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  • Christian Hain

The Aftermath of BAW’17, or: From Berlin to Miami Beach in 23 Galleries

(Berlin.) Now that Berlin Art Week is over, it’s time to focus on different things again.

Or is it? We've mentioned the diffuse beginnings of BAW, and the end – well, it’s even less clear. In general, you’d expect the week to comprise seven days, a convention historians believe established by the Babylonians already. Berlin Art Week begs to differ: Art fairs started on Friday (Thursday for the cool kids), and terminated on Sunday. Lectures, performances, and other events throughout the city, were running from Wednesday to Sunday. A lot of galleries opened new exhibitions on that closing weekend, others the one before, and institutions sometime in between. They will now continue for a month to six weeks, and more, as usual. Let’s say, BAW’17 is still a work in progress.

Hundreds of galleries and almost the entirety of Berlin’s museums, foundations, collections, and project spaces, taking part in a festival of unspecified duration, hundreds of galerists eager to welcome you - not you personally, of course, but you, the wealthy foreign collector. How to choose the contents of an article for a humble webzine? What to report, no, even one more step back: Where to visit?

Luckily, a couple of days before the first, premature, openings of BAW’17, a week before the week, that email from Art Basel arrived. We’re still in touch, don’t worry, they never read what those who were invited once, have to say about them. This email announced Art Basel’s Christmas sale, the fair’s Miami Beach edition, and attached was a list of participants. I hope, Berlin Art Week won’t mind (after all, they might still read what’s said about them), but ABMB is still the slightly more important fixture in the international art calendar. This brought me to the idea, you would be interested in reading about Berlinian galleries who made it onto that list, the chosen few who will travel to Miami in December. (If all traces of Irma La Deluge are cleared away by then; but who could doubt it?)

Then I had to realize, that list is long. All sectors, from the (untitled) main thing to Nova, Positions, and Survey, included, it features 270 galleries, twenty-three of which are Berlin-based. Being a dealer, you could almost feel bad if you’re not invited. Twenty-three gallery shows to be dealt with in one text would make you feel like visiting Berlin Art Week in person, when you were just looking for a summary. Besides, I need to admit, I did not make it everywhere, partly due to the provincialism of Berlin: Even on Art Week weekend, most galleries not celebrating an opening themselves, closed at 6 or 7 P.M. The horror shows (no judgement, it was indeed haunted house aesthetics) at BQ Gallery and neighbouring Nagel Draxler could at least be admired through large windowpanes, when I arrived on Saturday late afternoon. (Regarding Stephan Dillemuth‘s sculptures, I’m not sure, where his talents would find better use: as a make up/special FX artist, or as a lamp designer.) Others did not offer the same chance. One reason, why you’ll find only an arbitrary selection of the twenty-three here:

Some of Berlin’s finest have moved offices these past months, changing the East for the West, choosing the old city centre around Savignyplatz and the pretty much deserted (wannabe) Champs Elysees of 1960s-80s Western Germany, the Ku’Damm. Not to prepare for the erection of another wall, mind, but in the long run, money always comes back to where it once felt comfortable.

The most famous among these galleries is arguably Contemporary Fine Arts. The name says it all, albeit: Contemporary Fine Paintings would be even more fitting. For them, moving meant considerable downsizing, not because they were compelled to, but modesty is the new glamour. And after all, if you‘re not New York/Shanghai/Brussels based, you sell at fairs, not at home, so why bother about the size of your showroom? For BAW times, cfa chose paintings of TAL R. For those, who don’t know him: TAL R is special. Seeing his works, you’d suspect an outsider artist, l’art brut pur et dur, or perhaps the artist employing a bunch of four year olds to do his work. Then you take a closer look, and realize, how precise it all is, how deliberately drawn every uneven line. This particular series focuses on a shady sort of nightlife, with facades of sex shops and strip clubs. It’s peculiar, but very well done.

