AB, But no Longer, and Yet Still: C. With and Without Positions.

(Berlin.) A lot of questions surround Berlin Art Week (BAW):

Is there anybody who has never confused it with Gallery Weekend Berlin (GWB)? Where lies the difference between a long weekend in spring, and a short week in autumn? Does Berlin, of all cities, need two such events, and while we’re at it, two art fairs taking place during Berlin Art Week? Is there even a single foreign art collector visiting Berlin twice, for BAW and for GWB? Also, and much more specific: When does Berlin Art Week start? On Art Berlin’s Thursday press conference, the artistic director claimed this to be the first day of BAW'17, Friday night being reserved for gallery openings, yet some of the galleries she quoted opened their new shows already a week ago... Anyway, forget about galleries for the moment, here we shall only be concerned with the fairs.

 

AB dropped the "C"; art berlin contemporary (abc) sold its operations to a bigger (art) fair operator, and henceforth wants to be called Art Berlin. A new name, a new beginning (once again). Some locals might feel reminded of bankrupt airline Air Berlin, and the domain names artberlin .com and .de have long been taken by an event calendar and a spammer respectively, but these are minor issues.
The change in marketing should be understood as an admission of defeat. You remember that “positions” hogwash, abc management’s cringeworthy aversion to any – not thing, but word - business related? They awkwardly insisted on not showing goods for sale, but “positions” instead (for sale, but telling so seemed too vulgar). All said and done, visitors noticed no discernible difference to regular art trade fairs.

The event has not been taken over by Art Basel, nor by Frieze, Armory or fiac. No, Art Cologne was the sole bidder, an organization of merely regional importance. Never heard of it? Yes. Art Cologne’s boss is an American with German roots. He’s really good in talking about “going global”, and ‘how hard it has become to identify the world’s best galleries, there are so many all over the world now!’ Chapeau, that’s really the best excuse anybody could come up with for not getting those. Market concentration in art, ever fewer global players growing ever bigger, to the detriment of small and midsize galleries, leaving not more, but indeed fewer, important, galleries to dominate an industry? No, we don't know about that. 

 

Glancing over the exhibitors list, nothing’s changed: New York shuns Berlin, and so do (most of) London and Paris. Don’t expect to see the likes of Gago, Zwirner, Lisson, Sean Kelly, Marian Goodman or only Ropac and Perrotin in Berlin anytime soon.

Dropping the “c” that stood for “contemporary”, does not, or only partially, announce a change in curatorial strategy. There’s modern art now, but contemporary still rules the scene. A lot of galleries were demanding the change, we hear, yet apparently never considered leaving for the second BAW fair, that is called Positions albeit never having wanted to be anything else but a trade fair (that name was probably just a malicious dig at abc). Relations between both seem tense, to put it mildly. More like Trump and Kim. Working for Art Berlin, you must never, never ever, mention Positions (the fair), not under torture, that word is even more taboo than “business” was once. Competitors don’t exist (they must have read that in some marketing manual).

 

Berlin’s art scene is notorious for its clans, for mafia style old boys/’n’girls networks. There is only one dealer operating – by duty of his office – in a neutral zone, we’ll talk about him presently. For now, the politics might have tired you, so let’s start talking about art. There is great art at Art Berlin

There’s Miriam Cahn at Meyer Riegger Gallery; you know her paintings, her unique style that's never changing. There’s Thomas Bayrle at Barbara Weiss Gallery using images from Chinese propaganda papers to cover up photos from Tibet. There’s Haegue Yang at Barbara Wien Gallery with op art related bird cages from neon and window shutters, you may see more of the same, and bigger, at Kindl Art Centre (or read about it on wartsmagazine.com soon).

