Where Things Meet

© Image Alicja Kwade and Gregor Hildebrandt

It was a foggy December day in 2020 when artists Alicja Kwade and Gregor Hildebrandt met up in their shared apartment in Berlin Mitte to speak with gallerist Johann König for the special issue of KÖNIG Magazin. Kwade and Hildebrandt, who have been a couple since their time at art school, are showing a double presentation of new work with König at the Frieze Art Fair 2020 in Los Angeles. Their apartment is filled with art; pictures and objects cover the walls, top to toe. A glass by Peter Dreher and an early stripe painting by Anselm Reyle catch the eye – in the kitchen are works by Therese Schult, Thomas Gruber, Martin Eder, and Friedemann Hahn, among others. In the large dining room, the entire window front is covered with laundry hung up to dry – so meticulously arranged, one might mistake it for an installation.

Johann König in conversation with Alicja Kwade and Gregor Hildebrandt.

Johann König: We’ve come together on the occasion of your presentation in Los Angeles, for which we are also publishing this special edition of KÖNIG magazine. And even though we have known each other a long time and are in constant communication, this conversation presents a good opportunity to talk with each other in a completely different way, in a more detailed and personal way. There’s another reason to celebrate, too: soon it will be twenty years you two have been together. Does that make it the bronze anniversary?

Alicja Kwade: I don’t know really, we’re not even married. Would that be bronze? No idea. But yes, you’re right, it’s twenty years together soon.

JK: We wanted to discuss several different things—about Berlin, about the magazine —but I’m also interested in the most basic stuff, like how is it, for instance, that you both came to art? For me, that’s an important question, because I was born into a household of art, and I’ve always asked myself: How can I get out?

Gregor Hildebrandt: With me, it actually just happened. I was really bad in school, always painting and doodling, in effect taking refuge in the creation of things. I was lucky that my mother recognized this early on and supported it—she enrolled me in a summer academy, when I was fifteen or so. Aside from grown-up hobby artists who were vaguely interested in painting, there were only two other teenagers there, but that was the first time I could actually engage with painting and sculpture.

JK: And then what?

GH: The less I was interested in school, the more I became interested in art. I had to repeat a few grades, then was expelled from school, and then I went to a technical school for graphics and design in Saarbrücken. At the time, I kept noticing this guy walking through the streets with frames and paint-brushes and paints—he looked like Rudy from The Little Vampire. At some point I approached him and immediately went with him to a really beautiful old building where there was a sort of commune for artists, and where I could rent a studio. That’s when it all took off, when I was seventeen or eighteen.

JK: Your parents had nothing to do with art and they supported you nonetheless?

GH: Yes, and you could study art without having a high school diploma. You just had to pass a special test.

AK: Like in drama or in music school!

GH: Ah, but I would never have made it into the music or drama schools. If you study music, you have to have mastered two instruments, and I really don’t know how to act. With art, well, you have to show something, ok. With the professors I had—Friedemann Hahn in Mainz and Dieter Hacker in Berlin—it was more an added bonus that I didn’t have a high school diploma because they didn’t have one either.

JK: Meaning, you recognized that this was what you wanted to do and so applied to art school?

GH: Well, let’s put it this way: my friend Johannes Lotz, whom I had met in the summer academy and later again in the studio commune, had left school very early to study art in Mainz. He told himself that he didn’t need a high school diploma for that. My parents, on the other hand, said that at the very least I needed to pass the technical college entrance qualification, the diploma from the technical school I went to …

JK: What’s that guy Johannes doing now?

GH: He’s the frontman of ANNE, one of the bands that Alicja and I publish on our common label Grzegorzki Records.

AK: Grzegorzki Records! Just a small piece of the Grzegorzki empire: Grzegorzki Shows, Productions, and Records (laughs).

GH: And that’s only the beginning. Soon there will surely be a book publishing house, a film production company and so on …

JK: Back again to the development of your career. You applied to Mainz and then you were accepted?

GH: It’s a little bit more complicated. There was exactly one spot open in Mainz and one applicant, me. So of course I thought I had it in the bag. During the entrance examination, the task was: “A white egg on a white plate on a white tablecloth.” I had three days to do it, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

JK: Sounds doable.

