Berlins economic woes -- unemployment in this city of 3.4 million people approaches 20 percent -- havent made a dent in its well-deserved reputation as a world art center. "We are doing better than ever!" proclaimed Sabrina van der Lay, creative director of the ninth Art Forum Berlin art fair, Sept. 18-22, 2004. "Maybe because of simple creative defiance."
Berlin certainly has become a favorite city for young artists and progressive contemporary art dealers, and this last week they have been joined by 119 galleries from 20 countries, who have set up their booths -- displaying works by an estimated 1,300 artists -- in a symmetrical pair of halls at the Berlin Messe fairgrounds.
Participants in Art Forum Berlin range from Thaddaeus Ropac (Salzburg/Paris), Eigen + Art (Leipzig/Berlin) and Georg Kargl (Vienna) to Milliken (Stockholm), IBIDProjects (London/Vilnius) and Kavi Gupta Gallery (Chicago). The fair boasts 10 galleries from the Nordic countries, which are just a hop away from this northern German city, and eight galleries from the states, including I-20, Roebling Hall and Pierogi from New York.
Almost 40 of the fairs galleries hail from Berlin itself, including Arndt & Partner, Contemporary Fine Arts, Galerie Volker Diehl, Galerie Haas & Fuchs, Martin Klosterfelde, Galerie Neu, Galerie Nordenhake, Alexander Ochs Galleries, Schipper & Krome, Galerie Michael Schultz, Galerie Barbara Weiss and Wohnmaschine. According to the fair administration, over 19,000 visitors had attended Art Forum Berlin in its first three days.
"The atmosphere is great," said Berlin dealer Volker Diehl, referring to the general mood, the nice fall weather and the airy hall itself, with its clerestory windows, which dates from the fascist era. "Sales are at least okay, maybe better," he said, cautiously. Diehl was managing director of Art Forum Berlin when it began in 1995, back when it was the very first contemporary fair, well before Frieze in London and before the Armory Show in New York. As everyone knows, Art Forum Berlin had several rough years before many Berlin dealers signed up anew in a spirit of hometown boosterism.
Art Forum Berlin has "much energy and many collectors," said Helmut Schuster of Galerie Schuster in Frankfurt. "This is the best year of the fair, definitely, with Americans, the British, collectors from Paris, Brussels -- though not too many from Berlin." The German capital still has not developed its own collector base.
Nevertheless, Schuster is optimistic. "Artists will lead the economy," he said. "Berlin is like New York was, 15 years ago." One thing is true -- rents are low, compared to New York and London. Schuster has big plans for a substantial real estate development on the Spree River in southeastern Berlin; though details are not yet complete, he hopes to eventually create a complex to house two museum branches, two private foundations and several galleries.
The fair is dotted with showpieces and eye-catching installations. At one entrance, visitors are welcomed by a large, rainbow-colored arch, ironically constructed with picket-fence material (that German gardeners use to keep out rabbits) by Frankfurt artist Peter Rsel at the booth of the Berlin gallery Wohnmaschine (price: €20,000).
Greeting visitors to the booth of Contemporary Fine Arts is a life-size silver bronze sculpture by Angus Fairhurst of an orangutan -- which is lifting its head from its shoulders! The title: Im sorry and I wont do it again. The price: 70,000, in an edition of three. Leaning against the wall at Galerie Michael Neff from Frankfurt are several large paintings made of stretched denim by 30-something Mike Bouchet, who has his own "Carpe Denim" jeans company. Theyre €4,000 each (the paintings, not the jeans).
The scene is silvery and space-age at Schipper & Krome, where Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone has framed the booth with a kind of oversized Sol LeWitt grid of brushed steel, though it is fitted with minispeakers (playing the sound of breathing) and dotted with small comic drawings of a raven man. Titled The Dancer and the Dance, the work is CHF 155,000, and looks good next to Carsten Hollers Sphere, a play structure of smoky acrylic that is lined with ball bearings so that a person on a circular sled can slide about inside. Sphere is €90,000.
And the Arndt & Partner booth is filled with an imposing and rather ominous sculpture by Thomas Hirschhorn of the North Pole (2004), featuring a frozen papier-mch landscape dripping with painted blood and topped with a crucifix wrapped in real chains. As is frequently the case with Hirschhorn, the work is sadly topical.
