Breakthrough in Berlin


Now in its fifth year, Berlin’s Gallery Weekend kicked off last Friday in a pseudo-ritualistic spring awakening for the much-hyped art scene here. As with any fair, curatorial choices are made behind closed doors.  Headliners across each of the 38 participating galleries were united under a common commercial goal; a sense of unity amid the disorganization was characteristic of the independent spirit of Berlin’s collective ethic. There was much to be seen, as the event aimed to draw Berlin’s missing population: art buyers. More casual in its approach, the weekend is one in a slew of such city-specific exercises including ArtForum Berlin (September 24-27), Art Berlin Contemporary (September 24-27) and the less commercial, more institutional 6th Berlin Biennial, which will open in the spring of 2010.

German collector Christian Boros’s advertising firm designed pocket guides detailing the weekend’s goings-on. Along with other collectors in the city, he also hosted special visiting hours for his private art collection, which is housed in a retooled Nazi bunker near Friedrichstraße.  Participants pony up fees in the thousands of Euros to pay for listings, dinners, after-parties, and VIP shuttles while competing with the coincident museum, guerilla, and other renegade vernissages that piggyback on the fair’s popularity. Anticipation for a strong showing ran high, following relatively quiet months in March and April; much of it rode on current art world market weariness (not to mention the summer’s higher-profile presentations in Venice and Basel). Fewer American accents were overheard this year, as a more distinctly European crown included many curators; the Serpentine’s ubiquitous Hans Ulrich Obrist was spotted in the throng, while White Columns’ Matthew Higgs spun records at Giti Nourbakhsch.

May Day street riots in Kreuzberg made the cluster of galleries near Kochstraße difficult to access from the east. Nordenhake’s timely exhibition of German photographer Michael Schmidt includes punk-ish West Berlin cityscapes from the 1960s, a reminder that November marks the 20th anniversary of the Wall’s demise. Hanne Darboven’s airtight installation at Klosterfelde progresses frenetically through the space: Wunschkonzert (1984), diagrams a complex arithmetic system that develops in the style of a musical composition, each loose leaf framed and delicately hung against the wall.

Standing in the lower level of Arndt and Partner, Ralf Ziervogel’s sharply-defined eyebrows reiterate the studied, severe angles in his felt-tipped drawings. Resplendent in a T-shirt studded with faux white pearls, Terence Koh appropriated the endometrial material of his mixed-media sculpture (and 2/3-scaled alter ego) Boy by the Sea at Peres Projects. Similar ensembles will soon be available at Opening Ceremony, which is collaborating with Koh on a new line of clothing. Nearby, Kaye Donachie’s dream-like paintings pay an appropriately mystical tribute to the rites of spring.

In the Mitte district, Richard Artschwager’s art furniture dominates the lower gallery of Sprüth Magers’ triumvirate exhibition, based on a series of drawings from the 1960s that were produced almost explicitly for the occasion. A grid-like arrangement makes the feeling of fancy somewhat forced, with softly chartreuse sculptural exclamation points doing their best to recapture a sense of whimsy. John Bock’s light box-decoupage installation in Klosterfelde’s Linienstraße space makes for a delightfully curious diorama, even after-hours. At the KW Institute, one imagines Sergej Jensen’s savage, salvaged linen and jute canvas paintings to be an unreliable postmodern darning of modernism’s destructed remains—Lucio Fontana’s radical slashes stitched incoherently back together. Jensen and his band play a set on the roof afterwards, serenading guests at a grill party near the Dan Graham pavilion below.

The most exciting work arrived in the shape of articulate and comprehensive solo shows. At Buchmann Galerie, the Italian Arte Povera artist Giuseppe Penone made his Berlin debut. The rich materials and dendrochronologic time apparent in each of his large, tactile and deliberate sculptural pieces impresses slowly and unequivocally.  Just steps away, the 72-year-old artist relaxed outside on borrowed biergarten benches. At Esther Schipper, Carsten Höller’s influence even seeps into the horrifying hues on the gallery walls: the main exhibition room is coated in magenta and the front office in mint. Decidedly less delicate than your average Calder, the form of his canary cage mobile is derived formulaically, each steel bar cantilevered level tracing the diagonal of a square, in a conceptual process of continuous halving. (As trivial a question as it may be, one is dissatisfied that the problem of feeding the canaries is less explicitly probed.)  In an adjacent room, the reconnected pairs of halved magical mushrooms (or rather, their plaster molds) are ensconced in vitrines, quite beautiful objects that explore the dualistic nature of perception.  These particular exhibitions were breakthrough moments in an otherwise routine weekend.