Gallery Weekend Berlin Shows an Art Scene in Its Prime
Sometimes all it takes is 41.5 x 59.5 x 92 centimeters for great art to unfold. It is in this scale that Thomas Bayrle creates his tongue-in-cheek observations at Galerie Barbara Weiss, which tie together technology and spirituality. For him, the modular design of the Gothic cathedral—what he sees as an early form of the division of labor—and automated conveyor-belt production are inextricably linked. Hence, his modest cardboard model Gerano Pavesi | church (2015) that crosses motorways with a chapel, turning Mario Pavesi’s 1947 Autogrill—a restaurant cum overpass—into a toll station, the purpose of which (collecting money from drivers or believers) is unclear.
Bayrle’s works offer a welcome relief after a tour around Mitte and some of Berlin’s most overwhelming, if not always overpowering, spaces and shows during the 11th edition of the annual Gallery Weekend Berlin, which took place just ahead of the 56th Venice Biennale. At Kewenig Galerie—which moved from Cologne into one of Berlin’s oldest baroque townhouses on Museum Island—Pedro Cabrita Reis’s scarce and deliberately Arte Povera-looking works still manage to maintain their ground inside so much noblesse.
On the island’s other tip, Contemporary Fine Arts managed, much earlier on, to snuggle up closer to Berlin’s major museums and power players. Here, however, grand size makes sense. Marianne Vitale’s show “Oh, Don’t Ask Why” looks like a memento mori with its totem-like reformed railroad tracks (Worthy, 2014) and former saloon bar (Bar, 2015). The two large objets trouvés contemplate both the will of Americans to conquer the Wild West (and perhaps the world) and a religious belief in technological progress.
In Kreuzberg, Johann König finally opened his breathtaking brutalist space in the deconsecrated St. Agnes cathedral, showing canvases by Katharina Grosse. Meanwhile, in Cyprien Gaillard’s new mega-production at Sprüth Magers’s similarly cavernous Mitte gallery, space is just a digital illusion. His film Nightlife (2015) revolves around issues like violence, power, and migration. But the viewer’s attention is fully drawn into its immersive, almost hallucinogenic 3D experience of trippy plants and fireworks. If that doesn’t knock you out, try Martin Eder’s new series of paintings at Galerie Eigen + Art, featuring women in armor. Fresh from Gaillard, with your retinas still in another dimension, the cosplayed Joan of Arcs look extremely sculptural, almost holographic.
Painting is what you might expect to see at a commercial event that costs each participating gallery a flat fee of €7,500 (plus, of course, however much each gallery is willing or able to put toward additional entertainment for collectors). But showing painting doesn’t always mean playing it safe. Take Valérie Favre’s canvases at Galerie Barbara Thumm. A standout among them is the Beckmann-theatrum-mundi-style Die Hellseherin (The Prophetess, 2014/15), a complex allegory of painting as much as of life and death that is far from what you might call over-the-sofa fodder. Aurel Scheibler’s monochromatic gray exhibition of paintings by David Schutter felt like a stark shift from the Philip Guston works on view last year.
There were even some new names. Arratia Beer featured Haleh Redjaian’s fragile, captivating drawings and weavings that merge mysticism and geometry, while Galerie Mehdi Chouakri hosted young U.S.-born artist N. Dash with her time-folds, somber multi-material “paintings” that supposedly derive from her personal experience of time. And while Haegue Yang’s status is far from that of a newcomer, she has recently undergone something like a change of persona. The shift was evidenced by her show at Barbara Wien Lukatsch, which is rich in text, reference, ornament, and imagery and draws from Victor Hugo’s 1869 novel The Man Who Laughs Good riddance to venetian blinds!
Compared to last year’s Gallery Weekend Berlin, which almost felt like a festival of old and established artists, there wasn’t really one common theme or strategy among this year’s participants. Perhaps owing to Berlin’s own increasingly mature status, the galleries seemed to present themselves as what they are, in the best and worst sense. It always was the event’s intention to highlight the gallery as the place of artistic production and representation—to differentiate itself from the uniformity and shopping-box character of many an art fair booth—and it certainly succeeded in doing so once again this year.
Isabella Bortolozzi—how does she do it year after year?—once again presented herself as the queen of cool. She has recently taken on artist duo Calla Henkel & Max Pitegoff, who built their career on directing cool artist-run-spaces in Berlin (currently the performance center New Theater). Bortolozzi is also showcasing a quirky old dude—this time Aldo Mondino—with works like Untitled (marshmallow swimming pool) from 1982, a wall image of, well, a swimming pool made in marshmallow mosaics.
The New Theater seems to have become something of a selling point in and of itself with Klara Lidén’s pleasantly uncomforting show at Galerie Neu buoyed by her recent participation in the project. Also always pulling it off are Delmes & Zander, who last year branched out to Berlin. They present the obsessive photocopy-cum-drawing universe of art school dropout Adelhyd van Bender, a kind of self-therapeutic fusion of science and magic.
A by no means unpleasant surprise was Guido Baudach’s transformation of his gallery into a political arena for Erik van Lieshout’s two-channel video Dog (2015), showing the fatal effects of European asylum politics on a refugee. At KOW, you expect to find artists who have something to say. Period. In their basement space, Mario Pfeifer demonstrates how you bash an entire discipline (anthropology) and the hypocritical Western quest for “the authentic” in other cultures and still produce über-perfect, über-captivating images. Approximation in the digital age to a humanity condemned to disappear (2014–15) is a collage of the past and present lives of Tierra del Fuego’s native people, the Yaghan, among whom Pfeifer lived for months.
Upstairs, it is up to Renzo Martens and his Institute for Human Activities (IHA)—and the chocolate figures and heads that were modeled after the clay sculptures of Congolese plantation laborers in an IHA-initiated workshop—to exemplify how you employ the art market: for the benefit and the empowerment of those who are usually excluded from and exploited for the creation of value, both on the scale of global economy and an individual artist’s career.