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  • Christian Hain

Gallery Weekend Berlin 2018 – Part 2: Galleries, Oh so Many Galleries

(Berlin.) After the preliminaries, the gallery shows of Gallery Weekend Berlin 2018 finally started. Once again, it’s a long list, and once again, we (tried to) cut it down to only the best and the worst, in short: the most memorable in either respect.

Potsdamer Straße more and more emerges as THE gallery district of Berlin, there’s always that other space you’ve never visited before, and some will even try out new forms of exhibition design that might or might not succeed. Take the Ellen Blumenstein (ex-KW) curated Haus der Sinnsuche (∼”House of the Quest for Meaning”) at Kunstsaele (“Halls of Art”, also a homonym of “Kunstseele” – “Soul of Art”): Patrons were handed a questionary (and a shot which I, indeed, refused) asking them to choose their favourite sports equipment among multiple choice options (bow, ice skates, volleyball – editor’s note: that’s not a sport, just posing -, chess – no sports, either), and to complete sentences such as “I will never again_”, You have to understand that_”, &c. They even established your views on human beings surrendering their autonomy to computers (-> “automated driving”), and when you've last switched off your mobile. Kunstsaele called this an “anamnesis” (not “psychological evaluation”?). Upstairs, the check-in continued with queuing at a reception desk, and you wondered: Did they see Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane at Berlinale, too? The most courageous - or: most deviate minds, potentially dangerous – just crumpled the questionary in their trouser pocket, opened one of the doors on the side and sneaked in, paying no attention to a signpost indicating “Failure” in this very direction, and “Success” in another. – That “other” was where the queue went (not), and later, as their door opened for an instant to let some - artistic, not medical - staff through, a quick glance discovered a potentially participative performance: not “playing doctor”, just silly games.

But we chose failure, and found a (small) exhibition with On Kawara indicating his whereabouts as usual, mail art postcards, drawings to words in some Slavic language and the video of a grandma telling stories (a slightly hidden wall text explains the backstory of the artist’s grandmother – supposedly – becoming bedbound by her own decision, and enjoying the family’s 5 Star service). Also a drawing machine (yawn...) in a second room. In one more “treatment room”, call centre work booths invite to watch more videos.

It may have felt more like a children’s birthday party than serious curating, but at least they tried. After the night before, a true detox treatment would have been appreciated, too.

And then, the first commercial gallery of the day proved to be one of the best already! Oliver Laric shows a drawing video in best William Kentridge tradition (not the same style, but the same technique, and even the same relaxed, slightly melancholic atmosphere) at Tanya Leighton Gallery. Meditative music to accompany the abstract story of a dog’s life – not quite the arty version of Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, though.

The artist added a pack of crouching Anubis-ses, small ceramic man-dogs bordering on kitsch, but only bordering, that’s the art. Maybe someone told them to “Sit! And staaay.”

The second part across the street is less interesting, but thanks to KW, we are now able to identify T&R Haussmann chairs everywhere.

If you want to know how not to present your show, on Gallery Weekend or else, visit Supportico Lopez: A maximum of artworks crammed into a limited space, like you wouldn’t dare doing even on a (actual) fair. It’s great artists – mid-20th Century mostly, Fluxus &co. - but you couldn’t tell in the context. At least they gave a party in their yard, with food trucks and a heap of carrot peelings (installation?).

Not much better: PS120, a brand new gallery on Potsdamer Straße (yes indeed: No. 120). The best thing about it was the performance to get in, everybody zigzagging between a Woolworth store and a kebab stall – not sure if this was their best business day ever, or if they quickly learned to loathe strangely dressed people demanding vegan and gluten–free kebabs with the meat of homosexual black ewe-lambs - before eventually finding the entrance door. PS 120 occupies the building’s top floor, and also – second best thing - : an impressive roof terrace. From up there you enjoyed great views over Berlin, but maybe felt a little lost without any art in sight. Inside, ... well: They had big names too, Tom Burr, Rosemarie Trockel, Iman Issa (time to put her in the “famous” drawer). But once again, the presentation. Everything seems to be put somewhere without a plan, without any visible links between the works, and maybe - a difference to Supportico Lopez -, there was not enough art to fill the space.

See, if you launch your gallery on the most important day of the city’s art calendar, that one long weekend when all the important collectors and press people (and I’m not talking of irrelevant and ill-mannered little bloggers) come to town, the people you want to know, and interest in, your business – well, wouldn’t it be a good idea to do something special, something remarkable, something outstanding? PS120 did not.

