City of Foreigners:
XENOPOLIS at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle

How can different cultures live together in today’s metropolises? How do artists read the multicultural city? An exhibition project curated by Simon Njami asks these questions.
In the context of Berlin Art Week, four of the city’s leading art institutions joined forces to launch an exhibition project: Berlinische Galerie, Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, and Nationalgalerie – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. The exhibition project, entitled Stadt/Bild, approaches the complex realities of cities from different perspectives.

At a time when the biggest human migration since World War II is taking place and hundreds of thousands of refugees are flooding to Europe, the future of cities, of urban social communities, is one of the most pressing issues we face. It is becoming apparent that we have to say goodbye to the notion of ethnically homogenous countries. The cultural identity of nations is multiethnic, which has long been a reality in cities like Berlin.  

Simon Njami writes in his text on the Xenopolis exhibition at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle: “How can realities that contradict and at the same time complement each other exist side by side in the same geographical space? The city is a living organism, capable of assimilating all of the scattered particles and elements organized according to a chemical principle, whose secret it keeps. And of all the cities it is precisely the capitals that develop their own momentum, like giant centers for experimental art.”

Along these lines, the exhibition curated by Njami asks how artists read “xenopolises” – “cities of foreigners” – in other words today’s metropolises in which everyone is basically a foreigner. A thesis put forward by Roland Barthes is the point of departure for the exhibition concept. In his work Semiology and the Urban, the French philosopher postulates that the city speaks to its residents, that is can be read and has its own distinct language. Njami took up this idea together with six international artists, conceived a “labyrinth of perceptions” and developed them further so that the residents communicate with their city and thus change its language. In keeping with these considerations, the exhibition Xenopolis poses questions revolving around belonging, home, and the notion of “the foreign.”

The exhibition begins in the urban space right in front of the KunstHalle with a sound installation by Jan-Peter E.R. Sonntag. The German artist is interested in cities’ historical memory, which is inscribed in their sounds. During a stay in Mexico City, he noticed organ grinders in a park who played Mexican revolutionary songs on barrel organs that were over 100 years old and completely out of tune. It turned out that the instruments were made by a Berlin company on Schönhauser Allee. The original mechanical systems had not been renewed since the revolution, and the sound had “weathered” over the years. Now Sonntag’s video work Sunday in the Park is being shown at the KunstHalle, filmed during a stay in Mexico City, while revolutionary sounds he distorted digitally can be heard outside on Unter den Linden boulevard – like a polyphonic echo or a swansong to revolutionary utopias, they return to their place of origin Berlin.

Mwangi Hutter call their installation, which begins the show at the KunstHalle, Proximity of Imperfect Figures. A sea of arms surrounds an imperfect covered figure. Since the end of the 1990s, the Nairobi-born artist Ingrid Mwangi and the German Robert Hutter have appeared as the artist personality Mwangi Hutter. For Xenopolis, used casts of their own arms to create an architecture of body parts that also focuses issues like community and ostracism.  

Loris Cecchini’s transparent campers fuse ideas about the city and movement, about nomadic space. The Italian artist puts different plants and objects in these vehicles-cum-hothouses for every exhibition. The works are akin to surreal architectural models that challenge our perception of reality.

In his video installation, the Ethiopian Theo Eshetu deals with the German Academic Exchange Program Service scholarship that enabled him to come to Berlin. Kiss the Moment is diary, homage, and essay at once. 18 monitors form a gigantic “window grille”. An associative city trip unfolds: parks, dance performances, burlesque shows, architectures, love stories.

The exhibition ends with the video work Long Sorrow (2005) by the Albanian artist Anri Sala.  The title stems from the nickname the populace gave to what is purported to be Europe’s longing high-rise building in the Märkisches Viertel of Berlin. With Long Sorrow, Sala creates an artistic vision for a state of limbo between identities, cultures, and places – for cities that like Berlin are continually re-remembered, re-conceived, and re-experienced.  

In very different ways, Xenopolis investigates urban alienation, approaches to places, cultural and social phenomena, as well as collective and personal history. The exhibition, says Simon Njami, “opens other perspectives and allows us to experience heterotopy and heterochrony at the same time. I wanted to write a symphony and, as you know, it takes many different instruments to achieve a decent one.”

16.09.2015 – 08.11.2015
Deutsche Bank KunstHalle