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Berlin Art Report

by Kimberly Bradley
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Berlin -- so hyped, so hot, so new. Yet it seems to have lost its art-world cachet. "I’m heading to Brussels," a trend-aware New York artist recently told me, after living in Berlin for more than five years. "Berlin’s over," I heard from many others, in town and elsewhere.

It makes you wonder. The hometown art fair, Art Forum Berlin, has recently been cancelled. A scad of small, smart galleries have closed since last fall (Galerie Birgit Ostermeier and Feinkost are just two examples). The Temporäre Kunsthalle, the oversize exhibition hall in the middle of the city for two years, was dismantled in February and now belongs to Francesca von Habsburg, who’s reassembling it in Vienna as TBA (Con)temporary.

And despite the arrival in town of mega-gallery Blain|Southern and Frieze d/e magazine, the city’s big art fest, Gallery Weekend Berlin, Apr. 29-May 1, 2011, felt nervous this time around, like someone frantically trying to blow air back into an empty balloon. Art and Auction recently ran a feature titled "Berlin market meeting bohemia," but as well researched as it was, the notion feels at least three years behind the times.

And so it is, too, with Based in Berlin, June 8-July 24, 2011, a five-venue exhibition featuring emerging local artists and supported by the city to the tune of €1.6 million. Why didn’t they think of this in, say, 2008?

“Based in Berlin” started with an open call in October 2010 inviting Berlin artists to submit portfolios to what would be a publicly funded Leistungsschau or "exhibition of achievement" showcasing Berlin’s hottest new art. The criteria were simple -- artists had to be based in Berlin at least part of the time and to have begun showing no more than five years previously (if at all).  

Three über -- (or meta?) curators -- Klaus Biesenbach (MoMA), the ubiquitous Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Christine Macel (Centre Pompidou) called on 40 additional, younger curators, a group which, after an interview process, was narrowed down to a cool five assigned to do the hands-on work: Angelique Campens, Fredi Fischli, Magdalena Magiera, Jakob Schillinger and Scott Cameron Weaver.  

The scheme sent ripples of unrest through Berlin’s art world. People complained about the high price, (the city’s total annual visual arts budget is only €4 million), launched an involved discussion of "what the Berlin art world really needs" (as if a solution could be found this time around), and intimated that mayor Klaus Wowereit was only in search of cultural clout in an election year.

In January 2011, an open letter originating with Ellen Blumenthal and Florian Wüst of Salon Populaire, a two-year-old venue for artistic discussion, called on Wowereit to justify the show’s cost and purpose. More than 200 local artists and cultural players signed it. Public debates, panel discussions and lots of articles followed.

Sigh. The Berlin art world is certainly no stranger to discussions going nowhere and a general sense of discontent. So, with this in mind, I felt like hating "Based in Berlin” once it finally opened.

But I didn’t. It’s far from consistent and has some ragged edges. But if "Based in Berlin" is meant to be a snapshot of the city’s next generation of artists, as the catalogue maintains, it holds to its claim. It not only introduces promising talent we’ve barely seen before, it does so with considerable energy, the kind that has been sadly missing with the aforementioned "Berlin is over" zeitgeist.

The exhibition’s central site is a former studio building called Atelierhaus Monbijoupark, a simple structure directly across the Spree River from Berlin’s museum island. From the late 1950s until March of this year, it was used as a studio building for students from the East Berlin’s Weissensee art school, and it’s slated for demolition this August. The other venues for “Based in Berlin” are well established: Kunstwerke, Neue Berliner Kunstverein, a portion of the Hamburger Bahnhof, and a ground floor space in the Berlinische Galerie.

At the press conference in the Atelierhaus bar on June 7, the three meta-curators kept their comments blessedly brief before turning the podium over to the five curators, who were bright-eyed, enthusiastic, smart and so cute you wanted to run up and hug them.

Schillinger described the selection methods -- only ten percent of the 80-odd artists came from the open call; 600 studio visits were made (these people did their research) -- and told back stories about some of the artworks.

"The controversies brought us together," said Fischli (the 24-year-old son of Swiss artist Peter Fischli) when I asked him later whether it was difficult to curate as a group. "Each of us had veto power -- if one of us really didn’t feel an artist should take part, we could say so, but we had to have a good reason."

Some of the art is crowd-pleasing and spectacular, for better or worse. In a piece called Nothing to See, Nothing to Hide, South African artist Mandla Reuter ripped a wall off the Atelierhaus, creating spacious patio-like spaces out of the two exposed rooms (the wall’s pieces are on display as an installation at the Neue Berliner Kunstverein).