Pleasant or disappointing, it's up to your standpoint, but a surprise: No pink at Isabella Bortolozzi Gallery this time. Instead horror toys by Danny McDonald. Sculptural collages with parts of dolls and action figures, skilfully combined to create a nightmarish world of pop cultural iconography. Heroes turn to foes, to mutilated killers, summoning an alternative universe in which the Chapman Bros got hired as Mattel’s new directors of design. Also quotes from other artists, like Katharina Fritsch’s Rat King meeting Chucky the 1980s horror film killer doll.

Clearly another of GWB'18's highlights, but – that’s life – immediately followed by a setback: If you’re into fashion photography, pay a visit to Blain Southern. Otherwise don't. Or just stay at home and enlarge the latest Vogue cover to 3x5m. There’s also a second show, with colourful paintings of Liliane Thurasco, and I’m sure they will sell it all. No need for jealousy (or actually: yes).

Continuing to Esther Schipper Gallery upstairs, you could fall under the unpleasant impression of a new trend emerging among Berlin art dealers: For GWB, don’t care about curating, put all in, and treat the event as the art fair it basically is. Not a coherent show, no concept, but a few big names (General Idea/AA Bronson) to fill the space. Would not be the most enjoyable trend.

That Chinese gallery in BS’s backyard - the whole Potsdamer Straße is BS’s backyard, actually - offers impressive papier maché works, decorative the Chinese way. Those cut up Boddhisatva heads on the wall, though... somehow in bad taste, considering that #Tibet thing. XC.HuA Gallery is the name, Thomas Vu and Fred HC Liang the artists.

In the same building, Thomas Fischer Gallery shows Dirk Braekman with a hypnotic video of moving shadows - or blurry waves of dust? - and photographs that almost appear like drawings, in a darker shade of black them all. Decorative, the German way, no: better make that “aesthetic”, “solemn”, “peaceful”. I liked that gallery, not least because I was fervently kissed by a stranger in the middle of the exhibition space. A handsome gentleman, slightly overweight, with a slobbery tongue, and I didn’t even ask his name. Downstairs again, he had only eyes for his boyfriend though, possibly due to the snacks they were partaking. - See, that’s what defines a culturally advanced nation: Even French Bulldogs love art.

Next door to Blain Southern, Judin‘s show is much better. Even if you’re not into painting, Franco-German Edouard Baribeaud’s works could please you. They are very German, of the “meaningful”, mythological, kind, but perfectly well done. This must count for one of GWB18’s best shows as well. It’s not even as expensive as you would expect (Judin was one of that handful of galleries who left their price list on the counter). Still too expensive for a humble blogger, but if I had those 10-20k, and if there would not have been red stickers next to almost every work already...

As it is, I contented myself with free postcards from Becky Beasley at Plan-B Gallery (they WERE meant to take away for free, right? If not, you’ve never read this!). The rest of her show is less interesting, but these tasteful pictures of plants and trees, with etymological explanations, anecdotes and stories connected to them on the backside, are really fine.

First thought upon entering Jarmuschek&Partner: "Ok, you can do mythological painting in ugly, too." Last thought when leaving Jarmuschek&Partner: "Not that bad, really; just needed to get used to it." Almost like a Jim Jarmusch film. And those sculptures... chimaeras again, man-eagles, or rather just the arm-wings of such in classic bronze. More works for the imaginary collection. Artist: Troels Carlsen.

So much for Potsdamer Straße, but there’s more, much more to Berlin’s art scene.

Over in the West, Max Hetzler Gallery resides in posh Charlottenburg. The latest addition to the imperium is a third(!) exhibition space on the erstwhile glamorous Ku’damm (today just another shopping mile, and much too long, much too vast). The neighbours in an old bourgeois mansion are property investment and law firms, also the foundation of a deceased former Foreign Minister. Out of Gallery Weekend, they only open on appointment (you won’t get one).

Sometimes - perhaps more often than not -, it is a good idea not to read any explanations to a show before leaving it. In the case of Thomas Struth’s latest works, it can open ways of interpretation that exceed the “true” meaning, or a lack of it, by far. We see dead animals on large format colour photographs, birds, a kangaroo, a baby bear – or is it some sort of weasel? You realize how much you’re used to searching for political, sociological, or only art historical interpretations, instinctively associating mass extinction, poaching, climate change, wildlife smuggling, Chinese medicine, and, obviously: still life painting.

