(Berlin.) There is no truly important art fair in Berlin, and at the same time, the city hosts the world’s largest art fair, with the longest (yet shortest) running time. A special kind of fair that doesn’t invite outsider exhibitors. We’re talking about the annual Berlin Gallery Weekend.
Everywhere in the world, neighbouring galleries like to open their shows on the same night to try and swap collectors. Now in Berlin, once a year, this is not restricted to one or two streets, but every - or almost every – gallery does the same thing, with openings on Friday night and extended hours on Saturday and Sunday. The weeks prior to Gallery Weekend our timeline got deluged with Facebook events announcing shows of Julie Mehretu, Jorinde Voigt and the likes - that sounds like the typical art fair alright. Officially, it’s only fifty-four participating galleries, but nobody cares about the official selection. This is much better than the lot of off- fairs around Frieze, Fiac, ArtBasel, &c. - at Berlin Gallery Weekend you don’t even know, who’s in and who’s not. Even some public galleries join without invitation: Berlinische Galerie announced “video art at midnight, Sunday from 10 a. m. – 6 p. m.” (find the error). The only downside to not being in the “official” selection is to be missing from the catalogue and the foldout map. If you’re in Berlin, just go somewhere you’ve spotted a gallery once, and start the tour. It’s fine to make a list beforehand with shows you absolutely need to see, but be prepared no to make it to half of them. There’s so much going on, you’ll never have enough time. Of course you could also stay for some days longer: Gallery Weekend actually translates to “Gallery Weeks”, all shows will continue for the usual six to eight weeks (how exactly it is possible that in a few months from now, opening dates will again differ so much that you can visit another gallery every week, is a phenomenon that the best mathematicians cannot fully explain; we call it arty dechronologization).
Gallery hopping can get not only exhausting, but also confusing, as we experienced first hand. Of the many options, we chose Potsdamer Strasse for Friday night. At 6 p. m. we set out on our tour, the first spot on our list was Klosterfelde Editions with Rirkit Tiranajiva. We’d hoped for a participative dinner/drink event, the artist is famous for serving soup and creating communication spaces. On our way down Potsdamer Strasse, we passed a restaurant closed for a “private party” with paintings, and later bumped into a group that we immediately identified as “the art crowd”. We’d never been to Klosterfelde before, and they were standing in front of Vincenz Sala as was written above the door, a Paris/Berlin based gallery that was not on our list. Those people staring at us, we definitely had to prove we belonged “in”. So we entered. And found out, Klosterfelde shows Tiranajiva not at their own address – which we believed to be much further down the street -, but in here. There was no convivial environment, though. Instead photo collages and installations, the main theme seemingly something like “travels”(?). You can play at Mikado, and there is a shelf with a lot of stamps to use. A Dave Grohl lookalike tried to sell the stamps for 8 000 € a piece to an eight year old, both wearing black suits. We think, he was joking. We also saw a Christo like wrapped suitcase on the wall, then left again. An adjoining restaurant had a barbecue on the street, one of the cooks looked Asian, but Rirkit Tiranajiva is definitely older; in any case they were ignoring us, and nobody was actually eating.
ed.: When writing this article, we did some research and found out that Vincenz Sala Gallery today resides in another area of Berlin. This was indeed Helga Maria Klosterfelde Editions in disguise. Once, there was also a Martin Klosterfelde Gallery somewhere in Berlin, but how Mrs Helga is related to him, and who was that long haired dealer guy, we still have no clue. We’ll need to investigate some more.
Next on our list was Blain Southern, but we somehow managed to take the wrong door and entered Judin Gallerie instead. Again we only realized this much later when searching for the press release from BS among all the papers and flyers we’d collected (we actually wondered how they’d refurbished the space since our last visit). The audience was the same anyway, with the cheap smell of money filling the air. There was even a bouncer guarding the entrance (no good though, as he let us in). We enjoyed the free drinks - something red, sparkling and sugary, possibly expensive -, and discovered a closed door to a “private viewing room”. Oh yes, there was art too, and great art it was! Judin shows monochrome water colours from Uwe Wittwer with historic scenes and antique bodies, if you read the press release you’ll learn it’s all about looted art from World War Two. And how freaking big this show is! There are not only a lot of large formats, but also a shelf with some ninety small ones standing in three lines. Definitely a kind of painting we like. On the contrary, when continuing our tour of Potsdamer Strasse, we entered Maerz Contemporary and got out again as fast we could. The artist run space next door was quite abstract, with a couple offering self baked mini muffins and beer. At Michael Janssen Gallery, we admired photos of Marina Abramovic and Ulay’s legendary performances - wait, what?! We all know how much they hate each other today, simply unconceivable they would agree to a joint show. In fact, all these works come from a private collection - fed up with their disputes, the collector decided to divorce them on his part?
