Dresden’s Documenta Ostrale 2019

A n art exhibition that questions everything: the Ostrale Biennale for Contemporary Art (ends 1st September) presents more than 300 artistic contributions from 34 different countries on issues such as the environment and migration, value systems and worldviews. The title chosen for this year’s Ostrale: ismus.

11. July 2019

The woman in Anya Janssen’s portrait People Say I’m Different 4 stands barefoot and wearing a floral dress. The painting features on the main poster advertising the 2019 Ostrale.

This iteration of Dresden’s largest exhibition of contemporary art, now held on a biennial cycle, has an intriguing title: -ismus (English: -ism). A brief suffix that always comes in handy when a new idea takes root, when a phenomenon becomes a system.

What immediately springs to mind is Impressionism, Expressionism, Dadaism, but the Ostrale is not trying to provide a brief history of modern art in a single exhibition. Instead, it focuses on eight ‘isms’ – and thus spreads its wings quite far.

"People Say I'm Different 4", oil on canvas, 220 x 160 x 5 cm, 2017

Eight ‘-isms’, endless variety

‘Ideologism’, terrorism, territorialism, naturalism, animism, consumerism, ‘dystopism’ and ‘womanism’: these are the themes of the art exhibition.

“While the boundaries between reality and fiction are increasingly becoming blurred in a time of digital transformation, traditional ‘isms’ are being resorted to again in order to assert values ​​and worldviews,” says Andrea Hilger, Director of the Ostrale.

Dresden’s version of the world-famous Documenta in Kassel aims to be politically astute, socially responsible and, above all, relevant – catching everything with a sweeping blow. The boxing gloves, which the woman is wearing in Janssen’s painting, also fit the mood. Although this detail seems to have been incorporated almost casually, it nevertheless underscores her proud attitude. All the determination and all of the fighting spirit are in her facial expression.

Janssen, whose style is otherwise photorealism and whose images contain references to Heavy Metal, horror and mystery, has opted for incompleteness in People Say I’m Different. The series of portraits arose from meetings with the Ugandan artist Christine Ayo. In a number of respects, they could be described as ‘sketchy’.

Janssen expresses her fascination with identities and how permeable these are. Because she maintains that the ‘I’ is something very porous. That identities blend. That every encounter leaves behind traces and changes a person. There is a ‘we’ that is in a constant state of flux. People Say I’m Different 4 has thus become the overarching theme for this year’s Ostrale. I, we, you, the others. Identity, separation, community, society. Around 180 artists have presented more than 300 works of art, putting their own slant on the theme. From painting to performance art and audio-visual installation, the Ostrale respects no boundaries between the genres – in the best sense of the word, it ‘sprawls’.

Contemporary statements

 This is nowhere more apparent than in the category designated ‘WomanIsm’. On the one hand, it is a term derived from feminist theory, and on the other, it is the name of a German-African art project that links up with the Ostrale.

Andrea Hilger explains: “By ‘WomanIsm’, we basically mean the self-confidence that stems from work. It is above all an African perspective, which is very different from the way we see things in Germany. Our aim is to look in depth at cultural policy towards the role of women in the context of artistic work, to give a voice to voiceless people and to rebalance discrepancies in equal rights.”

For example, Usha Seejarim from South Africa has taken the project as an opportunity to engage with the issue of work and gender. She uses clothes pegs to fashion intricate sculptures. A simple device used by many women in their everyday work thus becomes the raw material for art and social critique.

Satellite city Dresden

For the first time in the history of the Ostrale, it has become a decentralised event. Smaller venues ‘revolve’ around the main exhibition like satellites. At the Bautzner Strasse memorial site, for example, Rolf Blume’s The Finder, a surreal construction made from outsized everyday objects, exerts a completely different effect. It reminds Andrea Hilger of radio antennas and surveillance machines. The room with its bare walls, a former Stasi interrogation chamber, creates an oppressive association.

On display at the Goethe Institute, the leading German organisation for international cultural exchange, is Patrick Fenech’s photo gallery Me and My Favorite Insect – Displacement Series. It shows people holding framed images of endangered insects. The photos combine to make a complex statement, not only about migration but also about our relationship to the environment.

In addition to the Goethe Institute and the Bautzner Strasse memorial, the Ostrale also has side-exhibitions at the Ausländerrat (immigration Office), the Galerie SAP’Art and the former fire station in Loschwitz.

But all of these threads converge on Striesen where the bulk of the works can be viewed. Andrea Hilger: “The historic f6 tobacco factory was still in use up until the end of 2018 and is central to the lives of many Dresdeners who are certainly also curious about the building itself. Before its conversion into apartments, we have use of the premises until 1st September and are able to harness their very peculiar charm for the arts. The factory is ideal for this purpose, because it offers different spatial structures, including in its basement and grounds.”

Many people think of Dresden as a city of art exclusively in the historic sense, forgetting that all of this art was contemporary in its own era and first had to establish itself
Andrea Hilger

The Ostrale exhibitions will remain open until September. After that, the WomanIsm project embarks on a tour of Africa. And in Dresden, the search will begin for a new venue and for the next theme. Andrea Hilger: “Many people think of Dresden as a city of art exclusively in the historic sense, forgetting that all of this art was contemporary in its own era and first had to establish itself. Modern art therefore sometimes has a tough time, which is reflected in the sad fact that some galleries specialising in contemporary art have had to close down. At the moment, especially with the ongoing construction boom, it is becoming more and more difficult to find rooms in which to exhibit. Unfortunately, we do not yet know where, or even if, we can stage the 2021 Ostrale Biennale.”

Main exhibition:
Historische Tabakfabrik f6 Striesen, Dresden
Entrance Schandauer Strasse 68
11th June – 1st September 2019

Satellite exhibitions:
Gedenkstätte Bautzner Straße, 11th June to 8th September 2019
Goethe-Institut Dresden, 12th June to 1st September 2019
Ausländerrat Dresden e.V., 13th June to 1st September 2019
Kunst- und Kulturverein Alte Feuerwache Loschwitz, 28th June to 18th August 2019
SAP’art Dresden (3rd June to 1st September)

www.ostrale.de