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art cologne 1997

by Rosanne Altstatt  

Opening night
at Art Cologne

Karsten Greve

Ralf Berger

Jack Pierson
Art Fair installation at
Aurel Scheibler's booth

Luis Campaña's

Andreas Exner
skirt with attached frame

Dirk Skerber
oil on canvas
200 x 300 cm

Egbert Mittelstädt

Sigrid Lange's
telephone booth

Irma Optimist at
"Art Special: Hansa"

Manos Tsangaris
and students at
"Art Special: Hansa"

A Tsangaris

The Cologne
Sculpture Park with
work by Abakanowicz
in the foreground
   The air was filled with anticipation as the doors opened to the 31st edition of Art Cologne, Nov. 9-16, 1997. The preview audience of press, collectors and onlookers quickly filled the hall so that there was barely room to move, making it clear to everyone present that Cologne's art fair was a success.

When it all came to an end, a total of 72,000 people had visited the fair in nine days. Many dealers proclaimed their business to have been the best in years. What a rebound for Art Cologne, especially since just last year a substantial number of galleries had up and left for the new Art Forum in Berlin, an art fair that bragged of "class instead of mass," and that had the intention of making Berlin the new capitol of the German art world, if not the entire European scene.

Cologne's reaction to this good, swift kick in the ass was to take the responsibility for organizing the fair away from the Federal Association of German Galleries, putting the power instead into the hands of the exposition hall's management, the KölnMesse, which appointed a new admissions committee to choose the participating galleries. The commission's speaker is powerhouse dealer Karsten Greve, who sounded very Old Testament when he announced, "Only a single fair will take place in Germany!" This attitude might be intolerant and slightly exaggerated, but the aggressive strategy behind it has definitely produced results.

The committee reduced the number of galleries to 243, a cut of 13 percent, and promises to further reduce that number to between 210 and 220 in 1998. The separate section for younger galleries was eliminated and those galleries integrated into the general selection. In addition, the exhibitors were required to take larger spaces, making the fair more expensive as well as more expansive.

On the downside, the fair remains a largely German affair. Though it had a good number of French and Italian participants, British and North American galleries were largely absent. Getting art dealers to travel from the U.S. to Cologne is especially difficult, particularly since the Chicago art fair is much closer to home and has become such a success. In addition, New York dealers do not need to cross the Atlantic to meet European collectors, since many of them are already in the city for the November auctions.

Lots of Art
A big part of this year's success was due to the wide selection of art on view, ranging from early Modernism to the latest trends. On the upper floor there were classics abounding. Karsten Greve played host to Galerie Krugier from Geneva and its works from the Marina Picasso collection. Cologne's Galerie Gmurzynska once again had an astounding group of works by Feininger, Rodchenko, Yves Klein and Kandinsky. Waddington Galleries from London brought works by Matisse and Picabia.

Contemporary art on hand included Dan Graham's Fun House for Münster from this summer's Münster Sculpture Project. This installation sold right off the bat at the booth of Achenbach Kunsthandel, Düsseldorf, a company that is actually an art consultant in gallery clothing -- but who's counting? Works by younger artists, too, could be seen, such as the word pieces and paintings by Jack Pierson at Aurel Scheibler, Cologne, and the film-like drawings by Martin Walde, an artist who was one of Documenta X's best surprises, on view at Galerie Krinzinger from Vienna.

On the first floor, the high-priced booths were packed to the hilt, as if the dealers felt compelled to show -- and sell -- as much as possible in order to break even. The presentation at Luis Campaña, Cologne, served as a good example of what can be done with a relatively small space. The booth's dark walls broke up the fair's white labyrinth and provided deep backdrop for Dirk Skreber's paintings and Ralf Berger's video work. This level also housed most of the "Förderkojen," extra spaces that galleries were awarded to promote younger artists chosen by a committee. As is often the case with such presentations, the Förderkojen were a mixed success.

One highlight was the photographs of Tamara Grcic at Galerie Monika Reitz, Frankfurt, close-ups of ill-fitting or slightly damaged clothes, still on their wearers. At Cologne's Maximilian Krips Galerie were works by Andreas Exner that also involved articles of clothing. Exner sewed extra matching pieces of cloth into skirts or blouses to form closed, sculptural works that hang on the wall.

The next Art Cologne is already scheduled for Nov. 8-15, 1998. One attraction will be a special exhibition called "Köln Skulptur," and the fair administration also plans to invite 25 younger galleries, giving each 30 square meters to work with.

Art on the Bridge
Art Colgone is the biggest thing, but not the only thing going on in the city at this time of year. Apart from the galleries that always show their best works during the dates of the fair, there are independent projects taking place everywhere -- a testament to the fact that art culture is not just imported for the fair but is in the city's blood.