Then, leaving, you read, Struth found and photographed them in a research zoo’s morgue. No campaigning, no crime, no politics – only death. Evolutionary memento moris, but would you really want to hang this on your wall? Maybe next to grandpa’s photo on the shelf...

cfa is the other big boy in the neighbourhood, contemporary fine arts. For Gallery Weekend, they chose Raymond Pettibon, and it gave us a strange déjà vu experience. Did they, or did they not show the exact same drawings only a short while ago (or maybe it was somewhere else in Berlin)? For those, who don't know him: Pettibon’s comic strips explore the dark sides of liberty and 1960s American (counter)culture, murderous cults and perversion - the Robert Crumb for adults.

Huma Bhabha on cfa’s second floor kindles similar feelings of "seen it all", albeit for different reasons. It’s all so familiar: Totems, idols, tribal paintings, fetishes, better buy antiques. Upon leaving, I overheard an important member of the gallery tell a friend: “No, but are you crazy? I leave that to my kids... And even they’re used to us never queuing.”

cfa was one of those who started the Berlin art hype back in the 1990s, there’s nothing left to prove for them, but to cultivate the stiff upper lip attitude.

Klaus-Peter Feldmann wants you to see his stamp collection (bilingual joke that doesn’t quite work, but “want to see my etchings” refers to stamps in German), and Mehdi Chouakri Gallery is happy to help. The collection is all about unclothedness indeed, and how various postal services have used it in history. The highlight of a show that otherwise assembles typical HPF works, old portraits “adorned” with blackened eyes, tattoos, and more to make them suitable for today’s tastes and interpretations. - Just recalling: Johnen Privat (see part 1) also invited to a look at his vinyl collection (with collector editions from Yoko Ono and Martin Creed, among others).

Max Hetzler’s second space hosts more photos of Thomas Struth, photos that you believe you could have easily done yourself if only you had the best equipment available for money, and all the necessary authorisations. Using that bad m-word, once more I need to share with you a conversation I could not escape witnessing. Still “young” guy, modestly, yet seriously, dressed: “Erm, I’ve just been to Christie’s, and, er, I wonder what the price would be for that ISS under water – or whatever it is! And is it a single piece, or...?” Half the desk staff tried to scare him away with “five digits, and an edition of six”, to which he just groaned: “Yeah, I guess so, but...?”. Her colleague jumped in to clarify, they prefer to sell the three large pieces as an ensemble, and it would be – well, I’m not sure if I may divulge this information here, so let’s return to our aspiring junior collector: “But that’s six figures!” – “Yes, my colleague was mistaken.” A gallery is like a bar: If it works, it works (most often it won’t).

Hen and egg, in photography the best equipment often buys you the “best” price list, but which came first? Thomas Struth continues to explore questions as old and tedious as the medium itself: What makes it an art form, where lie the limits between photographic art and artistic photography? Machines in blue, some boiler room or other, under water or above. May I say: “Candida Höfer for boys?” The biggest surprise, and a thing to keep in mind: Christie’s did indeed "something" in Berlin. No auction, but a private show, as I found out later (thanks, internet!). Thomas Struth was in there, too.

And finally, Hetzler the third, with their best show arguably: Loris Gréaud.

Gold leaves all over the ceiling, termite mounds - nonsensi-technical bee hives - leaking “tar” into puddles on the floor, as their pulsating hearts emit a rhythmic sound. A cyborg tree in intensive care releases steam, suddenly the long forgotten terms “cyber-” and “steampunk“ spring to mind. Intriguing to say the least. An immersive experience, to which sound, smell and sight all add their part. Pink-tinted windows even extend the show to the outside, garbage cans never looked so arty!

Equally counting among this year’s best in show: Julius von Bismarck at Alexander Levy Gallery. Two works only, but whoa, man! Crazy stuff. The floor keeps moving away from the dealer’s desk, an analogy for most careers in art? Or, on the contrary, the infinite rat race of pitiful collectors for the latest piece of their favourite pet? To make myself clear: The artist has literally changed the gallery’s floor for a conveyor band, or treadmill, you need to keep moving constantly just to defend your place.

Still there, still curious? Well, there’s more to come - watch out for part three of this year's Gallery Weekend Berlin special (part 1 is this way)!

Gallery Weekend Berlin 2018, Gallery shows will continue for the usual four to six weeks.

World of Arts Magazine – Contemporary Art Criticism



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