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100% Berlin
by Erik Wenzel

Recently lots of rumors have surrounded the inner workings of the Berlin art world. Articles have been written about the rumored “art cartel” that holds a chokehold on which galleries make it into Art Basel. Ousted gallerists have made public accusations. The best anecdote so far came in Kai Müller’s piece in Der Tagespiegel last September about a dealer speaking under the condition of anonymity drawing a diagram mapping out the major players in the city and then promptly tearing it up into little pieces and shoving them in his pocket. We can only assume the mysterious dealer, already excluded from the inner circle and fearing further retribution, then disposed of this incriminating evidence by dousing it in kerosene and setting it alight it in some secluded part of Görlitzer Park at 3 o’clock in the morning. But let’s face it: every day in the art world is a slow news day. Most of the time stories like this seem like an attempt to maintain interest and entertain people in an industry that is kind of boring.

I bring this up, because if you’re going to talk about the upcoming Gallery Weekend, you have to mention this cloud that somewhat looms over the affair. The galleries in question that control the Basel selection committee and run the abc (art berlin contemporary) art fair are also the ones who founded the Gallery Weekend. OK maybe Deepthroat has a point. But no one ever said one of the least regulated industries in the world wasn’t cliquish.

This year’s Gallery Weekend formally brings together 51 galleries, the most yet, having invited younger galleries to participate. This doesn’t count all the unaffiliated galleries, project spaces and artist-run co-ops throughout the city that smartly make a point to coordinate their programming with the weekend of April 27 – 29th. Additionally museums and institutions across the city are involved. For example, British conceptualist Cerith Wyn Evans, on a Situationist kick, has an exhibition at opening at Galerie Buchholz entitled Dérive meanwhile the Schinkel Pavillon, located on the grounds of the Kronprinzen-Palais, hosts his Détourne.

The artists featured during Gallery Weekend are an eclectic mix of emerging and established, living and dead, from all around the world, totaling nearly 70. Johnen Galerie is showing the reigning Turner Prize champion Scottish sculptor Martin Boyce along with Romanian artist Stefan Bertalan in dual solo exhibitions. Croy Nielsen is showing Australia and Austria-based Andy Boot, an artist who walks the line between the “slacker aesthetic” and the tradition of austere looseness pioneered by Cy Twombly.

John Armleder, Kurfürstendamm, 29 October – 19 December 2008, installation view. Courtesy of Galerie Mehdi Chouakri.

Another promising exhibition is Fungus Emulsion at Galerie Mehdi Chouakri by the Swiss artist John Armleder. Known for works consisting of arrangements of abstract geometric paintings and high-end furniture, they deceptively mask his deeper investigations into exhibition making and the status of artworks as cultural and commodified objects. It says a lot when you can make an installation of slick colorful design elements, sophisticated furniture and innocuous paintings make us feel threatened and confused.

The other big thing happening during this weekend is the opening of the 7th Berlin Biennale, which seems diametrically opposed to the market-driven flavor of the Gallery Weekend. In November of 2010 the Polish artist and curator of the Biennale, Artur Żmijewski, placed an open call for people to submit ideas and proposals as part of the research process. Over 5,000 artists responded and they now are all generously included in the “digital venue” of the Biennale, ArtWiki. It seeks to “present artists as political and social entities,” as the Bienniale’s blog/website explains. Politics—leftist politics that is—is the bread and butter of this edition. In the open call a question about your political beliefs was included. I am ambivalent about this whole enterprise. Occupy and 99% are written all over this edition of the Biennale, and as making a wiki that starts with over 5,000 artists indicates, this is going to be a mass of data that no viewer will make time to go through, except the dedicated initiate who’s already been won over. It’s telling, I think, that there is no list of artists on the Biennale’s website, just the curators and projects. The site itself is a blog of news items, all described at length and in great detail. There is a lot of promise to this, and the organizers are to be commended for seeking out new ways to put on a better biennale. But there are also many problematic things about this.

Berlin Biennale homepage, screenshot, 2012.

For instance is the project Art Covers Politics, curated by Tomáš Rafa, a Polish artist. It “presents images submitted by artists and others who are willing to react on and report immediately about political events.” A few of the photos appear in the blog post about the project, but the project itself is the landing page for the website and consists of a slideshow of images which appear behind the logo and dates of the Biennale. The images are of people holding protest signs, sitting in occupied plazas and all things popularized by the news media’s coverage of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. Brief captions explain the images. Rafa claims, “[J]ust pure message, pure information, and easy direct action: art-journalism. In this way the […] website turns from a marketing tool into an advocacy tool.” But the exact opposite is true. Not only have these images emptied all meaning out of and dislocated what they document, placing them behind the logo of the Biennale has rendered them even more impotent. It looks like American Apparel for the Neo-Marxist set. To call up the Situationists again, if the Spectacle is the accumulation of capital to the point of image, than what is the accumulation of image? What happens when everyone is an artist and a curator democratized to the point of being one of thousands? Is the 7th Berlin Biennale just an accumulation of things that image “politics”?

It makes sense the Biennale is focusing on this subject given the character of the city. There is the massive and rapid urban renewal but there is also 20% unemployment, and then there is the excitement and urgency in the fact that there is still much of the city left uncolonized by gentrification. It’s tempting to wrap this up as the Biennale’s 99% vs. the Gallery Weekend’s 1% but it is more complicated than that.

Joanna Rajkowska, Born in Berlin – A Letter to Rosa, 2011-2012, collage, © the artist, courtesy ŻAK | BRANICKA Gallery, Berlin

Polish artist Joanna Rajkowska’s project Born in Berlin, centered around her decision to give birth to her daughter Rosa in the city, is a film produced for the Berlin Biennale, with a drawing component, Born in Berlin – A Letter to Rosa, which will be on view at the gallery Żak Branicka as part of Gallery Weekend. In her statement, Rajkowska says this of the city:

… [A]ll my senses are telling me that Berlin is unable to deal with itself. Like a middle-aged man, good-looking, well dressed, but at the same time worn out after years of suffering from a chronic disease […] Exhausted not only by what it has been through, but also by the attempts to verbalize it, the lack of language, the following complications and the amount of painkillers it needs to take daily.


--Erik Wenzel

(image top right: Berlin, Potzdamer Platz, October 22, 2011. Photo by Erik Wenzel.)

Posted by Erik Wenzel on 4/22/12 | tags: photography Berlin Biennale photography painting Gallery Weekend Berlin 2012 installation

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