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Berlin’s new Hallen am Wasser gallery complex, home of BodhiBerlin, while it lasted

by Kimberly Bradley
The Berlin art bubble has burst. Sort of. The past two years saw at least 50 new commercial galleries –- some of them transplants or satellites from other German or European cities, others from faraway places like Mumbai or New York –- set up shop and change the city’s art landscape. Arguably for the better, at least in terms of diversity and buzz-generating energy.

But what goes up must come down, and with the world economy working through its various crises, Berlin finds itself in a state of flux. This town was never primarily about sales, but more about experimentation, concept and. . . a chance to hit the pulse of something new.

Closings, openings
That’s why the prevailing mood isn’t one of total resignation, but rather a kind of negotiation (like one of phases of acceptance of death). Some galleries are disappearing, especially on trendy strips like Brunnenstrasse, but new ones are opening around the city.

On the closing side, Filiale, the space shared by Römerapotheke from Zurich and Conrads from Düsseldorf, ended its run in January, following Goff + Rosenthal, which closed its Berlin branch, located across the street, in December (perhaps only temporarily). And after staging a clever one-night "Opening/Closing" show with American artist David Levine in July -- featuring art made by actors playing artists, viewed by actors playing the audience -- and intending to reopen elsewhere in Berlin this past fall, Curators without Borders is now on permanent hiatus.

It’s a little ironic that all three of these Brunnenstrasse venues opened the same night in late September 2006. But making it only eight months was the Mumbai-based gallery BodhiBerlin, which suddenly cut back its staff to bare bones in January and announced its closure shortly thereafter. Additionally, a few smaller, lesser-known galleries around Mitte are now empty storefronts, and rumors abound of several blue-chip establishments cutting back on staff as well.

On the other hand –- and, again perhaps because Berlin’s not always about money -– a few new (and admittedly pretty fabulous) places have opened since the sky started falling. The international powerhouse gallery Sprüth Magers launched a vast Kunsthalle-like space on Berlin’s tourist-strip Oranienburgerstrasse in late October. A multi-story establishment of museum-sized proportions, the gallery mounted its first shows with works by Thomas Scheibitz, George Condo and Jenny Holzer, this last on view in a side room called "Schellmann Sprüth Magers," which also publishes editions on each artist featured.

Currently on exhibition in the main gallery is Cindy Sherman with her first show of new work in Europe since 2004. These large-scaled photos of Sherman posing as older, richer women, coiffed and manicured and set in front of opulent backdrops, are now on world tour. It’s an interesting juxtaposition to Andrea Zittel’s "Smockshop" project in the spaces upstairs. Here, two "smockers" were creating wild variations on the utilitarian garments as part of the artist’s ongoing project, whose mission is to "make work part of daily routine" and allow younger artisans and artists to interpret her basic pattern. Ten smocks were sold on opening night in what will be the project’s last stop.

Another newcomer to Berlin is Cologne dealer Gisela Capitain and New York dealer Friedrich Petzel’s joint venture Capitain Petzel, which opened on Halloween 2008. This space, too, seems monumental. It takes up 4,000 square feet over two full stories and a mezzanine in a glass pavilion on Karl-Marx-Allee, East Berlin’s grand boulevard long known for its socialist architecture. In their inaugural show, the dealers paid homage to the 1964 building’s past as the GDR regime’s "Kunst im Heim" ("art in your home") pavilion with a group show featuring such artists as Cosima von Bonin, Martin Kippenberger, Tris Vonna-Michell, Christopher Wool and more.

In the gallery’s second exhibition, German artist Charline von Heyl managed to cohesively carry all three levels of the space with large-scale abstract paintings and several series of intriguing works on paper. On view until April 25 is American conceptualist Christopher Williams’ first solo show here, an elegantly installed group of photographs titled For Example: Dix Huits Leçons Sur La Société Industrielle (Revision 8), another installment of a series the artist has been producing since 2002, based on concepts incited by a 1960s book on the cold war period’s sociology and economics.

Also in starting off 2009 in new digs is Christian Ehrentraut. The young and thoughtful dealer was one of the pioneers of Brunnenstrasse, but before that directed LIGA, an artist-run gallery that spawned the Leipzig-school painter phenomenon a few years back. In late 2006, Ehrentraut closed his Brunnenstrasse space to run a kind of salon out of the front rooms of his apartment. Things were going fine, but not long ago he jumped at the chance to occupy a back-courtyard space on bustling Friedrichstrasse. Galerie Christian Ehrentraut’s inaugural show featured paintings by Leipzig-schooler Christoph Ruckhäberle, whose muscular portraits harken back to the Russian graphic tradition.

