Every year in springtime, a smattering of commercial galleries in Berlin hosts Gallery Weekend, an event now five years old that was originally launched to lure potential art buyers to the notoriously collector-free city. An art fair without any of the bother, so to speak, with a home court advantage.
Well, Gallery Weekend Berlin’s fifth edition ran in early May, but sadly failed to spark much local enthusiasm, despite the fact that a record 38 galleries took part, ranging from newbies like Croy Nielsen, Galerija Gregor Podnar, Sassa Trülzsch and Zak/Branicka to hometown vets like Neugerriemschneider and Arndt + Partner (for a full list, see www.gallery-weekend-berlin.de). Maybe it’s because Berlin has been enjoying unseasonably balmy weather since early April. Or perhaps it has something to do with the global recession.
Drivers in shiny black Audis were still parked outside galleries, ready to take invited collectors (each gallery had a quota) where they wanted to go, but the pace seemed less frenzied. The gala dinner, held two years ago in the trendy Grill Royal restaurant, took place this time in the sun-streamed upper story of the Neue Nationalgalerie.
Gallery Weekend seemed more mature, somehow. "Is it just me, or is this year more civilized?" asked curator Laurie de Chiara in the courtyard of Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art. Kunst-Werke put on a barbeque to celebrate its spring opening for artists Annette Kelm, Sergej Jensen and Wolfgang Breuer, and though it attracted throngs over the course of the day and night, everyone seemed downright relaxed.
Several exhibitions stood out among the crowd. In the airy, David Chipperfield-designed ground floor of Contemporary Fine Arts, new works by the idiosyncratic 61-year-old German artist Georg Herold come together in a show called "Place the Lord," incidentally his first solo exhibition at CFA. Originally from East Germany and celebrated as someone who tends to do his own thing, Herold has long worked with Arte Povera materials, including wood, brick and, uh, caviar on canvas.
"Place the Lord" features stretched-out humanoid figures made of lath and "dressed" in elongated suits, dresses, stitched-together skins or even plain old tighty-whitey men’s underwear. Perhaps the most striking and cryptic piece here is Belle du Ü, an angular female figure clad in green skin. She’s impaled on a pyramidal, wall-mounted structure; at the same time, though, she forcefully strides into the room.
Equally intriguing is Adieu Homme, a headless mannequin in similar material, dressed in a long, lean and elegant dark suit. The suit, along with the figure’s leaned-back pose, echoes the esthetic of the skinny silhouettes that Hedi Slimane once designed for Dior Homme and the hip boys who wore them. With their alien look, one guesses that the artist is saying good-bye to the old kind of human being, but who knows.
Sculptures and sketches by Richard Artschwager dominate the vast first floor at Sprüth Magers, and an eclectic smattering of works on paper by sculptor Robert Therrien hang nicely on the walls upstairs. But most moving here is the installation in the gallery’s project space, where 30-something German artist Robert Elfgen’s Grenzübergang (Border Crossing) creates a zone of quiet contemplation and presents a mysterious narrative. The room’s lights are dimmed, and in front of a semicircle of vertically hanging white cloth panels, a delicately constructed kayak sits between two low-hanging spherical lamps whose perforations throw patterned lights on the floor.
This altar-like arrangement is surrounded by a seemingly random smattering of other objects, including a two-dimensional image of a rabbit, along with what looks like Joseph Beuys’ signature hat as a sculpture on a floor pedestal. The overall feel is ceremonial, ethereal, almost spiritual. Is it a border crossing or a funereal passage? Clearly something epistemological is happening. Meanwhile, Elfgen’s work is also currently on view at Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York.
