That Pimpin’ Game’s BS. Blain Southern in Berlin. And an excellent show at Jiri Svestka Gallery

(Berlin.) Should you happen to have an abandoned industrial site or two in your real estate portfolio – located in or around some metropolis preferably –, our advice is to offer at least 1,000 sq. m. to a successful art gallery, maybe even for free. Then charge ridiculously high rents from the lot of small galleries who will do anything to reside on the same grounds. They’ll celebrate their openings on the same night as the big guy, hoping for that one collector who ends up drunk enough to knock on the wrong door and buy an exhibition more than intended. Or leave his contact info at least (reason enough for a young dealer to open a bottle of Champagne). It seldom works.

 

Art dealers in Berlin still get teary-eyed talking about the time when they were neighbours of Haunch of Venison Gallery at Museum Hamburger Bahnhof, raving about those Russian registered limousines rolling into the court on openings nights.

To cut the story short, Harry Blain and Graham Southern went on to sell Haunch of Venison to Harry’s former bosses at Christie’s, then founded Blain Southern, again with a flagship store in Berlin. Today, there’s not a gallery left in the neighbourhood of Hamburger Bahnhof, and Blain Southern resides on 1,300 sq. m. of a former publishing and printing company, owned by a local magnate with a penchant for the arts (his other investments include Bechstein Pianos and a theatre). Those "parasite galleries" have long staked their claims, even if there’s a vacancy now, you won’t get an answer, it only works by connections. The address is Potsdamer Strasse in the old west of Berlin.

 

If this is your first visit to Berlin, or this specific area, you might feel like taking a stroll. You discover a plaque commemorating Marlene Dietrich spending a whole year of her childhood here, buy noodles at “Asia Boy International Foods”, or contemplate posters for a gig of “Super Star Nassif Zeytoun” and Kick Box fight nights. Eventually you arrive at Kurfürstenstrasse metro station, then proceed down the side streets. Soon you find yourself surrounded by exceptionally kind and attractive young women whose revealing dresses don’t seem quite adapted to the weather. You feel flattered, return their nod with a confident smile (that new haircut does work!) then receive proposals that are rather on the straightforward side. Finally, you see the “security personnel” casually smoking in a doorway. Their job description is not all that different from an art dealer’s, in the words of L̶a̶r̶r̶y̶ ̶G̶a̶g̶o̶s̶i̶a̶n̶ Iceberg Slim: “You gotta make ‘em hump hard and fast to stick ‘em for long scratch quick.” We wonder, if Blain Southern offers package deals to  collectors.

 

It’s very convenient for the gallery staff, too - where else could you leave the office for a kebab and a blowjob, both at the same price that would not even buy you a catalogue at Blain Southern? Though we guess the guys working there earn enough to afford a more classy escort (this is not Paris where art galleries offer exactly two wage levels: owner – most often paid by daddy/hubby/honey - and legal minimum; no wait, we forgot the unpaid interns). One thing is for sure: no artist pimped by Blain Southern can be put under the pressure of “go, create more sellable works, or your new job is waiting round the corner”. Regarding those small galleries, on the other hand...

(Just for equality’s sake: a quarter of an hour’s walk away, there’s a square in Fuggerstrasse where young Eastern European men hang around all day, and you’d actually be happy if they were selling drugs.) Reluctantly, we left this fascinating world, and entered the gallery grounds.

 

Blain Southern occupies the former printing works’ main building; their electricity and heating budget alone could cover the living costs of big artist collectives for years. The gallery celebrates its fifth anniversary in Berlin – the Kensington headquarters opened a year earlier – with a group show including everybody who has shown here during this time. It’s a great opportunity to recycle old press releases, artists folders, and maybe even get rid of some unsellable residues.

 

It seems hard to imagine a creative hanging/installation for so diverse an exhibition, yet Blain Southern really tried. One wall for example is reserved to darker colours, monochrome or just shadowy. What we first thought a Warhol, is a print from Douglas Gordon, featuring Elvis as a cowboy with bullet holes that are actually mirrors [Self Portrait of You and me (Elvis 24 legs), 2015]. Build your image, kill your idols, destroy the unfashionable past, project yourself but blend out every aspect you don’t like - it’s fine. Jannis Kounellis’ black assemblages are definitely the most aesthetic works in the whole show, and then there’s Wim Wenders with photographs. Yes, that’s right, the film director was asked to play at artist and granted a solo show last year, surely a major (marketing) success. His works reveal the professional image maker, that’s all there is to say about them. Fittingly, they hang close to an installation by Nasan Tur: Variations of Capital. Seventy times the term “Capital” on one equally sized, “handmade, Tibetan (sheet of) paper” each, and written differently each time, i.e. “capitaahl”, “capidahl”, etc. You need to recognize every opportunity, and no matter the differences, everything’s the same, standardized. Always wrong(ly spelt), but still imposing itself. Unsuspected self-irony here?