Integrating itself into the fabric of the city is the Wandelhalle, an independent group that stages exhibitions in unconventional spaces, in this case, the bridge connecting Cologne's city center with Cologne-Deutz on the other side of the Rhine, where Art Cologne takes place. Inside the huge quarter-mile-plus (439,58 meter) bridge were spread works by six young artists in an exhibition titled "Folie," their lights and sounds gently overlapping each other as viewers traversed the walkway.

"Folie" was unified, in a way, by the sound of the tram running overhead, or maybe it was Christian Jost's composition Over the River deeply drumming through the bridge's hull for 15 minutes of every hour. Its low tones flowed through the space just as the river flowed below. Two pieces stood out among the rest. Egbert Mittelstädt's Vertical consisted of a rectangular stage on which people could lie down to watch projected images above their heads of the inside of a colorful hot-air balloon being filled with fire to make it rise or shots of the world below. These clips created a sense of moving up and down beyond the boundaries of the bridge's contained space, a relationship that contrasted to the strong horizontal of the bridge itself.

The second standout was a work by Sigrid Lange, who installed a fully functional phone booth in what was, essentially, the middle of nowhere. By giving the bridge a phone number she finally made that space a "somewhere," at least in terms of the ubiquitous telecommunications net. Next to a small window at the center of the bridge, the phone booth stood illuminated as a beacon from which you could communicate with the outside world from the darkness.

Art Special: Hansa
Another alternative art project was put on at the Hansa Gymnasium, a school in Cologne's inner city. The second "Art Special: Hansa" was dedicated to a three-day series of performances and installations that brought an international selection of artists together with students and teachers. Organizing a performance series is hard enough, considering the usual variables inherent in live events, but this project was made still more uncertain by the participation of kids ranging from elementary students to 18-year-olds.

In the end, the collaboration produced some memorable moments, including a performance by the Icelandic artist Irma Optimist with students from an advanced math class, in which the performers delivered a lesson on feminist mathematics via absurd acts with kitchen appliances and an overhead projector.

And watching the drummer, poet and visual artist Manos Tsangaris work with students from the sixth grade was nothing less than touching. Standing in the second floor stairwell with the kids sitting on the stairs up to the third floor, Tsangaris first put his finger to his lips to quiet the kids before signaling them to begin to play their bongos, bells and other percussion instruments. The sounds traveled resounded up and down the stairs, while Tsangaris intermittently put his fingers to his lips to quiet his "band" of children. This was repeated a few times and always produced a new effect, until the artist sounded a note on a kind of accordion and the kids all came down to where he was standing, where they played their instruments and repeated a low tone he was singing, a sound between a hum and a hoot. Throughout the performance Tsangaris set the general rhythms while the children's playing was only slightly controlled. In the end, it seemed as if not only instruments were being played, but the kids themselves, by Tsangaris the composer.

Cologne's New Sculpture Park
The experimentation at the Hansa Gymnasium was utterly refreshing in comparison to what was going on in some of the more established art circles around Cologne. An example of the latter was the new Cologne Sculpture Park sponsored by collectors Eleonore and Michael Stoffel. On a small parcel of land next to the Stoffel's private estate, surrounded by an imposing fence and bordered by three busy streets and the Rhine, is a collection of mostly clunky sculptures by the usual suspects -- Serra, Calder, Caro, Chillida, Förg, Lechner, Lüpertz.

But the park does have interesting works, notably Martin Kippenberger's portable subway entrance of Documenta X fame, a work that proves that sculpture can be a concept and not just a shape. Rosemarie Trockel's Zwerg Nase (Dwarf Nose), a little concrete dwarf lying on his back at the crest of a gentle hill, looking at the sky, embodies what a relaxed day in a park should be. And Jorge Pardo's round, orange Tomato Soup hut, surrounded by a transparent yellow wall, is a striking sight.

But these three works are foreign elements in a menagerie of heavy metal (lots of rust) and stone. Unfortunately, the landscaping was not designed to interact with the sculptures, dividing and integrating the pieces as well as gently suggesting where visitors might go. Rather, a brick path has been provided for viewers to plod along on a tour through the sculptures, with ugly green bushes of the type commonly lining the autobahn serving as decoration.

Perhaps my disappointment at the new sculpture park is a result of the reigning attitude, ridiculous as it is, that Europe will soon have only one art center, and Cologne cannot afford to make any mistakes if it wants to hold its top rank. It's true that Cologne needs one or two fabulous projects to reaffirm that the city has innovation as well as tradition. Art Cologne 1997 was a step in the right direction, but more is needed.

ROSANNE ALTSTATT is a critic and curator working in Cologne.