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Letting a new light in

INTERVIEW: Valerie Smith. The ambitious curator and her international team dig out the pearl inside Berlin's "pregnant oyster" to give it a new lease of life. Visit and see it shine through September.

Photo Credit: Sebastian Bolesch

Since 1956 the city’s former congress hall and lovingly nicknamed “Schwangere Auster” (pregnant oyster) has stood in the shadows of Berlin’s political history. Valerie Smith, head of visual arts at the HKW since 2008 and curator of Between Walls and Windows: Architecture and Ideology (her last project with HKW) has been opening shutters, clearing space and adding intrigue with her team of international artists flooding a contemporary light inside. The walls on the exhibition come down on September 30 – so don’t miss it.

What was your main inspiration behind the exhibition?

There were a number of reasons, but first, we thought that it was timely, in a sense it could be at any time, but cities, especially Berlin, are constantly defining, constantly changing, and we have to think about how that happens and which buildings we keep and which ones we don’t and the meanings behind those buildings. The main idea behind the exhibition was to raise the questions surrounding a person within a building, within a space, and how space defines you. 

The exhibition focuses on “ideology”, couldn’t that be considered a sensitive term for Berlin?

Some might say that “ideology” is an over-used term, especially here, but it’s one we come back to again and again, reconsidering the use of space and the interpretation of the histories within architecture. I lived in Berlin in the early 1990s but I was here back in the 1980s before the Wall fell, there have been such radical changes taking place. Actually the point of the exhibition is that we empty and clear out the building to make it more pourous and transparent, and cleansed of previous accumulations and signs. 

Some may see HKW exhibitions for a slightly older crowd, do you feel like the exhibition is a step in a more inclusive direction?

We definitely hoped to make the exhibition accessible and participatory with different areas for different tastes and ages. Studio Miessens kiosk on the roof, for example, is a totally informal space that may appeal more to a younger crowd, with BBQs and evening discussions around the themes in a more relaxed atmosphere. We also have lots of projects for children and young people during the month so I’d say the exhibition is pretty inclusive, yes. 

What was the selection process for artists like?

Most of the collaborations were natural ones, either through a personal connection, friendship or I had admired their work in the past and hoped to find some way to incorporate their visions. We really wanted the exhibition to be an international critique of ideology, opening the space and rethinking it, so we’ve included artists from all over the world. We wanted to draw in lots of areas – technology, some spiritualism in a way, theology, politics and the power of politics, all of these elements open up a multi-discipline discourse so we could give a gift to the building and to ourselves. 

There are some sites, such as Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu’s “Tile Theatre” (whereby 60,000 Chinese tiles recycled from the Venice Biennale and installed on the HKW roof) are on a large-scale, what will happen with that after the official end date?

Ideally the exhibition here would serve as a model for other buildings in the future, but yes you’re right – there are parts of it that have been extremely costly and time consuming that we can’t simply destroy. We are currently searching for a new location to move “Tile Theatre” on to another site after the exhibition is finished and there are certain other sites, such as the Brandlhubers orchids in the entrance, that we will keep a while longer than the official finissage. It’s still in the discussion stages how much will remain, but the ideal way to experience the exhibit is to visit all the sites as a body of work so you can really get a feel for our concept as one big picture.

What do you mean by “gift”? Do you feel that this is also a sub-theme running through the exhibition?

I would say so, but not in a purely altruistic sense, there are politics behind gift-giving, who benefits from it and a kind of critique of that. The most obvious example would be Arno Brandhuber’s “Garden of Ideologies” (which explores the tradition of dedicating orchids like the “Dendrobium Angela Merket” to heads of states) but there are also more subtle threads running through the sites. At the end of the month I will give my parting gift to the Haus as I’m actually leaving in December this year. My contract is up. It’s called “The Gift”, in fact, and it will be timeline of the project in the Berlin Labor project room, we will be inviting lots of artists from the creative community and celebrating the exhibition through film, photography and similar works on paper.

The exhibition is quite a large-scale production to only be available for one month, why is that?

The main reason is the use of the space, and our department of arts and media is just one of many here so we have to share the space with others. Although we usually work around the other departments it’s been so nice to have use of the whole space and be able to really explore the possibilities without any restrictions. We also felt that something transient was more fitting to our concept so people can really explore the whole building guided through by the flow of the sites.

It sounds as if you have a real connection the building before and will have even more so after this event, how do you feel about leaving your work here?

It’s been four and a half years and my contract was already extended so I’ve been expecting it, but still, I have made a lasting connection to the building itself. Actually I’ve been the only foreigner working here – all my colleagues are German, so I guess some of that understanding of how it is to feel isolated in a foreign space, especially one with such an ideological history, may have had an influence on the project. It’s always sad to move on from somewhere you invested your time but at least it’s with a final accomplishment such as this!

Between walls and windows: Architecture and Ideology, through September 30 | Haus der Kulturen der Welt, John-Foster-Dulles-Allee 10, Tiergarten, U-Bhf Bundestag, daily 10-19:00