 

On the other, more colourful, wall, you find textiles by Abdoulaye Konaté for the globalist/ethnic touch, and some atrocious kitsch by Jonas Bungert. On the way upstairs (there’s no lift, a major downside, how do they expect the elderly collector/big boned art advisor to reach the second floor?) our eyes had time to recover.

Finally arriving on the upper gallery, you could spit down on the heads of people below – an opening night’s pastime for art students? -, or wonder how many performance artists would have queued in the 1960s to spend a month or two on that metal bar over the abyss. You’re welcomed by a headless angel/bird man carrying avocados in a basket on his back (Yinka Shonibare, Food Fairie). Ok. And the neon Forever (yellow) by Tim Noble and Sue Webster. We like it very much – much better than their other works here. The no-longer-married-but-still-working-together-oh-it’s-complicated couple also shows uninspired prints and even less inspired ceramics, probably with their trademark nod to trash culture. But back to that neon, it glistens, the bulbs remind of diamonds, there seems to be a nod to sustainable energy even. Who wouldn’t want to be fashionable, and rich forever, yet the individual lights change, the bulbs go out and on again, the system stays the same. The glamorous font will soon be out-dated, it looks sooo two-thousand-tens, even art is no perpetuum mobile. And, yeah of course it’s trash, it does remind of a bling bling rapper’s big ass gold chain. You realize, we deeply fell in love with this work.

 

There’s also Lawrence Weiner and François Morellet with one work each. Legendary artists like them lend credibility to everybody else in a gallery’s stable. Franceso Clemente for example. Judging to all these leftovers, his exhibition did not sell well. At all. A surprise, as his outsider art-ish paintings would suit every hotel corridor. Lynn Chadwick’s (male! artist, 1914 – 2003; the inspiration behind that Johnny Cash song “A Boy named Sue”?) bronzes are nice, though you always think you’ve seen them before. Maybe on Saatchi art. But that’s not Chadwick’s fault. He was big in his days, and well deserves a revival.

 

On our way back, the Forever neon now appears mirrored above the angel whom we see from behind; with his hanging shoulders he seems exhausted, annoyed, by the prospect. Outside, we enter the opposite building where a sofa under the wormy wooden stairs and the imprint “Berber carpet sale / 20%” on a rundown door immediately create a cosier, warmer, and certainly less wealthy, atmosphere. We decided to visit Jiri Svestka Gallery on the third floor, and it proved the right choice: Karima Al-Mukhtarová is a name you should keep in mind.

Her solo show transports the visitor into other worlds, surrealist dreamscapes and nightmarish scenes. She also knows her movies. In one installation, an interrogation lamp and a speaker aim at a mannequin in Michael Myers mask and Freddie sweater, hugging (raping?) a Barbie doll; there’s also a clock (-> Dali) running backwards, and the sound of slides. The leaves of a potted plant shiver with your every movement. Creepy.

 

Karima Al-Mukhtarová often makes use of cotton threads in her art, a photo shows a blonde woman who has (gotten) sewn them through her skin Gina Pane style. It’s closely watched by a mannequin in a burka and pink socks under an open tent of threads and a totem pole with stitched-on stars or blossoms. Another room has even more poles and a tiny camel shouldering a tower of cardboard boxes.

From the press release we learn, the Iraqi-Czech artist living in Germany once had the same idea for a performance as the Italian (South Tyrolean) Sven Sachsalbers had in France (at Palais de Tokyo, 2014): to make the pan-European saying “search the needle in a haystack” a reality. Does this tell anything about culture and language?

Beside the easily identifiable topics and motives (the artist’s a half-Arab woman), these manifestations of (bad) dreams are simply captivating. There’s not much need for understanding. To reassure her dealer, Al-Mukhtarová also offers framed works, very nice collages indeed.

The exhibition’s title is “I don’t agree with myself”, and we think, she might well agree with her work here. We certainly do.

 

Finally, we left to have a kebab.

 

 

Blain Southern, Group Show 12 Solos, 16 February-16 April 2016

Karima Al-Mukhtarová, I don’t Agree with Myself, 13 February-26 March 2016, Jiri Svestak Gallery

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