“based in Berlin”
June 8–July 24, 2011
As the debate over the alleged mishandling of the mysterious E. coli outbreak in Germany raged on in the local and international press, Berliners had their own little controversy to distract themselves with: the opening of the mega-exhibition “based in Berlin,” warily anticipated (and even boycotted) by many members of the local art community distrustful of the motives behind the project’s conception. First presented in October 2010 as a Leistungsschau (showcase) of the much-touted contemporary art scene in Berlin, this survey exhibition was headed up by Christine Macel, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Klaus Biesenbach as the first step in a long-term initiative to eventually establish a permanent Kunsthalle in Berlin—a decades old issue that has become a significant part of the political agenda of Mayor Klaus Wowereit (of “poor but sexy” fame).
Protests were quick to follow the open-call for artists in Berlin to submit their portfolios, and soon thereafter a group of young “under-curators” (Angelique Campens, Fredi Fischli, Magdalena Magiera, Jakob Schillinger, Scott Cameron Weaver) were appointed to run around town doing the dirty footwork, hopping from studio to studio in a huff-and-puff attempt to get this (vaguely defined) show off the ground. A series of heated discussions hosted by two prominent local project spaces, Salon Populaire and Basso, resulted in an open letter addressed to the mayor, signed by some 200 artists, curators, and writers. Among the concerns articulated were: the exorbitant budget of 1.6 million euros in a city where cultural funding is generally meager and where the conditions for artists are rapidly deteriorating as rents increase (thanks to all the hype); the proposal to allocate a significant chunk of that budget toward the building of yet another temporary exhibition space (and the architect was selected in an unannounced competition); and the focus on young artists… Such critiques were taken into consideration by the curators and eventually the more contemporary but equally problematic title “based in Berlin” was announced along with a focus on “emerging” artists (liberally defined), and the decision was made to invest all those euros in production and artist fees while making use of the city’s existing venues. But several months and 1200 submissions later it was still unclear how such an exhibition would benefit the thousands of artists and other cultural workers who, although living in Berlin, largely derive their economic sustenance from other parts of the world.
After attending the press conference, I wandered through the exhibition venues and considered that this review might prove to be yet another somewhat futile exercise in attempting to identify enough interesting work to redeem what is an essentially flawed curatorial premise. The exhibition’s main venue is the Atelier Monbijoupark, a former art studio scheduled for demolition this August, where almost half of the exhibition’s eighty artists have been packed into a labyrinth of small white rooms reminiscent of low-budget artist-run spaces. As if to make up for the excessive (and much-criticized) display of video in last summer’s Berlin Biennale, Monbijoupark is filled with objects. They range from installations like Giulio Delvè’s Hotel Tritone (2010)—a set of giant, whirling umbrellas that produce a vertiginous visual effect with the added bonus of circulating air through an otherwise hot, stifling space—to Trevor Lloyd’s sweet little compilation of drawings left on a windowsill for viewers to browse through (Portrait of my mother drawn from memory with my eyes closed, using my left hand, standing on my head (2009)); to Kajsa Dahlberg’s A Room of One’s Own/Four Hundred Thirty-Three Libraries (2011) consisting of some five thousand copies of the Virginia Woolf classic, complete with notes and markings made by naughty Berlin library users over the years. Even with far fewer artists featured (under twenty), Kunst-Werke nevertheless still suffers from the horror vacui of the bigger-is-better mentality of mega-exhibitions, biennials, and other large-scale consumer spectacles.
