Valentina Culley-Foster & Ayala Gazit
We are standing in front of an unfamiliar Berlin building on a quiet Sunday afternoon, wondering if we’re in the right place. Then, as if we’ve been let in on a secret, we catch sight of a buzzer covered by a white slip of paper that reads ‘Sonntag’ in curling, black font, and press it.
Upon being granted entry, the sound of voices leads us to an apartment where we are met by welcoming smiles, the familiar aroma of coffee, and the hum of deep conversation. People gather near artwork on display or sit around a coffee table enjoying tea and cake, and it feels like a family gathering. We take off our shoes, revealing funky socks and painted toenails, and immediately relax.
This is Sonntag, a nomadic art event founded by April Gertler and Adrian Schiesser. Once a month on a Sunday afternoon, Sonntag features a different artist, providing them with a platform to curate an exhibition of their own work. The art is then displayed in someone’s apartment, which also changes every month, and April and Adrian serve the artist’s favourite cake, which they bake themselves. With the intimacy of a private space, coffee, cake, and conversation, Sonntag is challenging the way audiences experience art.
At this particular Sonntag, hosted in a sun-dappled apartment in Mitte, the crowd takes in the paintings of Azar Pajuhandeh, discussing the controlled lines and subtle textures of her work. We chat between mouthfuls of shirini latifeh, Azar’s favourite cake, as crushed pistachios fall to the plate. The artist brought these pistachios back from Iran – a small piece of home to share with Sonntag guests. One bite into the small dessert and a burst of rosewater whipped cream surprises like a sudden kiss. Shirini latifeh is a Persian recipe, traditionally served at weddings or celebrations. It does feel like a special occasion – as though we’ve been invited to share in an intimate ceremony; not as strangers but as family.
Adrian and April are prolific artists themselves and integral pillars of the Berlin art scene involved with countless projects. In addition to Sonntag and their respective artistic endeavours, April runs a hybrid art–residency academy called Picture Berlin, where Adrian is a curator and lecturer, and they are both members of the artist collective, tête.
Of all things, it was a large, matching set of crockery that kicked off Sonntag. April describes the collection as “granny-style, gold-rimmed cups, saucers, and teapots.” She says that when Adrian moved to Berlin in 2011, “he inherited a collection of handmade furniture from the 1960s and crockery – an entire kitchen from a grandmother of a friend of a friend who had passed away, and nobody in the family wanted any of this stuff.” What is one to do with 35 cake plates?
There’s an atmosphere of curiosity that is facilitated by the informality of the space, by the fact that it’s a private home.
With a passion for baking and a desire to connect with other artists and learn about their practices, Adrian conceived the idea for Sonntag, which eventually brought April and Adrian together. “Baking was our meeting point and then we started talking about his idea and eventually I asked him if I could collaborate with him on this project,” April recalls. “The basic idea was that we’d invite one artist to show their work in the apartment on a Sunday afternoon and we would make that artist’s favourite cake.” And so, in September 2012, they held their first Sonntag.
“We did the project in Adrian’s apartment for two years, and then we were forced to go nomadic because Adrian got notice from his landlord saying, ‘If you continue the project, you’re out.’” April and Adrian were happily surprised by the influx of offers from others eager to host the event, and it has been constantly moving ever since. With a bike trailer full of cake plates, tea pots, and assorted crockery, the duo bring Sonntag to different corners of Berlin. As Sonntag travels to different locations, opening itself up to a new Kiez each month, it connects strangers from across the city.
This spirit is at the core of Sonntag. “There’s an atmosphere of curiosity that is facilitated by the informality of the space, by the fact that it’s a private home,” April reflects. “There’s something really special that happens when you walk into a home and you don’t even know whose home it is, but there’s this immediate feeling of, ‘Wow, this feels special. I’m in this special place, because this is somebody’s home and people have let me come here.’”
April is careful to emphasise the earnestness of the project, because while cake is an integral part of Sonntag, this particular element is often misunderstood. “I struggle with the project being categorised as a ‘cake project’ because about 98% of the time when we talk about the project, people laugh,” April explains. “It somehow minimises the seriousness of the project for people, and that’s obviously something I don’t like because it is a very serious project.”
What is it about the cake that makes people laugh? It could be that baking – traditionally a woman’s domain – is not usually taken seriously. Or perhaps the unconventionality of serving cake at an art exhibition unnerves some people. Either way, Sonntag is challenging the conventional ways in which we experience and understand art and baking.
Serving cake at Sonntag is a way of connecting the artist, their work, and the guests. According to April, the cake is “a vehicle for dialogue and conversation, as well as a way to soften the atmosphere and help people feel comfortable in a private space.”
A taste of cake introduces the audience to a combination of flavours that is intimately related to the artist’s memories and history. April suggests that this form of connection is something that has been in our cultural psyche for a while. “Marcel Proust wrote a book called Swann’s Way, and there’s an element in the book where he talks about being connected to your memory through taste,” she says. “And because of him writing about it, the medical world actually started talking about it, and saying, ‘Oh, is there really a connection between the brain and taste? And how does that actually work in terms of memory?’ That, to me, is fascinating, and partly why we’re doing the cake element, because we think that this connection that the artist has to the cake will stir a different type of conversation around what the cake is about as a representation of memory.”
