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|Anti-Art in Berlin
by Walter Robinson
|As the fifth annual Art Forum Berlin art fair opens to the public, Sept. 27-Oct. 1, 2000, one thing becomes immediately clear -- the kids are in charge. Dealers like Colin De Land of American Fine Arts in New York and Tim Neuger of Neugerriemschneider in Berlin, who ordinarily seem so deliciously marginal and edgy, have suddenly become elder statesmen. Somehow, all that weird, decidedly trashy stuff begins to look rather blue chip. The nuts have taken over the nuthouse.
Art Forum Berlin was designed to be an international funhouse of bleeding-edge contemporary art. The 159 galleries hail from a total of 23 countries. Sixty-five are from Germany, 24 are from the U.S. and Canada, 17 from Scandinavia, 16 from the Mediterranean and four from both Japan and Moscow. Twenty-eight percent of the exhibitors are new to the fair, including two majors -- Deitch Projects and Gagosian (who are no doubt banking, as can be seen clearly in this context, on keeping open their pipeline to the new). It's still rather inexpensive to participate. Basic price for a booth ranges from about $2,500 for a 20-square-meter "young gallery" space to about $12,000 for the grander, double-sized space. Once again, Art Forum Berlin is sponsored by Bankgesellschaft Berlin.
One rather disconcerting development -- to a journalist, at least, who must assiduously record who is showing where -- are the new "international alliances," or partnerships, between various galleries who have taken stands together. Thus, "reflecting the world-wide trend towards globalization," Max Hetzler of Berlin and Patrick Painter of Santa Monica have teamed up to take a booth, as have Arndt & Partner (Berlin), Arts Futura (Zurich), Tomio Koyama (Tokyo) and Spencer Brownstone (New York).
But just what is the shape of the new in Berlin at the dawn of the 21st century? At first glance, it appears decidedly trashy. Supersized snapshots are the new "painting." Sculpture comes either from the scrap heap or the department store. And pornography is everywhere.
Nobody embodies the anti-esthetic better than Thomas Hirschhorn, the German artist whose works tweak refined sensibilities by presenting political content with a decidedly trashy technique. On an outside wall at the booth of Arndt & Partner, Berlin, is a "painting" construction consisting of aluminum foil, saran wrap and Styrofoam arranged on a wooden armature, with a section of collaged magazine photos showing images of third-world starvation and first-world gluttony. Amazingly, this startling overhaul of the easel-painting tradition looks rather unremarkable in this context, and can be yours for 45,000 DM ($1 = 2.2 DM).
Dominating the booth of Neugerriemschneider, which has teamed up with dealer Daniel Buchholz of Cologne, is a motley forest of monoliths by Isa Genken, the sculptor whose Minimalist work has a manic intensity (she suffers from bipolar disorder). Originally shown at the Kunstverein Braunschweig, the works -- each about 10 feet tall or more -- are variously constructed of wood, copper, perforated metal sheeting, marble and glass. Genken's sculpture has the feel of architectural models -- she's currently preparing a show for AC Project Room in New York to be titled "Fuck the Bauhaus: New Buildings for NYC" -- and somehow manages to be blunt and energetic.
Over at Deitch, the centerpiece is a large, battleship-gray inflated raft that floats above the heads of viewers like a mini-dirigible, tethered to the floor of the booth by black cords. The work of Hollywood F/X magician Julian LaVerdiere, it's rigged up as a levitated bed for a single sleeper. Hydrogen Bed (2000) is designed to evoke "dreams of flights and nostalgia for the glory of conquest," LaVerdiere writes. The work is priced at $12,000.
Gagosian's booth features two huge photographs of naked, red-wigged girls standing idly about in a bright white space. These riveting images are courtesy Vanessa Beecroft, and record the performance she staged in London in May to inaugurate the new Gagosian Gallery there. It was the first time the models were totally nude -- except for their transparent shoes with different colored soles. These unique photos, the first ones Beecroft has made where the girls are shown life-sized, are $25,000.
Gagosian also brought to the fair a modestly sized Cecily Brown painting, which sold for between $30,000 and $40,000 the moment it became available. Also on view is a set of color photos by Scottish artist Douglas Gordon, showing a baby (his niece) putting her toes in her mouth. The work has something to do with a traditional French mortician's practice of biting the toes of a body to test its sanguinity -- or so I was told.
Certainly one of the better new works on view at Art Forum Berlin is the set of six light boxes by Oleg Kulik, the ferociously original artist who made a name for himself several years ago by cavorting for a few weeks in a cage with a giant dog. Presented by the Moscow gallery XL, the piece is called Lolita Theme with Variations, and shows the naked, very masculine artist, lit with a golden light and cradling a small girl. Contrary to the title, the piece is very tender, not pedophiliac but rather spiritual. It's a bargain at 9,000 DM.
Another captivating work is at Greene Naftali, where the glamorous Carol Greene has set up Jonathan Horowitz's three-channel video, Reap the Wild Wind (1994). Alternating images of single fruits -- a lemon, an olive, a watermelon -- with snippets of videotape from three sitcoms (Golden Girls, Married with Children and Three's Company) give the effect of a kind of video slot machine. "I think of it as a still life," said Greene. "I see bar fruit," noted L.A. dealer Mary Goldman, who also has a booth at the fair. "It's all about alcoholism." True, the work is perhaps most striking for its staccato bursts of canned laughter. Price: $8,000.
Finally, no contemporary art fair would be complete without some color abstraction. At the booth of Brigitte Weiss from Zurich are a pair of big paintings sweet as candy by Charles Boetschi, a 40-something painter who lives in Switzerland. They're from his "Color Units" series and are priced at 12,500 DM each. Weiss currently has an exhibition of works by the American abstract painter Shirley Jaffe at her Zurich space.
Weiss has teamed up for the fair with Giti Nourbakhsch, a young dealer who only opened her Berlin gallery last year. Among Nourbakhsch's young artists is Berta Fischer, whose sculpture consists of three draped plastic shapes hung from the booth's metal rafters. Fischer's exercises in anti-form are surprisingly elegant, and perhaps even beautiful. They're 6,000 DM for the set.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.