As museums and other cultural venues are forced to close during the second lockdown, artists look for new ways to showcase their work. In shop windows, for example, like the huge one at Schau Fenster, a project space in Berlin Kreuzberg. Here, Anna Nezhnaya has organised the exhibition ‘PORTAL’ about the power of fantasy during the pandemic, featuring 24 participants — among them Alicja Kwade, Gregor Hildebrand and Kristina Bekker. We asked Anna Nezhnaya about her experiences curating a show in these strange times.
tipBerlin Anna, you’re an artist. The first exhibition you’ve worked on as a curator doesn’t take place in a conventional gallery space but in the large shop window of Schau Fenster, a project space in Berlin Kreuzberg. What kind of experience have you created there?
Anna Nezhnaya I’ve always thought of art as something that attracts the vision of the observer first. That’s why it was a perfect opportunity to put all the art I adore in one particular window — like in one single picture. I imagined a composition that I myself would probably paint, or draw. A surreal space in this very real window.
tipBerlin So passers-by saw you working on this exhibition?
Anna Nezhnaya I certainly attracted the attention of pedestrians. They knocked on the window, they waved, they asked if they could come in. And they could, if they wore a mask — if they came in one by one, or two from the same household.
tipBerlin Normally a showroom is closed while exhibitions are set up. You obviously didn’t cover the huge windows, but purposely built the exhibition under public observation.
Anna Nezhnaya The streets of Berlin are very friendly. You make a lot of acquaintances. If you do something interesting, they all pay attention and give feedback. I had only nice encounters. Besides, it was an intense experience. During the corona pandemic, when everything is restricted, people don’t have the opportunity to see much going on.
tipBerlin This particular shop window is quite long and narrow. What did you have to take in consideration when you started placing the objects, paintings and photographs?
Anna Nezhnaya I’d seen a lot of exhibitions at Schau Fenster before. So I’d been able to imagine how to proceed before I started. I knew I would use these columns here…
tipBerlin …there are three of them in the room…
Anna Nezhnaya …yes, I knew I would use them as a place on which to hang the artworks, and that I would create more columns between the existing three to showcase the sculptures. This exhibition has to work as a large picture seen from outside and as a three-dimensional room if you step in.
tipBerlin Did you have to consider such banalities as: the large art works should hang in the background, the small ones in front?
Anna Nezhnaya Some objects like the small piece by Kristina Bekker — tanga panties made from fine silver wire and pearls — have been placed right behind the glass. Passers-by can take a close look. But it’s fine for the bronze candles by Alicja Kwade to be placed on this marble column in the middle of the room. Alicja’s piece is very classical: her burnt candles made from bronze with spray paint symbolise Vergänglichkeit, transitoriness.
tipBerlin Art behind glass lacks sound, a physical sense, a smell…
Anna Nezhnaya These artworks are finished — thankfully they don’t smell (laughs). But, yes, the video by Tim Plamper is not complete without the experience of its sound. The video by Katya Quel Elizarova transports more visual than acoustic information, but can’t be fully experienced from the street. This is a loss when you create an exhibition under the rules of lockdown.
tipBerlin The exhibition is named ‘PORTAL’. It deals with Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, who stumbles down a rabbit hole and finds herself in world of fantasy. How did you get this idea?
Anna Nezhnaya I thought about portals as doors to another world, and one of the most beautiful examples from literature is Alice in Wonderland. My own work in this exhibition, a neon piece, is called ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’. It depicts the rabbit, as well as Alice, in a free interpretation, a joke, a metaphor.
I want us to escape with Alice from the difficult situation we’re dealing with at the moment, at least for some time. But if you take a further look at my work, you’ll find an inversion of Gustave Courbet’s painting ‘L’origin du Monde’, that depicts a woman as the source of a future universe.
tipBerlin In Courbet’s view, the vagina serves as a portal. But what does escaping mean? To let fantasy flow instead of constantly following news updates on infection and death rates?
Anna Nezhnaya Exactly. It’s a difficult time to focus on yourself. There are so many people who haven’t been able to communicate with friends, who don’t have family and are lonely. The only way to escape this situation is fantasy. I’ve tried to select pieces that lead us to another dimension.
tipBerlin Could you show an example?
Anna Nezhnaya These two paintings by Lukas Glinkowski, a Berlin artist, a former student of Katharina Grosse. One picture shows tiles bearing the official memorial inscription at Bahnhof Westhafen, from where Jews were deported to concentration camps. The second painting transforms this sad past into fantasy — it depicts the Terminator travelling from the future to the past to rescue these people.
tipBerlin And this picture must be by Gregor Hildebrandt
Anna Nezhnaya Right. The records in this piece still conserve some sound information, but we don’t recognise it and we don’t have a key for it. It remains a mystery.
tipBerlin And who made this beautiful little house here in the corner of the window?
Anna Nezhnaya Sandra Vásquez de la Horra. She peppers her work with influences from Mexico and Latin America. This small wooden hut is decorated with a pencil, and you can follow the figure between the patterns, inside the house.
tipBerlin Was it difficult to persuade the artists, especially the well-known ones, to participate in a show at the beginning of the second lockdown?
Anna Nezhnaya On the contrary, they reacted very positively. They shared the feeling that we had to do at least something. And it was the right time to get active: I didn’t even feel the lockdown so much during the preparation for this exhibition.
tipBerlin Do you know of artists who’ve had problems selling their works during the crisis?
Anna Nezhnaya They don’t talk about it. If you ask how they they normally answer: I’m doing well, I’m happy. And in my opinion, it’s really not so bad to be an artist in this time. People need some beauty in their lives, something magical, something that gives them a new impulse.
tipBerlin When you compare the situation of Berlin artists during the pandemic with the situation of your friends and colleagues in Moscow, what are the most striking differences?
Anna Nezhnaya Some problems are the same as in Berlin: many projects have been cancelled or postponed. But Moscow artists haven’t received help from the government as we have here.
tipBerlin There are a lot of international artists in your show, most of them living temporarily in town. Are they stuck in Berlin during the pandemic?
Anna Nezhnaya We haven’t discussed that, I can only speak for myself. I haven’t risked travelling yet. My two brothers live in Israel and Russia, where the infection rate is high. And they would have to go into quarantine if they came to Berlin. So we haven’t seen each other since February.
tipBerlin Have you had any particular experience during this exhibition that has given you the impulse to carry on?
Anna Nezhnaya Absolutely. I would like to make ‘PORTAL II’, and I already know where it will take place. Not in a shop window, but if we’re lucky in a space with huge windows.
Interview by Claudia Wahjudi
What’s the best way to keep warm while you browse the art? We recommend a spiced, boozy hot drink-to-go from one of Berlin’s best takeaway Glühwein spots.
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