Static and flat, caricature-like and using vivid color combinations, these are strong works, but this show’s most impressive element might just be the exhibition catalogue. Ruckhäberle’s Porträt contains 88 two-color linotype cuts on double-folded pages that carry the heady scent of old-fashioned ink and stick together just a little. The striking images are two-colored graphic patterns based on the artists’ scissor cuts as well as images of portraits he’s exhibited over the past couple of years in various galleries (not only Ehrentraut but also Zach Feuer in New York and Nicolair Wallner in Copenhagen, for example). The catalogue is printed by Lubok Verlag in Leipzig, which has also published a series of artist-edition linotype books.

The term "Lubok" was the designation for Russian folk-art engraving or editions commonly sold in fairs and bazaars in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the artists still consider it "pictures for the people." It’s a wonderfully populist sentiment that reflects Ehrentraut’s easygoing attitude about opening a gallery against the grain. "We were hidden away for the past three years anyway -– doing museum and institutional shows -– so we weren’t spoiled," he says. "But now, people are really looking at the shows, which half a year ago might not have been the case, just because there were too many galleries in town."

The second show at Galerie Ehrentraut -- a group of enigmatic grey-scale figurative works called "Nebel" ("Fog") by young German painter Ruprecht von Kaufmann -- is just as thought-provoking as the first.

On view now
On the topic of relatively new venues, Temporäre Kunsthalle Berlin launched its second show, Feb. 5-Mar. 22, 2009, an installation titled "Under Lime" by 2005 Turner Prize winner Simon Starling. The oversize container-like building was dotted with Starling’s conceptual sculptures. Kakteenhaus involves a cactus from the Tabernas desert in Spain that the artist drove across Europe in a Volvo 240 Estate -– a vehicle that happens to be parked outside and is connected to a running motor inside the exhibition space via a long system of hot pipes. Plant Room is a half-oval climate-controlled mud house containing a vitrine with vintage botanical photographic prints by Karl Blossfeldt.

The show’s titular and only site-specific work is a branch from a lime tree taken from the boulevard outside, dangling near the ceiling and balanced out with a chainsaw below. It’s difficult to tell just what’s going on here without delving into the artist’s complex narratives and back stories, which are fascinating (lots of climate references and utopian sentiment) yet might seem too far removed from the works themselves -– especially for the tourists who happen to roll in from the strip outside.

And just as the German edition of Vanity Fair announced its folding, comes the opening of "Annie Leibovitz - A Photographer’s Life, 1990-2005," a traveling show that premiered at the Brooklyn Museum two years ago and is on view at the photography gallery C/O Berlin until late May. The exhibition combines some of her well-known celebrity portraits (a pregnant Demi Moore, a teenaged Leonardo DiCaprio) with intimate photos from her personal life. Most striking are the photographs of her longtime companion, the author and public intellectual Susan Sontag. Many of these depict Sontag’s battle with cancer, along with more journalistic images that Sontag inspired Leibovitz to take, far from the glitz of Vanity Fair shoots -– like an early-‘90s black-and-white series from war-torn Sarajevo. Other shots were taken in Berlin, a city dear to Sontag’s heart. The Berliners have been standing in long lines to see the show since it opened on Feb. 20.

So Berlin seems about as immune to the deeper effects of the recession as it was to the soaring heights of the art-market boom -- at least the boom as dealers who tied their success to Wall Street shoppers experienced it. "Collectors are happy they have access again," explains Ehrentraut. "The connoisseurs have the chance to get the works they really want." A few more Berlin galleries will certainly close their doors before all is said and done, but the frenzied "Berlin as hyper-trendy showroom" explosion needed to come down to earth at some point anyway, for everyone’s sanity.

And it seems as if some of the creative minds that came here in the past couple of years are using this chance to channel their energies into their own projects. Take the recent two-week short-run show "Lynchmob," a massive 30-artist group extravaganza and homage to eccentric film director David Lynch. Organized by 20-somethings Emilie Trice (who’s worked at both Goff+Rosenthal and Bodhi in Berlin, after coming from Gagosian Gallery in New York) and New Zealander Christopher David, the exhibition showcased works by emerging and established Berlin artists in a sprawling multistory space called .HBC Kollektiv that was once East Germany’s Hungarian Cultural Center. The show had the energy of an impromptu underground affair but was far too well curated and installed to be the old kind of Berlin garage show. Young enthusiasm mixed with informed experimentation? Maybe this is exactly what the recession’s upside is all about.

KIMBERLY BRADLEY is a translator and writer working in New York and Berlin.