All the artists aren’t German, of course. Across town, a relatively new gallery, Zak / Branicka, which also runs a foundation in Krakow, opened in the Lindenstrasse gallery complex spearheaded in late 2007 Swedish dealer Claes Nordenhake. For Gallery Weekend, Zak / Branika presented Zbigniew Rogalski, a young (b. 1974) Warsaw-based artist who is primarily a painter but also works with photography and video. Here, he presents a series that messes with the mind: Ghosts is seven small photographs of an upended bag of what is presumably cocaine. But the powder’s not budged from the bottom of the bag. A closer look shows that this isn’t the white stuff at all, but a typical plastic baggie painted with visible white brushstrokes in a streak at its bottom.
Then there are Rogalski’s "Stories" paintings, which also look relatively straightforward, but only at first. The green, white and grey color fields reveal themselves to be rectangular-surfaced aquariums whose glass panes aren’t filled with water, but have been partially painted with aqua-colored pigment. "This is painting about painting," says dealer Asia Zak. Indeed, the aquariums’ geometric, multilayered colors and implied reflections draw the viewer into several picture planes at once.
Rogalski plays with illusions and delayed recognition, and his paintings waver between abstraction and realism in a simple, uncontrived way. Educated at the Poznan Academy of Fine Arts, the young artist’s career took off with a solo show at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw in 2000. Since then, he’s also exhibited at -- surprise -- Sprüth Magers in London and Munich and was in SITE Santa Fe’s 2008 biennial as well. "I'm interested in good paintings, because they’re rivals to the world they depict," the artist has said.
Those wanting more Zak / Branicka can also check out the gallery’s Art Statements booth at Art 40 Basel this year. It features Polish artist Pawel Ksiazek’s Silent Utopia project, an exploration in painting and photomontages of the Eastern European architecture that could have been, but wasn’t, used in 1930s German cinema like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
In the same building is Hungarian artist Attila Csörgö’s "Magnet Spring" show at Galerija Gregor Podnar, whose mother-ship space is in Llubljana, Slovenia. The artist, who has long displayed a scientific bent, presents new work alongside examples of his output from the 1990s. Minimalism meets magnetism in Magnet Spring from 1991, a sculpture that sees a number of "floating" magnets hold together 12 panes of glass in a vertical configuration that, perhaps, reiterates the contingent nature of the cognitive gestalt. Then there’s Drawing Machine (1992), a floor sculpture that randomly "draws" lines through magnetic dust on a pane of glass with an invisible hand. Here, too, the secret is magnets, this time on a turntable underneath the glass. The effect is very Etch-a-Sketch, and is a blast to watch.
The newer works, collectively called "Moebius Space," are scientific in a more subtle way. Csörgö has assembled black-and-white photographic panoramas, printed on transparent celluloid, into Möbius strips, which he displays on plinths like sculptures; he has somehow managed to make the seam seem seamless, enabling a continuous image. Csörgö devises his own special camera to make these and other works, ones in which the picture winds around a sphere like a peel sliced continuously off an orange, or that allow him to draw in space with a point of light, so to speak. Very cool.
As Gallery Weekend 2009 faded into memory, Eigen + Art leaped into summer with a solo show by Dresden-trained sculptor Stella Hamberg in mid-May. In stark contrast to the roughness and weight of the multiple, mythical bronze behemoths (dubbed "Berserkers") that she exhibited last year at Eigen’s space in Leipzig, Hamberg this time around installed a single, almost delicate bronze sculpture -- a mop in a puddle next to a small brush on the floor.
That’s the whole show, in an otherwise empty space. Hamberg calls it "Reset." She wants a renaissance, clearly enough, but a mop cast in bronze is a rather comic way of saying it. Why does she offer us what she herself calls "a superfluous object that distributes, not collects, dirt"? "It was notwendig, nötig, necessary," said the artist at the opening, subtitling herself in German and English. "Things can’t be just about the market anymore."
Hamberg, who is only 34, has always had a quiet power, in her person and her work. And maybe there’s something to this calmness and simplicity. I could be wrong, but it’s an idea to meditate on during the summer sojourn through Venice, Basel and points elsewhere.
KIMBERLY BRADLEY is a translator and writer working in New York and Berlin.