BY Martin Herbert in Reviews | 08 MAY 18
Featured in
Issue 196

Highlights of Gallery Weekend Berlin 2018

A diverse range of shows, exploring ideas ranging from authoritarianism and free speech to interiority and tenderness

BY Martin Herbert in Reviews | 08 MAY 18

Now 14 years old, Gallery Weekend Berlin is, like most teenagers, animated by many moods. Joining the shows presented in late April by 46 commercial galleries were exhibitions in 13 museums, eight private collections and the customary bevy of one-offs not on the official list, including such peculiar prospects as Salon Dahlmann’s sprawling group show, ‘Paradise Is Now. Palm Trees in Art’. (Really.) There was, for a three-day stint, a pseudo-throwback to Berlin’s unbuttoned 1990s courtesy of ‘Ngorongoro II’: a huge, hotchpotch show in painter Jonas Burgert’s labyrinthine Weissensee studio complex, its superficially raw and funky ambience undone by a preponderance of blue-chip art, not infrequently from Blain|Southern, the gallery representing Burgert. There is, elsewhere, a double salute to AA Bronson: a solo show at KW Institute for Contemporary Art and an exhibition mingling his work with General Idea’s archive at Esther Schipper. Promenading around, whiplash comes easy.

Ana Mendieta, Creek, 1974, Super 8 film still. Courtesy: The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, LLC., and Galerie Lelong & Co., New York

With due respect to Bronson, the preeminent retrospective in town is the wrenching ‘Covered in Time and History: The Films of Ana Mendieta’ at Martin-Gropius-Bau, in which 23 of her brief Super-8 films from 1973–81 play silently in a chain of darkened rooms. Mendieta’s work – for all its striving to fuse with nature, inflection by her dislocation from Cuba and merging of sculpture, film and performance – is now coloured by her controversial early death. In this regard, this medium-specific survey feels pointed. When her other work is edited out, what’s left are films of the artist’s prone nude body on the ground, or motionless in a river, or its outline bursting into flames; in one video, Mendieta digs a body-shaped hole, pours vivid red paint over a rock where the heart should be and then lays atop it. The museum put some of the bloodiest works in their non-chronological survey near the start: the iconic, self-descriptive Sweating Blood (1973), for example. The result is a curatorial double-imaging. Even as Mendieta’s art conveys its fulsome embrace of the natural world – and it does still operate on her terms – a premonitory shadow swoops across it.

‘How Will The Weather Be Tomorrow?’, 2018, installation view, Between Bridges, Berlin. Foreground: Aslı Çavuşoğlu, Future Tense, 2017, 16 pages, black and white, 35 × 51 cm. Background: Özlem Günyol & Mustafa Kunt, Fresh Like the First Day, 2011, 53 books; each, 48 pages, 20 × 30 cm. Courtesy and photograph: Between Bridges, Berlin 

The seriousness of this show, in a context of ostensive festivity, finds an analogue across town in ‘How Will the Weather Be Tomorrow?’ at Between Bridges, where Wolfgang Tillmans has given his project space over to Turkish artists Özlem Günyol and Mustafa Kunt, who have invited seven other artists to reflect on art-making in Turkey since 15 July 2016. Following the attempted coup on this date, the government pivoted to full-on authoritarianism and throttled free speech. On 16 July, Ahmet Doğu İpek began Days (2016–17), an embodiment of lucid muteness: the presentation here extracts 21 of 157 drawings of black squares that the artist made daily, varied in density but realized using a consistent amount of watercolour. In Asli Çavuşoğlu’s giveaway newspaper, Future Tense (2017), the columns are wryly given over to fortune-tellers, who used tarot cards, coffee grounds, pendulums and maybe a soupçon of their own subjectivity. Rita thinks things will hit rock bottom and then ‘we’ll wake up to a miracle’, Gamze sees a new saviour coming and Ismail sees the novelist Orhan Pamuk going to prison – all of which remain pending.

Günyol and Kunt’s own Fresh Like the First Day (2011) offers 53 short books propped on shelves, each focused on one letter, number, punctuation mark or typographic symbol featured in the 1982 constitution of the Republic of Turkey, a kind of speculative toolkit for rewriting it. Cengiz Tekin’s video Low Pressure (2017), set to a feet-stomping rhythm, sees men striding amid a big metal framework: one of the many prisons under construction in Turkey, the video’s martial inhumanity predicting more inhumanity to come. Aptly, ‘How Will the Weather Be Tomorrow’ doesn’t come at the viewer. It sits with arms folded, offering inky blackness, noise and a pointed inverse to, say, commercial galleries putting out their most vendible wares for visiting collectors.

