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by Kimberly Bradley
In addition to the economic meltdown that’s been preoccupying world at large, Berlin’s art scene has been on its own wild little ride for fall 2008. Here, too, a few pages are turning fast.

Let’s start with the fairs. About a fortnight before Wall Street’s tremors began, ABC Art Berlin Contemporary opened its doors to a somewhat perplexed audience. Was it a fair? An exhibition? For weeks the organizers, Berlin Gallery Weekend’s Michael Neff and director Ariane Beyn, had insisted it was a “special exhibition” – one that each of the 44 participating Berlin galleries had paid €4,000 per artist to be a part of, one whose works were also for sale. Hmmm.

Generously displayed in nearly 100,000 square feet in an old postal train station, the show-fair seemed like a less glitzy, more fragmented knockoff of Art Basel’s Art Unlimited. The galleries presented works by one or two artists, and 73 large-scale sculptures, installations and films filled the building’s two spaces. If it was an exhibition, where was the organization, catalogue, essays? And if it was an art fair, where were the dealers and price lists? The only labeling to be found consisted of stacks of paper on the floor, listing artist’s names, the titles of works, their year and the gallery.

Whatever Art Berlin Contemporary was, it had its standouts: not only works by big names like Ai WeiWei, Thomas Hirschhorn and Thomas Zipp, but also things like Yin Xiuzhen’s Commune (courtesy Galerie Alexander Ochs), a floor-to-ceiling cylindrical tent-like structure made of used clothing sewn into strips and concealing a sweatshop with unmanned sewing machines and piles of textiles. Then there was BodhiBerlin’s installation of Nataraj Shama’s Air Show, a large metal-grid with small captured airplanes forming eerie flight paths, and John Bock’s film of himself as a kind of hamster in a kind of rotating “room collage.”

And those who missed the Midget Biennale in April [see “Shadow Dancing,” Apr. 18, 2008 could take in Polish performance artist Katarzyna Kozyra’s project with little people, via a series of videos courtesy of her gallery, Zak / Branicka. In this iteration, her alter egos appear with not only dwarves but also other characters, including a drag queen.
The general consensus? ABC was intriguing. Little sold, major collectors were noticeably absent, the event felt local. Yet, as a cohesive dealer-driven collaboration, with dealers Martin Klosterfelde and Alexander Schröder heading things up, it served its purpose. According to Stefan Kobel at, “as a stand-alone application, ABC has no chance. But that wasn’t its original intention. It was supposed to deliver a warning shot [across the bow of the notoriously ineffective Art Forum Berlin] –- and suddenly there’s a kind of agreement between local Berlin galleries and Art Forum Berlin.”

Which brings us to the actual Art Forum Berlin, Oct. 30-Nov. 3, 2008. This year the fair showcased 127 galleries from 26 countries under the theme “Desire,” and was held a good month later than usual. The post-Frieze timeslot wasn’t ideal, but the somewhat dampened mood had to do with other things, too, like the fact that this was the final fair organized under longtime director Sabrina van der Ley, who’s already moved on to a curatorial post at the Hamburg Kunsthalle.

Some top local galleries, notably Klosterfelde and Arndt + Partner, were noticeably absent this year. Those present seemed to be doing just fine, or at least the still-hot Leipzig School dealer Judy Lybke of Eigen + Art was: his booth had sold out by the end of the first day, he said, including a new work by Neo Rauch, which reportedly went to the Sammlung Pietsch in East Germany for a cool €500,000.

In general, dealers with modest hopes were happy that they weren’t leaving entirely empty-handed. “We came here with the worst expectations, but it was okay, considering: a couple of sales, a lot of good conversations,” explains Friedrich Loock of Berlin’s Wohnmaschine and Loock galleries. “The market isn’t overheated anymore, and the market segment that gets sold here works best when the people are interested in the art and not in blue-chip value.” 

As has been said elsewhere and before, perhaps once again the art business can be about looking at and discussing the work.  

In that mindset, I was positively transfixed at the Galerie Magnus Müller booth by a video by native Minnesotan artist Chris Larson. Called Deep North, the eight-minute-long film shows a huge wooden contraption in a shack, frozen under layers of ice, slowly operated by three women in grey felt coveralls. Their purpose in moving ice blocks is unclear, but the film’s cold surreality is powerful.

As is always the case during Art Forum time, scads of non-participating galleries took advantage of the fair’s timing and increased visitor numbers. Galerie Max Heztler opened a show featuring of Ben Day erotic paintings by Jeff Koons, while Arndt + Partner opened the first solo show in Berlin by the ever-popular photographer Vik Muniz, featuring works from his recently finished series “Pictures of Paper.”

