Almost two decades after the reunification of Berlin, the city remains a place with unmistakable creative spirit, and an irresistible draw for the international art world. Still, a lot of us culture vultures are asking, "Where is this all going?" Beyond the fact that Berlin’s dodgy status as an actual art market may finally be shifting in a positive way, is there something, anything, that defines the Berlin art world, besides the proliferation of galleries and the increasing numbers of foreign artists coming here to score huge studios unaffordable in New York or London? Is any kind of cohesive art movement occurring under the radar?
It seems unlikely, in an art world ruled by the global market. At this juncture, some of Berlin’s art scene feels a bit like MySpace. Tons of content, a multitude of styles, all with a painfully experimental quality. But with an increasing number of Blue Chip dealers dropping anchor in town, Berlin also feels a bit like iTunes, peddling greatest hits to those who can afford the premium price.
The Brunnenstrasse scene
One thing is sure, and that’s change. On Brunnenstrasse, the emerging artgalleryscape has become even denser and more diverse. The burgeoning scene even inspired curator and writer Lisa Bosse, a recent arrival from London, to devise a "Schnitzeljagd" (a "paper chase" or "scavenger hunt") in 19 galleries along the now-established thoroughfare. Participants searched for small collaged works on paper by 30-year-old Swiss artist Alexander Bühler hidden in inconspicuous places in the galleries. Ticket-like fragments in booklet Bosse distributed gave clues as to where to look for the things, which incorporate matchsticks and were very hard to find (they were made at a rate of one per day during a London residency). "It’s an exhibition within an exhibition: Bühler has created a kind of matroska -- those Russian dolls," says Bosse. The collages are €420 each, if you could find them.
Bühler’s matchstick-legged drawing of a chicken was hidden in the Curators without Borders space, where is installed a survey show of Christina Dimitriadis’ photographs made over the past several years (since she parted ways with Eigen + Art in the 1990s). The Berlin-based, Greece-born photographer’s images explore intimate spaces and often portray autobiographical or otherwise loaded moments. Men and Women is a lone black door framed by a halo-like light, while the diptych Obscure Passages portrays on one side the artist and her mother, facing each other from across a table, solemnly staring into the camera, and on the other her mother and grandmother in an identical pose.
Galerie Birgit Ostermeier moved across the street into new, larger digs, which she inaugurated with an exhibition of works by Polish painter Roman Lipski, whose striking dark landscapes have a real Iron Curtain feel. Deftly done in deep blue-gray or blue-green monochrome, often with bright skies (like a latter-day Poussin?), Lipski’s mute scenes typically show a factory complex or oil pipeline nestled in a section of Black Forest. Nice works, and still relatively cheap at €5,000-€9,000.
At Artnews Projects, the gallery opened by Bulgarian internet entrepreneur Vlado Velkov, is the ambitious "2041: Unknown Works from Erich Marx," an exhibition showcasing the holdings of the major collector who more often uses the Hamburger Bahnhof for that purpose. Works by Matthew Barney, Rafal Bujnowski, Walter Dahn, Karin Davie, Udomsak Krisanamis, Lipski and Cindy Sherman come directly from Marx’s home or from storage and don’t have much in common except that they’re not often seen in public.
Based on critic Walter Grasskamp’s supposition that future art spaces might simply be "depots" (95 percent of most museum collections are rarely shown), the show’s title -- "2041" -- refers to speculation about where these works might be 33 years from now. At present, they’re right here -- heavy hitters on a street that only recently was known as the ugliest and most gentrification-proof in Berlin.
Mitte Blue Chips, more
Celebrity rules over on Mitte’s Zimmerstrasse-Kochstrasse axis of art commerce, with Jablonka Galerie currently showing Andy Warhol’s "Ten Portraits of Jews of the 20th Century." The subjects of Warhol’s collages -- a graphic portfolio initiated by New York dealer Ronald Feldman in 1980 -- range from Alfred Einstein and Golda Meir to Franz Kafka and, um, the Marx Brothers. The show is accompanied by a catalogue containing a commissioned text by literary wunderkind Jonathan Safran Foer, who frequented the gallery during his early-2007 residency at Berlin’s American Academy.
For the second show in its fine new David Chipperfield-designed spaces, Contemporary Fine Arts has mounted a gallery blockbuster, homegrown German style: a double show of Berlin fixture Jonathan Meese with Georg Baselitz. The two men share a birthday, Jan. 23, although they were born 32 years apart (Meese in 1970, Baselitz in 1938). The dual exhibition is visual cacophony, with Meese’s devilishly wild paintings and sculptures bursting from the walls and floors of the ground floor. Upstairs, Baselitz’s paintings show figures that are arguably calmer though no less riotous, as many bear visages that resemble Hitler.
