Berlin

Parallel Shows in London and Berlin Conjure Up Political Utopia, Using A.I. and Celebrity Deepfakes


This will sound terribly jaded, but, in the spirit of honesty: artists Annika Kuhlmann and Christopher Kulendran Thomas presented two types of exhibitions I normally would have walked out of.

On the first floor of their show at Berlin’s KW Institute for Contemporary Art is a political video documentary; on the second an all-too familiar Ab-Ex relaunch. So many biennials later, I’d rather read about a political uprising in a book by an anthropologist than hear about it from an artist. Abstract painting, for its part, can be enjoyable in a straightforward way, but, these days, it is often employed not because of what it is, but because of who made it. These kinds of encounters are often with art that doesn’t need to be art, but rather art that is promoted simply because it supplies a window onto a subject of importance.

“Another World,” where the focus is on the Tamil Tigers, an ex-militant organization once based in northeastern Sri Lanka, is not that. Rather, Kulendran Thomas and Kuhlmann’s exhibition is so self-conscious as to what it means to think through and with art—and so forceful in that self-consciousness—you cannot help but be intrigued. And so I stayed; it stayed.

Christopher Kulendran Thomas The Finesse (2022) in collaboration with Annika Kuhlmann. Installation view of the exhibition Christopher Kulendran Thomas. “Another World” at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin. Photo: Frank Sperling

Kulendran Thomas, a Berlin-based artist of Tamil descent, alongside his German collaborator Kuhlmann, created “Another World” as two parallel exhibitions simultaneously on view at KW and the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), London. Its central work, The Finesse, a newly commissioned video work, is projected onto a mirror, and facing it is another screen showing slow-panning footage from a forest planted by the Tamil Tigers. Sandwiched in between the two are the viewers, collapsing three image-situations into one. The video itself is based partly on early 1990s archive footage featuring a member of the group who speaks with other-worldly eloquence about the Western fictions of democracy and freedom. A democracy should allow us to choose between different systems, she says, but in the West, there is only one. Her wit and charisma are of a type made for political influencing; her TikTok would be irresistible—and this, partly, is what the work is about. 

The narrative of Tamil Eelam’s independence movement (a proposed autonomous Tamil state that the Tamil Tigers were fighting for) is neatly slotted into the context of the media spectacle of OJ Simpson’s trial, which took place at the same time—so neatly that I am not sure which parts of the film are authentic, and which not. It is not so difficult to manufacture a VHS grain, recreate an old Yahoo search, nor, it turns out, render a deepfake of Kim Kardashian, who appears in The Finesse, though slower, more immovable, and perfectly mesmerizing. With the same eloquence as the young Tamil, and with reference both to her Armenian roots, and, indirectly, to her early adjacency to the media vertigo of the Simpson trial, Kardashian’s avatar argues that certain people are less prone to believe in the fictions of capitalist hegemony. Certain circumstances—such as that of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, we can infer—require you to be more realistic when it comes to how stories are fabricated as truth in newsrooms and on the internet.

Christopher Kulendran Thomas The Finesse (2022) in collaboration with Annika Kuhlmann. Installation view of the exhibition Christopher Kulendran Thomas. “Another World”
at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin
2022. Photo: Frank Sperling

In another segment of The Finesse, contemporary recordings follow another young Tamil investing in the legacy of the once-imagined Eelam state, now more than ten years lost. But the possibility of that history and its politics to become wearable as an identity for the young woman in the present is put into relief by a phone call she gets from an older friend or relative. It was a fantasy we had, says the voice on the other end of the line, who questions what it is that the younger generation expects to get out of identifying with it now. And the viewer— themselves caught inside the projection—wonders too.

It is through such sober, whip-smart interjections that Kuhlmann and Kulendran Thomas consistently install self-consciousness into their narrative while smugly escaping the dangers of romanticism. What I like about the work is that it does not allow us to take its politics at face value; rather, it is laced with an irony that has generally not been tolerated in the art world since the DIS-curated Berlin Biennial in 2016 (where Kulendran Thomas also participated). There is a critical tension without which we would risk collapsing into the neo-essentialisms of post-truth. Eloquence, charisma, and charm, too, are art forms, which each cease to function as modes of manipulation once we accept them as such. In parallel, the extent to which these conversations and monologues are scripted, made deepfake, or not, likewise loses importance.

