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Berlin’s best (and worst) exhibitions of 2021

We look beyond the blockbusting Kusama retrospective to Berlin's art highlights

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Unsettling polka dot hellscape or not, Yayoi Kusama’s first ever German retrospective at Martin-Gropius-Bau was Berlin’s undisputed art hit of the year. Photo: IMAGO / Pacific Press Agency

Most eagerly anticipated

Yayoi Kusama at Gropius Bau

For a moment, it seemed all of Berlin was trying to see Yayoi Kusama’s first ever German retrospective at Martin-Gropius-Bau. Those lucky enough to get in saw a dazzling selfie extravaganza which could also be experienced as an unsettling polka dot hellscape, depending on your frame of mind. There was much to enjoy in her famous Infinity Rooms and, had the curation been a little bolder, it would have lived up to the tremendous expectation.

Most unlucky

Xinyi Cheng at Hamburger Bahnhof

It was rotten luck that the much-hyped Wuhan-born painter Xinyi Cheng’s solo show opened right at the beginning of lockdown. Teeming with half-naked men in intimate, sensual poses, it was an exhibition loaded with desire and intrigue which deserved to be seen more widely.

Best solo show

Amelie von Wulffen at KW

With its anthropomorphised turds and ceramic black flies, Amelie von Wulffen’s canvases and sculptures featured unsettling fairytales crossed with scenes of (grotesquely) idyllic Bavarian life. Nauseating and compelling, it was an excellent exhibition if you could stomach it.

Best one-off exhibition

The Sun Machine Is Coming Down at the International Congress Centre

Dormant for over 7 years, the asbestos-ridden ICC building was given new life over 10 days of screenings and performances in early October. With contributions from Cyprien Galliard and a troupe of dancers from Tino Sehgal, there was always the sense that something more exciting was going on upstairs or in the next room. The airport lounge interior only enhanced the impact of this ambitious show.

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After a €140 million renovation, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s concrete, steel and glass masterpiece finally reopened to the public. Photo: Simon Menges

Most exciting re-emergence

Neue Nationalgalerie

After a €140 million renovation, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s concrete, steel and glass masterpiece finally reopened to the public. When it was first built in 1968, just 100 metres away from the Berlin Wall, the Neue Nationalgalerie was inextricably linked with the political and physical division of the capital. Its return following a seven-year absence allows this black modernist temple to reaffirm Berlin’s stature as one of the world’s great art centres.

Most disappointing opening

Alexander Calder at the Neue Nationalgalerie

Given recent improvements in representation and diversity, it was disappointing that Neue Nationalgalerie would choose to make the white, male American their headline act. Alexander Calder’s retrospective ‘Minimal/Maximal’ mixed vast curving steel sculptures with miniature toy-like creations, and, despite being interactive and impressive the timing was not ideal. Thankfully Rosa Barba’s commission and The Art of Society. 1900 – 1945 in the downstairs galleries were excellently conceived.

Most forgettable exhibition of the year

Diversity United at Tempelhof Airport

Despite a great venue and an astounding roster of contemporary European artists, the exhibition had a corporate, soulless feel. Considering its enormous budget, you begin to wonder if this was the best way to celebrate Europe’s diversity.

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Pamela Rosenkranz’ mound of scented soil was a startling centrepiece of Sun Rise | Sun Set at Schinkel Pavillon. Photo: Exhibition view, Schinkel Pavillon and the artists, 2021 | Andrea Rossetti 

Most creative show of the year

Sunrise | Sunset at the Schinkel Pavillon

Exhibitions focused on the environment and climate emergency are everywhere right now but Sunrise | Sunset brought a fresh new perspective by looking at the delicate interrelation of life on earth. A varied selection of work mixed surrealist paintings by Max Ernst with Pierre Huyghes’ blind Mexican fish. It was brilliantly done and Pamela Rosenkranz’ mound of scented soil was a startling centrepiece.

Best commercial gallery exhibition

Cathy Wilkes

Not the easiest of exhibitions but, with time and consideration, the objects and letters on show subtly and movingly outlined the collision of childhood innocence with shocking violence.