GH: That’s what I thought too, and technically I was done on the first day. On day two, I didn’t do too much, and on day three, I slept in and had a nice long breakfast. Friedemann Hahn was waiting there annoyed when I arrived three hours late and presented my results. He left the room to deliberate with his colleagues, and then said he’d have liked to take me, but unfortunately he couldn’t push it through now. I was a bit offended, of course.

JK: Oh!

GH: Yes, but because my portfolio was actually very good in contrast to the exam, I was allowed to do a kind of visiting semester. I had to grin and bear it, gritting my teeth: it was a disciplinary measure. At the exam half a year later, I was terribly punctual and put a lot of effort into it. And it worked: I got in.

JK: And when did you come to Berlin then?

GH: It was 1998. In the summer semester of 1999, I continued my studies with Dieter Hacker.

JK: And you, Alicja, you also came to Berlin in 1999?

AK: Yes, I did basic studies at the Hochschule der Künste [today Berlin University of the Arts] for a year. After that, I wanted to study under Rebecca Horn, but she declined me. Then I wanted to study under Lothar Baumgarten, but he also declined me, so I went to Hacker in 2000 and ended up in Gregor’s class. It was a coincidence somehow.

GH: It was the same with me. Originally, I wanted to study under Baumgarten too, but he was on sabbatical and his substitute, Katharina Sieverding, declined me. I had to find someone else, and Hacker really understood my work. He was part of the Neue Wilde and originally came from conceptual art, so it all matched up, even though Berlin itself was never really the place
I wanted to be.

AK: But for me, it was. I just wanted desperately to come to Berlin. Also I didn’t know which schools were good and which ones were bad. I wanted to go to London or New York even more, but I wasn’t ready for that and my family couldn’t support me that heavily.

JK: Tell me more about that: you were born in Katowice, Communist Poland, and your family fled?

AK: My father was always going against the system, and he was always being harassed. He was an art historian and had a gallery in Katowice where they were always throwing things at the windows. The Staatssicherheit [homeland security] had a file on him, and eventually it all came to a head. My mother didn’t want to go, actually—she was a professor for Slavonic languages, literature, and cultural studies —but he convinced her in the end. We left in 1987 when I was eight.

JK: And how did that go?

AK: One needed permission, of course, and that was terribly complicated. But because we could present an invitation from friends of the family in France, we were allowed to leave the country for a few days for a holiday—and voila, now I’m still here.

JK: Where did you all end up?

AK: We actually wanted to go to France and then eventually to Canada. There were a few distant aunts in Hannover, however, who took us in, and somehow we ended up staying there.

JK: Your family left everything behind?

AK: Of course—we couldn’t do anything that might alert the border control in our tiny Fiat. We packed just enough for a few days.

JK: Crazy!

AK: In any case, my father had sold a lot of the artworks in his gallery and changed the money for gold on the black market. Then he had it melted and stashed it all over the car: in the seats, the doors, the lights … That was our start-up capital, so to speak.

JK: Did you and your brother know that you were fleeing?

AK: No, we thought we were going on holiday. And after eight weeks of vacation, I started asking what was up.

JK: And how did you take it?

AK: Not too well, it was hard enough. To me everything was fine in Katowice, I hadn’t noticed anything oppressive. And then suddenly we were in a refugee home, then in a kind of hotel for the homeless, and finally we were five to a room at my aunt’s. It’s not easy leaving friends and classmates behind, and not speaking the language. On the other hand, everything happens quite quickly: you go to school, make new friends, take in totally new experiences in a new country. Life goes on and the years pass by.

JK: And how did you come to art?

AK: Art was always there. My parents had lots of artist friends, and for me, it was clear that I wanted to make art too—it was a kind of attitude. I was good at drawing as a kid, and later in school I was always sketching things: tables, benches, notebooks. I got a lot of good feedback and noticed that others couldn’t draw as well as I could.

JK: Meaning, you knew from the beginning: I want to be an artist?