Upstairs, Being Human, a video work from 2019, is screened on a translucent wall, dissecting the space. The rooms on either side of it are lined with the abstract paintings, which, it turns out, are generated by AI and executed by Kulendran Thomas’s studio, as are their sculptural counterparts. Climaxing like a pop song, the screen occasionally lights up to reveal the other side of the room. Art and modernism are part of the same ideological image circuit as Kardashian and Taylor Swift (whose deepfake reflects on the possibility of authenticity in Being Human) and the propaganda machines that would render the Tamil Tigers terrorist insurrectionists, or not. The theoretical implication is that we are completely immersed in the simulacrum, but it is also plain beautiful; as an experience, enchanting.

Christopher Kulendran Thomas The Finesse (2022) in collaboration with Annika Kuhlmann. Installation view of the exhibition Christopher Kulendran Thomas. “Another World”
at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin
2022. Photo: Frank Sperling

In The New York Times, critic Travis Diehl wrote about the London-chapter of the exhibition, a mirror of the KW show. “If Kulendran Thomas genuinely aims to offer new political possibilities, count me as a skeptic. If his goal is to ruin contemporary art, he just might,” he says. Here, Diehl refers to the zombie abstraction that is part of the installation of Being Human, and, perhaps, to the generally unplaceable morality of the tone. But this is far from a threat to contemporary art. Rather, after a summer where structure, relational aesthetics, and good intentions stood in for artworks at ruangrupa’s Documenta 15, “Another World” retains a medial self-consciousness that presents a hopeful glimpse for its future. The element of spectacle in both works—The Finesse peaks in an exhilarating rave scene—might have come across as cheap in its pop appeal, but it is precisely this hint of cynicism that makes both works at once disturbing and intelligent.

In recent years, the discourse around politics and art has seen a loss of distinction between the sphere of representation and reality, taking, for instance, images for actions, depictions, or reflections on violence as that violence itself. But “Another World” does not let reality become subsumed by its image; instead, it asks the audience to continually observe the line between the two, even as it blurs. And the experience of sitting inside of Kuhlmann and Kulendran Thomas’s infinity mirror, oddly, makes you quite sure of what parts of reality that survive the spectacle of media and what truth rises to the surface of a deepfake. There is so much, in fact: the intelligence and humanity of the protagonists (real or not); the pleasure and fun of imagining another world, and in being surrounded by images of it; how political dreams and artful fictions can overlap in certain moments, and in others, crucially, diverge. And while you may not be able to spot the difference, you will feel it.

“Another World” is on view through January 22, 2023, at the Institute for Contemporary Arts, London, and through January 15, 2023, at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin.

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See the Modernist Masterpieces That Have Returned to View at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin After a Six-Year Hiatus for Renovation


The bustling city is visible outside its tall glass walls, but inside the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, there is a pristine kind of quiet. Little stirs except Alexander Calder’s large mobiles, which are gently spinning from an indiscernible wind. They are part of a monumental first exhibition at the German museum, which is opening for the first time in more than six years on August 22.

One who did not know it would hardly guess the entire museum, designed by Mies van der Rohe, was just turned inside out. The bi-level museum has been meticulously restored by David Chipperfield Architects, paid for by the federal government. Few would argue that the €140 million ($168 million) renovation was unnecessary: The building had fallen into disrepair, with rust, cracks in the glass, and a pesky issue with condensation, among a longer list of issues.

Six years on, entering the museum is somewhat like stepping into a deep past. Chipperfield, who worked with the brief to maintain “as much Mies as possible,” had his team dismantle the structure of glass and steel piece by piece, and each element was painstakingly restored to be as true as possible to the day the museum was unveiled to great acclaim in 1968. The architect died a year later; the building was his last. "The Art of Society: 1900-1945." Collection of the Neue Nationalgalerie. Exhibition view, Neue Nationalgalerie, 2021 © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie / David von Becker

Exhibition view of “The Art of Society 1900–1945: The Collection of the Nationalgalerie,” 2021. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie / David von Becker

Even a famous Calder piece that was there on that postwar opening day has returned. For the Calder exhibition “Minimal/Maximal,” Têtes et queue (1965) is back on the terrace where it stood, in what was then West Berlin. Dark carpets and restored Barcelona chairs, the celebrated seats made by the architect, are back on view and ready for guests.