How is business? Needless to say, works by artists who are generally in demand are certain to be snapped up here, or at any art fair, for that matter. Such is certainly the case with the "yGa" craze, the recent market frenzy for the New Wave of German figurative painters.
First in this regard is dealer Harry Lybke of Eigen + Art, who quickly sold a large painting by Neo Rauch that depicts several people reading books under the watchful eye of a kind of minotaur. The price: €170,000 (Rauch makes 15 to 20 paintings a year, the gallery says). Also sold are a dramatic architectural painting by the 32-year-old Leipzig artist David Schnell of a vaulted redwood plank structure with blue sky showing through the cracks for €17,000; and an evocative portrait of a sad young woman by Martin Eder for €7,000. Eder has quite the masterful touch, and recently made a series of succulently sweet watercolors of kittens and erotic nudes, all of which were snapped up for €1,200 each.
"The market likes German painting," said Berlin dealer Michael Schultz, with simple directness. "Its the new romantic style." His booth is filled with large figurative paintings marked with red dots: a light-suffused painting of athletes by Norbert Bisky, including a gargantuan figure that may be based on Goyas picture of Saturn devouring his children (€18,000); a candy-colored mountain landscape by the 30-something artist Kristina Girke, a student of Katharina Grosse (€5,400); and a collage-painting of a couple on a raft done by the 22-year-old Korea-born Berlin artist Seo, a student of Georg Baselitz (€9,100).
"It was the first painting I sold at the fair," Schultz said of Seos work -- "two days before the opening." The dealer does a lot of fairs -- he expects to participate in FIAC, Art Cologne and Art Basel Miami Beach this year -- and does about 60 percent of his business at them. "Every year we do a bit more!" he said. Schultz even sold a painting by that art-fair fixture, the androgynous, vinyl-clothed performance duo Eva and Adele. Needless to say, the painting is a somewhat garish self-portrait.
Thaddaeus Ropac filled his booth with works by Bernhard Martin, a lively figurative painter whose eclectic canvases mix expressionistic and decorative abstract sections with Photo Realist elements -- and a touch of eroticism. The 30-something Frankfurt native, now resident in Berlin for two years, is very busy, with a big show slated for the Villa Arson in Nice in early 2005 and a catalogue due out from Hatje Cantz. A large painting sells for about €35,000, if you can get one. The suite of small drawings in the booth was snapped up for the Museum of Modern Art (putative MoMA drawings patron André Schlectriem was at the fair, after all -- see "Artnet News," Sept. 21, 2004).
Before continuing with the wares at the Berlin Art Forum bazaar, however, lets take a side trip to the accompanying exhibition, "Made in Berlin." In an effort to add some extra zip, the art fair organizers called on Zdenek Felix, former director of the Deichtorhallen Hamburg, to curate a survey of works by 42 local artists (admittedly from lists suggested by galleries participating in Art Forum Berlin) and install it in an adjacent, 1,100-square-meter hall.
The show, which features a good deal of figurative painting, is being well received, but to this viewer at least it outlines a widespread Berlin esthetic that is rather distressing -- an obsession with ruins and rubble, 60 years after World War II and almost 15 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and a dark, angry approach to figure painting that is antisocial and even a little deranged. For the Berlin artist, this show seems to say, the world is in chaos and populated by monsters.
Thus, Manfred Pernices rough concrete bunker (he used to make such nicely carpentered sculpture), large color photos of dilapidated buildings by Ryuiji Miyamoto and paintings, many paintings, of ugliness -- bug-eyed monsters from Andr Butzer, gothic forests by Valrie Favre, dystopic cityscapes by Michael Kunze and an especially sadistic daisy-chain drawing by Ralf Ziervogel. An installation by Jonathan Meese -- paintings, bronze busts (purporting to depict Nietzsche and the artists mother, among others) and a discombobulated text painted in yellow on torn butcher paper stuck to the wall -- is ranting paranoid schizophrenia in corporeal form.
The large collage of two battling figures by Markus Selg, which seems to channel Brad Pitts Trojan War through a South Seas package tour, is inventive enough that its not completely depressing. And the paintings by Hans-Jrg Mayer, which often combine imagery from Old Masters with portraits of pop models and movie stars, have an intensity and artistry that is hard to resist (his pictures, represented by Galerie Christian Nagel, are about €12,000 each).