The glitz reverberates behind the Hamburger Bahnhof at Haunch of Venison Berlin, whose newest show is a wall of 328 stylized acrylic-on-canvas portraits arranged in rows -- along with video works, some of which are displayed on iPod screens –- of the artists and thinkers who have influenced Brooklyn-based artist Brian Alfred. The eminently identifiable pantheon includes Cab Calloway, Olafur Eliasson, Bob Marley, Kyle MacLachlan and Warhol, and is a brightly colored, global pop update of Gerhard Richter’s gray portraits of famous Germans.
Even at the young gallery croy nielsen, Roman Schramm’s portrait photos and still-life shots of knives or eggs or machines look suspiciously like images from ad campaigns or illustrations in glossy magazines. The title of the artist’s first solo show, "Living as an Art," says it all. In Artnet.de, Dominikus Müller reports that Schramm’s work shows that art today is all about "good or bad taste." The more that art opens itself to "advertising, fashion, design and lifestyle," the more it "feels obliged to assert itself as an autonomous-elitist system through intellectualization or other strategies of legitimization."
The bottom line? "There’s only cool and uncool and how you feel." Perhaps in a few places and on some levels, the new Berlin is part of the general trend toward the ultra-commercial [see Ben Davis, "Commerce and Consciousness," Jan. 11, 2008].
The DLD Conference
A few answers to where it’s all going could be gleaned at the DLD (Digital Life Design) Conference held in Munich, Jan. 20-22, 2008. Now four years old, the event brought thinkers together to discuss science, tech and culture before everyone headed off to the World Economic Forum in Davos. Speckled with celebs but about ideas, not glam, the epic list of speakers included genome researcher Craig Venter, Facebook veep Matt Cohler, mystical Brazilian writer Paolo Coelho, noble adventurer David de Rothschild, and even Martha Stewart being interviewed by Wallpaper and Monocle founder Tyler Brûlé.
Sponsored by the major German publisher Hubert Burda Media and Israeli investor Joseph Vardi, the event also featured an arts and design program organized by Johannes Fricke (who in a former life was P.S. 1 curator Klaus Biesenbach’s assistant at Berlin’s Kunst-werke).
Among the notable artworks was Olaf Nicolai’s Prime Number Pattern (version 0 – 1481), an "Atari-inspired" randomly generated graphic representation of prime numbers, which was available to participants as a print-out (and which can be viewed online here. Tobias Rehberger’s design-inspired multimedia works graced the meeting’s public spaces, and London-based architect Markus Miessen presented The Violence of Participation, an installation-in-progress that explores concepts of democracy in Europe, and which was first on view at the 2007 Lyon Biennial.
Other major art-world players sat on panel discussions. Patron extraordinaire Francesca von Habsburg and New York artist Matthew Ritchie presented their Morning Line project, the second of von Habsburg’s itinerant "Art Pavilion" commissions (the first was at the 2005 Venice Biennale, a collaboration between Eliasson and architect David Adjaye). Involving physicists, architects and musicians, the work -- described as a "semiasmographic" structure that is "covered by an interlocking system of variable modules that provide both seating and performance area," in which "sensors register the movement of anyone in the space and convert their presence into voice, image and sound" -- is scheduled to debut in London in June.
The lovely Taryn Simon (whose exhibition, "An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar," a series of photographs of what could be called the country’s architectural subconscious, just came down at the Frankfurt MMK) was on hand to discuss her provocative political photography on a Hans-Ulrich Obrist-moderated panel shared with edgy 2007 Venice Biennale Chinese-pavilioner Cao Fei (as China Tracy, in the virtual world Second Life).
The fest even included tony side tours, like a private last-minute viewing of Anish Kapoor’s immense site-specific movable block-on-tracks tracing a waxy blood-red smear through the Haus der Kunst, a building with a notoriously Third-Reich history.
At events like this, the utopian strain in contemporary art lives. The affable von Habsburg insists that 21st-century collecting is more about commissioning than acquisition. The impulse, too, seems to be about synthesizing, not categorizing. Said Ritchie, in explaining Morning Line, "The structure we’ve designed is an attempt to articulate a question I think everyone faces for the 21st century -- how do you move forward? It’s not that we can reject the past. We have to include it, as we have to include the future at the same time."
KIMBERLY BRADLEY is a critic and journalist based in Berlin.