In the lower level, one finds the restaurant, renewed thanks to artist Jorge Pardo, who has created a contemporary intervention that sensitively draws on the room’s Anni Albers motifs, employing Mexican-Spanish references.

Contemporary positions like Pardo’s will also be presented in temporary shows. Rosa Barba has the first slot, with a major installation called In a Perpetual Now, and more female contemporary artists, including Barbara Kruger and Monica Bonvicini, are on the docket. In 2026, the museum will host works from the Centre Pompidou in Paris when it closes for its own long-overdue renovation.

Alexander Calder <i>Untitled</i> (1954). Calder Foundation, New York; Gift of Andréa Davidson, 2007. © 2021 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. VG-Bildkunst, Bonn 2021 / Photo by David von Becker

Alexander Calder Untitled (1954). Calder Foundation, New York; Gift of Andréa Davidson, 2007. © 2021 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. VG-Bildkunst, Bonn 2021 / Photo by David von Becker

The main rooms feature a presentation of the museum’s esteemed collection of modern art, which was painstakingly rebuilt after almost all of it was looted and lost during World War II. Since then, the holdings have outgrown the space capacities of the building, so a new and somewhat controversially-designed structure has broken ground next door to house a good portion of the collection, which waits in storage until the new space is ready in 2026.

Like the building’s redesign, its first show, “The Art of Society 1900–1945,” also takes us back in time. The highlight opener is a poignant painting by German painter Lotte Laserstein’s Evening Over Potsdam (1930). A group sits outside, looking forlorn; in the background dark clouds reflect the looming rise of National Socialism. The museum bought it in 2010 at Sotheby’s for £421,250, according to the Midnight Publishing Group Price Database.

Other areas focus on European art and the cultures that informed and surrounded the artists between 1900 to 1945. There is Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s absinthe-soaked canvas Potsdamer Platz from 1914, which shows a landscape from nearby the museum that was totally flattened about three decades later. Powerful pictures evoke the devastations of World War I, too, like Otto Dix’s Die Skatspieler from 1920—a psychedelic collaged painting depicting amputee veterans with machinelike limbs.

Lotte Laserstein <i>Evening Over Potsdam</i> (1930). © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021. Nationalgalerie – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Roman März

Lotte Laserstein, Evening Over Potsdam, 1930. © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021.
Nationalgalerie – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Roman März

The museum will continue to focus on western modernism, in all its highs and lows; however, while the building may have been restored to the past, there are moments that bring it into the future, such as new didactic panels that address the racist gaze present in works by painter Emil Nolde and his cohort, made during colonial times in the South Pacific.

At a recent press preview, the museum’s director lamented gaps in the collection, which he is eager to fill. “My hope is that we can add to the collection these positions that are missing,” Joachim Jäger said, noting that despite a limited collecting budget, he would love to bring more diversity into the collection. At the top of his list are long-overlooked artists like Irma Stern and Hilma af Klint, the latter of which has a work currently on loan for the show.

See more images of the exhibitions and galleries below.

 

Alexander Calder from the exhibition "Minimal / Maximal" at the Neue Nationalgalerie Berlin.

Alexander Calder, Têtes et queue, 1965, from “Minimal/Maximal. “Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie © 2021 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / Photo: Stephanie von Becker

Exhibition view of “The Art of Society 1900–1945: The Collection of the Nationalgalerie,” 2021. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie / David von Becker

Otto Dix, Die Skatspieler, 1920. © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021. Nationalgalerie – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Jörg P. Anders

Exhibition view of “The Art of Society 1900–1945: The Collection of the Nationalgalerie,” 2021. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie / David von Becker

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, <i>Potsdamer Platz</i> (1914). © Nationalgalerie – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Jörg P. Anders

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Potsdamer Platz, 1914. © Nationalgalerie – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Jörg P. Anders

Exhibition view of “The Art of Society 1900–1945: The Collection of the Nationalgalerie,” 2021. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie / David von Becker

“The Art of Society 1900–1945,” Alexander Calder’s “Minimal/Maximal,” and Rosa Barba’s “In a Perpetual Now” open at the Neue Nationalgalerie on August 22.