Even the mural-sized, digitally influenced painting of an airport or factory by Corinne Wasmuht, a good painter, looks like it was made by scraping and chipping layers and flakes of old paint from a wall. A few atypically bright works, like the otherwise mundane collage of cheerful, high-key clips from television by Daniel Pflumm or the optimistic photographs of young "angels of history" by Aura Rosenberg (though they hover over wrecked cityscapes, again), serve to underline how different the artistic culture is here in New York.
Turnabout is fair play -- upon reading these remarks, the journalist and critic Barbara Weidle, a contributor to Artnet Magazine, was quick to point out that art in New York seems obsessed with sex, no doubt a reaction to America's "puritan" culture.
But back to the fair -- its an easy enough passage from one to the other! Not all the sales belong to the new German romanticism. Chicago dealer Kavi Gupta was even more upbeat than usual, if that is possible. "My crates got stuck in customs, but as soon as I put the work up in the booth, it sold immediately. It was like a feeding frenzy," he said, especially for works from "Beautiful Loser," the show of San Francisco street culture organized by Aaron Rose and Christian Strike thats now at the Yerba Buena Cultural Center in San Francisco.
Among the wares at his booth -- most now sold -- are a charming Chris Johanson drawing of a multihued, faceted abstract sculpture that says, in a word balloon, "dont listen to me, for my modern ways are not the answer at all" (€3,000); beautifully rendered drawings of animals by Ashley Macomber from Chicago (€1,600); acrylic and oil paintings of modernist structures in decay by Angela Gualdoni ($5,000-$6,000); and a color photo by Melanie Schiff of a pair of breasts with raspberries on the nipples (€850)
Look at the time! Would you mind if we picked up the pace a bit? At Galerie Johann Widauer from Innsbruck is a great untitled sculpture by a favorite, Heimo Zobernig -- a multi-legged star shape made of cardboard tubes painted in black enamel (€4,000). At the booth of Finesilver Gallery from San Antonio are pseudo-biomorphic sculptures by 27-year-old Joel Morrison that are actually odds-and-ends wrapped up and cast in brightly colored plastic. Theyre delicious, in a synthetic sort of way, at $12,000-$15,000.
At Galerija Gregor Podnar from Ljubljana, one of two contemporary art galleries in the city, are a series of black-and-white photographs by Attila Csrg documenting the cast of the inner spaces of a piece of Swiss cheese. "Its the materialization of the immaterial," said Podnar with a straight face. The photos are €2,600, in an edition of 10.
At Volker Diehl are two paintings that inspired the title of this report, realist oils on linen by Alice Stepanek and Steven Maslin, a pair of painters from Cologne and Berlin. They specialize in images that are all blue skies, fluffy clouds and flowers in the air -- a small crack of daylight in an expanse of gloom (priced at €4,500 and €7,200).
At the booth of Stockholm dealer Aldy Milliken are several works by Felix Gmelin, including a videotape of the artists late father, a philosopher and something of a 1960s love child, that shows the old man and a young girl carefully massaging each other with oil paints on a bed of gessoed canvases. Move over, Yves Klein! Gmelins 45-minute DVD, in an edition of five, is €5,000.
More video on the menu? At Frankfurts Galerie Anita Beckers is Sweet Wind in Your Face (2004), a completely different 30-minute computer animation by Yves Netzhammer, whose digitally generated android figures embark on a series of poetic metamorphoses -- a figure emerges from a bath, a hand tickles the bottom of a foot, a butterfly alights and a corral appears around it. The work is €9,000 in an edition of eight.
Also popular with Beckers collectors is the prizewinning 1997 DVD by Bjorn Melhus, titled No Sunshine, that features the artist as a pair of twin yellow-wigged clones speaking to each other in an alien melodrama whose narrative is composed solely of protovocal snippets from the Jackson Five and Stevie Wonder. Its cool, in an unlimited edition, at €300 each.
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The dense art fair bazaar has its appeal, but can rarely match the focus and scale of a good gallery show. Berlins vitality as a global art center is easily demonstrated by the large number of important exhibitions that can be found in the city, many of them premieres. Examples abound this month during Art Forum Berlin.
At Arndt & Partner, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this week, is "True Stories," an exhibition of 30 photo-and-text works from the retrospective "Autobiographies, 1988-2003" by the French artist Sophie Calle. Its impossible to remain unaffected by the alluring artist and her short stories, which tell of things that happened to her, sad and sweet memories and dreams, events she staged of love and heartbreak, all the details of an intensely romantic life, which come alive with the poignancy of a French movie. Its a sentimental journey, and an art of far greater intimacy than is typical.
