Thomas Köhler, director of the Berlinische Galerie, on the institution’s re-opening.
There are four exhibitions currently on display – did you plan to feature those with the Galerie’s relaunch?
These things came together as sort of an evolution. It was clear we would cover the first part of our collection, 1880-1980. We started to prepare Radically Modern three years ago – we applied for the funding at the Federal Culture Fund and received it, but then the show had to be postponed one year because of the renovation. The Fred Thilo Painting Prize, awarded to Bernhard Martin, also got postponed. Then, when we closed the building, we had to take down Franz Ackermann’s big installation as well, which was in the first exhibition hall. I needed to replace it, so I thought about inviting Björn Dahlem.
It’s a nice mix: Radically Modern’s comprehensive historical overview next to Björn Dahlem’s very clear solo positions.
Yes, I think if you do these monographic shows, you get to know the artist better than you would in a group show. While we are in charge of historical art, we focus on the contemporary art scene as well. We offer contemporary artists a kind of carte blanche. He or she has to come up with a solution for that specific space – almost curating him- or herself. That’s basically what Bernhard Martin did, selecting paintings from the last four years, and Björn Dahlem designing eight new pieces and the spaceship for us. All of a sudden, its not just about individual pieces, it’s about the space, and how it’s transformed by the artist.
How would you say the space of the Berlinische Galerie ‘rises’ to meet the artwork?
We don’t have the worst space, I’d say. The building used to be an industrial space for storing glass. It was transformed according to the principles of a white cube, which gives you so much flexibility. You can add these temporary exhibition walls, for example, so whenever you come to Berlinische Galerie there’s a new experience of the space. For the artists it’s also good, because we can adapt to their needs.
With the name “Berlinische Galerie”, you almost forget it’s a museum, even when looking at the older art in the permanent collection...
You’re absolutely right, it’s a transitional place. I can’t really tell you why or how they came up with the name, but they wanted to distinguish the new institution from other institutions like the Neue Nationalgalerie and all the S tadtmuseen. We thought about changing the name, but I think it would break a tradition, erasing the history of the house. We came up with a solution by calling ourselves the “Berlinische Galerie Museum of Modern Art”. On the other hand, there’s a dynamism included in the “Galerie” idea, implying change – and we do change. Perhaps too many times per year, but I think it’s quite okay because it underlines how the art scene and Berlin are changing as well.
That’s the good and the bad with Berlin: it’s hard to maintain ties to history while keeping up with the constant influx of newcomers.
Absolutely. And I think both aspects are important. I keep discovering interesting aspects in Berlin’s history of art. There are so many artists here who are unknown internationally, but who have a lot of impact.
Who are your visitors?
About 65 per- cent come from outside of Berlin, and it’s interesting to see how they’re attracted to the city’s artistic evolution – it’s been a point of interest for many artists not only since the Wall came down, but before that, when Berlin became the capitol of the unified “Kaiser Reich” in the late 1800s. It became an interesting spot between East and West – artists travelling from Russia to Paris, for ex- ample, would stay here for a while. There are so many things to discover, and rediscover.
The new Berlinische Galerie
On May 29, the Berlinische Galerie reopened after almost a year of being closed for extensive renovations. So, what changed? Not much: yes, the fire safety system is now apparently state-of-the-art, but the building’s appearance is just the same, from that striking pair of free-floating staircases that dramatically puncture the ground space while connecting the two exhibition floors, down to the upsettingly bright-purple walls of Café Dix. The permanent collection upstairs still displays unique Berlin works, from expressionism and dada to the Junge Wilde Moritz boys of the 1980s, to mention a few. But what really makes the ‘new’ Galerie worth another visit are the four exhibitions currently on view, particularly Radically Modern, a fascinating survey of East and West Berlin architecture in the 1960s. Meanwhile, Bernhard Martin’s very Berlin-style painting reminds you of a tradition that lingers despite globalisation. And Björn Dahlem’s surprisingly white sculptures, bejewelled with crystals, speak of the magic of our city, leading up to a funny, 1960s-style space saucer that invites visitors along for the ride.