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by Ana Finel Honigman
Needless to say, Berlin is Europe’s hottest art spot. This month, London-and-Zurich’s Haunch of Venison gallery opens a new branch there in a former industrial space at Heidestrasse 46, Berlin-Tiergarten, near Invalidenstrasse and right behind Hamburger Bahnhof and the Flick Collection. And, on Sept. 30, Goff + Rosenthal became the first New York gallery to join L.A.’s Peres Projects in bringing the radist, badist, hottest American art to Berlin.

Side by side with these long-term additions was the 11th installment of the annual Art Forum Berlin art fair, Sept 30-Oct. 4, 2006. In past years, Art Forum has had its ups and downs, but in a thriving global art market the fair has found its footing and this year’s installment fits well with the city’s comfortable, accessible and hip atmosphere. Though at times things seemed a little slow, the overarching consensus among dealers, artists and collectors was that the experience was perfectly pleasant.

Of 120 galleries spread out in two ample halls of the Exhibition Grounds Messe Berlin, where the fair has lodged since 2000, 75 were non-German, with Scandinavia, the Middle East, Asia, America and the rest of Europe amply represented. In a sprawling gallery space behind the booths, Berlin-based curator and writer Friederike Nymphius assembled "Big City Lab," a show focusing on problems and potentials of urbanity.

Compared to last week in chilly, hectic London (what with Frieze and other art fairs, contemporary auctions, the Turner Prize show and "USA Today" at the Royal Academy), the warm, easy atmosphere of Berlin provided a gentle introduction to the fall art-fair season. In that spirit, several works on view made art fairs their subject. At Barcelona’s Galería Senda, a painting by satirical figurative painter Charris titled That’s Entertainment shows a Chinese man in an ill-fitting suit hawking his goods on the street to a group of blasé looking gentlemen -- the merchandise consisting of a Takashi Murakami-designed Louis Vuitton knock-off bag alongside less conventional items such as a Julian Opie neon sculpture and a glowing Tony Orsler head wearing a worried, quizzical expression. The price is €13,500.

During the fair's opening, Galleri K from Oslo featured a biting tableau vivant designed by Crispin Gurholt, who calls his site-specific performances "live photos." Within a glass booth, a portly black man in a casual suit sat at a desk facing a slim black woman who was professionally dressed in high heels, a black pencil skirt, a white shirt and an African-style batik-patterned headwrap. Behind them was a large color photo of a blond, Gestapo-like man pointing a gun at a young white woman in chic office attire, who lies bleeding at his feet.  Propped against the wall is a framed poster of a double Jasper Johns American flag, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

At first glance, the scene portrayed by the two black actors suggested the nightmarish experience of an asylum seeker pleading her case before a government bureaucrat. In that vein, the flag poster seemed to signify a certain callousness on the part of the West in regard to global poverty and oppression. In fact, however, Gurholt intended his scenario to show a dealer requesting admittance into Art Forum Berlin, whose catalogue sits on the man’s desk but easily goes unnoticed. The brutal photograph was intended to portray a woman artist victimized by a curator’s insensitivity to her work.

Gurholt’s sardonic take on Art Forum Berlin aside, the fair is hardly so scary or evil, and the majority of the work on display looked comfortably okay with the potential that it might, in the end, be purchased.

A comparatively blithe ribbing of the art world could be seen in Dutch artist Folkert De Jong’s full-force installation at the booth of Peres Projects, which contained a single baby blue, sugary pink and mucus yellow polystyrene sculpture. Priced at €10,000, the sculpture shows two massive, scruffy, mutant men hovering over a sweet little townscape. Dominating the drama is the enormous decapitated head of Peggy Guggenheim. Neon orange drips down her face, which is already half-hidden under cat-eyed shades and a chic scarf tied under her chin. Off to the side, a replica of the author Tom Wolfe presents a house to her as a humble offering.

At the entrance of one exhibition hall, however, was a truly disconcerting sight. There, the first work to attract attention is Femme, femmme, femm, fem, fe. . ., an installation of three sculptures by Chinese-born, Paris-based artist Wang Du at the booth of Paris’s Galerie Laurent Godin. The three sculptures, on offer together for €150,000, present distorted versions of the same campy, trashy, pretty, topless, pouting blond woman, who takes the same stance as Edgar Degas’ famed little dancer.