Several works like Sunah Choi’s Paths of Light (Time and Aperture) (2009), and Anne Neukamp’s series of playful, abstract multi-media paintings (2009–2011), stood out from the visual clutter of two badly installed floors; the strongest pieces were simply those exhibited under more optimal viewing conditions. Occupying the entire basement space was Jeremy Shaw’s Best Minds Part One (2008), an impeccably installed two-channel video showing slowed-down footage of straight-edge hardcore kids from North Vancouver performing a violent, cathartic dance, scored with an original composition by the artist (also a successful musician), inspired by William Basinki’s iconic Disintegration Loops (2002). (Shaw is also the author of The Image of a Generation (2011): a series of Christine F: Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo posters that can be seen all over Berlin). Upstairs, the artist-run space After the Butcher opted to represent its activities through temporary installations and performances, so that during the press preview its designated floor was left virtually empty except for some audio equipment and a large photographic portrait of Klaus Wowereit by Clegg and Guttmann entitled Allegory of Government (2011), (which I had the pleasure of viewing just after stumbling upon a guided tour given by the mayor and his intimidating secret service entourage of men in black…)
Visual respite was offered by the next two venues where artists benefited from more square footage and cleaner installations that left me wondering how involved the hosting institutions had been in decisions regarding distribution and display. n.b.k featured a large number of video works, most notably, Erik Blinderman and Lisa Rave’s The Villages (2011), a 16-mm film juxtaposing a 1980s Florida retirement community with a German colonial settlement in Namibia in a bleak contemplation of the alienating effects of planned communities. Installed in front of the space’s large vitrines and, thus, visible to pedestrians passing by on the street outside was Mandla Reuter’s Nothing to See Nothing to Hide (2011): a group of large sacks filled with construction debris along with graffiti-covered windowpanes salvaged from the renovation of the Monbijoupark Atelier for this exhibition. At the Hamburger Bahnhof, visitors had to maneuver their entry around a massive bookcase purchased by artist Ilya Lipkin at Möbel Horzon and utilized as a readymade sculpture “against the vehement protest of Mr. Horzon” according to the exhibition catalogue. In the center of one of the rooms was a forlorn looking young man sitting at a grand piano and plucking out notes matching the letters from a book he seemed to be reading without much conviction (Simon Dybbroe Møller, Melody Malady (2010)). The most refreshing contribution was The Forgotten Bar Project’s installation entitled The Forgotten Years 2007–2011 (2011), which included dozens of artworks previously exhibited at the Kreuzberg venue (and never picked up or forgotten) as well as works created especially for this exhibition. However, notably absent was what should have been the central component of this work, a publication documenting the hundreds of exhibitions mounted by the space over the course of its four-year history, postponed due to insufficient funding provided by exhibition organizers, according to founder Tjorg Douglas Beer.
This brings up an interesting point about the inclusion of several artist-run initiatives in this exhibition in addition to those already mentioned, including PM Galerie, Autocenter, Motto, and the bookshop Pro qm, most of whom occupied spaces vastly inferior to their own in exchange for six weeks of hype—which in the end translates into a much cheaper option for the city than a true contribution to the long-term sustainability of such projects. On the other hand, of course, selling one’s intellectual labor cheaply in the interests of self-promotion may be a necessary strategy for survival in an art world where social networking has largely replaced research, and art events enjoy much greater visibility than serious exhibitions—which is not to underplay the professionalization of art schools and curatorial programs which are churning out a new breed of sleek, PR experts. As had been anticipated all along by so many of its critics, “based in Berlin,” proved to be little more than a superficial (and expensive) implementation of political rhetoric purportedly aimed at addressing the fragmented nature and economic precariousness of an art scene that probably benefits more from its current conditions than the city marketing and urban gentrification promoted by events like these which, if successful, would eventually price many people out—forcing them to base themselves somewhere else.
- 1Atelierhaus Monbijoupark. Image by Amin Akhtar.
- 2Giulio Delvè, Hotel Tritone, 2010. Beach umbrellas, wood, electric motor, ball bearings. 360 cm x 360 cm x 340 cm. Courtesy of Supportico Lopez.
- 3Trevor Lloyd, Portrait of my mother drawn from memory with my eyes closed, using my left hand, standing on my head, 2009. Graphite on paper. 21 cm x 27.5 cm.
- 4Kajsa Dahlberg, A Room of One’s Own/Four Hundred Thirty-Three Libraries, 2011. Approximately 5,000 replenishable books mounted on shelves.
- 5Sunah Choi, Lichtbahnen (Zeit und Blende) (Paths of Light (Time and Aperture)), 2009. Installation, photo studio background paper, motor, microcontroller, software. Heights variable, width 300 cm. Courtesy of Galerie Cinzia Friedlaender.
- 6Anne Neukamp, Afloat, (detail) 2011. 220 cm x 180 cm. Öl, Eitempera, Baumwolle. Image by Ludovic Jecker. Courtesy of Galerie Chez Valentin.
- 7Jeremy Shaw, Best Minds Part One, 2008. Two-channel video installation with original score.
- 8View of After the Butcher’s artistic concept for the third floor of KW Institute for Contemporary Art.
- 9Erik Blinderman & Lisa Rave, From The Villages archive, (detail) 2011. C-print
- 10Mandla Reuter, Nothing To See Nothing To Hide, 2011. Construction material and windowpanes.
- 11Simon Dybbroe Møller, Melody Malady, 2010. Performer, books, suit, glasses, grand piano.
- 12The Forgotten Bar, The Forgotten Years 2007–2011, 2011.