König Gallery’s booth could hold its own even where the big boys play: Alicja Kwade, Camille Henrot, Katharina Grosse, ... Yep, pretty impressive. Eigen&Art Gallery impresses most with small formats of Nicola Samorì, classically styled paintings burned into a copper canvas with sulphuric acid, and served with thickened layers of colour on top. Ikeda Gallery vis-à-vis has interesting granite(?) torpedoes/cigars/zeppelins. You don’t need to assemble their art yourself, despite the name. They’re not even Swedish. Forsblom Gallery is. At least they own a salesroom in Stockholm, besides their Finland headquarters. In Berlin, Forsblom presents a solo position, argh no: solo show, by Reima Nevalainen. Paintings/collages, and a polished-to-mirror sculpture, head-shaped.

 

Some galleries, however, did not get the memo about that new concept. Or maybe, it took them years to finally figure out what a “position” on a not-trade-yet-art-fair might be, and once they did, they plainly refuse to change the concept again, simply because the fair has changed theirs. Or they don’t care at all, their participation being merely a gesture of goodwill, their customers hardly condescending to a visit. I’m thinking of S/M, Sprüth Magers, Berlin, London, LA. Their “booth” is a single installation of John Bock. A trip into the mad artist’s fabulous realms of chaos, and no salesperson, or info table, in sight. Brilliant! S/M does not list Art Berlin in their website’s news section, by the way.

neugerriemschneider Gallery’s booth is not quite as daring, yet designed in roughly the same spirit. They show the life of a tree, from root to paper, in several works of – well, I don’t know. The gallery without a website is a gallery without labels next to their works, and I didn't have a chance to ask. (editor's note: thanks to Art Berlin's photo credits, I'm now able to clarify this point: It's Ai Weiwei.)

 

At the same time, there’s business pure et dure. There’s Fischer, Merchants in Art (“Kunsthandel” – not a petty “gallery”!) with Otto Dix, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Emil Nolde, and Pablo even. They offer the better Warhol than Klaus Benden Gallery, who adds Roy Lichtenstein and Julian Opie, and openly posts his prices. Opie is funny, because right next to this booth, there’s Jarmuschek & Partner with another artist’s monochrome drawings in the same minimalist style. That gallery further shows Carina Linge‘s photo copy of Duchamp’s mythical Nu descendant un escalier, that, you certainly know, in the past inspired Gerhard Richter to Ema in oil. At AB, Gerhard Richter, together with fellow giants Thomas Schütte and the Bechers, only appears hidden away at Schönewald Gallery.

In what seems like an unsuspected act of self-mocking modesty, AB reserved a large space for one tiny sculpture. Is it a statement on that other AB, that thing in Basle, and their Unlimited sector? ABerlin’s (fake) bonsai tree is a work of Awst&Walther, and supposed to tell of genetic engineering in the anthroposcene. Alone in the dark, shivering in the merciless spotlight, you just want to hug it.

 

At Dittrich & Schlechtriem, I had to restrain myself not to toss Julian Charrière’s kitsch photography into Simon Mullan’s ready-made garbage container. Let’s stick to the highlights: Zilberman Gallery from Istanbul shows Azade Köker’s quiet, yet violent, sometimes almost decorative, paper collages, and a textile sculpture in form of a giant chain. Talking textiles, there’s a Joana Vasconcelos inspired artist at Piktogram Gallery from Poland. But highlights only, Louisa Clement at Wentrup Gallery belongs to those, her sand covered black glass carpet on the floor recreates a lava landscape, quite impressive. Constantin Luser and his thin mobiles at Crone Gallery certainly not ranks among the lo(/u)sers, and Rebecca Akroyd is another great, or at least interesting, artist. In any case, hers is a weird work: Probably due to the fact that the gallery – Opdahl - hails from Norway, I was immediately thinking of a troll’s sandal. Inside, there’s a barbecue grill, and flames painted all about. The grill is supposed to be a gutter, that’s why the title Gutter Shelter

 

Thinking about it again, Art Berlin offers more than a handful of great works, yet visiting, it feels like the multiplication of galleries did not lead to a multiplication of quality. Rather the contrary. There are booths you pass with just one look, and don’t regret it later. 

