Leila Hekmat in Berlin

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Leila Hekmat brings her grotesque play to Haus am Waldsee in Berlin

Leila Hekmat's art fits our time. It fits a burning world defined by catastrophe, which is now turning into a real-life "Handmaid’s Tale". The US artist was born in 1981 and lives in Berlin. Her theatrical performances, installations, mini operas, and films resemble psychologically charged mystery plays or chamber dramas. Hekmat’s art deals with gender, family, power and powerlessness, libertarian freedom, and dying societies which gather behind closed doors, as in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s "The 120 Days of Sodom" or John Waters's "Desperate Living", celebrating horror and decadent beauty in the face of doom.

Hekmat came out of the New Theater circle. Founded by Calla Henkel and Max Pitegoff, this hybrid bar/club/ theater gained international attention between 2013 and 2015. This was due to the interdisciplinary, deliberately amateurish pieces and performances staged at the Neukölln artist-run space. However, it was also a result of the expat art power network which met there and included stars such as Simon Denny, Klara Lidén, and Josephine Pryde, and musicians, museum curators, collectors, and art fans from New York to Zurich. Henkel and Pitegoff, both in their mid-20s, ended up at institutions including Whitney Museum in 2015, the Berlin Biennale, and other museums and Kunstvereine.

Hekmat created costumes and her own productions at New Theater. She took her time and achieved cult status thanks to performances and exhibitions such as "The French Mistake" (Schinkel Pavillon, 2016), "Crocopazzo!" (Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, 2020), and the staging of her opera "Il Matrimonio di Immacolata" as part of Schinkel Pavillon's "Disappearing Berlin" series. Her costumes are reminiscent of sacred garb, Elizabethan dress, and fetish costumes, and they have become something of a trademark—as have her grotesque, mask-like make-up and curly wigs that might be said to evoke Othodox Judaism, the rococo, and American settler culture all at once. Hekmat’s virtuosic musical pieces reference baroque and folk music, opera buffa, and vaudeville. They act as echo chambers of queer subculture, evoking the freaks and transvestites of Jack Smith’s scandalous underground film "Flaming Creatures" (1963) as well as Andy Warhol’s Factory stars and the neurotic, exalted post-internet characters of Ryan Trecartin’s videos.

In 2021, Hekmat’s work was prominently displayed in the group show "A Fire in My Belly" at Julia Stoschek Collection Berlin. Now it is time for her first institutional show. This is curated by Anna Gritz, who is showing Hekmat’s exhibition "Female Remedy" as the first in her new role as artistic director of Haus am Waldsee. Hekmat always pays attention to the architecture and space in her installations and performances. She will transform the former industrialist villa into Hospital Hekmat, with hospital beds, an operating room, a chapel, and numerous other treatment rooms furnished with digitally printed curtains, dolls, and depictions of eccentric carers and patients. This art space will be transformed into a "religious sanitorium for women" which serves as an institution "for an illness that does not have to be healed". On the contrary, comedy and absurd poses are meant to encourage the "commonsense-resistant inner lives of female patients".

There’s a whiff of feminist revolt, a parody of Freud’s concept of female hysteria, in the grand libertarian tradition of de Sade’s and Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty. Its starting point, too, is illness and the desire to create boundary-dissolving, intoxicating, near-spiritual experiences. This curatorial debut at Haus am Waldsee will certainly be exciting—but not only due to its sure-to-be spectacular show. The crucial question remains whether Hekmat and Gritz will manage to wrest something truly subversive from this ultimately traditional form of art theater, anchored in the sheltered bourgeois bastion.