Berlin is quiet in August, as the natives go on their long paid holidays and the stress on the street between cyclists, peds and aggressive German drivers eases to a truce. People lollygag on beach bars along the River Spree, English- and Spanish-speaking visitors flood the Mitte district, and galleries are closed for the summer or at least have very long-running shows. It’s a time to enjoy the silence and forget about anything even slightly resembling the art world for a few weeks.
But, alas, summer is prime tourist time for the museums, which have mounted several shows worth attending to. Plus, several notable exhibitions are taking place in bucolic, just out-of-town venues. And who can resist the requisite late-summer gossip?
Museums in the city
The 23rd installment of the Long Night of Museums, for which most of the city’s 170 museums open their doors until 2 am, is just around the corner (Aug. 30, 2008), but a few shows are worth seeing as soon as possible. At the small but sleek Deutsche Guggenheim, the New York artist Collier Schorr (who was a fellow at the American Academy in Berlin this past spring) offers up "Freeway Balconies," July 7-Sept. 21, 2008. In a double role as artist and curator, she assembles 19 emerging and established artists in a visual "autobiography" that also includes a good number of her own photographic collages and vitrined installations (these include plenty of images of Brooke Shields, looking alternately butch and nubile, depending on when the shots were taken).
The photo-heavy exhibition refers to pop culture, counterculture and American culture, and is presented in a way in which connections and cross-connections become more interesting the longer the visitor looks. Works by Raymond Pettibon and Richard Prince play off those by their younger counterparts, like Adam Pendleton. Toying with identity and celebrity are Karen Kilimnik’s "self-improvement" photographs on the back wall or Sara Gilbert’s candid images of a younger Leonardo DiCaprio on the set of Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo and Juliet.
Says Artnet.de’s Dominikus Müller, "Again and again, the exhibition pulls its audience into a river of intertwined bodies, iconic poses and pop star references, which, on the general level of forms and figures, elude the narrow borders of authorship and identity. They also want to overlap with the works of the artist/curator, so that her work, too, is temporally contextualized in both the past and in the future." A mirror-shard sculpture by Canadian art star David Altmejd stands like a guard over it all.
Over at the Neue Nationalgalerie are two shows that could also be a nice way to spend a Berlin afternoon: upstairs in Mies van der Rohe’s box, which has been spatially modified with ceiling-high dividers, is the majority of a show celebrating the 100th birthday of German color-field master Rupprecht Geiger, whose flag-like monochromatic canvases pepper the transparent upper space. Downstairs, his older, smaller pieces are shown, along with another retrospective of Hiroshi Sugimoto. The Japanese photographer’s large-format black-and-white images are presented in their various thematic series -– seas and lakes, museum dioramas and some stunning "light field" works. It’s all very meditative.
Not so meditative is German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans’ "Lighter" show at Hamburger Bahnhof, which is almost a mini-retrospective. An entire wing of the museum is devoted to the Turner Prize winner’s work, and the show includes not only intriguing abstract "paper drop" works but also an installation-within-an-exhibition that exactly replicates his Turner Prize exhibition. There’s a lot to look at, but the show often feels unpolished or disjointed.
According to Artnet.de’s Gerrit Gölke, "Whoever visits Tillmans’ newest exhibition, as broad-reaching as an outdoor park, could get the impression that he or she isn’t in an exhibition, but in a life-size model. The tasteful balance between images and wall surface makes it seem as if the show still needs to be curated, as if the walls hold only placeholders that a hurried designer pulled off his hard drive: here a holiday photo, there a web-download and back there a couple of color patterns that could take on the role of abstract painting."
Get out of town
Those wanting to take advantage of this summer’s unusually high number of sultry days and nights can also head out to a few nearby exhibitions: "Rohkunstbau," a summer-long show now in its 15th year, completes its three-year chromatically themed series with "Three Colors -- Red" at Villa Kellerman in nearby Potsdam. Organized by British curator and man about town Marc Gisbourne, the show features site-specific (or at least site-adapted) works by Israeli artist Guy Ben-Ner, installations by Jonathan Monk and collages by Richard Hamilton, among other art stars.
