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TKH: white cube or white elephant?

After a short and chaotic life, Berlin’s Temporäre Kunsthalle died of natural causes on August 31. We assess the TKH’s ephemeral existence… and its legacy.

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Photo by Chris Lewis

After a short and chaotic life, Berlin’s Temporäre Kunsthalle died of natural causes on August 31. Katherine Koster assesses the TKH’s ephemeral existence… and its legacy.

“Every city in Germany has a Kunsthalle, except Berlin,” artist and art activist Coco Kühn explained to EXBERLINER, “a building in the middle of the city without a permanent collection, dedicated to showing contemporary art.” This was 2008, and she and Constanze Kleiner had just ‘done it’: given the capital its missing Kunsthalle. And where, of all locations? On the very Schlossplatz where the Palast der Republik had just been reduced to rubble amid a flurry of controversies.

It had taken the doggedness of two young women and the financial support of wealthy entrepreneur Dieter Rosenkranz to convince the Senat to hand over the site for their ambitious scheme. Kühn and Kleiner were granted two years and free rein: the TKH was born.

And so for two years a long, boxy object stuck out amid the Prussian architecture of Museum Island, providing not only the state-run heritage museum complex with a 21st century appendix, but also international and local artists with a vast new exhibition space, the facade of which acted as a white canvas for their creations. Until August 31.

On that day, nine large-scale exhibitions, five small shows and three facade facelifts later, the TKH closed its doors to the public, putting an end to a short and chaotic life mired in disagreements about its purpose and raison d’être – the clashing artistic and business agendas of its very genitors. Yet it had all started as an artist’s/curator’s wet dream come true.

Born in the ruins of the Palast

The TKH – at least as an idea – grew out of a spontaneous, artist-organized exhibition in the carcass of the moribund Palast der Republik, the famous concrete, steel and glass behemoth branded as a GDR symbol and sentenced to death by post-Wall politics. Three months before the Palast was demolished, Berlin-based painter Thomas Scheibitz rallied local artists around the ruin.

It was a bold exhibition of Berlin’s squatting, do-it-yourself, de-institutionalized reputation as an adult playground: an international community of artists that circumvented city bureaucracy, museum administration and commercial galleries. There was no curator, and no institutional support. The planning took 19 days. 36x27x10 (a reference to the dimensions of the exhibition space) opened on the Dec 23, 2005 – for a week only.

All visitors present on that last day of the exhibition – just before the palace shut its doors forever to await the final destruction blow – remember the emotional bang. It was cold and dark, the Schlossplatz was covered in white snow. The long line of visitors was so deadly quiet you would have been excused for thinking they were queuing to enter a mausoleum.

Inside, art was scattered within the white space designed by those 36x27x10 walls – Thomas Demand and Olafur Eliasson each exhibited one work. There was no light, the electricity had to be improvised. The sense of doom and last-chance solidarity conferred it a unique emotional glare. It felt tragic and beautiful as art seldom can be.

Resurrection : a concept turned square

“Everybody was so impressed [with 36x27x10] that somehow it was natural to say: ‘Okay, the Palast will be demolished, but these four walls as a concept can be transferred to the empty Schlossplatz,’” Kühn said. Kühn and Kleiner assembled an advisory board made up of directors from Kunsthallen from Düsseldorf, Kiel and Vienna, and Zehlendorf gallery Haus am Waldsee. Wealthy art collector and businessman Rosenkranz’s Stiftung Zukunft Berlin, a contemporary art foundation set up in 2006, provided the financial support (€950,000) and took charge of marketing.

Of course, the result looked light years away from its original inspiration. The design, by Adolf Krischanitz, was based on the “white cube” gallery model – something theorists have spilled gallons of ink over. The idea was to have its blank exterior regularly transformed by artists. There was also a €5 entrance fee, that many (including Kühn herself) saw as a bit steep for a gallery that, after all, was supposed to resuscitate the democratic, open spirit of the Palast’s closing exhibition.

And so the TKH was born on a sunny day in September 2008, outfitted in a striking baby-blue-and-white, pixel-style cloud designed by Berlin-based Austrian painter Gerwald Rockenschaub. Two months later, its 600sqm exhibition space (complete with shop and café) was officially opened to the public with Inner + Outer Space, a solo show by Berlin-transient South African artist Candice Breitz: wall-size, looped projections of visitors singing their favorite pop songs. A showcase of art-made-entertainment curated by advisory board member and director of Vienna’s Kunsthalle Gerald Matt, it set the tone for the following three shows in the main space: solo exhibitions by international ‘Berlin-based’ artists aimed at bringing contemporary art to tourists and the masses.

But turnouts were low and press, negative. In the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung art critic Niklas Maak deplored that “art should be something which is easily understood, surreally funny, something to pipe along with [like Candice Breitz’s show], pretty and bright [like Katharina Grosse’s massive tie-died foam cutouts in Shadowbox], and altogether an amusing, redecorated version of what is already there.” Wasn’t Berlin rife with art?

