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As strange as it is revolutionary: The art of Hamburger Bahnhof

Have you ever seen a work of art- could be a painting or choreographed dance- that made you physically stop and say, “What the hell?”

Maybe it’s when college students walk the streets of downtown New York City knee-deep into fashion week with a concoction of every pattern in existence rolled into one outfit and a taxidermy fish used as a headpiece. Or the “weird theatre kid” who spent three weeks taking a vow of silence to get into the mind of a non-verbal character on the ASD spectrum (which they contrived in their head, by the way. The character isn’t actually non-verbal, they just don’t have any lines).

This idea is the embodiment of Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof Museum für Gegenwart, or contemporary art museum, part of the Berlin National Gallery.

Hamburger Bahnhof Museum für Gegenwart (Photo: Viktoria Capek)

Visiting Hamburger Bahnhof was the first time I walked through a gallery thinking this is a bit much, and I’m not having a lot of fun.

But, let’s be honest, it comes from a place of not understanding. And oftentimes a lack of understanding is the pipeline to writing off the validity of a situation altogether. This is true in life and in art. So how do we challenge this? How do we change the narrative of understanding?

I spent over three hours walking through the 25th anniversary exhibition (Church for Sale) rotating through Hamburger Bahnhof’s main space because I wanted to understand and appreciate the art, no matter how weird it was.

Church for Sale inside Hamburger Bahnhof (Photo: Viktoria Capek)

The answer to the aforementioned? We take the time, and we learn.

It helps to walk in knowing what you’re signing up for; what is contemporary art? For one, it’s not modern art. Both movements changed the way artists and consumers made and looked at art, but they’re separated by different time periods and what was valued in the end result.

Modern art can be defined by art that purposefully differed from the pieces that came before it in a period from the late-1800s to mid-1900s. Each work, still objectively whole and beautiful in the end. Contemporary art comes from the 1960s onward, however, and doesn’t matter as much what the final result looks to audiences. Moreso, what matters is the expression an artist shares through the process of making a piece of art. It’s the why and how, not so much the what.

Shop this modern print here

Hamburger Bahnhof holds a permanent collection largely of conceptual, sculpture, and multimedia video and film contemporary art. But the gallery’s temporary exhibits generally pull visitors’ main focus.

Church for Sale, for example, holds display in Hamburger Behnhof’s Historical Hall for more than seven months in 2021-2022. The architectural design of the exhibit was developed specially for the museum’s space. The collection takes its name from a 2013 assembly by Edgar Arceneaux on a series of billboards from a bankrupt Detroit, Michigan advertising the sale of several church properties and resulting loss in the community meeting spaces they provided. The exhibition explores apprehension and susceptibility among groups in different sociocultural climates.

In the middle of the exhibit is a piece commentating on nationalism, government control, physical and psychological violence happening in the United States. Cady Noland’s Blank for Serial is an installation of metal poles to look like crowd control barriers, formed in the shape of a boxing ring, a table with two chairs facing each other, two long cushions leaning on one of the poles and an American Flag handcuffed to another.

Cady Noland Blank for Serial, 1989 and Church for Sale program (Photo: Viktoria Capek)

Striking is the handcuffed flag resting on the floor. The American flag code states it should never touch anything below it, including the ground, “except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property.” Perhaps Noland uses this part of the piece to represent minority Americans facing blatant oppression, but trapped in the “land of the free” because of the nationality they were born into.

Between their rotating and permanent collections, Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof is one of the largest public collections of contemporary art in the world.

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