Reminiscing about my visit to a very progressive exhibition
One of my favorite contemporary art spaces in the city is, in typical Berlin fashion, tucked in the back of an unassuming Kreuzberg bookstore. It’s the sort of place that one could easily pass by for years without ever learning that a gallery space sat at the rear of the building. With this in mind, Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst is a bit of a mystery to me. The exhibitions are free, despite being exceptionally well-curated and unique. Who visits this place, I wonder. It’s not the sort of art space that is featured in guide books (see: Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlinische Galerie, Boros Bunker, even KW…), yet none of my friends in Berlin had heard of the venue until I mentioned it. Perhaps NGBK is catering to those in the hyper-specific art world. Whoever the intended audience though, I am glad to have stumbled upon the gallery, because NGBK’s program is one that I consistently enjoy.
Of the handful of exhibitions on display there since I’ve started visiting, my favorite has been LOVE AIDS RIOT SEX II. The questions and provocations being posed were as varied as the art on the walls and floor, on the Lacoste polo and on the bright orange bench. Nothing felt overly planned or formulaic about how the art was arranged; one might even call it haphazard. Still, it worked.
LOVE AIDS RIOT SEX II covered topics relating to sexual activity, disease prevention, and awareness–logical themes given the exhibition title–but it was about more than simply sex or AIDS. The art was exploring acceptance, otherness, gender constructs, socialization, representation, identification, the expression of masculinity and femininity, state- and social- surveillance of public space, fashion, disco culture, life, death, and then some. These concepts would be thought-provoking in any place, but they are particularly pertinent in Berlin.
It is funny, actually. NYU, and NYC in general, are thought of as very tolerant environments. I’ve met many people who spoke of their eagerness to attend the university largely because they felt unable to express or even explore their sexuality wherever they grew up. As Woody Allen so aptly puts it in Annie Hall, “The rest of the country looks upon New York like we’re left-wing Communist, Jewish, homosexual, pornographers. I think of us that way sometimes, and I live here.” So yes, I am coming from a place where it is somewhat “more OK” not to be straight, and yet Berlin seems so much more… out there. I love that I live in a city where it is OK for a transvestite clad in a garbage bag and nosebleed-inducing stilettos to ride the u-bahn at 4 o’clock on a Tuesday morning, and no one bats an eyelash. I love that there are so many dedicated gay bars and clubs. Not only that, but there’s a gay club night (or really, weekend and multi-day partying affair) called Homopatik which is widely considered one of the best house and techno parties in the city. And lest I forget Berghain, the club where people can do more or less whatever they like, with whomever they like, without fear of being judged by other patrons. As a decidedly straight female, I still feel incredibly lucky to live in this kind of environment, and find myself forgetting that there could possibly be an oppressive alternative.
Considering the social and cultural liberalism of this city, it doesn’t surprise me that there could be an art exhibition about love, sex, and disease within the LGBT community, and an audience for such an exhibition. There were confessions and transformations being shared through the art in LOVE AIDS SEX RIOT II which contributed to an unshakably personal, human quality of the exhibition. Which makes sense, really, as the art was as much about humanity and about the human experience as it was about the specificity of the way in which Susi Pop appropriates Robert Indiana, or the subtle implications of a Burroughs Wellcome unicorn. It really is wonderful to live in a place where the content of art galleries mirrors the progressiveness of Berlin itself.