AK: Yes, as a vague idea. At thirteen, I was always sitting in the back row, painting my nails during class—I looked like Kurt Cobain’s sister. I was pretty oblivious to everything else because I knew that I was an artist. I dove straight in, and then there was a memorable moment: our group of friends was always hanging out in the same public square in Hannover, at the Maschsee [a man-made lake in the center of Hannover], under this big orange-colored thing, drinking beer and smoking weed. And then I found out that that thing was an Alexander Calder sculpture, and I was totally blown away. It wasn’t clear to me that art could exist on that kind of scale and just be there. That’s when I decided I wanted to do something like that and I really started looking at artists like Robert Smithson, Gordon Matta-Clark …

JK: And then you arrive in Berlin?

AK: I wanted to go to the biggest city possible. My brother had a friend in Charlottenburg, his apartment had come available and I could rent it for 250 D-Mark all-inclusive [about 125 euro today]. Moving in was a big moment I’ll never forget—my very own apartment in Berlin.

JK: Ok, so we’re in the year 2000, and you walk into the class of Dieter Hacker and meet Gregor?

AK: Yes, I came into the room and there was a man sitting there gluing black cassette tape onto canvas and listening to the same song on repeat. That was Gregor. That was our first encounter.

GH: But I have to say that she came across my radar before that first meeting. She was working in the cafeteria selling bread, an exceptionally good-looking girl.

JK: Love at first sight?

GH: In the beginning I had to put in a lot of work. It was made even more difficult by the fact that I had just finished my chemotherapy. I was extremely emaciated —not exactly the best conditions.

AK: But still, I noticed you. You were so crazy tall and thin, and you had this black hair—my friends at school called you The Count!

GH: Spot on!

JK: I want to talk about your art for a minute, Gregor. As an artist, you are looking for a field in which you can make a relevant contribution with your work; you try to find something that has not yet been said. And I find it so exciting that you found this with the cassette tapes as many as twenty years ago.

GH: I started working with them during my studies in 1997, but the work was still very unspecific. Then in 1999 I made a first series, and it was called Tönende Jugend, in reference to the band Sonic Youth [literal German translation]. The series was supposed to be over by then, but somehow it wasn’t, and I still work like that, you are right.

JK: But where did the impulse come from?

GH: When I was working I was always listening to music. And in Mainz, there was a popular course that was called “Painting after Music,” but I rejected it. The students were always listening to Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring and were painting like Cy Twombly, with smudges on the canvas. But I wanted to seek out my own ideals and I said to myself: I am going to paint differently! I will paint pictures like Sonic Youth makes music!

JK: So you, Gregor, had already found your way, when you, Alicja, were just about to start?

AK: Well, I started studying four years after Gregor. In any case, I quickly noticed that painting wasn’t my thing and did a lot of experiments: filling hoses with earth, or tiling an entire room. But because sculpture becomes so expensive so quickly, I started making videos in my apartment. The school made the material readily available for free. That’s when, for example, these “Stand-by” works from 1999 were made, in which you only see the LED lights from switched-off electronic appliances and hear noises. That was certainly conceptual, but looking back on it, I think the ideas and concepts are very close to what I am doing today. I was dealing with similar questions.

JK: And you guys immediately became a couple?

© Image Alicja Kwade and Gregor Hildebrandt

GH: It didn’t happen that fast, unfortunately. We were out a lot, often in Dirk Bell’s Finks Bar on Marienstrasse, where there was also an exhibition space with Anselm Reyle and Thilo Heinzmann called Montparnasse. It was a remarkable time, the area was still a total Wild West: there was nothing there, the storefronts were empty. And then one day I accompanied Alicja to Katowice …

AK: Yes, but I didn’t have the slightest clue as to what you wanted from me.

GH: Unfortunately! We were out at Finks Bar again, and Alicja said that she wanted to visit her cousin in Katowice but didn’t want to take the night train alone. Back then, it was indeed a risky thing to do, so I said that I could accompany her. She said, ok then, let’s go! Tomorrow! I was pretty impressed.

AK: But I really didn’t get it. I thought that maybe he wanted to see Poland.

GH: I got it all wrong. We went there and came back and absolutely nothing happened. I was a little cranky about that.

JK: But then it all worked out in the end, you got together and moved in with each other.

AK: Yes, we were together for a few weeks and then suddenly I got this message on my answering machine: My apartment exploded. Can I come spend the night with you?

GH: Meaning the apartment was on fire because my friend Alex Geis’ projector had exploded. The apartment remained completely unlivable, and I needed a roof over my head, so I moved in with Alicja in Charlottenburg.