The high metal platform over and around the building not only serves as a marvelous observation deck, but also supports three slick SUVs. These unfortunately look like an elevated car dealership or parking lot, even though they’re Austrian artist Oliver Laric’s readymades: a Chinese car make called CEO that’s illegal to sell in Europe.

The Canadian artist Jeremy Shaw, known for his explorations of drugged consciousness, slows down two films of "straight-edge" kids trance dancing, sets the footage to his own ambient music (instead of the hardcore the kids themselves like), and projects the films on vast facing screens in Kunstwerke’s otherwise empty ground-floor main hall.

Other work is more subtle. American expat Trevor Lloyd draws his mother over and over, supposedly because when he moved to Berlin he had no photograph of her. He did this as a daily routine, however, while standing on his head and with his eyes closed. The rough images that resulted are simultaneously hilarious and touching.

Swedish artist Kasja Dahlberg checked out all the copies she could find in Berlin libraries of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and collected all the notes that readers had written in the margins into a single copy, which is here reproduced thousands of times and placed on a set of bookshelves.

Berlin native Rocco Berger drips oil down a plastic sheet, creating a filigree "painting" that changes over time. Over at Hamburger Bahnhof, Polish artist Maria Loboda’s That’s How Every Empire Falls is an opulent formal dinner table with a code hidden in hundreds of wrapped napkins.

At Neue Berliner Kunstverein, Nina Könnemann displays two videos: one shows pedestrians on Alexanderplatz throwing plastic bottles away; the other portrays people who collect them for money; the first is an art piece, the second a commissioned music video.

Art vs. commerce, social consciousness and isolation, the ubiquity and meaning of modern media: certain threads run through many of the works, which were installed with an eye to their exhibition sites. "The venues really informed where different art was placed," said curator Weaver, specifically in reference to Shaw’s work at KW.

The show also nods to Berlin’s collaborative bent by showing some of the city’s longstanding artist collectives, including After the Butcher, which is to perform on one floor of KW. The Forgotten Bar project, which hosted an ultracool series of one-night exhibitions starting in 2008, shows its "leftovers" at Hamburger Bahnhof. In the Atelierhaus are the hip new collective PM Galerie and the older Autocenter, which transplants its cacophony to a show-within-a-show curated by Vienna-based New York critic Max Henry.

Some refreshing humor can even be found, such as the multiroom installation by London artist Simon Fujiwara, which posits a team of British art restorers attempting to recreate a classical phallus, disagreeing, and getting it all wrong. Most tongue-in-cheek, however, might be the references to the city itself: A suite of cheesy portraits in the Atelierhaus corridor turn out to be portrayals of mayor Wowereit’s opponents from past elections, collected by the American/Japanese artist duo Jay Chung and Q Takeki Maeda. And with a hand-written label indicating it’s by artist duo Clegg & Guttmann, an atmospheric portrait of Wowereit himself hangs on the third level of Kunstwerke. Its title? The Allegory of Government.

Speaking of government: Was this show really worth nearly $2 million in public money (about €450,000 went to produce the artists’ works)? Does it fulfill its original stated purpose as a Leistungsschau? I’d say no, and only a half-yes.

"Based in Berlin" could as easily have been a Berlin Biennale, which is funded differently (BiB, in fact, looks eerily similar to past BBs, especially the first and the fourth) and any real Leistungsschau of Berlin’s art world would have to include its veterans. The show works in terms of spotlighting new talent, but seen another way, it could also be interpreted as last-ditch political (not curatorial) attempt to cash in on a Berlin myth that’s fast disappearing. One of the beefs in Salon Populaire’s open letter is that Berlin artists are rapidly being priced out of their formerly cheap studios and apartments, and Berlin’s contemporary art institutions are struggling financially. An old story in other cities; a new problem here.

At the evening opening at the Atelierhaus, I looked around again. In a party context, some of the art lost its luster, looking like a typical Berlin group show in yet another funky temporary location. Except this time, everyone was speaking American English. It occurred to me that Berlin has already been wildly successful in exporting a packaged kind of leftover bohemia, and this exhibition may simply mark the end of an era.

Or the beginning of one. Berlin’s art world isn’t over. The new generation of artists is only beginning to find its voice. It’s like 29-year-old German artist Lena Inken Schaeffer’s floor piece in the front room of Kunstwerke: shiny coin blanks, just circles of metal, in a glittering, golden arrangement.

The raw material is there, which this show is happy to show us. We just don’t yet know what kind of value will ultimately be stamped onto it.

KIMBERLY BRADLEY is a critic and journalist based in Berlin.