BERLIN — Gallery Weekend Berlin 2023 came and went fringed with various joys. There is, of course, a glittering official success story: The 19th edition of the initiative was the biggest ever, with 55 galleries (big, small, institutional) from across the city showing more than 80 artists, including both celebrities and veterans. All this basking in the sweet glow of corporate sponsorship (Gucci, BMW) promising lavish dinners and thumping techno parties.

Gallery Weekend is not a Wagnerian endurance test. Since it’s impossible to see everything, especially for its fretful participants, it’s more like an art-world version of Wacky Races: glorious prepared chaos. There’s no grand curatorial theme dictated to galleries from above. This is surely an act of generosity, allowing different exhibitions to contradict each other, inviting excited chatter among visitors. Curators, collectors, and critics all hop froggishly in and out of sleek-interiored shuttle buses, gossiping deliriously at brunches, huddled in smoking areas; ordinary folk listen politely to gallerists’ spiels, mostly in smiling silence, with the bravest asking insightful questions mercifully free of names of other artists they’ve heard of, shows they’ve seen, or technical artspeak; the appallingly stylish local art crowd sweep shimmering and moody through the fresh damp streets. 

Visitors marvel at Cao Fei, Duotopia at Sprüth Magers during Gallery Weekend Berlin (photo Max Feldman/Hyperallergic)

One thematic standout, however, were exhibitions motivated by political ideas. Kapwani Kiwanga’s 15-piece wall work series Sisal (2023) at Tanja Wagner consists of light sisal drapes, interrogating the material’s colonial history. In Rhea Dillon’s We looked for eyes creased with concern, but saw only veils at Sweetwater, ten sculptures embody passages from Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970). The six versions of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec’s The Medical Examination (1894) that appear in self-described “political dominatrix” Reba Maybury’s [erp] From Paris with Love at Efremidis Gallery are produced by her “submissives.” Each of them has to donate to charities of her choosing and fill out an extensive application form before they serve her, and the works, reflecting on the emotional toll of the moral terrorism waged on sex workers by state-backed medical authorities, are named after their pseudonym, occupation, age, and where they are based. Meanwhile, Frieda Toranzo Jaeger’s Heart Core at Barbara Weiss reflects on the gendered history of the human heart as an example of devotional symbolism, redeploying the forms of triptych altarpieces and 15th-century Flemish painting.

There was also a thematic and often material scale to some of the exhibitions that reflects the magnitude of Gallery Weekend as a whole. These include shows by veteran artists who may well be known outside the art world, like Hito Steyerl and Cao Fei, as well as less obvious names like Hiwa K and Monia Ben Hamouda. The latter’s exhibition About Telepathy and Other Violences at ChertLüdde consists primarily of works from the artist’s Aniconism as Figurative Urgency series (2021–ongoing) of twisting steel sculptures influenced by Arabic calligraphy, with brown, black, and white dusty scatterings made from spices (chili, cumin, henna, coconut charcoal, dried beetroot, salt) forming winding paths beneath them. I saw Adam Budak, curator at the Kestner Gesellschaft in Hannover, circling these works, careful and pensive. He told me, whispering excitedly in the momentary hush between curators’ and collectors’ tours, that these twisting forms as exhibited a “sensuality and a wicked sense of belonging.”

Ben Hamouda’s gnarled linguistic forms dangle from the ceiling, as do the big glass-blown lamps made to look like melons in Hang Don’t Cut by the art collective Slavs and Tatars at Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler. That’s not their only similarity. The Slavs and Tatars show tells a story about the fruit’s complex status in central Asian societies (specifically Uzbekistan and Xinjiang), where it’s stored in warehouses to artificially ripen late, contrasting the arid, unyielding landscape. It also enjoys a hybrid social role: Melons form a part of local religious mythology, since they are said to have grown as splendid divine gifts in the Garden of Eden, with the cracks in their earthly forms reflecting the sweeping gestures of Arabic script. Where Ben Hamouda contorts words and characters that Arabic readers might once have understood, Slavs and Tatars offer a sweet, juicy taste of the redemptive power of words. Both sets of objects, however, withdraw from the possibility of being deciphered at the same time as they give us the aching taste of what knowledge might be like. 

Partially inaccessible truths also form the basis of Hiwa K’s “View from Above” (2017) from Like a Good, Good, Good Boy at KOW. Originally created for Documenta 14, the work consists of a resplendent, carpet-like floor model of the city of Kassel seen from above and destroyed by war; the video lets us listen in on the artist describing his hometown from an imaginary perspective derived from memory, as if he were looking down on the city from above with a bird’s-eye view. This is what the German system requires from its asylum seekers, as a court looks down on maps of “unsafe” places to determine whether the person seeking asylum is telling the truth about the place they come from and the legitimacy of their claim on this basis.

It’s easy for those of us who come armed with art theory ammunition to read this like a high-stakes inversion of Marco Polo’s descriptions of imaginary places to Kublai Khan in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972). For many, however, including some visitors who were visibly moved by the work, treading carefully over the “carpet” as if they were in their own home, this is a reminder of the specific kind of bureaucratic humiliation exacted upon the most vulnerable.

Hito Steyerl’s “Contemporary Cave Art” (2023), part of the exhibition at Esther Schipper, is a site-specific version of her “Animal Spirits” (2022) environment. This film, complete with live computer-generated animation projected on custom-made surround screens, produces a primordial, cavern-like space for experiencing the work’s combination of historical footage, animation, motion graphics, and interviews. Several viewers said they felt totally immersed in the work’s darkness, a primordial palace of screens. The proceeds of the sales of individual glass spheres, which contain measure proxies for plant health that respond to the interaction of visitors, will go to victims of the recent earthquakes in Turkey and northern Syria.

Simurgh. Ten Women Artists from Iran at Crone takes Islamic poet Attar of Nishapur’s 12th-century epic poem “The Conference of the Birds” as its starting point for displaying works by the women who will help create a new Iran when the Islamic Republic eventually ends. The show’s sheer density means it’s quite cluttered in the gallery’s space on Fasanenstrasse, but this doesn’t make what it says about art’s contribution to future democracy any less worthy, with Berliners nodding their solemn assent. In particular, Anahita Ramzi’s “No National Flag Uses a Gradient #1-8” (2022), which features the titular phrase on a series of eight flags running on a black-and-white gradient, is a timely and solemn reflection on the visual language of democracy and what is at stake when we long for radical social change.

Fo Finally, Cao Fei’s Duotopia at Sprüth Magers is an expansive post-digital playground featuring multiple video works; a cosmic viewing platform that makes viewers feel like they’re doing cybernetic stargazing; a badminton court with the artist’s sleek post-post-internet dystopian-adjacent imagery as a net; a camping scene with tents and a gazebo with fold-out chairs placed in front of a screen showing real people doing exactly what viewers are pretending to do; and so much more. The work is a meditation on the metaverse and the long history of philosophical reflections on the way we look at the world to work out reality from what is merely illusory.

Dodging the badminton court, one woman craned her neck to survey the baffling visual banquet: “My goodness,” she gasped, German-accented, full of unselfconscious wonder. We could probably do with more of that.

Max L. Feldman is a writer and educator based in Vienna, Austria. His writing on contemporary art, philosophy, and politics has been published widely, and he has taught Philosophy at Heythrop College (University...