JK: But then it all worked out in the end, you got together and moved in with each other.

AK: Yes, we were together for a few weeks and then suddenly I got this message on my answering machine: My apartment exploded. Can I come spend the night with you?

GH: Meaning the apartment was on fire because my friend Alex Geis’ projector had exploded. The apartment remained completely unlivable, and I needed a roof over my head, so I moved in with Alicja in Charlottenburg.

AK: And ever since, we’ve been living together, a little involuntarily.

JK: When we three met in 2002, you were already a couple. I had just arrived from Frankfurt, or more specifically, from the School for the Blind in Marburg, and I had decided to open a gallery. That was totally nuts, I had only visited the city a few times before: firstly visiting my aunt, then a second time to look at a space, and then a third time to open it! I arrived in Berlin, got off the train at Alexanderplatz, and ran straight into both of you.

GH: I was standing there with Alicja and said to her: Look, there’s the son of Kasper König, we should say hello to him.

JK: Then we arranged to meet up a few days later at a bar, as well as at a show Gregor had curated at Tacheles, a former center for arts and culture at Oranienburger Strasse.

GH: Exactly, and then afterwards we kept running into each other at night when we were out somewhere like Altberlin, a smoky, old-school bar at Münzstrasse in Berlin-Mitte, where we were kind of regulars. Or, of course, at Bar3 on Rosa Luxemburg Platz.

© Images Alicja Kwade and Gregor Hildebrandt

JK: In 2003, I was making the rounds at the academy and landed in your class, Alicja. You came up to me and explained your work, and it was so perfectly described that I understood everything immediately. That was so helpful, especially with my vision impairment.

AK: One couldn’t see a lot in any case. They were almost all-black photographs with a few specks of light.

JK: How was that for you artists anyway? I really could hardly see anything at the time. Didn’t that freak you out?

AK: To the contrary. It was because you could speak so well about ideas and concepts that I wanted so badly to be in your gallery. I wanted to approach art from the intellectual side, even back then, and less from the visual side. I was so impatient, I wanted to work with you immediately!

JK: I always liked your work, but I didn’t want to rush in. You finished with the academy in 2005, and we started working together in 2008. That means we’ve been working together for over twelve years, and on your twentieth anniversary, we’re doing a shared presentation with you and Gregor for the first time. But it’s important to stress that it’s not shared work that we are showing.

AK: No, but our work has had a kind of mutual influence about it over the years.

GH: There were always similarities, overlaps. We lived and worked together.

AK: And it’s exactly that which one can see in this special edition of the magazine: where things meet and overlap, where they form a dialogue with each other by chance. And that’s the way it is in our Los Angeles presentation: these are not shared artworks, but independent ones; they are exemplary of our own work while also expressing elements of each other’s.

JK: There are impressive sculptures from your Fibonacci series, where seven objects, separated by mirrors, slowly change in form. It’s a kind of developmental evolution that the objects go through, and then there is a series of pictures from you, Gregor, that is somehow similar.

© Image Alicja Kwade

AK: My EMERGENZ sequence begins with a fossilized tree stump taken from nature, which becomes a mixture of tree stump and stone, followed by an actual granite stone, followed by its copy in a softer material. It becomes more and more a sphere and, in the end, a kind of vase, a commodity. The work plays with the transition from nature to found object to usable object, the influence of humans and the influence of nature.

© Image Alicja Kwade 

GH: Seven objects, separated by six mirrors, as well as six pictures in a row, which are each transformed. One sees a large, dark, negative image in the middle of the row—a cassette-tape collage as a matrix, so to speak—from which a total of five smaller, bright, positive images radiate outwards and form a unit. The large positive image acts as a fixed point, and the five prints relate to the black one.

© Image Gregor Hildebrandt

JK: Your tapes themselves always carry information, too. What’s on this one?

GH: It’s a song from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds called Watching Alice. It’s the same song that was on the very first work that I gave to Alicja in 2001 for her birthday.

JK: Alicja betrachtend [Watching Alicja] is also the title of your aforementioned series, Gregor. And I noticed, Alicja, that an early film of yours is called Alice, and in the magazine the name occurs again and again. What’s that all about?

