Behind the Scenes at Based in Berlin


Berlin’s controversial survey of locally residing artists, “based in Berlin,” kicked off last week with a VIP reception in a raw building near the city’s Friedrichstrasse railway station that was recently snapped up by publisher and collector Angelika Taschen. Tagged as a “welcome back from Venice” event and as not related to “based in Berlin,” the party had a guest list, apart from the exhibition’s curators and their advisors, that included some of the city’s big-gun gallerists, artists and collectors. It was a typically Berlin affair, with dry meatballs and cheap sparkling white wine to boot.

The show’s main aim “is to deliver a useful overview of the young generation of artists currently living in Berlin,” one of the exhibition’s three curatorial advisors, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, told A.i.A. Five selected curators—Angelique Campens, Fredi Fischli, Magdalena Magiera, Jakob Schillinger and Scott Cameron Weaver—made these determinations.

Selection for the show began with a highly publicized open call, with $288,000 of public spending set aside for surveying portfolios. This strategy can be greatly useful if curators are unfamiliar with the talent pool. In this case, the embedded, well-connected selectors also handpicked artists, leaving questions about the initial budget and publicity.

Masterminded by MoMA’s Klaus Biesenbach and Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit, the show has been dogged by controversy. Wowereit secured the exhibition’s roughly $2.3 million in funding, with an initial $850,000 of public funding, which some understood as little more than a plug for the mayor’s re-election campaign this fall. The mayor’s response was to find an additional non-public $1.45 million, but he took that funding from the lottery foundation, of which he is chairman. Another controversial move was the curatorial advisors’ large paychecks, which went to Biesenbach, Obrist and Pompidou’s Christine Macel.

While Obrist was hard pressed to give examples of how the five curators explicitly sought his expertise, he did tell A.i.A., “We had lots of meetings—mostly in Berlin but also in other cities . . . we talked about art; they were just discussions about art.”

The sweltering heat that Biennale-goers brought back to Berlin didn’t last the opening evening. A tour of the exhibition, due to begin atop an aluminum scaffolding at one of the exhibition’s five venues, Monbijoupark, was a washout. The venue, charted to be demolished at the end of the summer, was until recently a two-floor studio-workshop space with some 20 rooms belonging to the Berlin-Weissensee Art Academy. Without a map of the building, visitors were forced to walk aimlessly through an exhibition where most rooms held solo presentations of artists with many of the title tags discreetly displaying a gallery courtesy line. This encouraged visitors to interpret certain rooms as satellite spaces of particular galleries—funded by the city (and the aforementioned lottery fund). For example, the room displaying Tue Greenfort’s TENT (2007–11), a room-filling folded-up poster made of tarpaulin, emitting a smell recalling hours of childhood fun on an inflatable bouncy castle but seemed to have little connection to other artworks. It could have easily been labeled “Galerie Johann König’s room.”

The loose curatorial conceit inevitably made the exhibition feel random. “Any randomness says as much about the Berlin art scene as it does about the curators,” artist Daniel Keller told A.i.A. The expatriate, with Nik Kosmas, forms the participating collective AIDS-3D. “I think they did a good job at representing the myriad styles of art production happening at the moment,” he added.

Often, works in the same room evinced very little or flip connections. Witness Nina Canell’s beautiful Black Light (For Ten Performers) (2009–11), which chiefly consists of a series of 10 framed letters, which were mailed to the participants, a group of collectors, following a series of synchronized collective blackouts in their respective households that were remotely controlled via installed electric timers. The letters noted the exact time and date of the electrical interruption. It shares a room with Fiete Stolte’s poetical Night between 7th and 8th day / 13th week / 2011 (2011), a floor sculpture consisting of a plaster cast of the imprint his body of the artist’s movements on a memory foam during sleep. While each is rather nice, the works share little thematically.

But there were bigger blunders, like Ariel Schlesinger’s brilliant A Car Full of Gas (2009), with its tiny flame emitted from the side window of a black Mini Cooper. During the entire opening, there was no flame, and a note on the windshield read “out of order”—a somehow fitting photo op for the mayor as he passed. The artist paced nervously and cursed the fire regulations until later that evening, when the work was repaired. Or 2010 Berlin Biennale star Petrit Halilaj’s Astronauts saw my work and started laughing (2011), an organic wigwam structure on which Monks Cress is supposed to climb. It is placed in a shady spot, making it difficult for the plant to grow, and is being eaten by a family of local bunnies.

One of the first-floor rooms of the Hamburger Bahnhof was taken over by “based in Berlin” and featured the best exhibition of all five venues—even if it favored a narrow selection of artists, selected from just a tight group of insider galleries. The hugely successful project space The Forgotten Bar Project, which regularly mounts one-night-only group exhibitions in a 30-foot-square bar, was represented with a Wunderkammer-like installation at the Hamburger Bahnhof. An impressed National Gallery curator Dieter Scholz told A.i.A., “with this installation, the Forgotten Bar becomes unforgettable.”

Generally, the response to the exhibition has been positive. Behind the scenes, though, the Berlin art world is less proud of this costly exhibition. The leaflet announcing “based in Berlin” devoted half of its page space to listing the 2011 participants in Gallery Weekend Berlin, but omitted many galleries whose artists took part, thus publicizing, with tax dollars, many established commercial galleries that had no artists in the show.