At Brunnenstrasse’s Goff + Rosenthal, the lively D.C. native Iona Rozeal Brown, also in her first solo exhibition in Berlin, had a hit with her signature paintings and drawings that channel African-American street imagery through the style of Asian woodcuts. Over at BodhiBerlin, the 37-year-old Mumbai-based artist Riyas Komu presented intriguing large woodcut sculptures alluding to the Iraq war and, um, football. And Chris Larson’s Deep North works were on view over at Galerie Magnus Müller.

A surprising treat of a show is up until late November on Brunnenstrasse in a temporarily empty space that is ultimately slated to be annexed to the gallery next door. Titled “About Face,” it’s an exhibition by the Berlin-based artist Stefan Saffer, organized with curator Lisa Carlson. Based on Heartplay, a two-character theater piece by East German playwright Heiner Müller, the installation includes two pole-like sculptures called “Quest” and “Narcissus” on a stage-like set. Sporting cacti and reference books, these wooden figures interact not only with each other but play off some of the artist’s cut-out graphic works on the front sill and walls.

Museum news
So many new commercial galleries in Berlin have appeared in this space in the past few months that it’s nice to cover novelties of a more institutional nature (and who knows how long the new galleries will last these days -– although more are always coming, it seems).

As was announced about a year ago, Udo Kittelmann – once an optician, then maverick director of Frankfurt’s Museum für Moderne Kunst, has at last officially taken over as director of the National Galleries in Berlin. A full six museums fall under this category, including the so-called Neue Nationalgalerie, which rather quietly turned 40 years old this September).

The buzz is that the first show there under his watch is a substantial survey of work by the Berlin-based Thomas Demand in 2009. But right now the building is featuring an interesting juxtaposition in two exhibitions that are part of city-wide “Cult of the Artist” series. “The Klee Universe” showcases upward of 200 Paul Klee works downstairs (it’s a great show for a long afternoon). Upstairs are 12 pieces from Jeff Koons “Celebration” series.

I wanted to hate the Koons, but his brilliant gold diamond, blue cracked egg and huge stylized tulips look fabulous –- like the ultimate window display -– in the vast glassed-in space. The shiny surfaces shimmer in the ceiling spotlights, and the installation is like a colorful parcourse. Most amusing is the heavy guard presence -- one for each sculpture. So “ignorant people won’t touch these smooth surfaces,” a guard told me.

And at last, the long proposed, long discussed and long in the planning Temporäre Kunsthalle Berlin (Temporary Kunsthalle Berlin) is finally fully operational. Since Oct. 29, 2008, visitors can enter the big boxy building and pass through an impressive bookshop into an impressive space that features “part one” of Candice Breitz’s show “Inside/Outside.”

A long horizontal row of video screens in the main space features laypeople singing to John Lennon in a piece called Working Class Hero (A Portrait of John Lennon). In the two enclosed spaces, other laypeople sing to Madonna and Michael Jackson. The work’s not new to Berlin viewers, but the cavernous, soaring space does a fantastic job in highlighting its pop-culture critical effect.

Speaking of inside and outside, the building itself had “half” a christening in early September, in which a pixilated cloud by Austrian painter Gerwald Rockenschaub was officially unveiled on the exterior of architect Adolf Krischanitz’s box. Since then the area around the building has been landscaped with new grass and funky wooden terraces, and a “Monday night bar” and series of talks have both kicked off.

The show has been met with some grumbling about whether it fulfills the Kunsthalle’s mission to “bring Berlin’s art into the future,” but its new co-managing director Thomas Eller -- who is not only an artist but was heretofore the editor-in-chief and general manager of the German edition of this website -- is partially in charge of making sure this happens before the structure is slated to come down, or move, in 2010. Upcoming shows feature Turner Prize winner Simon Starling in January and Katharina Grosse in April 2009.

One thing’s for sure: the Kunsthalle’s unusual site feels almost hallowed. It’s across from the historical Museum Island and Berlin Cathedral, in the shadow of the TV tower, next to the east-German parliament ruin near where the Prussian City Palace once stood, and on the main tourist thoroughfare of Unter den Linden. In the words of curator Christine Nippe, who’s responsible for the talks series: “There’s a sense of responsibility in what we do on this site. It’s not just for the art world.” Over the next two years, we’ll see how these sentiments, and the shows that are mounted, meet these lofty goals.

KIMBERLY BRADLEY is a critic and journalist based in Berlin.