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Herr Zeitgeist

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Olafur Eliasson's Take Your Time, at P.S.1, in 2008.  

Eventually, he enrolled in medical school in Munich. When I meet him at his offices overlooking the courtyard at MoMA, he tells me that he was always interested in art, but he “felt that it was important to understand how art is computed in your brain” and “how perception functions.” In 1989, he visited New York with the idea that he might transfer schools, but world-historical events interfered: The Berlin Wall fell and he decided to move back. He found a ground-floor Berlin apartment that had previously been used for bicycle storage. It had no heat or hot water, but Biesenbach wasn’t fazed (“I’m not very demanding of these things”). Gerd Harry Lybke, now one of Berlin’s most influential gallerists, met Biesenbach in 1991. He remembers the city back then as “a white sheet of paper, where everyone could leave his signature. Everybody was able to define himself in the morning, make new propositions and then adjust them to reality the next day.”

Biesenbach describes himself in those days as “a mad scientist.” He and his friends ingratiated themselves with the local government, which offered them use of an abandoned margarine factory in the Mitte district for a cultural institution. After managing to secure some governmental support and soliciting in-kind donations, they opened the space as Kunst-Werke in 1990.

Biesenbach’s curation was loose and impulsive but also incredibly ambitious. He wanted KW to be “much more international than local” and to have “very open borders toward pop culture, music, architecture, design, literature, film, and other media.” The breakthrough show, in 1992, was “37 Rooms,” in which artists, including Yoko Ono and Felix Gonzalez-Torres, displayed work in spaces—an attic, apartments, a school, an outdoor toilet—along KW’s street. KW showed exhibitions by Robert Smithson and Vito Acconci, and would stage some of the earliest major exhibitions of artists Jake and Dinos Chapman, Jane and Louise Wilson, and Aitken.

Biesenbach, says his mentor, P.S.1 founder Alanna Heiss, is simultaneously “hedonistic and monastic.”

Not all of the attention Biesenbach received was positive: In 2003, he began organizing a show about the violent leftist Baader-Meinhof Gang, which killed more than 30 people in the seventies. The exhibition incited a furor by the victims’ families and others who felt it would be too sympathetic. Because $130,000 in federal aid had been allotted to help fund the show, Biesenbach was forced to defend it in front of Parliament. He eventually returned the money to avoid interference and financed the show through an eBay auction of work by artists like Andreas Gursky who were supportive of his endeavor.

Biesenbach soon came to the attention of P.S.1’s Alanna Heiss. In late 1995, she hired him part-time while allowing him to maintain his directorship in Berlin. For the next eight years, P.S.1 and KW essentially traded exhibitions back and forth.

He was not immediately accepted in New York. Early on, Heiss threw him a dinner party. “The premise was for people to meet the Sinister and Problematic Klaus Biesenbach,” Heiss recalls. “Klaus was a fairly mysterious figure,” she says. “I think it was a little bit about his austerity, his posture, but also because he didn’t come out of any known world. Not our art world, not a museum art world. It was hard for anybody to pin him down.”

Biesenbach took Heiss’s friends as his, like Susan Sontag (“One of my friends,” says Heiss, “and then he became her best friend”). Sontag had a residence at KW, and she and Biesenbach eventually worked together on “Into Me/Out of Me,” a P.S.1 show about bodily functions, which was “very influenced at the time by her being ill.”

After P.S.1 merged with MoMA in 2000, Biesenbach became a liaison between the two. Four years later, he moved to New York full-time, but to work at MoMA, not P.S.1. Heiss was bereft. “I couldn’t find anyone who I was as in love with as Klaus,” she says. But Biesenbach was ready for bigger things. “Once he hit the ground running at MoMA, he just did show after show after show,” Heiss says. “Klaus had gotten to know a lot of the insider workings, and respected it and liked those people, and was able to work with them to do things that he had dreamed of doing, which he could never have done at P.S.1.”

To this day, Biesenbach and Heiss call each other several times a day, and Heiss describes their relationship as “umbilical.” It took them seven months to design their business cards. Today, taped to a wall in Heiss’s office is an advertisement she tore from a magazine of a shirtless Nordic man reclining on a sofa and gazing lasciviously into the camera. The Post-it note stuck to the right-hand corner reads “Klaus?”


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