Left: Michael Schmidt, Untitled, 1997–99, black-and-white photograph, 17 x 11 1/2”. From the series “Frauen” (Women), 1997–99. Right: Phil Collins, free fotolab, 2009, 35-mm slide projection, 9 minutes 20 seconds. Both works are in the Sixth Berlin Biennial for Contemporary Art.

Kathrin Rhomberg is the curator of the Sixth Berlin Biennial for Contemporary Art, which opens in various venues around the city on June 11. Here, she talks about the exhibition, her addition of the nineteenth-century painter Adolph Menzel, and why she’s staging most of the Biennial in Kreuzberg.

THE BERLIN BIENNIAL is inspired by my observations of the past ten years, not just of the art world but also of the social and political developments in the region where it will occur. One of the dominant tendencies in the art world over the past ten years has been a kind of “new historicism”: a retrospective view of the twentieth century, of modernism for example. When I discuss this interest in twentieth-century questions and issues with younger artists, they often give the same answer: that the future isn’t something they think about anymore. So it became urgent again for me to ask: Is there a relationship between art and the present moment, and if so, what does it look like?

Times of crisis often raise important questions about the relationship between art and reality. Take the 1920s here in Berlin with Brecht and Lukcs, and artists like George Grosz and Otto Dix. Then, at the beginning of the ’60s, there was an international movement that tried to blend life and art. In the past decade we’ve had moments of deep crisis. It’s now obvious that the economic downturn will change our lives drastically, but this isn’t a new thing; I would say it started in some European countries at the end of the ’90s. Then 9/11 made it clear that something was really going on, and we now see a little more clearly what happened in the financial world. So a show like the Biennial is an important moment to once again ask questions about art’s relationship with the present.

I also decided to include a small show of Adolph Menzel’s drawings and gouaches, curated by Michael Fried. For Fried, Menzel was one of the most important artists of the nineteenth century. He’s not considered that way internationally, unfortunately. Menzel lived during the second half of the nineteenth century, a period that’s interesting for the present because there were so many similarities to what’s going on now. After the revolution of 1848, there were nostalgic points of view, but at the same time artists and writers in Germany and France became interested in the relationship between art and a contemporaneous social and political situation. Menzel was one of these artists. It was also an interesting time in Berlin, because the city changed entirely: Many people moved here from the countryside to the city and it really exploded. Menzel documented this in his drawings.

I decided to focus the Biennial in the western part of Berlin. In the beginning, I wasn’t specifically interested in Kreuzberg, but we found a really beautiful building there. I also think Kreuzberg is compelling because it’s a district defined by migration. Countries like Germany and Austria have never really discussed migration, and now they’re being forced to deal with it. Kreuzberg shows a very positive model for our future society. Since 1989, we’ve been living in one Berlin, or “one world,” which has opened up new perspectives, struggles, crises, and so on. I think this one-world moment is somehow happening in Kreuzberg, because there aren’t closed groups or societies living there—it’s really fluid. Ordinary life goes on there too. You have different models of living and so many ideologies thriving there, and it’s productive.

With the exception of Menzel, there won’t be any historical works in the exhibition. It was important to choose works that were either made recently or specifically realized for the Biennial, in order to touch the present and find new perspectives, new ways of thinking. The past ten years, and particularly the position of the art market, changed so quickly that we didn’t really have time to understand what it meant. Now we can look back; we’re in a situation where we have to ask more questions.

— As told to Anthony Byrt