Now let’s see about Positions. They have big names, too: Hermann Nitsch at Ernst Hilger Gallery, Vienna, strategically positioned (ha!) behind the entrance. They have not-so-contemporary art, too: Tischbein, Menzel, and a “German dilettante of the 19th Century” at Kunsthandel Ralph R. Haugwitz. They have international galleries, too: Christopher Cutts Gallery, Toronto, shows a fake Tony Oursler (without video), and fake Franz-Xaver Messerschmidt busts, but also Sherri Hay who not only paints water colours, but also creates cute little figurines from paper and polymer clay. Tokyo’s Frantic Gallery had the longest journey of all exhibitors at Berlin Art Week (at dog shows this earns you a special award!). 

The fair has many surprises in store: When you think, “that’s John DeAndrea”, it’s Carole Feuermann, when you think (from far!), “that’s Giacometti!?”, it’s Tina Heuter, &c. But seriously: much at Positions is bad. Really bad. Positions is not on par with Art Berlin, I cannot claim it were. Cause it’s not. But if you keep your eyes open, you will discover hidden gems among the trash. - Now I get the feeling to have written the same last year, but I’m too afraid (/lazy) to verify. Awkward. 

 

I love Esther Stocker’s broken geometric patterns in object, paintings, and installation (Dr Julius Arp Gallery, Berlin), not least since I once had the honour to assist in organizing a Parisian gallery show of hers.

There’s Goekhan Erdogan at Heike Strelau Gallery, distorting his own passport photo ever anew. Great! And Michael Merkel’s drawings of coal pits in light cones at the University of Weimar owned gallery Marke 6 (so what, the MIT owns Bose Audio). Another big name, Markus Lüpertz at Kunsthandel Osper, Cologne – Positions has definitely more Cologne based galleries on show than Art Berlin. That’s no coincidence, I guess. 

Strangely, some nice works at Positions have been here last year too. Petra Johanna Barfs’ drawing collages and Ignacio Llamas’ miniature photos. Buy those! Now! Go!

Willi Siber’s Plexiglas colour dots are found at Art Berlin (Klaus Benden Gallery) AND at Positions (Schmalfuss Gallery), while Jarmuschek and Partner Gallery is the one exceptions that participates in both, with different artists. The dealer, Kristian Jarmuschek, is not only a founding director of Positions, but more importantly, the president of the German Art Dealers’ Association. Whenever he enters the premises of Art Berlin, you hear the sound of managers and curators gnashing their teeth from five blocks away.

 

If Positions has a special field of expertise, it’s photography. Galleries like Projekteria (Barcelona), Bouwer Editions (Darmstadt), and Maus Contemporary (Birmingham) – the latter with a 1970s series of Barbara and Michael Leisgen doing what every decent tourist does between Pisa and Paris: photographically capturing landmarks on their fingertips, but they did it really nice – prove it. Then again, there’s also an award for "Sports Photography". Seriously? Are you f--- kidding me? Do you need to spoil everything that looks promising about your fair? And what about that wall of “Selected Positions”, are those the most boring, most uninspired, works you could find, and you were searching for the most elegant way to hide them away, next to the cafeteria, but not close enough to bother the eaters, that’s it?

 

Berlin Art Week means Gallery Weekend Berlin plus two fairs where galleries opening new shows at (roughly) the same time, present one more show in an added space. The world’s largest fair in terms of participants and surface – featuring almost all the city’s art dealers – gets a temporary centre. That’s really necessary?

Arguably the best thing for Berlin would be a merger of GWB and BAW, with Positions becoming the official “off” of Art Berlin. Maybe Art Cologne GmbH could be taken over by MCH Swiss Exbition Ltd. Then Gagosian opens a space in Mitte, next to Chri-theby’s, and – ... Ok, nothing of this will happen. Berlin will remain a minor player in the industry. 

Who could give me ten reasons to visit Berlin for art these days?

 

Berlin Art Week, Art Berlin, Positions

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