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berlin art diary by Mary E. Goldman
In November, Berlin really got to strut its stuff and show off its diverse and plentiful art scene. Both the opening of the Hamburger Bahnhof, a new contemporary art museum, and the launching of the city's new European Art Forum art fair drew flocks of visitors who were anxious to see how Berlin is developing as it repositions itself to be the nation's capital. I can't imagine that anyone left dissatisfied, with both established and alternative venues alike staging exhibitions and parties that fueled a tireless energy unique to the city. The impressive premiere of the European Art Forum (Oct. 31-Nov. 4, 1996) hinted at the city's potential to join Chicago, Paris, Cologne and Basel as a host of a top-rank international art fair. The event, held at the Messe Berlin Exhibition and Trade Complex, was organized by a new group, the European Galleries Projektgesellschaft mbH, an organization of 14 European galleries that was formed in response to a general frustration with the unmanageability of the Cologne art fair. In the end, the European Art Forum hosted more than 130 galleries from 17 countries--over half were from Germany, the rest coming from France, the U.S. and Europe (including Russia). The art fair was largely limited to galleries that have proven themselves in the fields of contemporary and modern art. Forty percent of the booths exhibited work created since 1945, the other 60 percent from 1970 on. The average price range didn't exceed DM20,000, although exceptions existed, particularly for modernist works. The galleries were configured alphabetically through a double-aisled square, with cafes, book dealers and art- magazine tables occupying beveled corners. Alphabetization proved to be a successful and democratic format which offered a random but even scattering of highly reputed galleries. I was working at the booth of Regen Projects from L.A., which was often humming with activity as his installation of works by Matthew Barney, John Currin, Raymond Pettibon, Richard Prince and Steven Balkenhol attracted the attention of collectors and browsers alike. Stuart Regen, impressed by the space the Messe provided, commented that the organizers "made an effort to choose galleries that shared a common thread." Although more expensive than most fairs at DM 250 per square meter (30 square meter minimum), the area was breathable enough for each gallery to exert a greater impact and presence than is possible at those fairs that are more crowded. The European Art Forum attracted prominent galleries that normally don't appear at Art Cologne, including Max Hetzler (Munich and Berlin), Galerie Hans Mayer (Dusseldorf) and Luhring Augustine (New York). The concurrent opening of the Hamburger Bahnhof museum provided additional incentive to be in Berlin at this time (over 17,000 people attended the fair), and it will be interesting to see whether the city will stage another blockbuster event for next year's fair. Some of the booths I interviewed, such as Galerie Jablonka (Cologne), Jay Jopling/White Cube (London) and Galerie Bob van Orsouw (Zurich), shared the opinion that the Messe did exceptionally well for its fledgling flight, but that art fairs need time to prove themselves. The Messe was a financial success for most, although I got the impression that American galleries were doing more business than many of the Europeans. Interestingly, no one I spoke to had sold to collectors they hadn't had previous relationships with. At the Fair's opening press conference, the dominant note sounded from the podium was to the effect that Berlin enjoys both the geographic and historic position to be the gateway to the East, and that the fair was intended to serve as a forum for a cultural dialogue between estranged nations as well as to foster art sales. After about the third speech I began to nod off, but I was roused by the apparition of a man in a Batman T-shirt who stormed the conference yelling "Batman forever!" while swinging a whirring toy, lasso style over his head. Everyone sat in stunned silence until he proceeded to squirt our distinguished hosts in the face with a water gun. As he was being "escorted" out, he threw a handful of flyers into the air which urged everyone to boycott the fair so as not to support an "corrupt elite art mafia." The unrest that resulted from this heroic interruption, performed by Moscow artist Alexander Brener (who has made an even worse fuss before, at the "Interpol" exhibition in Fargfabriken in Stockholm-- see Raphael Rubenstein's report in the April 1996 Art in America) settled quickly as the panel recomposed, but the ensuing questions from the press focused on the conspicuous absence of East European galleries, particularly those from Germany. Volker Diehl, the chairman of the Projektgesellschaft, responded rather unconvincingly that many galleries from the east were invited, but declined because they were not in a financial position to join the Messe. It seems that the gateway to the West can only be entered if you can afford to tip the doorman on the way. BERLIN MITTE `96 As it happened, a significant portion of Berlin's galleries were not part of the European Art Forum, and dealer Rupert Goldsworthy, a British gallerist with a Berlin space, took advantage of Berlin's cultural spotlight by organizing an alternative art fair that ran Oct. 31-Nov. 5, called Berlin Mitte '96. Not intended as an unfair, the event "highlights the current special flavor of Berlin Mitte, the fastest developing urban and cultural area in Europe." 