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Artist Tarik Kiswanson on His Secret to Avoiding Creative Burnout, and the Inspiration for His Gallery Weekend Show in Berlin


There is an otherworldly quality to the art of Tarik Kiswanson.

The artist, who was born and raised in Halmstad, a port town in Sweden where his parents immigrated from Palestine, makes paintings and sculptures that oscillate between ghostlike figuration and ephemeral abstraction. As a first-generation immigrant, Kiswanson often reflects on belonging, loss of identity, and placelessness in his work. His material of choice is handwoven steel, which fragments the viewer’s own reflection when passing by.

For his solo show “Surging,” on view at carlier | gebauer for Berlin Gallery Weekend, Kiswanson has rebuilt the gallery space into a cell-like waiting room populated by floating alien ovals and paintings of wispy evanescent forms that evoke a fading memory.

With a major project currently on view at Carré d’Art – Museum of Contemporary Art in Nîmes and upcoming solo exhibitions at Bonniers Konsthall, Stockholm, and M HKA Museum of Contemporary Art in Antwerp, the very busy artist spoke with us about how he keeps things calm at his Paris studio.

Tarik Kiswanson, <i>AS DEEP AS I COULD REMEMBER, AS FAR AS I COULD SEE</i> (2018). Exhibition view, Lafayette Anticipations, Fondation d'enterprise Galerie Lafayette, 2018. Photo: Martin Argyroglo.

Tarik Kiswanson, AS DEEP AS I COULD REMEMBER, AS FAR AS I COULD SEE (2018). Exhibition view, Lafayette Anticipations, Fondation d’enterprise Galerie Lafayette, 2018. Photo: Martin Argyroglo.

What are the most indispensable items in your studio and why?

At the moment, it’s my charcoal powder and drawing paper. But the most indispensable items constantly change as I work in different media: sculpture, film, sound. Something I always need is my computer as I write a lot.

What is the studio task on your agenda tomorrow that you are most looking forward to?

To finish a drawing I have been working on for some time. I also have a new book of poems coming out soon so looking forward to working on the layout with my publisher and the graphic designer.

What kind of atmosphere do you prefer when you work? Do you listen to music or podcasts, or do you prefer silence? Why?

Music and silence—it depends on what I am doing. A lot of my works are time consuming, so music is often essential.

Tarik Kiswanson, Mirrorbody (2021) Carré d'Art de Nîmes. © Vinciane Lebrun / Voyez-Vous

Tarik Kiswanson, Mirrorbody (2021) Carré d’Art de Nîmes. © Vinciane Lebrun / Voyez-Vous

What trait do you most admire in a work of art?

A sense of radicality and intention. I like vulnerability and works that are true to the artist’s own experience.

What trait do you most despise?

The lack of thought and intention. When the form feels disconnected from the discourse.

What snack food could your studio not function without?

I don’t eat snack food. I rarely eat between meals. I often forget to eat until my assistant tells me its lunchtime. It’s not intentional—I’m just very concentrated.

Who are your favorite artists, curators, or other thinkers to follow on social media right now?

I have always admired the work of Felix Gonzalez Torres. The foundation dedicated to the preservation of his legacy created an Instagram account. The content is great as they post well-known works but also bring to light less familiar ones. There are shots from past and present exhibitions of his work.

Tarik Kiswanson, Surging, exhibition view at carlier | gebauer, Berlin, 2021. Photo: Trevor Good / carlier | gebauer, Berlin/Madrid.

Tarik Kiswanson, “Surging,” exhibition view at carlier | gebauer, Berlin, 2021.
Photo: Trevor Good / carlier | gebauer, Berlin/Madrid.

When you feel stuck in the studio, what do you do to get un-stuck?

I don’t feel stuck in my studio. If I get tired of working on a specific work, I move on to another medium or another work. There is no rupture. I think I am always working on some subconscious level, even during the moments away from my studio.

What is the last exhibition you saw (virtual or otherwise) that made an impression on you?

I managed to see the exhibition “Drawn 1975–1993“ on the work of Leonilson at KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin. It’s an impressive retrospective of the Brazilian artist who worked in a multitude of different media. The works are delicate, sensitive, and carry multiple social and political layers. I recommend it greatly.

If you had to put together a mood board, what would be on it right now?

A lot of images from the natural world that surrounds me at the moment. Birds, moths, and chrysalis—all symbols of migration and transformation.

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