Later we hesitated at, but did not enter, the “Golden Dolls Strip Club”, and chose Isabella Bortolozzi Gallery (not: Bertolucchi!) instead. The whole space was turned into an installation, crawling through black rubber curtains we heard much Italian talk. In parts it looked like a rundown sauna, then again there were camp beds and punchbags. An extra room has magnificent wood shelves and a chapel like window. In the staircase ice buckets with beer bottles for the ordinary visitor, inside the gallery a sullen intern serving white wine to collectors. We took a look at the list of works and realized this is not a single installation, but offered in parts. Seriously? You want a rubber punchbag, a camp bed or sauna interior, there might be better choices; you want a great experience, a tunnel, an eerie atmosphere, then go and buy it all. “Capisce?”
There would have been so much more to see around Potsdamer Strasse, but we decided to walk to Potsdamer Platz, take the train and spend the rest of the night in Mitte. A triple cheeseburger and some spring rolls in Friedrichstrasse later, we felt strong enough to continue.
Sprüth Magers, another household name with galleries in Berlin, London and LA presents three shows, of which we preferred Alexandre Singh’s installation. Performed in a separate space on the first floor, it’s always fascinating to observe how many people think a queue is there just for fun, and try to enter directly. Finally inside, it was dark except for a battery of spotlights illuminating (enlightening) a toaster, two cassette recorders, a bottle of bleach and other protagonists of the on-going play. The inorganic actors engage in a stimulating conversation about art, god and the world. Might also be about artificial intelligence and the projection of inner worlds into outer entities. On the downside it was unbearably hot in there, mainly due to those spotlights and a lack of aeration. We pitied the blonde intern leaning on the wall and praying it would be 9 o’clock before she’d faint. We couldn’t wait for this to happen, though. Other shows at SM Gallery are Craig Kauffmann with a Duchamp complex and Thea Djordjadze with something about the space (nice idea: put a painted Plexiglas plate in front of a window to make it appear like ours do all by themselves).
After this, we got completely lost in August- and Linienstrasse. We do remember Julian Charrière at Dittrich&Schlechtriem with computers, smartphones and stone, all molten into sculptures that do a bit recall Pieter Buggenhout. Geology, information, data preservation and potential energy in a brilliant packaging.
You could hardly enter the photo show at HVW8 because of an art school assembly, i.e. lots of American college kids on skateboards carrying empty beer cases around; and Aando Gallery had moving photos that are just a tad too kitschy and portraits of old Master Paintings that are really nice (both from Korean artist Leenam Lee). 9 p. m. was closing time and surprise: hardly anybody was at KW Institute. Usually their court is overrun on opening nights in summer but not so on Gallery Weekend. Everybody was just gone, and we have no clue where to. We took a seat outside, felt the massage as didgeridoo sounds from speakers resonated in the metal construction below us, and watched a light installation through the windows of the cafeteria pavilion.
Suddenly, it was Saturday, and still too many galleries in Berlin. Our choice for the morning was the old west, the bourgeois area around Kurfurstendamm. Around here, you don’t run a gallery, you engage in an art trade (“Kunsthandel”). Kunsthandel Wolfgang Werner shows poured bronzes by Per Kirkeby from 1980 to 2000. Said to represent the human form, you need a lot of imagination to confirm this. If they said “pair of (angel’s) wings”, or “oversized oysters”, or “inspiration to Anish Kapoor’s Versailles show last year”, we’d agree much more. Kettner next door has historic photos of artists with their works, and Buchholz has Wolfgang Tillmans. See, sometimes there are hyper-successful artists, and you just don’t get why. Still in the same neighbourhood, but a ten minutes’ walk away, you find the two spaces of Max Hetzler. Both show Edmund de Waal with ceramics, stones and other small objects reminiscent of a doll’s house furniture in black or white shelves. Also a lot of text, and even a library dedicated to Walter Benjamin, together with a map of places in Berlin that are in some way related to the philosopher’s biography. You could write letters on A5 paper sheets (gallery flyer format) with “archive” labelled pencils, and Hetzler would post them.
Our last stop in the west should be Michael Haas Gallery with a double feature of Leiko Ikemura and Paula Modersohn-Becker. One room for each artist is fine: here the 1920 expressionist, and there the contemporary painter. But they have also mixed them on one wall, and this is just wrong. It does not work. If you should own works of both, and we doubt there are many collectors who do, but if you do, now you know about the necessary minimum distance between both. Modersohn-Becker fits well in your bedroom, or a classic salon, a library, maybe you still have somewhere you refer to as the drawing room? Leiko Ikemura is better suited for the bar, or the lounge where you chill out after staring at a computer screen all day.
Gallery Weekend offered a shuttle service “in cooperation” with a Bavarian car maker, but unfortunately somebody’s made a mistake and forgot to put us on that list. Thus we had to take another train into Berlin’s south east, where carlier ∣ gebauer was, well not exactly waiting for us, but we went there anyway. Of their two shows we preferred Iman Issa, by far. She takes descriptions of antique objects - a pair of compasses e.g. - from museums, then recreates them (the objects that is). The texts are written on the wall, not next to the object, but labelled with numbers for recognition. Manifest the past, or its interpretation. In a backroom we discovered leftovers from recent exhibitions. When we’d visited there the last time, we were pretty sure, Paul Pfeiffer‘s boxing themed video art is as impressive as it is unsellable, and there it was still, indeed. Konrad Fischer Gallery shows an installation with plastic pellets all over the floor, not unlike those playground cells/ball pits at Ikea. An intern guarded the door to avert all those who haven’t read the warning, and those who did, too: 'It’s slippery, don’t sue us if you fall'. Inmidst the black sea, artist Alice Channer put sculptures, Tony Cragg could have made too.
