BERLIN — When you visit one of the many high-ceilinged, post-industrial cultural spaces in Berlin, they might seem like they were just built for site-specific, oversized contemporary art. You might avoid asking about their original construction, so as not to ruin the fun. Contemporary art spaces here are sometimes awkward about acknowledging the historical precedents that created their huge, airy exhibition halls, conveniently located in city centers. In Berlin, these include WWII bunkers redesigned to house private art collections, hospitals turned residency programs, a former crematory animated with performance and music, and repurposed factories — once the epicenters of urban modernity, now gutted of machinery and ready for art interventions.
So when you walk into the newly opened KINDL Center for Contemporary Art in Neukölln, an imposing brick structure complete with a tower and industrial-size chimneys, it’s no shock to find an art space. The collector couple Burkhard Varnholt and Salome Grisard purchased the landmarked brewery in 2011, and its comprehensive renovation and restoration, led by Grisard, kept some of the rugged surfaces and detailing while redoing other areas into expansive white cubes. The building’s original use is still visible: The center adopted the manufacturer’s name, Kindl (as in, the watery brew favored by locals), and named its various venues after their bygone usage: the Boiler House, the Power House, and the Brew House, a massive hall housing six brewing coppers, huge upside-down golden funnels running from floor to ceiling.
The Brew House, sparkling and packed for the opening, is both awe-inspiring and alienating. Its brewing coppers are incredibly beautiful and perfectly useless, an embodiment of the process formerly functional architecture undergoes when transitioning into the mandatory blankness of an art space. Kindl Brewery becoming an art space is one more case in a city packed with repurposed buildings variously haunted by their pasts. They are part of what makes Berlin exciting, but it’s also intriguing that contemporary art is drawn to such places, managing to rewrite them time and again as “blank” backdrops. Art spaces apparently provide a renewing energy, which holds both regenerating and blinding, erasing potential. Back in 1978, Carol Duncan and Alan Wallace deconstructed museum “blankness” as a manufactured condition that serves art’s ideology in The Museum of Modern Art as Late Capitalist Ritual: an Iconographic Analysis: “According to prevailing beliefs, the museum space itself, apart from the objects it shelters, is empty. A structured ritual space — an ideologically active environment — usually remains invisible.” None of this is new, but it still works.
It’s a whole lot easier to recognize ideologically charged spaces of the past than those of our own time. David Claerbout’s two-channel video installation, Olympia (The Real-Time Disintegration into Ruins of the Berlin Olympic Stadium over the Course of a Thousand Years) (2016), now on view at KINDL, is a reflection on another monumental space of the past, seen clearly through the lens of its failed ideology. For this installation, Claerbout digitally reconstructed Berlin’s Olympic stadium, a crucial image of Nazi propaganda. The stadium hosted the 1936 Olympics, Nazi paramilitary training, and postwar refugee camps, then reopened in 2004 as a sports and music venue. Its architecture still evokes the physical conditions of its long-gone ideology: symmetry, awe, non-human scale, historical weight — not exactly the stuff of Depeche Mode concerts or German league soccer games. Claerbout’s piece demonstrates how impossible it is to physically experience this sort of architecture: He constructed a CGI model of the site and programmed it to disintegrate as it would over a thousand years, and then captured the process digitally. The video is in real time, so its running length is also one thousand years. Sitting in the 20-meter-ceilinged space of the Boiler Room watching this infinite building disintegrate infinitely slowly, you cannot help but feel infinitely tiny — an effect of space and time designed for just that, removed from political ideology, repurposed by an art space — and still just as effective.
Now it’s up to the team at KINDL, led by curator Andreas Fiedler, to suggest a new vision for the old brewery’s glamorously creepy, industrially sized spaces. The center plans on hosting solo and group exhibitions and site-specific commissions, as well as an educational and events program, a café, and, appropriately, a beer garden. One of its biggest challenges will be to make the monumental spaces seem appropriate not only for site-specific art, but also for visitors and for residents in this culturally mixed, quickly gentrifying neighborhood.
Olympia (The Real-Time Disintegration into Ruins of the Berlin Olympic Stadium over the Course of a Thousand Years) continues at KINDL Center for Contemporary Art (Am Sudhaus 3, 12053, Neukölln, Berlin) through May 28, 2017.