Wang usually applies his wonky funhouse perspective to oversized sculptures of celebrities and other bold-face names from the mass media. But in Femme, femmme, femm, fem, fe. . . he hired a dancer to serve as his model. In the first sculpture, her "natural proportions" are apparently depicted, as if a placebo control group in a science experiment -- though she is about as pumped up as natural gets. In one of the distorted doppelgangers, her head gets tiny and her breasts move up high on her torso, as if she were being squeezed into a new form by the sculptor's id. In the other, perhaps a portrait of her own superego, her head is enormous and her body disproportionately small.

Like Wang’s celebrated sculpture, Enter (2004), a pair of massive purple giantesses in tiny mini-dresses and stilettos, bending over, the grotesque comic-book proportions of the women in Femme, femmme, femm, fem, fe. . . are playfully perverse, relatives of the über-women of Zap Comix creator R. Crumb.

Of the array of galleries hawking their work at Berlin Art Forum, a few poked fun at the stereotype of Germans as jolly perverts, blasé about nudity but fascinated with poop. Thus, John Waters’ strip of film stills showing famous stars shitting was offered for €4,500 at Hamburg’s Galerie Jürgen Becker. Waters, whose artwork includes re-photographed images from forgotten Hollywood films as well as from TV, also showed a series of photos of popped pimples. Unsurprisingly, the celebrities on the toilet were the ones that clogged the aisles.

On the other hand, giggles greeted Cathy de Monchaux's luxuriously gothic bronze doorknocker on view at Fred gallery from London. The small sculpture of a bat with a big, human boner came with its own red velvet box in an edition of 13. The lot of them sold, for £2,200 a piece.

A nice surprise was the response viewers gave to two Alex Bag videos screened at New York dealer Elizabeth Dee’s booth. Bag’s brilliant satires target U.S. political hypocrisy in Coven Services (2004), which intersperses skits mocking Halliburton, Chase Manhattan, Pantene Shampoo and the Vatican with clips of Paris Hilton’s do-it-yourself porno tape. In The Van (2001), it’s the pretensions of the New York art world that are the target, as Bag, disguised alternately as three different young women, prepares with the help of a pimp to infiltrate the Chelsea gallery scene.

As for Goff + Rosenthal, to complement the giddy colors and gritty content in the group show held at its new Brunnenstrasse space, the New York-based dealers featured new work by the Austrian artist Christoph Schmidberger in their booth at Art Forum Berlin. Schmidberger, who currently lives in LA, makes delicious pastel-colored, faintly faded, dreamy oil paintings and colored pencil drawings depicting operatic versions of suburban sexual situations.

The scenes have the romantic high drama of the Pre-Raphaelites mixed in with today’s hardcore exhibitionism. He renders all the love, sex, desire and loss with the sensual softness of a Fragonard, making cherubs and nymphs out of kids in tight shorts and tank tops. The selection of drawings, all made within the last six months, range in price from $10,000 to $20,000.

Berlin’s Gallery Magnus Müller presented the arrestingly smart conceptual paintings by New York-based artist Ellen Harvey both at his Art Forum booth and at his gallery in the city’s Mitte district. Part of her "Invisible Self-Portraits" series, the paintings (priced at €7,500 each) depict photographs she took of herself in her bedroom mirror, the hall mirror in her mother-in-law’s home and a train-station mirror, where the camera flash obscures her face, leaving only a vaguely blurred view of her body and a clear shot of the surroundings.

Especially appropriate to Germany, brought by Galerie Frank Elbaz from Paris, was Jay Batlle’s Cutting Out the Middleman (2003-06), an oddly elegant sculpture of a white, gleaming toilet with a Karlsburg pub tap affixed to its elevated flush tank, letting loose a steady stream of liquid straight down into the bowl. Flanking both sides of this latter-day "fountain" are framed restaurant napkins decorated with images of sailors, a nicely designed Modernist chair and a little boat. Cutting Out the Middleman is €10,000, while the napkins, painted with coffee-grind, food coloring and other stains, are €2,200 each. 

Unpretentious, unnervingly pretty, dreamy and nice, these little easy-to-make-at-home offerings felt right at home in Berlin, an affordable, comfortable, inspiring inheritor of Paris’ historic position as Europe’s creative capital.

ANA FINEL HONIGMAN is a critic and PhD candidate in art history at Oxford University.