One brief paragraph, for instance, tells of an "unreliable man" who arrives for a prearranged rendezvous almost exactly one year late -- the sort of move certain to capture Calles interest. Her work is simultaneously on view at the elegant Martin-Gropius-Bau in a survey organized by Christine Macel and titled "Do You See Me," Sept. 9-Dec. 13, 2004. The show has already appeared in Paris and Dublin and goes to the Ludwig Forum in Aachen, opening in January. Works from the series at Arndt & Partner are priced at €30,000 each.
No less than five other important contemporary galleries are within the same building complex. Galerie Volker Diehl is given over to a show of encaustic paintings by Martin Asig, a figurative artist whose poetic images -- portrayals of women in strange folkish outfits, really -- have a sense of medieval cosmology and, as Mark Ghisbourne points out in an eloquent catalogue essay, "a defined attraction to issues of feminine intimacy." The artist, who has been exhibiting with Diehl for more than 10 years, is showing his work in Los Angeles with Michael Kohn Gallery later this year, and is also expected to exhibit with Raphael Jablonka in Cologne in 2005.
At Galerie Max Hetzlers street-level space is an exhibition of new paintings by the London artist Sarah Morris that, as is usual in her work, combine geometry and bright colors in a way that suggests architecture, the street grid and the social network of urban life. These pictures, which are sold, are priced in the $55,000-$60,000 range. (Hetzlers second gallery, located about 10 minutes away, is exhibiting Los Angeles, Morris recent film -- her fifth -- which focuses on the California city during Oscar week).
The young German dealer MartinKlosterfelde has converted his gallery into a double theater for two new movies by Christian Jankowski, one of several contemporary artists who have brought avant-garde life to narrative film. In both works, which are fairly short but professionally crafted, the well-known techniques of Hollywood special effects are put to theoretical, comic and even mysterious use.
The British artist Antony Gormley has brought a new development in his work to Galerie Nordenhake, a striking installation of a flexible, aluminum rod that is several miles long and that swoops and circles through the gallery space, all but filling it from floor to ceiling and wall to wall. Called Clearing, the work -- which took the artist and a team of four assistants four days to install -- has not been shown in New York, though it premiered at White Cube in London.
Though apparently dense, the piece can be walked through, and in fact viewers are encouraged to do so. Gormley is well known for his finely made sculptural renderings of the human form done in small washer-like circular disks, say, or various lengths and sizes of steel rods (these works tend to go for about $220,000, in comparison to the $500,000 price tag on Clearing). So is the new sculpture a purely formal exercise or an abstract expression of emotion or human movement? Thats for you to decide!
At Schipper & Krome is a group show of smaller sculptures by seven young artists titled "The Stars Are So Big, The Earth Is So Small. . . Stay as You Are (Part I)." As explained by Christophe Weisner, who organized the show with Robert Meijer -- they both work for the gallery -- works were chosen that would give something of a landscape feel (and were consequently installed on a low-lying platform). Part II, he said, is going to be quite different in mood, since it is to be oriented towards the ceiling.
Last but hardly least in this particular concentration of Berlin galleries is Galerie Barbara Weiss, which is presenting the debut of three new works by Janet Cardiff andGeorge Bures Miller, who have lived in Berlin for the last four or five years. One piece, an installation of a desk and chair with a lamp and telephone, is heard when the receiver is put to your ear -- its an almost-conspiratorial conversation about time between an unidentified man and woman.
In the main gallery is Road Trip, a 15-minute slide projection of tourist images of a vacation through the Canadian wilderness, many of them faded to a brilliant red monochrome -- the pictures were made, it turns out, by a grandfather of one of the artists -- with an accompanying stereophonic soundtrack of Cardiff and Miller discussing both the slides and the artwork that theyre making of them. In the rear gallery is still another new work, a haunting nighttime canoe trip across a misty lake illuminated by a small spotlight, accompanied only by the sound of the paddle dipping in the water.
In these works, Cardiff and Millers audio technique, simple though it is, creates a heightened sense of reality. The audio conversations, and even the sound of the paddling canoe, somehow seem especially convincing and authentic.
