In: Berlin

Earlier this year Ai Weiwei released his new project in Berlin which involved wrapping the columns of the Konzerthaus in 14,000 salvaged refugee life jackets to raise awareness of the plight of displaced people all over the world. With life jackets taken from those who arrived on the Greek Island of Lesbos after facing the dangers of the treacherous Mediterranean sea, Weiwei has created a piece that both the world and Berlin cannot ignore. The sheer scale of the installation highlights the sheer amount of suffering that these people face and as the blaring orange of the lifejackets has captured the attention of the world, we can only hope that these people will try to do something to change the situation of those in need.

This is not the first time that Weiwei has been seen in the headlines for his art this year. In January, Weiwei revealed he would be withdrawing his work from a show he was currently involved in within Copenhagen after new legislation was implemented by Denmark’s parliament which would delay families from being reunited and gave the authorities the right to confiscate the possessions of migrants in order to dissuade them from seeking asylum. The law provoked international outrage from many people including an array of human rights groups and Weiwei himself released a statement saying The way I can protest is that I can withdraw my works from that country. It is very simple, very symbolic – I cannot co-exist, I cannot stand in front of these people, and see these policies. It is a personal act, very simple; an artist trying not just to watch events but to act, and I made this decision spontaneously.’

Photo by Rohit Chawla

Photo by Rohit Chawla

Through his actions, it is clear to see that Weiwei is a hugely important figure in showcasing that art is political and that it is not merely an aesthetic form. Art is not shallow or meaningless and when it is put into the hands of someone like Ai Weiwei it can bring political issues to a range of people. Weiwei himself is no stranger to political turmoil and disruption with it featuring throughout his life from being beaten by police officials to being held in jail for extended amounts of time with no official charges. Both Weiwei’s life and career has been shaped by political authority who have not only impinged on his right to freedom but on his creativity as well with the demolition of his studio in 2011 by officials showing how this is an artist who knows how it feels to persecuted. Weiwei has suffered at the hands of tyrannical regimes just like the ones that refugees are fleeing from everyday and therefore there is an affinity between the artist and the people who provide inspiration for his work, there is a shared suffering between the creator and the subject.

Interestingly, the artist has not only chosen to explore these important issues through large scale projects, he is also utilising platforms within the social media world and particularly through Instagram. The artist posts videos and photographs documenting his time spent with refugees which includes anything from images of the people he encounters to the conditions they have to live with. These digital expressions act as a juxtaposition from the work people usually associated with Weiwei but they relay instant and important messages. Through this platform, the artist can posts daily and continual images that highlight the struggle these people are facing, meaning that the issue can never fade out of sight. It would be impossible for Weiwei to erect one of his large scale sculptures everyday or have an exhibition in every city in the world, but through the Internet he can spread his political and artistic message and people are able to interact with it almost instantly with Weiwei’s Instagram page having over two hundred thousand followers.  You don’t need to be an art buff to recognise and acknowledge the suffering that the people in these images are facing and therefore by utilising social media, the artist can speak to a brand new audience and spread the message of their plight even further.


Ai Weiwei

The refugee crisis is important and it should not be ignored, and with figures like Weiwei the world is waking up and the permeation of this political crisis into the world of art shows that this issue cannot and should not be ignored. Throughout history, art has been there to express some of the most important moments that define the world that we live in and I think Weiwei’s work is no exception. Art and culture can hold so much power and through these sculptures, photographs and videos, this power is being harnessed and I believe it can go a lot further. Ai Weiwei is an artist who has taken on both his own suffering and the suffering of others and has managed to take a stand through his work, and if you enjoy Weiwei’s piece perhaps you should consider stepping up and trying to make a difference too. 

There are two important events happening in the art world in London both connected to Alexander Calder. The Tate Modern showcases “Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture” until April 3rd and equally as important is PACE LONDON’s “Calder Prize 2005-2015” show that  acquaints visitors with the level of inspiration that this grand artist is still offering young artists from all over the world.