Then there’s "Art Biesenthal," a private undertaking for which the entrepreneur and collector Michael Hecker asks mostly local curators to put together shows in his country house. A modernist cube with an old façade, the home is a bit northeast of Berlin in a lush area that was once frequented by socialist dignitaries. This year’s show, "Inkonstruktion III," organized by Berlin dealer Stephan Koal, showcases local up-and-comers like photographer Andreas Gehrke (aka Noshe), whose abandoned landscapes decorate the kitchen.
Inside the house are a sculpture by Indonesian artist Yudi Noor, a typically Nordic-Nazi figurative painting by Norbert Bisky and two smeared-on-the-wall painting pieces by Via Lewandowsky. Installations also dot the extensive grounds, like Marcel Bühler’s neon "Art sucks" sign, an oversize bone by sculptor Sabine Gross and, my favorite, the "World Closed Ahead" road sign by Robert Barta. Hecker’s been inviting folks out every three weeks or so for viewings and "talks"; the next open house is on Aug. 31, and a finissage on Sept. 14. It’s a great country outing and a good little vibe.
New collections, new museums
Back in Berlin, there’s some good news: After many years, the city has regained an exiled collection. On view near the Charlottenburg Castle and the Sammlung Berggruen museum, the Sammlung Gerstenberg-Scharf focuses largely on the forerunners and champions of the Surrealist movement and features works by the likes of René Magritte, Man Ray and Max Ernst. The collection, begun in 1910 by Berliner Otto Gerstenberg, partially fell victim to World War II, with portions of it landing in Russian museums before being salvaged by Gerstenberg’s grandsons Walter and Dieter Scharf; the latter expanded the holdings with much of the Surrealist work. His daughter Julietta Scharf is now the steward of the collection, which will be on view in Berlin for at least the next decade.
And on June 6, when many of us were in Basel for the art fairs, ground was broken for the White Cube, the long-planned temporary Kunsthalle on the site of the now nearly dismantled GDR parliament building Palast der Republik. The structure looks as if it will be ready in time for Berlin Art Forum in late October.
Readers of this column will remember [see "Artnet.de Digest," Dec. 21, 2007] that the city approved the White Cube last fall as a temporary kunsthalle on the Palast site, and the plan is to mount eight exhibitions in the space, featuring Berlin-based artists and lasting until 2010. The structure itself is by Austrian architect Adolf Krischanitz, and its initial "exterior art," a pixilated image of a cloud, is by artist and fellow Austrian Gerwald Rockenschaub. The building is going up almost as fast as the last piles of rubble of the Palast der Republik are coming down. And we now know that the 600-square-meter space’s inaugural show features work by Candice Breitz.
On the people front are a few pan-German personnel shifts: Former Art Forum Berlin artistic director Sabrina van der Ley is heading to the Hamburg Kunsthalle as a co-curator for the "Galerie der Gegenwart," the institution’s contemporary branch.
Coming from the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, the affable Thomas Koehler just took the reins from retiring deputy director Ursula Prinz at the still rather underrated state museum Berlinischer Galerie.
And taking over Udo Kittelman’s director post at Frankfurt’s Museum der Moderne Kunst is Susanne Gaensheimer -- her new job still needs to be confirmed by the Frankfurters in late August, but it’s almost a done deal. Kittelman is, of course, co-directing Berlin’s state museums, starting in November 2008
So as we wait with bated breath for the season’s kick-off, we’ll just kick back and enjoy the ever-shortening rays of summer. That kick-off, by the way, is undoubtedly the "abc -- Art Berlin Contemporary" show (the organizers insist that the event is not an art fair) with 50-odd top Berlin galleries featuring one artist each in an extravaganza taking place at Berlin’s "Greisdreieck" venue. Here we go again.
KIMBERLY BRADLEY is a translator and writer working in New York and Berlin.