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|Berlin Art Diary
by Walter Robinson
|Like a lot of cities, Berlin comes alive at night, especially in the Mitte district of art galleries and sidewalk cafes. The art scene takes part in the nightlife to an uncommon degree, with galleries and alternative spaces staying open to midnight or well past. The late-hour art crawl even has a name -- the "rundgang," or "walking-around."
Junge kunst at the Bahnhof
In my admittedly parochial view, only one of the four is internationally known, the latter-day environmental artist Olafur Eliasson, who consequently becomes the favorite to win the prize (which won't be announced until early December). Eliasson's work is a chest-high earthen wall that stretches the length of the gallery space, plus the hole out back that the dirt came from. "I saw it being installed," said one observer of the hole, prompting considerable thought on art's transformative properties.
All four artists turned in great performances. I think my favorite is Katharina Grosse's huge L-shaped wall that she painted with gaudy veils of scarlet, fire orange and blue-gray. The virtuoso realist painter Dirk Skreber constructed a kind of enclosed, three-room viewing pavilion out of chip board and plywood to house three works -- a painting of two locomotives hurtling towards each other, another showing two houses apparently submerged beneath the waters of a flood, and a third ochre-colored abstraction that I'm not sure is an art work at all.
The fourth entry is a kind of video pavilion by Christian Jankowski that consists of four separate mini-theaters arranged in a square with their openings towards the center, so that museum visitors were constantly jostling each other to view the work. Each videotape showed a different person making an officious speech awarding the prize to one of the entrants. Besides the fact that the work makes fun of art criticism -- not funny -- it struck me as too much of a trivial jest. But the art journalist Barbara Weidle pointed out that such empty speechifying is very much the currency of public life in Germany, so perhaps one should grant Jankowski more depth.
The next stop was an empty building on Rosa-Luxembourg-Strasse, where the exhibition "No Vacancies" featured 15 videoworks installed in the triangular building's small rooms. The show was organized by Angelika Richter and Berlin dealer Barbara Thumm, and was rich in late-night melodrama and digital high jinks. One work that sticks in the memory was by Britisher Mariele Neudecker, and shows two snowy, mist-shrouded mountain landscapes -- presumably digital fictions. Cool, in more ways than one.
Rundgang in Mitte
The boxes are the work of Mexico City-based artist Santiago Sierra, and supposedly contained foreigners seeking asylum in Germany. They sit in the boxes for four hours a day -- without pay, as immigration law prohibits them from working in the country.
In 1999, according to the Kunst-Werke press material, Sierra paid six unemployed Cubans $30 each to have a horizontal line tattooed across their backs. Both works are apparently designed to "allude" to the fact that people in the third world "are ready to sacrifice their health for a minimal amount of money." One can only hope that these "art works" are a hoax.
In another wing of the building, the irrepressible junk-artist Jonathan Meese was conducting a noisy and popular performance. Dressed in a olive-green military outfit, his long hair flowing in the evening light, Meese howled, marched, speechified and acted out at some length, at one point pushing a baby carriage with a white-painted mannequin of a child out into the street.
The interior spaces, trapped out as a kind of "pogo bar" filled with his trademark installation of pop posters, mannequins, art works and other detritus, were off limits to the public. A grill nearby provided free wurst to the audience. To me, Meese's indictment of German militarism was most reminiscent of the work of the late Ed Kienholz, a half-world and 30 years away.
New art in Mitte
Down at Mehdi Chouakri on Gipsstrasse were Photo Realist paintings by Julien Michel, a Dijon-based artist who was born in 1973 and is having his first show in Germany. The images seem to come from the news -- a picture of a startled girl (that could have been done by New Yorker Richard Phillips), a runner stretching, a group of police, a car crash, a pit bull. The works are inexpensive -- ranging in price from about 3,000 DM to 7,000 DM -- and were selling well.
At Klosterfelde on Linienstrasse was a strikingly minimalist installation by Henrik Olesin, who at first glance left the space white and empty. But here is a single black shoe, there a jacket hung on a hook -- the kind of metaphysically charged objects you'd expect to find in the land of Joseph Beuys. A pile of printed pamphlets, free for the taking, lists "homosexual rights around the world" by country (Germany bans artificial insemination for lesbians, and forbids homosexuals as military officers).
In another small gallery is a bit of branch, painted with the words, "biology is straight," while in the back room is a cardboard box, filled with black dirt, which holds in a small hollow four eggs. They've been emptied out -- to make them sterile? On the walls are photo blow-ups of the New York body artist Vito Acconci, who may be best known for his piece Seed Bed, in which he laid under a ramp and masturbated to fantasies of the visitors above. Olesin has inscribed the pictures with several queries -- "What does this represent?" Whatever it all means, it made me forget to ask for prices!
The only U.S. import I saw was a stunning installation by Keith Edmier at Neugerrheimschneider down the street. Edmier's brand of realism, like that of Julien LaVerdiere, seems to owe more to Hollywood fabrication craft than any fine art tradition -- and seems all the more odd because of it. This installation presents, behind a plastic floral wreath on its own stand, a pair of statues of World War II soldiers, both about 2/3 life-size and dressed in wool uniforms and hats much like Degas dressed his little dancer in a real tutu.
According to the dates inscribed on the granite bases, one man died on the eve of Normandy -- a suicide, it turns out -- while the other died of old age in 1995. The work is a personal memorial to the artist's own grandfathers, and has been sold to a private collector "for a good price," according to Tim Neuger (though there are two other copies in the edition, plus an artist's proof).
At Wohnmaschine on Tucholskystrasse, the Potsdam-born artist York der Knöfel presented a set of 20 slightly larger than life size portraits of local elementary school kids. They're full of youthful vim and humor, and one complete set is sold, at 12,000 DM per photo.
The photos at Eigen + Art on Auguststrasse are black and white, largely horizontal, and largely of the Aeolian Islands that Michelangelo Antonioni made so famous in his 1960 film L'Avventura. It seems that artists Nina Fischer and Maroan el Sani recreated the movie's search for the missing Anna, in part by leaving photos of the actress Monica Vitti behind as a "poster-action." During the project, the artists ran into Antonioni himself, who told them that he did not know what really happened to Anna either.
Finally, at Kapinos, the New Zealand-born artist Peter Robinson (no relation) was showing a new body of work inspired largely by the digital qualities of his computer, plus considerations of things like quantum mechanics, parallel universes and the like. What he's ended up with are a group of works made of zeros and ones -- posters that spell out "everything" and "nothing" using the on-off ASCII language, mobiles made of red plastic zeros in the various fonts on his computer -- plus a sculpture or two representing bubble theory, and a model of the Stealth Fighter, which is both there and not there (or so it is said). The price ranges from 1,250 DM on up, and works are moving briskly. You can't underestimate the appeal of a good digit, I guess.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.