A proper tour of contemporary galleries in Berlin would include perhaps 50 stops. In the Mitte neighborhood, Contemporary Fine Arts boasts a stunning show of 10 paintings by Cecily Brown. These colorful bacchanals, so different from the dark and moody paintings that the artist showed earlier this year in New York in the 2004 Whitney Biennial, are based on some of the most erotically charged Old Masters, pictures that include, according to the artist, Rubens Adam and Eve in Paradise and Titians Dana. Browns paintings go for about $75,000, though its hard to find one that hasnt already been bought. Her next show in Europe opens in only a few days at fellow painter Lisa Ruyters gallery in Vienna.
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Serendipitously, during the week of Berlin Art Forum, one local art phenomenon ended and a second began -- a sort of passing of the torch. The Neue Nationalgaleries show of selections from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art -- much-loved examples of a textbook modernism, never before seen in Berlin, exceptionally installed in a masterful modernist building -- had a rapturous reception, with long lines of art lovers waiting for hours to get in to see works by ranging from Picasso to Pollock.
Such was the sensation that a large crowd of people even gathered on the broad gallery plaza and surrounding streets to mark the closing of the exhibition on its final day. As the museum lights were turned off at 10 p.m. on Sept. 19, 2004, the Neue Nationalgalerie celebrated with an impressive fireworks display that lit up the night sky above its celebrated black steel and glass Mies van der Rohe structure.
Only a day later, the citys art VIPs got the first glimpse of the new Friedrich Christian Flick collection of cutting-edge contemporary art installed in the imposing Hamburger Bahnhof, an elegantly restored train-station museum that now has a new annex, a vast industrial-style hall measuring as long as three football fields. The debate swirling around the 60-year-old Flick, whose grandfather was a notorious Nazi industrialist (see "Flick Collection Opens in Berlin," Sept. 20, 2004), has made headlines for months. "Wie viel Blut klebt an diesen Bildern?" (How much blood sticks to these pictures), asked the BZ tabloid, somewhat theatrically. "Er ist ein Steuerflchtling" (He is a tax evader), went the quote from artist Hans Haacke.
At first glance, this massive trove of hip contemporary art seems to be the result of way too much money and far too little deliberation. Things seem to have been hoovered up wholesale -- in case you were wondering what sparked the sudden buzz surrounding artists like Jason Rhoades or Paul McCarthy, it was behind-the-scenes market action like this. In addition to the other artists mentioned here, the Flick installation includes works, frequently displayed in bulk, by Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Stan Douglas, Marlene Dumas, Fischli/Weiss, Isa Genzken, Dan Graham, Rodney Graham, Mike Kelley, Gordon Matta-Clark, Francis Picabia, Charles Ray, Raymond Pettibon, Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman and Thomas Struth.
But more significantly, after wandering through the show, its hard not to view Flicks massive holdings through the lens of his own peculiar history, as a wealthy scion of a Nazi fortune in a contemporary society that is acutely self-reflective and also willing to make substantial sacrifices to rebalance the scales of their history. To many observers, Flick has fallen short of his obligations, despite his stubborn benefices.
So, in one admittedly speculative reading (which can frame his approach as a collector -- witting or unwitting -- and ours as viewers), Flick seems to have gravitated towards artists and artworks whose innovation has come at the expense of any sense of social responsibility. As shown in its first installment, then, Flicks art is overwhelmingly of a piece -- tough and individualistic, to be sure, but in a dismayingly cruel and sadistic way.
Thus, the sociopathy in works like Paul McCarthys Saloon Theater (1995-99), Bruce Naumans neons and sculptures (which daringly includes a 1985 neon of goose-stepping male nudes and a swastika-shaped one from 1981-82 called American Violence), Jeff Walls lightbox photo of a man passed out on the floor and Duane Hansons landmark Photo Realist Motorcycle Accident (1967) -- all of which are among the first items in the installation.
Also on hand are Thomas Schttes hulking silver golems, a series of photos of young soldiers -- the tragic figures of our time -- shot directly from newspapers by Wolfgang Tillmans, a set of Larry Clarks tragically degenerate "Tulsa" photos and a vast hall filled with the admirably dissolute and nihilistic work of Franz West and Martin Kippenberger.
True, the feminine is not completely absent -- several sweet video projections by Pipilotti Rist are in a large basement gallery, and at the very end of the annex is a projection piece by Diana Thater featuring underwater scenes of frolicking dolphins. But there doesnt seem to be very much peace or wisdom here. In this context, the sprawling "garden sculpture" assemblage by the usually trash-obsessed Dieter Roth begins to look positively constructive.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.
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