A certain tension is in the air in Berlin. The winter has been gray and tepid. Spring puts out teasing tendrils, but has not yet sprung. The Berlin Biennale opens its fifth installment on Apr. 5, 2008, an extravaganza titled "When Things Cast No Shadow." Co-curated by Adam Szymczyk and Elena Filipovic, the show spans generations, nationalities and exhibition venues, including Kunst-Werke Institute of Contemporary Art and the Neue Nationalgalerie. And about a month later Berlin hosts its largest "Gallery Weekend" ever, with 34 galleries participating, up from 20 in 2005. The dealers hope to attract international collectors to see and buy. The back-room scurrying is palpable.
Surrend at Galerie Nord
The anxious undercurrent was certainly felt earlier this month, when Galerie Nord, the exhibition space of Kunstverein Tiergarten, temporarily shut down a show due to threats of violence shortly after it opened on Feb. 22, 2008 (the show closes on Mar. 29). The satirical Danish artist duo Surrend (consisting of Jan Egesborg and Pia Bertelsen) caused offense with a poster depicting the Kaaba in Mecca adorned with the words "dummer Stein" ("stupid stone"). Surrend was founded in 2006 to "make fun of the world’s powerful men and crazy ideological conflicts," according to www.surrend.org.
Six young men, apparently of Muslim background, entered the space and demanded that the poster, one of 22 works in an exhibition titled "ZOG -- Surrend" (ZOG stands for "Zionist Occupied Government"), be removed or "violence would be triggered, stones would fly and there would be big trouble," said Kunstverein Tiergarten director Ralf Hartmann. The gallery reopened on Mar. 4 with added security for visitors -- security provided not by the Kunstverein but by the Bezirksamt, or district bureau, after Berlin Senator of the Interior Eberhard Körting and representatives of Germany’s national Turkish associations issued statements.
Surrend’s offending poster was one of four pieces the politically active duo devised to mock neo-Nazi propaganda and an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory called ZOG, which claims that Jews control the world. In a review on Artnet.de, however, art critic Michael Mayer notes that the incident failed to spark any real debate on the issue of free speech (which Galerie Nord’s website claims will now be addressed with events and discussions), and also wonders why the museum failed to foresee possible conflicts with the material and consequently prompt the artists to issue prior statements about their intentions.
Mayer is also not entirely convinced as to the quality of the art. "Passably well-meant is the opposite of good," he wrote, describing the simplistic symbols used in Surrend’s posters, like the plain black square that resembles both the Kaaba and Hitler’s mustache, which Surrend labeled with the words, "dumme Vegetarier" (dumb vegetarian).
The show has continued to prompt strong reactions. On Mar. 6, a pair of young German-looking men attempted to hang a handmade poster with the slogan "dumme Kunst" (dumb art) and were intercepted by two Kunstverein workers; the discussion continued when eight or nine Muslim men entered, wanting to know whether the works on view were art, and what was artistic about them.
"Political art that reflects the times shouldn’t work with the simplification strategies of the previous century," wrote Mayer. "It would be in their best interests to attempt to bring light to the blind spots of the majority’s perception. This is exactly where Surrend’s ‘ZOG’ spectacularly fails. In today’s political climate, "ZOG" seems needlessly provocative, not to say impolite.
A Cologne exodus?
Meanwhile, Berlin remains busy with new exhibitions, new projects (the Berlin Biennale’s series of artist-curated shows in the Schinkel Pavilion kicks off on Mar. 20), and even more new galleries are opening up -- or looking to -- in the already oversaturated city. How long can this go on?
Many of the new spaces are being launched by galleries from Cologne. Art dealer Ulrich Fiedler, who has operated his Cologne gallery since 2003, just unveiled a branch of Galerie Ulrich Fiedler devoted to design in Berlin’s burgeoning Charlottenstrasse art hub. A second Fiedler gallery for contemporary art is due later this year, in a location closer to the white-hot Mitte-Kreuzberg border. Fiedler plans to close his Cologne operation entirely.