Behind The Scenes: Making the Cake
April and Adrian have featured more than 50 artists over the last six years. Each Sonntag takes them about two weeks to prepare, from a studio visit with the artist to site visits with the host and researching recipes for the cake. All of this culminates in the cake test: a gathering of the artist, the host, and their respective family and friends. This, according to April, is when the magic happens. “The artist then reflects on their personal life in relation to that cake,” she says. “That is the moment that for us is the most exciting, because we get to have this really intimate, private conversation with everybody.”
From a matcha tea swiss roll with raspberry mascarpone to vegan lavender and lemon cheesecake, artists have requested a wide variety of cakes, which have evoked a multitude of stories, memories, and cultural backgrounds. April recalls some artists’ stories that have stuck with her: “Marcus Zimmermann wanted us to make Schlesischer Mohnkuchen, and he told us about his aunt Hilda who would make the cake and how nobody in the family was allowed to eat the centre for two days because that needed to rest but people could eat the edges of the cake. These little stories are so wonderful – they bring the cake to life.” Such is the power of flavour: one bite of cheesecake can help us slip through the folds of time into a sweet reverie.
We always say that dogs, babies, and grandparents are invited.
Artists have long been experimenting with the ways in which we connect with one another to experience art itself. Adrian drew inspiration for Sonntag from a project developed by Gerhard Richter and Konrad Lueg in 1966 called Kaffee und Kuchen. “They took over a space, they wallpapered it, and Gerhard Richter put his paintings on the wall and they served coffee and cake,” April explains. While there are many differences between the two projects, both reimagine the spaces in which we view art, and use domesticity to undermine the sterile formality of a conventional gallery.
Traditional art openings typically take place in a ‘white cube’, but Sonntag is not your typical vernissage. “Well, I think at an opening there is a formality that happens, partly because of the white cube space,” April says of commercial galleries. “There’s a formality that is in the space that maybe gives one a feeling of discomfort if you’re also new to the art scene in Berlin. Or just, if you’re just not sure. I mean most people are completely insecure at art openings like that anyway, especially the artists!”
In contrast, at Sonntag, strangers are welcomed as new friends. “We always say that dogs, babies, and grandparents are invited,” April says. “People actually talk about the content of the work, unlike [at] a lot of openings,” she adds with a smile, “so that’s exciting for the artists.”
Studies have shown that people at galleries spend an average of 30 seconds engaging with each artwork. At Sonntag, artists can be vulnerable in the intimate setting of someone’s living room, and explain the tender moments that shape their work. They receive feedback from guests, who are invited to ask questions.
From emerging artists to art superstars such as Matt Mullican, the project has featured a variety of contributors working in all mediums. Adrian and April make a point of featuring artists who aren’t within their social network. Guests are often recommended to them by previous exhibitors, or the duo simply approach artists at shows if they like their work. “But the main point is that Adrian and I have to agree on the art,” April says. “We have to both like it. And it’s just on our personal taste.”
When asked about the challenges facing the project, April recalls struggling to transport crockery when they became nomadic, and the difficulty convincing artists that they would indeed make any cake. But the community has never been an issue. “We’ve never had a guest who we’ve had to ask to leave,” she says. “We’ve broken two teacups – I broke them both!” In the end, the conclusion April comes to is that “maybe the biggest challenge is us. Navigating ourselves through the project because it’s challenging – it’s a lot of work.”
Sonntag was awarded €37,000 by the 2018 Project Space Initiative Prize, and Adrian and April already know how they’re going to spend it. “We would like to make a hardbound, full-colour, gorgeous book,” April says. “We see it as a historical document about the project and this slice of time in Berlin.” The book will cover the artists from the last six years, showcasing their work as well as including the recipe for their favourite cake. “This suggests we’re ending the project; we’re not,” April emphasises, adding that they may simply reduce the number of Sonntags in the next year to a handful.
Despite all that they’ve already achieved, April and Adrian have big dreams for the project. “What we would really love to do is actually to take the project and put it into an institutional setting. So, create an apartment inside of a museum and actually have a Sonntag happening inside of a museum.” To create a domestic space in an institution would be difficult, but that’s part of the point. April and Adrian want to “challenge the idea of how viewers experience art and create this space within another space.” This is something that Sonntag already does, but to translate this to a museum would be a fresh development.
Adrian and April have taken Sonntag to five cities internationally, with outstanding invitations to visit even more. Ultimately, however, Berlin remains at the core of the project. “We always come back to understanding that the audience in Berlin is one that really is willing and open to receiving this type of project.” April remembers their experience in New York as tricky: “People were just not open; they didn’t understand why they were going to a private apartment. It didn’t make any sense to them. Private space is seen very differently in different countries.”
For Berliners, it makes sense. At times a seemingly lawless city, crawling with spontaneous underground happenings and do-it-yourself projects, Berlin is still a multicultural mecca for artists and dreamers. The Sonntag community is exactly what Berlin wants, and needs. “It’s just been so possible to do it here because of what the city is about and because the city has so many different approaches to presentation,” April says. “The project space scene and initiative scene is so big, and there are so many kinds of projects happening that are off the beaten track, that there is an atmosphere for it that allows it to happen. So I don’t necessarily think Sonntag would have been successful in another place, in the same way.”