16 galleries from Berlin, Zurich, Lucerne, London, New York and Paris exhibited in a 600-square-meter area located in the heart of the city where a concentration of new galleries has spring up. In contrast to the sleek space-station appearance of the other Messe hall, Berlin Mitte '96 took place in the rooms of an unrenovated former department store. Although rough in appearance, it was an admirable try given the speed and frugality with which it was organized. The opening night was surprisingly jammed, as the Mitte mythology lured many to see what the fuss was all about. Unfortunately, the work was erratic, with a poor showing from a number of Berlin galleries who obviously didn't realize this was an opportunity to prove their potential. One success was Gallery Gabauer und Thumm, which showed a dizzying video installation by Michel Francois. Another was New York dealer Pat Hearn's presentation of a Lutz Bacher video in which she interviews a frequently propositioned young woman. Also eye-catching was the booth of Ars Futura from Zurich, which exhibited disturbing collages by Daniele Buetti, who scribbled on the back sides of fashion ads, impressing doodled scarifications on the skins of famous models. On the last day, I spoke with Armelle Pradalier, representing the Galerie Georges-Phillipe Valois in Paris. Her general feeling was that the Mitte fair had been a worthwhile experience. She noted, however, that many Berlin gallerists were not at their booths every day, which seemed unprofessional given that this fair was largely a promotion for them. After interviewing a number of participating galleries, I got the sense that work had sold and valuable contacts made. Unlike the big Messe, the majority of collectors who bought were new clients. Goldsworthy remarked, " I achieved more in the past five days than I have in the two years I've been in Berlin." Berlin Mitte '96 provided a more honest and diverse impression of what the art scene in Berlin is all about. I was only disappointed that a more collaborative and enthusiastic spirit didn't exist between the Mitte galleries, which would have resulted in a stronger representation. This perhaps is due to the fact that there are very few collectors living in Berlin, so many new galleries are not exactly thriving. There was also the underlying rumor that implied that associating with the Mitte fair could put one on the Projektgesellschaft's black list for next year's Messe. Rupert Goldsworthy, feeling disillusioned by Berlin, is taking some months in New York to see if his opportunities there are worth a move. It is uncertain whether any of the gallerists in Mitte will reorganize for next year. HAMBURGER BAHNHOF OPENS On Nov. 3, the new museum for "Contemporary Times," showcasing the collection of Erich Marx and selected works from the New National Gallery, opened at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Mitte. The museum is being directed by Britta Schmitz, coming from the New National Gallery, the state museum for modern and contemporary art. A major hitch facing the administration is the condition imposed by Marx that stipulates that he must first approve the art works before they can be displayed in the museum. Failure to comply would result in his pulling out the collection. Marx compiled the bulk of his collection in the 1970s and '80s with the guidance of Heiner Bastian, who had been Joseph Beuys' assistant and later made his career as a private art dealer. Marx's interest seems to be in Conceptual, Minimalist and Pop Art, and features mostly German and American artists. Work by Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol is the cornerstone of his collection, as he purchased a vast amount of early drawings by both artists, as well as major pieces representative of their artistic styles and thematic progressions throughout their respective careers. Also of importance are Cy Twombly, Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg, acquired with a similar thoroughness. The building, a neoclassical former railway station, is now decorated with a neon installation by the late artist Dan Flavin, shrouding the museum in an eerie purple glow. Approaching it is a dramatic experience, particularly when the sky is gray or dark (which it is most of the year in Berlin), further punctuated by neighboring construction cranes that adopt a sculptural quality by virtue of association. Upon entering the main railway area, one is immediately dwarfed by the scale of both the space and the work. The hall maintains its original infrastructure with arched ceiling, gray girders and windowed back wall. I was struck by the uniformity and coldness of its initial impact. The room is dominated by four mammoth installations. Two large-scale lead sculptures by Anselm Kiefer, a glass igloo by Mario Merz and a stone piece by Richard Long entitled Berlin Circle. The structure of the hall detracts from the experience of perceiving each artwork as an independent entity, even making the corrosive aura of the Kiefer work seem sterile. In general the collection sits uncomfortably in the building. Laid out in a wishbone shape, there are different stairways and dead ends which disorient the visitor. Although not a huge museum, I was never certain if I had missed entire sections, which in fact I had on my first visit. The role of the Hamburger Bahnhof is unclear, as it vacillates between being a museum and a showplace for Marx. The sporadic mixing of art from the New National Gallery makes it impossible to ascertain his vision for the collection, but the omission of artists who would have been appropriate to show along with his collection prevents it from functioning as a well-rounded contemporary museum. This problem is exacerbated by the absence of any clarifying wall text, which is particularly disturbing in the Beuys and Warhol rooms, where the early and later works are devoid of