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  • Katherine Koster: Art week in review – part two


Katherine Koster: Art week in review – part two

Berlin's art fairs don't have the six-figure price tags, ultra-elite collectors, or big name artists that ArtBasel, Miami Beach, and Frieze do. But that's not necessarily a bad thing...

Back to the claim made in my previous post: that art fairs are bad places to look at art. That claim was based on the idea that a piece of art needs a room of its own (or, that a work of art can’t be appreciated when it’s laid out with dozens of other works in the 21st century equivalent of a Renaissance banquet).

We can take this as the causal basis for why stands that displayed the works of only one artist worked best: when only one artist’s work is displayed, at least each artist, if not each work, has a room of its own; each booth has a clear thematic unity, something that cuts at the cacophony of the fair.

Luckily, the fairs got the hint. Art Forum picked up the idea from Preview (for the first year, Forum offered galleries the option of renting smaller spaces for solo shows; 17 galleries did so, including Zander and Rodeo galleries, which sold works an hour into the opening for €65,000 and €15,000 each, respectively.) Berliner Liste’s necessity-driven (read: they didn’t have enough galleries interested in participating) move to rent the majority of booths to independent artists worked quite well. This is supported by the fact that Preview, for the first time, allowed galleries to display works by multiple artists, which drew scathing criticism from artnet and other publications.

On the other side of the spectrum, ABC, occupying the middle ground between fair and curated group-exhibition, took the idea a step further and won praise. Organized by the people behind Berlin’s Gallery Weekend, ABC has a theme and shows one hand-picked piece from one artist at each participating gallery, (ironically, quite the antithesis of Gallery Weekend, where 100 plus galleries across Berlin share advertising but ultimately do their own thing).

ABC’s success might also be attributed to the direction this year’s theme, “Lights, Camera, Action”, gave it: the fair was largely comprised of video works – a medium that is quite good at escaping the decorative art fate of other mediums; and the small white screening huts isolated the film installations and prevented them from becoming what works at most other fairs became: a cacophony of decoration.

The Gallery Weekend crewsters are clever cookies: creating an information-flow format that required deliberate contemplation of art. “Do you even read me?” became the fair’s catch phrase, and rather than selling a catalog at the entrance, they stacked information on each work outside each booth: information on works was saved from the coffee-table-trophy fate of the fair catalog. If visitors wanted information, they had to bend down, pick it up, and slide it into a file. And so the fair organized by Berlin’s art community was the only fair that exhibited art rather than itself.

One layer deeper: the actual works. Art Forum’s well-executed, mainstream collectable works were a bit flat for the casual art viewer. Berliner Liste’s works would have looked lovely on the walls of a boutique hotel lobby, but didn’t make me think. Despite the criticism, Preview Berlin’s whimsical pieces still drew attention to compete against the art scene spectacle: Galerie Deschler had a Madame-Tussaud-worthy pig-headed fat man on a treadmill. Robert Drees Gallery displayed work by German sculpture-artist duo Julia Venske and Gregor Spaenle: if the earth were recolonized with a white variant of the blob, this is what it’d look like. And Gideon Kiefer’s (represented by Antwerp gallery Guekens & De Vil) grimly whimsical watercolors of businessmen offing themselves in different ways? The perspective, detail, color, and ideas are absolutely brilliant.

Also at Preview, Maurer’s delicate floral paper cuts (falling apart) were beautiful. Mixed Green’s daring attempt to (solely) highlight Mart Mulroney’s oh-so-crass 1930s cartoon porn-spreads taken to the 21st century level, was a bit over-the-top. Riflemaker’s Artists Anonymous, a painter-photographer-mixed media art threesome that has sworn itself to making complementary self-portraits in different media while keeping their identity hidden and refraining from ever producing independently, was also interesting.

So… the point? Berlin does not have the buyers or cultural capital of Basel or Miami, or even London’s art week, Frieze, which, conveniently, immediately follows Berlin’s, and puts Berlin’s in perspective. Alone, Frieze has 200,000 sqm of exhibition space, more than Berlin’s six fairs combined. Frieze visitors can transport themselves between sections via artist-designed bikes, whereas VIPs at Art Forum must rely on clunky golf carts for transport to ABC. Art Forum flaunted the complete sale of Zander’s solo exhibition by Andrea Geyer for €65,000 – a figure that pales in comparison with the price tags of works which will be on display in London next week. (Christie’s, for example, is selling work by Damien Hirst for approximately £2.3 million.)

Berlin, lacking the brand-name art, collectors and seven-figure price tags of other fairs still has a long way to go; it’s a defiant display of Berlin’s “poor but sexy” art community, if nothing more.

But that’s nothing to mope about: with the collectors and cash motive on the back burner, the casual art lover (and Berlin is full of them) and fair attendee gets all (or at least most of the attention). With the casual art lover in mind, display and concept, rather than individual works’ collectability is what matters. And that’s ultimately what allows for themed fairs like ABC, solo-stands, which each act as thematically unified mini-exhibits and fun, accessible art like that at Preview: they are perhaps the best way to compete with the visually enthralling spectacle of Berlin’s art scene and the fantastic atmosphere the fairs are housed in.