Art Berlin Contemporary Mired With Uncertainty With Smallest Edition in Years

Dealers have conflicting opinions about the professionalism of the changing fair.

Lisl Ponger, Garden Party, (2015). Courtesy Charim Galerie Wien.

Reduced in size, but not in spirit, the 9th edition of abc – art berlin contemporary opened last night. Dedicated to its romantic focus on artists, rather than sales or traditional art fair formats, the Berlin event can’t seem to come to a consensus about what exactly it wants to achieve, or where it wants to go.

Just last year, the event originally known as a “selling exhibition” finally acceded to the status of a bona fide fair, at the same time opening its previously invite-only format to an open application. U-shaped anti-booths split up an open format inside Station, the industrial building that was once a train station, then a post office, and now an event venue. The format alludes to a wonderland of non-commercial art-viewing, but whether the organizers and exhibitors like it or not, abc is a fair—and one that may be in danger.

Berlin is a notoriously bleak commercial marketplace, and galleries use abc less as a place to sell work and more as a means of exposure and networking. But this year, the fair was nearly cut in half, reduced to just 62 galleries, compared to 98 in 2015, and over 110 in 2014. Of the 2016 exhibitors, 33 are based in Berlin. 12 come from elsewhere in Germany, five from Vienna, and four from Warsaw. Five more galleries are sprinkled around Western Europe, and two from South America, while ATHR is the sole gallery from Saudi Arabia.

Outside abc featuring work by Simon Mullan, with gallery Dittrich & Schlechtreim. Photo courtesy abc.

Outside abc featuring work by Simon Mullan, with gallery Dittrich & Schlechtriem. Photo courtesy abc.

abc’s organizers insist this reduction was intended to concentrate the exhibition, and to raise the overall quality of what is on display. But the reduction of galleries also comes with a reduction in exhibition space, and finding the space to engage with art works, at least among crowds of hurried exhibitors, VIPs, and members of the press, still sometimes proved difficult this year, due to the almost haphazard feeling of the interior design. But unexpectedly, a number of video works were able to catch and hold attention, a difficult feat at such a multifocal event.

Laure Prouvost at gallery carlier gebauer. Photo by artnet News.

Laure Prouvost at gallery carlier gebauer. Photo by artnet News.

One work that asserts its own space is Laure Prouvost’s installation at Berlin’s carlier gebauer gallery. A homely tapestry creates a fourth wall of a u-shaped booth, with doorways where viewers can enter two small rooms to view video works: on the left, the artist narrates a whimsical tale of falling vegetables as a sign from god, while on the right, her hands smear a book with hand lotion. On pedestals in front of the screens sit, respectively, a collection of vegetables, and a bottle of hand lotion.

Another standout was a trio of untitled, archival VHS tapes by Polish artist Roman Stańczak, shown by the Warsaw gallery Stereo. The videos, from 1994, capture the artist engaging in various sensory-restrictive actions: layering on a large number of stockings that were gifted to him by a fetishist, and then removing them all at once; lying facedown, breathing through a hole in a water-filled bathtub; and finally, wrapping his own nude body in electrical wires. Non-commercial as it aims to be, the fair should welcome more of this strand of edgy, experimental works.

Roman Stańczak at Gallery Stereo. Photo by artnet News.

Roman Stańczak at Gallery Stereo. Photo by artnet News.

Perhaps a saving grace for sales—and, for that matter, Berlin’s institutions, whose contemporary art pales in comparison to that of the city’s vast network of galleries—is a new acquisition fund by OUTSET Germany. This year, the charitable fund bought two works from the fair to donate to the Neue Nationalgalerie. The panel of judges comprised curator Natasha Ginwala; director of Berlin’s Nationalgalerie Udo Kittelman; collector Julia Stoschek; and director of the Kölnischer Kunstverein Moritz Wesseler. The foursome chose a video work, L’Air Du Temps by the Dubai-founded, global artist collective GCC, shown by Berlin’s Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler; and an untitled work from 2014 by the German artist Dirk Skreber, brought to the fair by Galerie Luis Campaña, also based in Berlin.

L’Air Du Temps is an augmented reality peek into a luxury Parisian hotel, with digital additions of everyday objects, like household sponges or exercise equipment. The roving shot is projected as a circle, as if seen through a peephole. OUTSET was the first buyer of the edition of five, each of which go for $20,000.

GCC, L'Air Du Temps at Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler. Photo by artnet News.

GCC, L’Air Du Temps at Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler. Photo by artnet News.

Dirk Skreber’s painting depicts the artist’s girlfriend “playing a little bit in the hospital with a towel,” Campaña tells artnet News, although it “looks serious.” It looks, in fact, like a topless woman in a Niqab. In light of recent events, like the ban of the “Burkini” in France, this choice of a European artist using the aesthetics of a Muslim cultural garment for “play,” seems questionable.

The two acquisitions are starkly different in media and content, and so are the opinions of the galleries on the 2016 edition of the fair.

Untitled work by Dirk Skreber at Luis Campaña. Photo by artnet News.

Dirk Skreber at Luis Campaña. Photo by artnet News.

“The smaller format is a good decision,” says Roy Huschenbeth, a representative of Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler. “It seems way more focused and condensed. The first impression is really good, the quality of the works is great.”

But Campaña is far less optimistic.

“If this can be successful? I have my doubts. I think you need a certain size, a certain diversity. Of course, it always looks better to have one position; if this is in the interest of the galleries is another question,” he says.

“I’m definitely for a bigger fair, and for more professionalism. We need another format. More open, more professional, more client-orientated, more gallery-orientated—just to point out a few problems,” he continues, frankly.

Daniel Knorr, Solo - Bunker (2016) at Rosemarie Schwarzwälder. Image courtesy abc.

Daniel Knorr, Solo – Bunker (2016) at Rosemarie Schwarzwälder. Image courtesy abc.

For those who can’t take the conflicting opinions, there’s a place to get away from it all right in the center of the fair. A a one-man bunker from World War II is a found object work by Bucharest-born, Berlin-based artist Daniel Knorr, represented by Galerie nächst St. Stephan Rosemarie Schwarzwälder. Visitors can step inside the 5-ton concrete capsule, titled Solo – Bunker, which was transported to abc from the Braunschweiger Hafen in central Germany. Originally used as a lookout point, the bunker once protected soldiers from air raids; now, the re-contextualized shelter shields fairgoers from art world chaos, while allowing them to look out anonymously at the goings-on around them.

Rosemarie Schwarzwälder has shown at abc since the beginning, and tells artnet News that she thinks the smaller size is the best decision.

“If you have a lot of booths, that doesn’t mean that the quality will be higher,” she says. Speaking in line with a true Berliner spirit, she says she values the connections to art lovers, curators, and press that abc facilitates, even though it’s not the most frequented fair by collectors.

“It has never been a place for sales. But we have gotten a lot of them—we don’t come back because we lose money.”

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