Monika Baer, Barely titled (day), 2017–18, metal pigment, mineral pigments, acrylic, rigid foam on canvas, 2.3 x 1.9 m. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin; photograph: Gunther Lepkowski

At ChertLüdde, protruding from a jovial heap of cushions in corporeal hues (pink, red, white, tan, black) is someone’s foot. Patrizio Di Massimo’s Inside Me (2013) departs from the eponymous show’s primary focus on figurative painting; but it summarises, fairly directly, the Italian painter’s focus on interiority, his understanding of the self as being inside the body. At first view, the canvases – all picturing the artist and his wife in various guises and executed in an appealingly illustrative style, rich in royal purples, crimson and pinks – look self-consciously madcap. A mauve-suited Di Massimo, a Catholic vampire, emerges from a coffin; his partner looks on wide-eyed, a censer hanging in the background. The artist, nude, prostrates himself before his half-naked dominatrix bride, who clasps a lit stick of dynamite; as a priest, he listens to his semi-obscured wife confess while wearing an obscurely roused look. Under all this lies a thesis about discovering ourselves in spiritual terms by tuning into inner thoughts, and about reality as being dualistic (as the compositions are). Alongside the paintings is a pair of enlarged, sculpted tassels, I Am Heraldic and I Am Magenta (both 2018), again with a clean, cartoonish feel, scaled to the body. They evoke focusing on a sliver of the world, an outwardly unnecessary and decorative one, until it swells in the mind. With the exhibition’s emphasis on balanced opposites and inner journeying, the tassels suggest a meditative take on receiving the world – an almost disappointingly conventional decryption of Di Massimo’s perverse scenarios. The works begin smouldering again when we factor in the energetic sparring with Catholicism and repression that adorns their nifty surfaces.

Monika Baer’s show at Galerie Barbara Weiss creates its own miniature weather system. Six monochrome canvases in varying shades of yellow, all untitled and realized in 2018, feature small areas of fanned-out impasto, like marks of distinction, and are accoutred with little metallic DIY-shop gewgaws, screwed to their sides and onto the wall: brackets, bits of steel thread, in one case a steel cut-out of fingers. They appear to be fighting their commodity status, de-beautifying themselves. Amidst these are sumptuous, watery dispersions of metal and stone pigments to which adhere, in different cases, a wormlike bump and small droplet-shaped reliefs, like tears. And then Baer comments on all this via an equation-like row of drawings – copied devotedly in situ at small museums and chapels – and found images, including photos of Laurel and Hardy (more crying, a cursory half-connection) and a suave baroque portrait. The whole arrangement sputters, throws pebbles in its own path, while sending out frissons of jolie-laide beauty that pull you in to observe the breakdown: no small trick.

B. Wurtz, ‘The First Twenty Years’, installation view, 2018, Galerija Gregor Podnar, Berlin. Courtesy: the artist and Galerija Gregor Podnar, Berlin; photograph: Marcus Schneider

And then there’s B. Wurtz, whose bracketed mini-survey of repurposing brilliance at Galerija Gregor Podnar, ‘The First Twenty Years’, is almost comically good. (Forget the almost: look at the little photo here of a stairway, hand-captioned ‘Do not think of Led Zeppelin’, and keep a straight face.) In the 1970s and ’80s Wurtz quivered in a state of creative grace. He’d flip a metal wastebasket upside down, photograph it from below against clouds to make it look like a giant building and then exhibit the object and image, leaning into the bathetic gap between them (Untitled, Container Photo Object, 1988). He’d gussy up a damaged polaroid by placing it on paper, circling it, ringing it with floating goonish faces and writing ‘what does this mean?’ below in looping script. He’d go poetically complex, making a sort of proto-cinema out of a loop of cine film (showing, I think, a train tunnel) upraised in a wavering circle on little poles, surrounded by tins and unfilled bird-feeders and fat polystyrene blocks, an empty plastic bowl at the centre like an object of worship in an enigmatic ritual. There is a fairly discernable philosophy of transvaluing, of tender care, at the heart of all this graceful salvage. But it takes a moment to access, because Wurtz’s work is usually dazzling with lyrical combinations of colour and worn textures and sweetheart wit: your eyes are having too much fun to give the brain a chance. What’s already here is all you need, his art asserts, and this over-the-shoulder glance at his early work says the same thing.

Main image: Patrizio Di Massimo, Inside Me, 2013, (detail), 130 cushions in velvet, cotton and satin, trimmings, live performance, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist and ChertLüdde, Berlin

Martin Herbert is a critic based in Berlin, Germany.