At Pace, Alexander Calder’s works such as “Still Life”1944, “Snag” 1944, “Fawn” 1944, “Untitled” 1953, “Trois pics (intermediate maquette)” 1967, “The Tree” 1960 are exhibited in conversation with 6 artists, laureates of the Calder Prize between 2005 and 2015.

A Maverick of modernist art, Calder completely revolutionized the landscape of art by insisting on introducing performance and kinetic qualities to sculpture, embracing industrial media including wire and sheet metal. Calder managed to change the most static materials into romantic pieces.

His work included not only sculpture but also paintings, drawings, and more than a dozen theatrical productions. Calder described his involvement in the stage sets as “dancers performing a choreography due to their rhythmic movement.”

This ultimate vanguard of modern art is still continuing to touch the art world by inspiring so many young artists.  Nowadays, Calder Prize and Calder Foundation, a non-profit organization, aim to collect, exhibit, preserve and interpret the art and archives of Alexander Calder. The foundation examines works attributed to Calder and catalogues the artist’s works.Together with the Scone Foundation in New York, the Calder Foundation sponsors the biennial Calder Prize, a $50,000 award to a living artist and it also facilitates the donation of the artist’s work to a major public collection. The laureates are also invited to complete a residency in Calder’s atelier in Sache, France.

Below is a brief presentation of the artists who have been laureates of the Calder Prize 2005-2015.

Darren Bader, born in 1978, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, lives and works in New York. Bader first started by wanting to be a film director and his first videos, composed of long takes of objects, inert and in motion, were a preview of what Bader the artist was going to do.

Everything can become an art object for this artist, from living beings such as live kittens exhibited for adoption under abstract names (MoMA PS1, 2012) to books, undelivered mail, boxes of paint, you name it! Bader’s book “Life as a Readymade” which is basically an open letter to anyone who considers himself an artist, includes the phrase “Art is a state of mind and experience understood by any number of people at any number of moments.”

Tara Donovan, Untitled, 2015 (left), Zilvinas Kempinas, Illuminator 24, 2015 (right), Courtesy Pace London

Tara Donovan, Untitled, 2015 (left), Zilvinas Kempinas, Illuminator 24, 2015 (right), Courtesy Pace London

Tara Donovan, was born in 1969, in New York and was awarded the Calder Prize in 2005. Donovan’s work uses everyday manufactured materials such as Scotch tape, Styrofoam cups, paper plates, toothpicks, and drinking straws to create large scale sculptures that often have a biomorphic quality. Her sculptures must be assembled and disassembled carefully, which sometimes involves an extremely tedious process. With regards to her artistic process, Donovan explained that she chooses the material before she decides what can be done with it. She noted in an interview that she thinks “in terms of infinity, of [the materials] expanding.” Her work has been exhibited in numerous important venues such as Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, Hammer Museum, University of California, MMOA in New York and many others. She is present at Pace London with “Cloud”, 2003 and “Untitled”, 2015.

Rachel Harrison, born in 1966, in New York, was a Calder Prize laureate of the 2011 edition and has had many solo exhibitions at institutions such as Bergen Kunsthall, Camden Arts Centre, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Migros Museum fur Gegenwartskunst in Zurich and SMAK, Ghent. She lives and works in New York and is present at the Calder Prize with “Avatar” ,2010 and “Silent Account”, 2004. Rachel produces sculptures that juxtapose a unique combination of found, purchased, and received items. Since then, her works have been fabricated using a wide range of materials, such as honey, cans of peas, papier-mâché, and trash bags. By using everyday goods and objects, Harrison frequently takes on the subject of consumer culture. She also often confronts popular culture and celebrities with her work. In the 2012 exhibition named “The Help”, her pieces featured the singer Amy Winehouse and the artist Martin Kippenberger.

