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On Art Berlin Contemporary, a Fair That Biennials Could Envy

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A woman with a bullwhip lashed away at a white gallery space at Art Berlin Contemporary, sponsored by Glasgow's Ohio gallery
A woman with a bullwhip lashed away at a white gallery space at Art Berlin Contemporary, sponsored by Glasgow's Ohio gallery
Sooty gallery attendants at the Muntean/Rosenblum installation for Galerie Zink
Sooty gallery attendants at the Muntean/Rosenblum installation for Galerie Zink
Katinka Pilscheur at Galerie Koal's booth
Katinka Pilscheur at Galerie Koal's booth
Elizabeth Neel paintings at the booth of London's Pilar Corrias
Elizabeth Neel paintings at the booth of London's Pilar Corrias
Outside Art Berlin Contemporary, located at the Station
Outside Art Berlin Contemporary, located at the Station
The bullwhipper
The bullwhipper

The Berlin art scene has a lot in common with ours here in New York. Both cities overflow with artists, critics, curators and dealers. New York has better weather, but Berlin has better beer. And at Berlin restaurants, tables full of diners can each get separate checks, a most civilized practice unheard of in New York.

You also get a sense in Berlin that the art market remains underdeveloped, despite the city's status as the leading art center in Germany, and arguably in all of Europe. “The scene is here,” notes Thomas Eller, an artist who hosted me on a recent trip to the German capital, “but where is the money?” Certainly the absence of the giant auction houses, and all the accompanying art-market ballyhoo, make things seem more placid in Berlin, money-wise.

As a consequence, perhaps, Berlin has developed a most unlikely art fair that apparently specializes in showcasing art rather than making sales. Or so was the attitude at the latest installment of the city’s signature art fair, ABC Art Berlin Contemporary, which recently presented around 120 artworks or installations by individual artists, sponsored by over 130 art galleries, in a sprawling, modernized former postal facility known as Station Berlin. 

What is ABC about, if not sales? The cynical view positions the fair as a feeder event for Art Basel, controlled by a cabal of powerful dealers. If they hope to exhibit at Europe's most important fair, the conspiracy theory goes, German galleries must first participate in ABC.

At any rate, ABC is about as close to an “un-fair” as you can get. It has no booths, and the gallery displays are restricted to “a single position of contemporary art,” to use an amusing bit of art-fair jargon. Thus, though the place is literally inhospitable to the dealers, who get only tiny stools to sit on rather than proper booth furniture, it is more amiable for viewers, who have much less to sort through. ABC is also hospitable to contemporary artists; I met Elizabeth Neel there, for one, and had a brief chat with her about her installation for the London gallery Pilar Corrias, which combined gestural abstract paintings with pop-minimalist sculptures of a different order altogether.

Neel’s paintings, by the way, were priced at around 35,000, though I went away unsure whether that sum was denominated in dollars, euros or pounds. The works are bound to sell in any case, whether at ABC or elsewhere, because, after all, everything sells eventually. Doesn’t it?

The fair was also good in the way “festivalism” can be good—plenty of big “white elephant” works that make for fun viewing. Outside the turnstyle, before visitors even had to pay the entrance fee, stood a freestanding gallery space, with a floor and two opposing walls but no ceiling, and thus open on two ends. This was the site of “Upcoming Exhibitions,” which promised a marathon of two-hour-long installations by 14 galleries during the brief run of the fair. The project is something of an accomplishment, I think, bettering the intense series of seven shows, one per day, curated by Carlo McCormick for the Limbo Lounge on East 10th Street back in 1982—a series (featuring work by the artists Ellen Berkenblit, Keiko Bonk, Richard Hambleton, and Stephen Lack) that underlined the spirit of volunteerism, not to say ambition, that animated the East Village in its heyday.

At “Upcoming Exhibitions” during the press preview, our very own Cleopatra’s from Greenpoint, Brooklyn, was on hand, via a pair of young women with iPads showing off gallery wares under the rubric “Open for Business.” The presentation, such as it was, nicely summed up the notion of low-cost digital art dealing.

More metaphorically animated was the woman with the bullwhips lashing at the white gallery walls, who came on a couple of hours later. Not a mere buggy whip meant to harmlessly hurry its target on, the bullwhip is designed to startle and inflict serious punishment, as we all know from the movies. So, what do we have here, an artist flagellating the institution of the art fair, the white cube, or of the art world in general? Or is it meant as a model for an ongoing antagonistic relationship? One might suggest, perhaps, the performance may be an instance of “topping from the bottom,” to use a phrase from the B&D world (which came to mind thanks to a recent conversation with the artist John Miller).

The work is one of several whip performances by Giorgio Sadotti, and was presented by Ohio, a Glasgow space run by artists Rachal Bradley and Matthew Richardson. “We operate on import and export of meaning,” Richardson wrote in an email, rejecting the idea of a regional or parochial focus. “We’re interested in a more subtractive sort of art, born out of artists like Louise Lawler and Michael Asher." Ohio is often spelled with numbers, as in 01-110, and can be found online at www.ohi0.co.uk.

The many worthy showpieces at ABC included a skyscrapering layer-cake of sheets of insulation, wood, gypsum and other building materials by Berlin artist Katinka Pilscheur, courtesy Berlin’s Galerie Koal, and an installation sponsored by Galerie Zink, also from Berlin, of a art-fair booth half destroyed by fire, complete with scorched walls, burnt artworks—by Muntean/Rosenblum, the architects of this intervention—and a pair of soot-smudged gallery girls in singed clothing. Still another Berlin gallery, Michael Fuchs, presented a group of works by Johannes Albers that included a pinball machine whose insides had been smashed by a large cobblestone. Some things, I would venture, just aren’t that funny.

In the end, ABC is one of those rare art fairs that could give a biennial, with its limited budget and small curatorial team, an inferiority complex. Even the most illustrious biennials are no match for a show assembled by more than 100 art dealers. Not only can a market-driven collective outperform a single-minded curation, it can get away with having no theme or approach, which so often makes such an inviting target for the critics. With Miley Cyrus's performance at the Video Music Awards still fresh in the mind, it's no surprise that someone on Twitter suggested that “twerk” is derived from “gesamtkunstwerk,” the German word for “total work of art.”

Walter Robinson is an art critic who was a contributor to Art in America (1980-1996) and founding editor of Artnet Magazine (1996-2012). He is also a painter whose work has been exhibited at Metro Pictures, Dorian Grey Gallery, Haunch of Venison, and other galleries. Click here to read his previous See Here column on Artspace.

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