They won’t travel to Miami anytime soon (not for business), and strictly speaking have no right to figure here, but Bastian Gallery took over cfa’s former premises in a famous-architect-designed building on Museum Island, that was owned by Mr Heiner Bastian all the time, anyway. Some confusion arose, when the veteran dealer first announced to sell it to a state-owned foundation for cultural use, the money to be provided by charity of Mr Würth, then changed his mind and announced to don it all by himself, but somebody handed him a dictionary, and he realized, “making a donation” means not getting anything in return, so he scrapped the whole plan, leaving the foundation (and Mr Würth) with haunting visions of a raised middle finger hovering before their closed eyes at night. Now his son, whom he's punished for life with the given name "Aeneas", leads the family’s secondary market gallery, and shows huge names in that house. For example Wim Wenders who happened to have an exhibition at Blain Southern a short while ago. Maybe he did not like it there, maybe he thought, “that’s a young gallery, in a crazy factory building, ha-ha, now I’m off to somewhere serious!” Or maybe they’re all best mates, Wim and Heiner and Harry and Graham. I certainly don’t know. What I do know is, the famed film director’s photography calls to mind deserted film sets. Should Wenders ever consider a career change, “location scout” would be it.

Once, he copied a Hopper painting with his camera, directing actors to pose for him. Ah, that’s inventive. The prints are technically perfect, like portraits of Hollywood greats in glossy magazines. Contemplating the prairies, the Indian cemeteries and saloons, you easily imagine some Western star riding along, Clint, or John, or Charles, or Eli even. Eli Wallach. You won’t find him at Bastian, but Paul Wallach is there (no relation, afaik). His geometries in wood are by far my favourite at the gallery! Even more than Dan Flavin’s geometries in neon on third floor. Flavin (1933-1996), the legend as we know and, more or less, love him. (And, btw, my guess is, that house will one day serve to pay some rather considerable inheritance taxes.)

Now, in terms of bourgeois lifestyle, of noble nonchalance and aristocratic splendour, nobody in Berlin trumps Kewenig. The gallery also resides on Museum Island, but farther away from Bastian than you remembered on a cold rainy night in Berlin. Crossing the threshold, you shy away from the voluptuous opulence, expecting any moment to be asked whether you are looking for something, or be handed a parking ticket if not an umbrella. Instead, they pour you an excellent white wine, and you’re absolutely positive, the vineyard belongs to the dealer, too. He must own everything. They are indeed so upper class, they don’t address the unworthy, the plebs, who cannot tell their Kapoors from their Kounellis' and their Anatsuis. All three have a show at Kewenig, or should I say: all three figure in one show at Kewenig. It spreads over three, - or two? - several, I was too intimidated to care about such trifles, levels of an ancient mansion that miraculously survived the war, never more than two artworks a room, and never any information given as to who has created what. Of course, you recognize that one Kapoor, everybody does, one of his magic mirrors to dizzy and enrapture you. But the remains of suicide bombers packed in blood-soaked body bags? That look like what you produce from the depths of your nose when you’ve caught a bad cold, with severely inflamed mucus membranes? No, that’s disgusting. And female hygiene articles won’t do for a metaphor, either. But it’s tough to come up with clean, harmless, associations for these hanging sculptures. I dare you, only one per cent of visitors will recognize this series of – Anish Kapoor. It’s the top one per cent, Kewenig cares about.

The lovely intern watching the artist’s trademark work did not know it either. It was not in “her” room, and nobody had cared to brief her properly. I was finally enlightened by another enchanting personality who, I could not escape the notion, might have belonged to the dealer clan. She was greeted by many worthy and unworthy visitors, and clearly held some authority here. To make myself absolutely clear on one thing: The show is magnificent. I did not know El Anatsui before, but his works – coloured aluminium plates crashed against the wall like flying carpets by a inebriated fakir - do not seem out of place next to the legends Jannis Kounellis and Anish Kapoor.

The best Kounellis around is a collection of molluscs glued on a white canvas, hung over a wooden “T” to allude to sacral imagery (a cross, a priest’s gown). Apparently, Kounellis himself refused the connotation, but now he’s deceased, his gallery of years decided to put the work on a larger “T” than before.