Zilvinas Kempinas, Flux, 2009, Courtesy Pace London

Zilvinas Kempinas, Flux, 2009, Courtesy Pace London

Zilvinas Kempinas was born in 1969, in Plunge, Lithuania and he is the Calder laureate of 2007. He lives and works in New York and his works are kinetic and minimalistic. Kempinas employs non traditional materials to create active and dynamic exhibits, most commonly as installations. In many of his works, Kempinas utilizes his signature material, unwound magnetic tape. The use of the tape affects the viewer through various senses; visually, aurally and physically. “His art plays out on the bright side of the moon” and Londoners can see that in his work exhibited at Pace London “Illuminator”. His installation “Flux” shows as much of Calder’s influence and heritage as aimed by the exhibition. Similar to the rest of the laureates, Kempinas has had major solo exhibitions including the ones at PS1 Contemporary Art Centre, Long Island New York, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, Contemporary Art Centre, Vilnius, Kunstalle Wien and many others.

Haroon Mirza, Lightwork 3, 2013 (left), Alexander Calder, Boomerangs, 1941, Courtesy Pace London

Haroon Mirza, Lightwork 3, 2013 (left), Alexander Calder, Boomerangs, 1941, Courtesy Pace London

Haroon Mirza is an English and London born artist, who became a Calder laureate in 2015. His installations made me think about what famous architect Xavier Corbero said: “when you choose the right scale, music sounds beautiful”. Mirza is close to an architect, creating a space where LED lights, speakers, vinyls, screens, and different music sounds interact and converse to the point of involving the spectator. His installation “Light Work iii”, is also an experience in itself.

Tomas Saraceno, Cumulus Filaments, 2016, and Trace G64 B213, 2015, Courtesy Pace London

Tomas Saraceno, Cumulus Filaments, 2016, and Trace G64 B213, 2015, Courtesy Pace London

Tómas Saraceno born in 1973 in San Miguel de Tucuman, Argentina, was awarded the Calder Prize in 2009 and he lives and works in Berlin. Trained as an architect, he is not only an artist but an environmentalist and he combines engineering, physics, chemistry, aeronautics and materials science in his work. Saraceno has had solo exhibitions at the Barbican Art Gallery, London, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, University of California, Hangar Bahnhof, Berlin, etc. It is an interesting fact to note that Saraceno holds a World record for the first, longest, fully solar-powered, certified, lighter-than-air vehicle tether Flight. He is present at Calder Prize exhibition with “Cumulus Filaments”, 2016 and “Trace G64 B213”, 2015.

The exhibition is open to the public up until 5th of March, 2016 at PACE LONDON.

From the top floor of Artsy’s impressive office space overlooking bustling downtown Manhattan I sat down with Jessica Backus the director of Artsy Learning and The Art Genome Project to discuss her work at Artsy and how she has achieved success in the art world. Founded in 2009 and making its public debut in 2012, Artsy has gained quite the following as one of the most exciting and user-friendly online art platforms. From educating and exposing the public to all genres and periods of art history, to tracking the art market, galleries, and art fairs, the search engine covers all corners and quirks of the perpetually expanding art world. Before coming to Artsy Backus studied Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia for her undergraduate career and completed her master’s in Art History Hunter College, specializing in Post-War German art.


 How did you enter the art world?

It really wasn’t until graduate school that I realized that there were many methodologies [within art history] and that I was much more interested in the social history of art, but my interests started to crystalize when I started my first job out of college, working at the gallery Peres Projects in Berlin, where I worked for 4 years as an associate director. My favorite part of working at the gallery was working with the artists, and seeing their works start to germinate; being there for that magical moment when they went from being just a of collection of materials and impressions to being a fully-fledged object. I knew that I wanted to continue doing that, so that’s when I decided to go back and get a master’s in art history.

What did you take away from your pursuit for a master’s degree in Art History?

I kind of went back to grad school for the wrong reasons, I looked around me and I saw the people whose lifestyle I wanted to emulate, or whose job description I wanted to emulate, and those were art advisors. I remember reading something David Zwirner said in response to the question of who are his favorite types of people are: the people with well-formed opinions. I was 26 or so when I read that, and I was like, huh, I don’t know if I could say that I have many of my own well-formed opinions about art. I knew I would need to have that to be an art advisor.

How did you get started at Artsy?

I ended up getting the job at Artsy while I was in grad school. I think I was in my second year and at that point it was a position as a research assistant for the Art Genome Project. I loved the idea of it. For the first time I realized I could actually have one of those rare jobs in the art world that didn’t require you to sell stuff.