AK: Well, this “false” name is the sum total of my split personality! When we came to Germany in 1987, our names were Germanized: Elžbieta, my mother, became Elisabeth; Marcin, my brother, became Martin; and Alicja became Alice. They said, here are your German names, here are your German passports. It felt really strange, and suddenly everyone was calling me Alice, pronounced the English way, and I thought: that’s not me! Later when I started to perceive myself as an artist, I began to wonder which name could be better for an artistic career, Alicja in Polish, or Alice in English.

JK: There’s a tradition there. On Kawara’s name was actually Kawahara, which he simplified for the art market. Same thing with Andy Warhol, whose real name was Andrew Warhola.

AK: But in the end I did the exact opposite, I chose to go back to Alicja Kwade, the complicated version. That was a conscious decision after I had grappled intensively with this duplicate, fake reality.

JK: Let’s return to the shared presentation and the content of the magazine for a minute. Two artists, bracketed by twenty years. There are several works that relate directly to you both or to one or the other, i.e. Alicja’s two stelae made of bronze candles.

AK: The stelae are a series of portraits that I have been making for a few years. I take a certain person’s age, in this case it is Gregor and I, and relate it to their height. I then light the candles one after the other, extinguishing each candle stub with the next candle and building them up into a stelae, until the number of years matches the height of the person exactly. For me it was thirty-nine candle stubs reaching 164 cm, and for Gregor forty-four at 193 cm. From this, I have
a bronze cast. You can see it as an image of a person at a certain point in time.

JK: And what about the cover photo of the magazine?

GH: You can see Alicja and I reflected in a marble slab, which is an early artwork of mine, an objet trouvé titled Von den Steinen zu den Sternen [From the stones to the stars] from 2011. The resulting photo became a work of mine that same year called Alicja und ich [Alicja and I]. There are many layers embedded in the work.

JK: So the cover is also emblematic of what follows in this special issue, which you designed from the first to last page. How did you approach this?

AK: It all came out very naturally, the material was there, we just had to put it in order. Suddenly the connections between work and life emerged, without us having foreseen them. The references didn’t arise from a concrete concept, so to speak, but from banal things: that we go to the same bars, have the same friends, work on the same table … That’s what we wanted to show: these references that come from sharing a generation and location, that came together by chance.

JK: A highlight for me is a traffic enforcement photo of the two of you, caught speeding in the rented Robben & Wientjes van, a company which everyone in Berlin recognizes. It’s a car rental place with very cheap cars and very little service. In the beginning I transported art with these rental cars as well.

© Image Alicja Kwade and Gregor Hildebrandt

GH: We used to ride with them all the time. And we used that photo in 2006 as an invitation card for a double exhibition at the Uberbau Düsseldorf—I think the number plate was the title of the exhibition.

JK: It’s the first time you’re exhibiting together internationally. But you don’t want to be perceived as an artist duo in the future, right?

AK: No, something like this should be fun. For a long time, you and I, Johann, have been thinking about what we wanted to do in Los Angeles. When the idea of bringing Gregor on board came up, he wasn’t so sure at first whether it was a good idea. But the thing is, we both make art, we don’t really do anything else. It’s our life, from morning to night; we’re a couple, we live together. So the question is, why shouldn’t we bring it all together sometime?

GH: There’s Alicja and me, and then there is the longstanding relationship between us and you, and it’s an awful lot of fun to show it all in such a form.

AK: And above all without being perceived as just an artist-pair!

JK: Not everybody knows you’re a couple, right?

AK: Exactly. It’s amusing to see how many people don’t know that. Even collectors who have acquired our work in parallel are sometimes quite surprised. Though that might change a bit with this magazine … (laughs).



Alicja Kwade (b. 1979 in Katowice, Poland) lives and works in Berlin. Her work investigates and questions universally accepted notions of space, time, science, and philosophy by breaking down frames of perception in her work. Kwade’s multifaceted practice spans sculpture, public installation, works on paper, videos, and photography.

Most recently, she has exhibited in the following museums, among others: Lehmbruck Museum, Duisburg; Berlinische Galerie – Landesmuseum für Moderne Kunst, Berlin, Germany; Langen Foundation, Neuss, Germany; MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, USA; Dallas Contemporary, Dallas, USA; Espoo Museum of Mod...
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