Art magazine found the venture notable, but decried it as “a demonstration of egotism” by its two founders, its financial supporter and initial board members. Tourists wanted something cheaper and more ‘underground’. Artists wanted something more artistic. And the locals? One former East Berliner from Marzahn summed it up: “They called it the temporary Kunsthalle. Unfortunately, it’s still there.”

Resignations and new beginnings

Unhappy with the turn of events, Kleiner resigned without notice in April 2008. Berlin-based installation artist and 2006 Käthe-Kollwitz-Preis winner Thomas Eller took over. Kühn resigned shortly afterward, and in June 2009, Eller also stepped down; the rest of the artistic advisory board went with him.

It leaked out that the board was disappointed by the way Kunsthalle patron Dieter Rosenkrantz and his Stiftung Zukunft Berlin, “followed their own agenda and failed to adequately ‘balance’ artistic and marketing agendas [read mass culture to the detriment of more art].” The fact that Stiftung Zukunft Berlin was simultaneously lobbying for the reconstruction of the Prussian Schloss – TKH’s original founders and the progressive art world’s natural aesthetic enemy – as an art center didn’t help.

Left holding the baby, Stiftung Zukunft chose marketing consultant Benjamin Anders as its new tutor. He was joined by art writer and PR pro Angela Rosenberg, who worked for the 2008 Berlin Biennale. One of the latest management team’s first moves, in August 2009, was to drop the €5 entrance fee. The next was to bring in Berlin artists to curate group shows.

Rosenberg attributed the first-year difficulties to a non-local advisory and planning board, which made curating shows, coordinating and communicating with the Stiftung difficult, and decided to take her cue from 36x27x10. The new concept was not only to host local artists, but also focus on exhibitions which were anchored in the historical weight of the TKH’s location or reflected the buzz of Berlin’s contemporary gallery life.

The first new façade under the new management (Bettina Pousttchi’s Echo), finished on September 25, 2009, mimicked the Palast der Republik’s exterior: symbolically, the Kunsthalle had come down to earth. Subsequent exhibitions were similarly tied to the city. The first show Rosenberg organized, Scorpio’s Garden (Sep 25-Nov 15, 2009), “metaphorically interpret[ed] Berlin as a garden”.

Karin Sander’s Zeigen (May 12, 2009-Jan 1, 2010) created an audio-guided walking tour of Berlin’s art scene for the blind: using headsets, visitors listened to auditory representations of works by locally based visual artists. Phil Collins’ Autokino (Feb 5-March 14, 2010), which filled the space with retro cars and a projection screen, played films about German and Berlin’s history. And Tilo Schulz’s exhibition on memory and forgetting (squatting. erinnern, vergessen, besetzen; April 2-May 24, 2010), included works connected to German history and divided the exhibition space with low fences, forcing visitors to make a detour out onto Schlossplatz as they proceeded through the exhibition.

The TKH went out on a light, rather symbolic note, with German artist John Bock’s FischGrätenMelkStand (July 2-Aug 31, 2010): the works of 63 artists woven together into an adult adventure playground – art crashing through the Halle’s walls and ceiling.

And that’s that. On August 31, the lease ran out and the Kunsthalle closed. Its subsequent fate remains as uncertain as the Schlossplatz it stands on.


In the summer of 2009, it looked as if a plan concocted by Rosenkranz, Kühn, and the Stiftung to disassemble and relocate the TKH to the courtyard of Hamburger Bahnhof would succeed, but it was blocked by the Berlin Senat. Kühn also raised the idea of moving the transportable white box to… Istanbul, the 2010 European of Capital of Culture – a city where artists are many, but institutions for contemporary art few and far between.

The vacant TKH site on Schlossplatz will become a place of permanent transit: according to Rosenberg, it will be given over to a new U-Bahn station, connecting Alexanderplatz in the east to the Brandenburg Gate and Hauptbahnhof in the west.

But what about Berlin’s “missing Kunsthalle”? A long-standing project to place it on the site of Friedrichstadt’s old flower market (Großblumenmarkt), generated some support and high hopes… until the Senat arbitrated in favour of the Jewish Museum’s ambitious plans for an extension to their current building (it is rumored star architect of the mother-house, Daniel Libeskind, was awarded the €10 million contract).

Officially, the city is ‘working on it’, but unsurprisingly, it’s not at the top of its agenda. Berlin already hosts emerging art festivals like Preview Berlin and the Biennale; it is home to over a dozen contemporary art museums, some 450 galleries, endless underground and impromptu art spaces.

“Berlin has the best and most diverse exhibition spaces in the world, run by people who really care about living artists and who are demonstrating it by running great spaces for showing their art,” American video artist Reynold Reynold has said in our pages. They are generally open to the public free of charge or for a small admission fee, and show new and frequently changing exhibitions. So, does Berlin really need another building dedicated to showing contemporary art – a Kunsthalle?