Why Artsy?

It was attractive to me because it was the first art search engine. For my studies I was using the tools that were available to me, and I basically wanted to build the tool that I would want to use as a graduate student. I also found the idea of democratizing art really appealing. 


Could you describe the Art Genome Project?

The Art Genome Project is a discovery engine for art that powers Artsy. It was started under Carter Cleveland, Artsy’s founder and CEO. He was in his dorm room in Princeton and wanted to buy art and didn’t know where to start—which really reflects the opaque nature of the art market. So he started Artsy and the Art Genome Project as a way to help people fall in love with art, while also aiding in the practical purpose of discovering it. Ultimately, what we do is create connections between artists and art works for our users.

Is Artsy comparable to anything out there already?

In the same way that Netflix or Pandora’s Music Genome Project can make recommendations for you based on the genre or the quality of things that you like, The Art Genome Project does that with art. It’s important for me to acknowledge that we were in a lucky position in that we were able to build upon already existing classification systems to create a user-focused system. In other words, a framework for our audience instead of one for cataloguers or the future art historians—one for people who really want to learn about art. That was the real breakthrough for the Art Genome Project, and that’s what makes it interesting and unique.

What is a “gene?”

We call them “genes” but on the front end of the site they’re called “categories.” They are motifs, memes, themes, concepts, modes, moods, basically all the various ways of approaching art. A “gene” has to be something about art, which might seem basic, but we have to start with the basics.

How does this process work?

Everyone on our team has to be a generalist because you never really know from one day to the next what you will “genoming” (or the process of researching and annotating works of art and artists). Any of the genomers can propose a gene, and then we vote as a team, and if it gets enough votes then it goes directly into “labs,” where we test it out to make sure it’s working. We’ll then survey the team and make sure that we can all agree on its application with 80% consistency or more, and then it graduates and becomes a fully-fledged part of the genome.

Do you have a favorite “gene?”

If had to choose my favorite gene… It might be “mediated view,” which refers to either the use of a specific framing device within the image itself, or the presence of something that impedes or mediates your view. This strategy makes you aware of the artist’s hand; it can add a sense of mystery. There are also a lot of images of windows in “mediated view,” where there’s this attempt to hide something and expose something else in a very explicit way as a part of the composition.

What does your typical day at Artsy look like?


Oh, I don’t think there’s every a typical day at Artsy. We’re still a start-up; I know that people can forget that.

One thing we might do on a day when we have our weekly Genome meeting is to play a game we call “Genome Pictionary” to get the team thinking more holistically about genoming. One person draws and the other guesses; the drawer doesn’t see the artwork, but is presented its genome, and they have to figure out what it is and draw the work. It’s fun, but we also use it as a chance to take a step back from the “back end” of the process and ask ourselves, what is a good genome? A good genome says something specific about a work of art. You should be able to conjure an image of the work in your head. If the genome fails to do that, then it’s not a good genome.

 What are your personal perceptions of contemporary art?

Looking at the top emerging artists today, the theme seems to be breaking borders or breaking boundaries (I should add this was actually an insight of our editorial team, who explored it in their recent year-in-review feature). 2015 was an intense year for the world. In the same way that we see a lot of societal changes happening—whether it’s the Black Lives Matter movement or gay marriage in the United States, or the incredibly divided politics of this country, or even the refugee crisis in Europe—throughout the world there seems to be this global conversation of who we want to be and who gets to be included in that conversation. In the actual demographics of the art world you see these changes reflected. There are more women artists, more artists of color, and they have an audience that’s not just collectors from their specific niche. You know, we receive a lot of criticism for even having a gene for e.g. Woman Artists, because it implies that this is a relevant aspect of someone’s practice, and women artists just want to be considered artists, without the qualifier of gender. While I don’t think we are at a point yet where it’s incidental if you’re a woman artist or that it’s irrelevant if you’re a woman artist or a black artist, I do think that we start to see now, for the first time, that that future exists. The space of creation, the audience, the opportunities and possibilities for being an artist are all changing. That’s what I find is most exciting about the state of contemporary art.