At some point of every Gallery Weekend comes the inevitable feeling, that you just cannot stand it anymore. That you’re sick of seeing art. All of it. But then again, all you need is the right gallery, the right artist, with something special. In our case, it was Pat o’Neill’s retrospective with works from 1967 to 2008 at Veneklasen/Werner. Hypnotic videos, mysterious objects and great drawings. Definitely one of the highlights of this year’s edition. Also Julius von Bismarck at Alexander Levy Gallery with moving/”upwelling” spiral forms, and a hollow tower (inside some technical equipment and a display reading “rewinding film”, but no film). We only discovered this when searching for Crone Gallery. Finally we looked out of a window in the staircase and found it in the backyard. In there, Hamid Sulaiman‘s wordless comic strips tell of the civil war in his native Syria. On the first floor is Hanne Darboven with what she did when she was still alive, gigantic minimalist repetition. At the door we read, “exhibition continues on the ground floor”, but only found the afore visited show of Sulaiman?!
For the happy few, there’s a michelin-ed restaurant next door but we hurried on hungry, to finish the night at KW once again. This time, they had a barbecue outside, with pulled pork burgers and, well that was all, surprisingly politically incorrect (no choices for vegetarians and pork scorners), but succulent. The artist guy serving us was very relaxed too, intermittently putting salad on our burger, and serving his dog a cup of water. He could really have washed his hands though, you never know what’s in a salad, and a dog’s stomach is sensitive. There were a few more people that night, but still not the crowds we’d expected. We listened for some time to an idiotic performance/recital of idiotic poems, then went into the cafeteria pavilion to realize two things: the pulled pork burger sold outside for 3€ was 8€ in here, and the didgeridoo sounds from the night before were actually produced by a quartet with classical instruments (two violins and two biga-- somethings, are there contrabasses of 2m height?) who now started playing again. It wasn’t that bad, meditative actually.
Sunday morning we started at a five star hotel close to Tiergarten park where a Gallery Weekend sponsor, a Swiss watchmaker - not the one you’re thinking of now (we’d name them, if they only sent us a free sample) - had invited for brunch. What sounds like a sales show, was very distinguished, elderly gentleman sipping Champaign. When we entered, the host hesitated and took a close look at what we were holding in our hands. It was not a handgun, nor a hammer to smash the vitrines, only a mobile phone. Thus we realized how easy it would have been for some bad guys. We admired a 1960s skeleton pocket watch (probably Picasso-expensive), and passed on the food.
Later that day, we realized how not everybody had understood the concept of Gallery Weekend: An exhibition of drawings at Bikini Berlin designer fashion shopping mall was closed on Sunday. Smart decision!
Our decision to visit Philippe Decrauzat at Mehdi Chouakri was better. Great video art with moving, bubbling, bursting, coffee dregs or spiral galaxies and black and white squared paintings hiding like Liu Bolin before a wallpaper with variations in chess boards (looks less like a bathroom than it sounds). Finally, the very last stop of this year’s Gallery Weekend lay in the far east, on Karl-Marx-Allee. Over there, beyond the former frontier, the avenues and buildings in Pyongyang style are an experience in itself, at least if you like Bauhaus. Capitain Petzel Gallery resides in a concrete cube and “o captain, my captain” what have you done? No pretzels, but unimpressive photos of cameras and other 20th Century objects, also 1960s/70s magazines (“Benidorm in five languages”) and texts. Rounded up with wooden structures that look like what Donald Judd could have done if he had been an unimaginary artist. Or wait, it’s not bad, just unbelievably boring. It gives you a slight idea of how life in the Socialist East must have been like.
To sum up, we’ve suffered a lot – don’t think we've written about everything in these few lines! - to bring you the Top 5 of this year’s Berlin Gallery Weekend:
5. Philippe Decrauzat at Mehdi Chouakri for the exhibition design, the overall feel and the videos
4. Alexandre Singh at Sprüth Magers, for the smart discourse of our friend, the toaster
3. Uwe Wittwer at Galerie Judin, for paintings that are special, also for the sheer industriousness of an artist who produced about 120 works for one show – and all of the same quality!
2. Julian Charrière at Dittrich&Schlechtriem for the idea and the beauty
1. Pat O’Neill at Veneklasen/Werner for everything - videos, objects, and drawings.
Now who’ll give us some money to spend?
P.S.: If you’re an attentive reader, you might remember we’ve mentioned Julie Mehretu and Jorinde Voigt before. In the end, we did not visit their shows at König and Niels Borch Jensen respectively. Chekov disarmed.
Gallery Weekend, Berlin, 29 April- well, just visit the galleries’ websites and see for how long the shows are on. You can do this, you’re a big boy/girl.