historical context. Regardless of that oversight, the museum houses some exceptional work, such as strong videos from Bruce Nauman, Bill Viola and Gary Hill. One of the more successful installations is Document I-V, made by Reinhard Mucha in 1992 for Dokumenta IX. Perhaps the greatest treasure offered by the Hamburger Bahnhof is the Beuys Archive, the only comprehensive library of his taped performances. The Hamburger Bahnhof fills a gap for contemporary art which had existed in the museum culture in Berlin, as many artists-- Matthew Barney, Rachel Whiteread and Cindy Sherman, to name a few--have not had much previous exposure in the city. The museum also organizes special events, concerts and programs in the evenings. I am encouraged by what the museum means to the city, but was hoping that it would be a more dynamic experience than it turned out to be. TECHNOMEDIA AT THE BUNKER My disappointment was eradicated later that night as the Bunker celebrated its re- opening with the exhibition "Files," based on the theme of technology and its influence on communication, art and architecture. Built in 1941 by the Third Reich, the Bunker is an imposing building in the middle of Mitte which has been, among other things, a civilian shelter during WW II, an ammunitions bunker for the Red Army, and a storage house for fruits and vegetables during DDR times. After the fall of the wall, it was transformed into a techno-club which occasionally presented theater and avant-garde events. The exhibition, organized by the Society for Art and Technology, consisted of multimedia pieces installed in a labyrinth of small rooms and hallways. Over 20 artists participated, including Claudia Tyne Pullman (Germany), Bigert & Bergstrom (Sweden), Matthew McCaslin (USA) and Alexej Shulgan (Russia). 4,000 people attended the opening night (the building's capacity is 2,000), not the most optimal condition to see the work, but it added to the voyeuristic sensation of peeking around dark corners as crowds of people stood transfixed by the strobing effects of monitors flashing everything from Internet messages to images of explosions. Many of the projects used the Internet, which was at this time still somewhat of a novelty in Berlin. I was mesmerized by the film Crawl Space by Jane and Louse Wilson (Great Britain), a non-narrative short film pieced together with the signifying ingredients of the horror genre, i.e. rapid editing, heart beat sounds and slow dolly shots down menacing abandoned corridors. The suspense culminates in the words "crawl space," which materialize on the skin of a woman's naked abdomen. The night ran late as the house-party downstairs didn't really pick up speed until 1:00 a.m. At times the energy in Berlin is truly infectious and before I knew it, it was time for a large Früstück (breakfast) to absorb some of toxins of the evening. OUT IN BERLIN On Nov. 3, locals and visitors flocked to club SO36, to see New York artist Steven Prina give a late-night solo concert called "Sonic Dan." He sat behind an electric keyboard on a blue-lit stage and gave a 90- minute performance of Sonic Youth and Steely Dan songs. Prina has a surprisingly good pop-star voice, and the evening turned California lounge style which put the audience in a relaxed and festive mood-- particularly when they were able to identify a song like "Ricky Don't Lose That Number." Only the Americans in the audience seemed to be getting the humor of it all, but that didn't prevent everyone from thoroughly enjoying the evening. After a couple of recovery nights at home, I was given the opportunity to don my newly purchased black beaded '40s cocktail dress to attend a black-tie AIDS benefit given by the Deutsche AIDS Stiftung (German AIDS Fund) at the Berlin Opera House. My friend Hunter Reynolds was invited to give a performance art piece during pre-theater and intermission. This performance is only one element of a large oeuvre dealing with remembrance and loss. That night he stood on a rotating platform, much like a jewelry box ballerina, dressed in his "Memorial Dress," a ball gown covered in the names of AIDS victims, names that were originally taken from the American AIDS quilt. The main theatrical event was a wonderful mixed arrangement of opera performed by such internationally renowned talent as Monsarrat Caballe, Karen Armstrong, Giacomo Aragall and Lucia Aliberti. I was told the event was star-studded, but since my knowledge of Germany's gliteratti is limited, I missed out on the thrill. But, in seeking relief from my blood red satin pumps (which were turning into torture devices), I happened to fall into a chair across from Jean-Paul Gaultier, who smiled at me knowingly, obviously sympathetic to my sacrifice for fashion. It is a challenge to get bored in Berlin, and the range of experiences lets one ride the roller coaster in black tie or leather pants depending on your mood. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of cultural life in Berlin is the constant clashing between it's problematic history and unresolved future. One feels the past lives of buildings, particularly in Mitte and Prenzlauerberg, another up-and-coming neighborhood adjacent to Mitte, deeper in the former East. Although art exhibitions are often unrelated to their neighborhoods, the contrast brings one's perception into sharper focus. It is a city where the high and low compete for attention, which is indicative of the "Mauer dem Kopf" (wall of the mind) that still very much exists between the East and West. But from this struggle for identity springs an unlimited diversity, giving one the sensation that Berlin is a city where anything is possible. MARY GOLDMAN is an American critic and curator who works at Contemporary Fine Arts in Berlin.