Other new Berlin galleries from Cologne won’t be transplants, however, but rather outposts that are meant to be experimental spaces or "storefronts" in the hip art capital. Munich dealer Lisa Ungar and the Vienna-based Miryam Charim have jointly opened a project space called CUC, for Charim Ungar Contemporary, with an exhibition of the Austrian multimedia pioneer VALIE EXPORT (who spells her name in all capitals, like a corporate logo).
And then there’s the rumor mill. The powerhouse gallery Monika Sprüth Philomene Magers, which already has branches in Cologne, London and Munich, is said to be seeking a space in Berlin as well. Direct inquiries to the gallery result in statements like "Something’s planned, but when and where isn’t certain yet." Also, according to media reports, Luis Campaña of Cologne is looking for new digs in Berlin, but with the intention of keeping his old space. Same with Galerie Gisela Capitain, who the Cologne press says is opening a project space with Friedrich Petzel of New York.
Does this mean that Cologne could experience a long, slow exodus of art dealers? "Of course, every gallery in Cologne thinks about moving to Berlin sooner or later, but being number 601 or 602 there doesn’t make any sense," says Philipp von Rosen of Galerie Figgen von Rosen, which plans to stay put on the Rhine. "I think at some point the hype around Berlin will subside. Germany is feudally organized and doesn’t have a centuries-old center, like France or England."
Perhaps, but if you’re looking for more evidence of a shrinking Cologne art scene, there’s the recent news that the Cologne Fine Art fair has been recast and rebranded as Cologne Fine Art & Antiques, and will no longer include contemporary art or photography created after 1980. That looks a lot like downsizing to us.
Longtime Berlin galleries are also moving and expanding. Leading the way is Friedrich Loock, the director of the pioneering Mitte gallery Wohnmaschine, who is playing real-estate mogul near Hamburger Bahnhof. He plans to launch a new project in an approximately 4,300-square-foot space in a new gallery building he is administering, as is dealer Kristian Jarmuschek. Joining them is a project space run by a private collection, a "curatorial office" for Annemarie Hürlimann and Daniel Tyradellis (who attracted attention with their "Schmerz" exhibition at Hamburger Bahnhof last year), as well as Bodhi Gallery, Berlin’s first gallery from India. The Berlin space will be its first in Europe, joining others in Delhi, Mumbai, Singapore and New York. Copenhagen’s Andersen_S Contemporary tops off the list, leaving just one vacant space, whose occupant is still a matter of speculation. The complex is scheduled to open for Gallery Weekend (but not as part of it).
Dominikus Mueller of Artnet.de speculates that "business happens elsewhere anyway -- at global art fairs in London, Basel, Miami, or behind the scenes in private views with collectors." So if it’s not an economic question, why all the Berlin immigrants? "‘Visibility’ and ‘more of an audience’ are the answers," Mueller writes. "In no other sector of cultural production is the discrepancy larger between those who buy and those who just want to look."
March doldrums or not, browsers have plenty to see. Monumentally totemic neo-Ex paintings and objects created in the 1980s by East German native A. R. Penck are on view at Julius Werner. The 82-year-old maestro Alex Katz cracked jokes at his recent opening at Jablonka, where ethereally spare marine scenes punctuate flat portraiture. And Galerie Neu is showing the quietly beautiful, formalist textile-based works of Sergej Jensen, a Danish painter who had his first solo show in New York a little over two years ago.
As for those intrigued by the idea of art production, they can head to Galerie Magnus Müller for the Warren Neidich-curated "Interfacing Practices" group show, featuring works by female artists from six different cultural contexts: Helen Cho, Elena Bajo, Haegue Yang, Maryam Jafri, Mathilde ter Heijne and Tamar B. Guimarães. The gallery is sheathed in wraparound glass, but don’t think about throwing stones or even saying you might.
KIMBERLY BRADLEY is a critic and journalist based in Berlin.