Do you have advice for young art professionals?

Make sure you do something you really want to do, not just something that seems cool. From there, realize from there that the next step is to figure out the process. What process, what things, what activities really make you happy? I think that will largely dictate where you end up. The earlier you find what’s really coming from you and not other people’s expectations from or reactions to you, the better.

Also, don’t be afraid to return to the drawing board. It’s usually rare for students to do something, acknowledge that it didn’t work, and start over. That’s the biggest thing that we see from recent graduates, that they are so compelled to do something perfectly the first time that there’s often a missed opportunity; they are not always agile, flexible, or willing to totally revise their thinking on something.

Whenever the New York grind gets me down , I head straight to the Neue Galerie for German and Austrian Art on 87th and 5th for a heaping dose of old European romance and, of course, great art. Admittedly, I am often lured by the smell of apple strudel and hot chocolate mit schlag at the adjacent Café Sabarsky, but I am never disappointed by the museum’s permanent collection and their masterfully curated temporary exhibits. The Neue is currently featuring an exhibit called “Berlin Metropolis: 1918-1933” which opened on October 1st and will run until January 4th. This collection features paintings, photographs, films and other works by the great artists of Germany’s Weimar Republic. This period in between the first and second world wars was a brief, but prolific and innovative time for art and German culture in general.

Berlin_Metropolis_large (1)

The exhibition is chronologically divided into five themes that correspond to different aspects of Weimar Berlin: The Birth of the New Republic; A New Utopia; The “Neue Frau” or New Woman; The Crisis of Modernity; and Into the Abyss. This layout successfully illustrates the progression in Weimar society from the vibrant and hedonistic early days to the horrors of the Third Reich.

Upon walking into the “Birth of the New Republic” section, I was greeted by a pig headed mannequin dressed in a military costume suspended from the ceiling: “Prussian Archangel” by John Heartfield and Rudolf Schlichter. This whimsical yet austere figure sets the tone of the room, which features the great works of the Berlin Dada movement by Heartfield, George Grosz, Otto Dix, Hannah Hoch (the only woman in the group), and many other Dadaists.

prussian_archangel-John Heartfield and Rudolf Schlichter 1920

I was especially drawn to a wild and grotesque series of 11 lithographs by Max Beckmann from 1922 called “A Trip to Berlin”. With titles like “Striptease”, each lithograph is extremely provocative and energetic and transports the viewer to the hustle and bustle of Weimar Berlin.

Striptease-from _A Trip to Berlin_. Max Beckmann 1922

I definitely learned a lot about Berlin Dada from the first room, but my favorite section of the exhibit by far was the pink tinted room dedicated to the “Neue Fraue,” or New Woman.  Not only does this room pay homage to the sophisticated and liberated Berliner woman of the 1920’s, it also showcases the innovative genius of Hannah Hoch.

In addition to Hoch’s clever collages such as “The Bride” (1924) and “Journalists”(1925) below, the room also features gorgeous costumes sketches from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) production stills from The Prince von Pappenheim (1927), and other posters and images celebrating the glamour and talent of the “Neue Fraue”.

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The exhibit ends on a rather grave note in the “Into the Abyss” room. It features the same Berlin Dadaists as the beginning of the exhibit- Grosz, Heartfield, and Schlichter, but deals with very different subject matter. John Heartfield’s sinister “Adolf and the Superman” (1932) is a far cry from the playful Dada collages from the beginning of the Weimar period.

John Heartfield-Adolf and The Superman (1932)

“Berlin Metropolis” is definitely worth a visit, if not several.  I will definitely be back to the Neue to learn more about this culturally explosive time period that unfortunately ended in such horrible tragedy. Should “Into the Abyss” kill your vibe, don’t forget to drown your sorrows in some pistachio and chocolate “Mozarttorte” and hot chocolate at Café Sabarsky. While you can’t take pictures of the art, you are certainly allowed to post your Viennese delights on Instagram (which for the record, taste even better than they look).