Back down to TAL R’s world. Tanya Leighton owns two spaces, and don’t be confused: Kurfürstenstrasse numbers 24/25 and 156 lie immediately opposite each other. You should know this beforehand, not to turn away and continue down the street after visiting one, then get lost in the parts of Kurfürstenstrasse where a whole different sort of “artists”, young, female, and of Romanian extraction, will surround you to offer human company for fifty Euros the half-hour. Tanya Leighton shows Math Bass with paintings that look like vector graphics. There are some ever-recurring icons/pictograms, the capital letters “A”, “B”, “Z”, crocodiles, and matchsticks. The latter’s head painted enlarged and standing alone, made me think of a notorious railway tower close to Ostkreuz station in the party district of Friedrichshain, famous with tourists who are frequently heard to comment: “Oi, seen that massive bellend?!” But I’m digressing here. There’s also a sculpture, a stranded whale from an early video game? The Math is in the vectors, alright, but I did hear no Bass.

Close to Tanya Leighton, Supportico Lopez resides in a backyard. First, and big, compliment: They were open till late on BAW’s Saturday night, even though they had no opening of their own. Nobody but me was visiting, and the employees casually shared a beer crate, chatting in Spanish. Don’t think “I cannot supportico this art”, the show’s fine! Humanized musical instruments-slash-sculptures by Henri Chopin (1922-2008, no relation to the composer). Need a name to connote? Try Tinguely, maybe.

There’s also big names on offer: Thomas Schulte Gallery has a Gordon Matta Clark retrospective very much worth the visit. Plus an unmarked installation with all sorts of objects sticking from a wall of cement. A time capsule 'à la Berlinoise'? And Max Hetzler Gallery, in the West again, shows Richard Prince in two spaces. His new series of paintings, Super Group, deals with 20th Century rock and pop bands, and Prince always appropriating other artists, the style might remind you of Basquiat.

Last thing I’d heard of the king was a strange show in July. You know, usually, when you’re a famous artist, and your dealer proposes a summertime solo, a show when every decent collector is cultivating his tan on a yacht’s sundeck, or buying footballers for his newly acquired club, a time when every other gallery does a group, or talents, show, then you should be worried. Is this it? Are you on the verge to has-been? I felt sorry for Katharina Grosse. But, and this is indeed a big, a capital, yellow press, “BUT”: It was just a joke. A prank on those who did not leave the city, and those who came on holidays. The widely announced solo show consisted of three paintings, and not even monumental ones. Maybe the artist found them in her attic. They were not bad, no doubt, and expensive, no doubt either. Anyway, now the king’s back. König Galerie famously resides in a former church, and offered Monica Bonvicini the chance to put ladders and a sofa in the bell tower. It’s almost dangerous to get up there (no “Caution” signs in sight!), then stand crowded behind a rope. You contemplate the ascent, almost, to heaven, ever knowing, a false step backwards would start your trip immediately, and you feel deeply impressed. A more traditional exhibition space hosts Norbert Bisky’s comic book style, colourful, happy, violent, sellable, German paintings for the start upper’s penthouse.

This year, Konrad Fischer Gallery celebrates its 50th anniversary. The jubilee show unites some very fine works from the likes of Bruce Naumann, Hans-Peter Feldmann, On Kawara, or Claes Oldenburg. Yet, it’s all just put into the space without apparent plan. Seems, they’re more celebrating themselves than their artists with this careless display, especially on ground floor. On the other hand: they surely don’t have anything to prove anymore.

In the same building on Linienstrasse, Gregor Podnar Gallery shows Global Writings by Irma Blank, nonsensical scribblings on paper and mirrors. It makes no sense, unless you read it. Maybe the artist herself can. As it is, it seems rhythmic, musical, more Hanne Darboven than Cy Twombly. Occasionally, it’s not fictional glyphs, but Latin letters: “hgt rltjcjl rljr ...” all over a mirror. About sums up my thoughts in front of the mirror a Sunday morning.

Now start saving for the beach (ok, if you plan to visit ABMB, you don’t need to, but have you booked your ticket yet?).

World of Arts Magazine – Contemporary Art Criticism



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