittler constructed and whether he soldered an entire system of thought into it, move on to the Inuit, who hear the radio waves of the Northern Lights, and finally arrive at Sunday in the Park, his work at the KunstHalle. It’s also about historical memory inscribed in technical apparatus. During a stay in Mexico City, Sonntag sat in parks and listened to “organillos” playing revolutionary songs on their barrel organs. “All the instruments were way out of tune, broken. I wondered how they could live with that sound. They said it was nostalgia, beautiful, the sound of the revolution. Wow! Music is embedded in the apparatus, and as the thing hadn’t been serviced in a hundred years, time inscribed itself into the melodies and pitches.” Then Sonntag discovered the insignia of a famous barrel organ builder dynasty: Harmonipan - Frati & Co, Schönhauser Allee 73. He says that at the end of the nineteenth century more than 3,000 organ grinders moved through the German capital and Germans brought this model to Mexico during the revolution. Today, organillos still play on rented organs for a pittance. “Sonntag im Park is based on recorded barrel organ sounds,” says Sonntag. “Thanks to digital technology, you can enter the sounds and pull them apart like a rubber band. I can stretch individual instruments to make them freeze time.” While Sonntag’s eponymous video work is on view inside the KunstHalle, distorted revolutionary sounds from an installation can be heard out front. Like a polyphonic echo, they oscillate back to their place of origin, Berlin.  

Anri Sala’s video work Long Sorrow (2005) was called a “requiem for the end of a dream.” It was also inspired by music. The protagonist, the free jazz musician Jemeel Moondoc, seems to be floating in front of the top floor of an apartment building in the Märkisches Viertel in Berlin and improvising on the sax. Moondoc reacts to the surroundings in a musical call-and-response pattern —an architecture of sound. “It investigates reading, writing, and signing the city,” says Sala, adding that for Njami and himself it was clear from the outset that this would be his contribution. Works by the Albanian-born artist are shown around the world. Asked whether art can change anything in the face of gentrification and xenophobia, he says: “Art isn’t a solution. It’s one of many ways of dealing with a complex society. At the moment, it seems as if people are slowly reducing the wealth of their subjective experiences. In an age in which the dominant discourse is often not interesting and sometimes one-dimensional or even dangerous, art is a breeding ground for subjectivity and helps it regenerate itself.”  

What happens when debates about immigration and social problems in big cities become onedimensional is shown by Laurence Bonvin’s series Blikkiesdorp, shot in 2009 near Cape Town, South Africa. In a desert-like landscape with no sewage system, hundreds of tin huts were built to resettle social fringe groups from the city here prior to the World Cup in 2010. Bonvin discovered the camp by chance. “It has a very strong presence,” she recalls as she spreads out pictures on the table on her factory floor in Kreuzberg. “You can see the shiny corrugated sheet metal, which has a certain beauty. Then you have a grid-like arrangement of buildings in the sand, and above them blue sky, which also looks fantastic. But the first impression is very ambivalent. You sense at once that it’s not a good place.” Bonvin talks about how perfidious these camps are, designed to remove people from the city. “They’re all poor, none of them has a chance to find work or grow anything. And it’s a very violent, hostile environment.” Her pictures show a terrible, brave new world that seems far away on this summer’s day in Berlin. Yet not far from her studio a school is occupied by refugees from Africa. In the next few months, tens of thousands of people from crisis areas will try to come to Europe. Hundreds of thousands already live here—and are contributing to the history of our xenopoles.

16.09. – 08.11.2015
Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, Berlin