When the KW Institute for Contemporary Art was started 25 years ago on Berlin’s Auguststraße, founder Klaus Biesenbach and his peers found themselves in a climate of upheaval and political uncertainty: the fall of the Berlin Wall and Germany’s reunification were, at the time, still very recent history. Reflecting on our own very recent history, it was in the midst of another politically charged year – 2016 – that the newly appointed director and chief curator of KW Institute for Contemporary Art introduces, Krist Gruijthuijsen, took up his position last spring. And while KW has been known for decades as an indispensable force within Berlin’s art scene, the time had come for a clear alignment, as well as a clear distinction from its fraternal twin: the Berlin Biennale.

And so last week, after a three-month hiatus and extensive redevelopment, KW reopened its gates with an abundant agenda in tow. On January 19th, press and public alike were invited to the introduction of their new program. As part of renovations advised by architectural office Kuehn Malvezzi, the main entrance was relocated to the side wing of the building and equipped with a new reception, a seating area, a book stand displaying selected publications, as well as much needed lockers. Exposing the raw brick ceiling of the former margarine factory, the exhibition area was stripped down to an industrial look. Newly opened walls in the exhibition areas make for a beautiful subdivision of space and lots of light.

South African conceptual artist Ian Wilson’s oeuvre is the key reference point of the coming exhibitions. While his art practice spans from the 1960s until present today, his work is best characterized by what isn’t there – for instance in works like Circle on the Floor (1968) or his renowned series The Discussions. Using the stylistic means of reduction and omission – and with aid of the circle as his signature symbol – Wilson examines the delicate relationship between art and language. Over the course of the next four months, solo exhibitions by Hanne Lippard, Paul Elliman, and Adam Pendleton will keep Wilson’s immaterial, yet rich body of work a constant point of debate at KW.

The inaugural exhibition by Norwegian artist Hanne Lippard revolves around experimental uses of communication. Utilizing sound installations, readings, and performances, Lippard’s work deals with the discrepancy between form and content. Her artistic medium, however, is a rather unconventional one: the human voice. Born in Milton Keynes, England and raised in Norway, she grew up bilingual – one of several reasons why the spoken word bears special importance to her. Her work at KW is entitled Flesh and takes up the entire hall on the ground floor. At the center of the room lies a spiral staircase with 29 steps mounted to a single, load-bearing pillar. The beige-painted metal railing leads the viewer, or perhaps one should rather say ‘participant,’ up to a new dimension.

This top room, a light-suffused cube with a view of the roof garden, barely reaches a height of one and a half meters. Its floor is carpeted in a peculiar shade of brownish pink, the color of “an open wound” as Lippard describes it. Here, there is nothing but Lippard’s voice emerging from the speakers. Hers is a language full of piercing consonants and rich vowels that forms a musical interplay of rhythm and melody. “To me, the title is almost onomatopoeic. You feel the word flesh when you say it,” says Lippard. She perceives her art practice to be personal as well as public: “I think you can hardly work as an artist without being political in some sense or another. Especially if you work with the female voice and with language.”

Today, in light of social media, communication seems to be ever-present. And therefore “language can be a dangerous, albeit necessary tool,” Lippard ponders. The resurgence of reactionary movements, a growing disbelief in science, and the distortion of truth (like Kellyanne Conway, Donald Trump’s adviser, whitewashing blatant falsehoods as “alternative facts”), seem to be the order of the day. But if we really lived in a post-factual age, communication would be nothing but a one-way street – and don’t we know better?

As a matter of fact, now is the time to listen: Extensive dialogue is what we need more than ever. The obvious upside to this geopolitical mess is the recent rebirth of protest culture, like the Women’s March on Washington and the solidarity demonstrations it spawned worldwide.

Lippard’s conception of language as political is one that corresponds to the newly-redeveloped program at KW. Whether it’s the return of the legendary Pogo Bar (now: Bob’s Pogo Bar) or the newly launched event series The Weekends, Krist Gruijthuijsen’s new direction envisions the art space as a community hub, one that fosters a mutual exchange between artist and audience. Artistic discourse as a form of political dialogue? In 2017, KW Institute for Contemporary Art might just become the place for that.


This article first appeared on in January 2017 under the title “KW Institute for Contemporary Art: Krist Gruijthuijsen & Hanne Lippard”.

Foto: Hanne Lippard, Detail der Installation Flesh, 2016, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, 2017; Courtesy die Künstlerin und LambdaLambdaLambda, Prishtina; Foto: Frank Sperling