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Celebrating clay at Wehrmühle Biesenthal

As this year's ceramics-only exhibition draws to a close at the old mill in Brandenburg, we caught up with curator Tjioe Meyer to find out why clay is having a moment.

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The ceramics-only exhibition Shapes of Comfort has taken over the old Wehrmühle Biesenthal in Brandenburg. Photo: Jack Hare

Located in Brandenburg, practically on the shores of the river Finow, Wehrmühle Biesenthal is a tranquil summer spot in which to enjoy art, community and nature. Picnicking Berliners dot the lawn surrounding the old mill by day; by dusk, the garden twinkles with candlelight. Each year, the Wehrmühle and adjacent modernist villa host Art Biesenthal, a summer programme with a focus on emerging international art. We caught up with Tjioe Meyer, curator of Art Biesenthal and this year’s ceramics-only Shapes of Comfort exhibition to find out why clay is having a moment.

Please tell us about your journey. You’re so young! How did you get here?

I’m Turkish/Bosnian, and I was born in New York – my parents both work as photographers. I grew up as a ‘gallery child’ and always felt at home in creative, expressive atmospheres. I value how culture and art bring us together, giving us spaces and contexts in which to observe, understand and share. I am 23 now, and completed my bachelor’s degree in biology in London. Next I want to study for a master’s in art or curation.

The space is beautiful. Can you tell us a little about the history?

The place where Art Biesenthal is today was first mentioned in the 14th century. The Wehrmühle was originally built as a weir to control the river and to fill the moat of a nearby castle. Later on it was turned into a mill. In the early 20th century, it belonged to the Jewish Mühsam family who gave the villa its characteristic stucco facade and charm. Under the Nazi regime, their property was seized and misused as a vehicle repair shop. After the war, it was reconverted to serve as a mill once again, but it was burned down in 2002. A year later, the Hecken family discovered it and developed it into the site we have today.

How long have you been curating Art Biesenthal?

I’ve been here since 2018, and this year I’m leading a new, experimental format: a one-medium exhibition, Shapes of Comfort. It’s a collaborative project between Jakub Kubica, Elizaveta Petrova and myself. I’m happy our space is finally open to the public again. Our location thrives when it’s being shared and cared for! Over the years, we’ve had so many different creative types coming together here that we’re naturally evolving into more of a transdisciplinary cultural hub. I’m looking forward to next year – we have a very busy programme.

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Shapes of Comfort brings together emerging and established international artists at the old mill. Photo: Jack Hare

What makes the Wehrmühle a unique place to see art?

In the city it’s easy to get overwhelmed. You go gallery hopping, you have a glass of wine in one place, then go to the next, and quickly you’re oversaturated without even absorbing what you’re seeing. I hope we give people a chance to feel a deceleration. We find it important that art and nature are in harmony. The fact that we use natural lighting in our exhibition rooms brings the inside and outside together, and the illumination changes naturally throughout the day. You can spend the whole day here; there’s music, you can have a glass of wine in the garden with your friends, see the art, go to the river. It’s a day experience and you can take your time. 

Why is the focus this year on ceramics?

During the pandemic, creatives have been experimenting with different materials, including clay. We are all interested in ceramics. This ancient craft has become part of the contemporary art world, where it’s been accepted as a medium for emotional and creative expression. Ceramics traditionally always had a practical purpose, and it’s fascinating to see what comes out when the creative process isn’t being limited by the functionality of the end product. We’ve never done something like this, and it complements our space and philosophy. Working with clay is such a haptic act, where the body engages with natural materials, earth and water, then fire or air is used to finish the works.

Why is the show called Shapes of Comfort?

It was very important for me to be authentic and show works that have a story. The creation of ceramics is a meditative process, and each work conveys something of the circumstances under which it was created. We think of Shapes of Comfort like a journey; you can take your time to engage with the art and the surroundings and feel at ease. Art works are an invitation to feel, to be comforted.

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Shapes of Comfort reflects a rekindled love of ceramics brought on by the pandemic. Photo Jack Hare

Can you tell us more about the artists and how you find them? Do you use social media to recruit? 

We have a diverse group of artists, established and emerging. We mainly use our own network. For example, Elizaveta brought us three Russian artists whose works are being shown right now – ceramics is their only medium. They’ve been challenging the emerging art world in Moscow, setting the scene for new media, like clay. It’s nice to see that they are really comfortable here. Berlin is maybe more accepting – forgiving even. There’s also Jakub Kubica. He’s co-curating this year but has also exhibited at Biesenthal before. It feels more organic this way. We invite the artists to use the site as their creative studio where they can experiment, host workshops, collaborate with one another and facilitate their art practice. The celebratory exhibitions at the end are the artists’ expressions and reflections on their experience.

Is Art Biesenthal almost like an art residency, then?

That’s part of our new format, and part of our expansion plan. This year we have two Italian artists, Iva Drekalovic and Davide Monaldi, residing and working here, and their site-specific pieces are part of Shapes of Comfort. The fact that we only have one medium this time means we can focus on this specific creative process (clay work) and we can provide them with the materials they need.

Did you get to work with clay, too?

Of course! I took part in a workshop and got to see the whole process.

Shapes of Comfort runs until August 8 at Wehrmühle Biesenthal.