By all accounts the 12th edition of Gallery Weekend Berlin was a success: 54 participating galleries and an estimated 25,000 attendees. With art berlin contemporary (abc) slowly imploding and the Berlin Biennale in a downward path since the 2010 edition, the Gallery Weekend – taking place every spring – has emerged as the city’s great crowd pleaser. In existence since 2004, the format is a hybrid between art fair and cultural festival, apparently welcoming and inclusive. But cultural representation is often a way to recuperate gaps in economic parity. In a city deeply marked by social partitions the exhibitions in this year’s gallery weekend clung, perhaps unwittingly, to the shtick of autonomy, refusing (with a few exceptions) to engage with current debates concerning the sovereign debt crisis, the housing question or the resurgent racism spun by the government’s refugee policy. Neither did the choice of exhibited artists and artworks match the frenzy in the streets. Inside most galleries the mood was tame, conservative even. Older artists, and artists with solid career paths, were strongly represented, like KwieKulik at Z˙ak | Branicka, Verena Pfisterer at Exile (not part of the ‘official’ programme), or Pat O’Neill at Veneklasen/Werner.
Whereas the latter two could be described as survey exhibitions, the show of KwieKulik – a Polish artistic duo formed by Zofia Kulik and Przemysław Kwiek, who worked together from 1971 to 1987 – revolves around a single project: their performance protesting being denied a passport to travel outside of Poland, in 1978, to take part in an arts festival in the Netherlands. Documented in black and white photographs, the performance begins with Zofia Kulik poking her head through a tabletop, then standing up and bending forward, turning the table onto a projection screen. After returning to the seated position her feet are encased in plaster. Immobilized, the artist raises her hand holding a folder whilst Przemysław Kwiek unfolds a banner titled ‘Monument Without a Passport in the Salon of Visual Arts.’
Throughout the performance the body is, literally, a semiotic support; the circulation of signs predicated on its confinement. This visceral staging of revolt is echoed in Adriano Costa’s ‘StorytellingCaipira’ at Supportico Lopez: in the gallery’s windowsill a group of dead flies spells out ‘NOT WELCOME’. In Costa’s makeshift installation the bodies of the destitute also emerge as a support, bearing the weight of financial flows at both ends of the business cycle, as providers of cheap labour and consumers of cheap products. Even more hands-on, Wolfgang Tillmans presented a set of pro-EU posters, aimingto impact the British referendum. The poster are plastered all over the entrance of Galerie Buchholz, in which Tillmans is exhibiting, and at his own project space Between Bridges, which is partially devoted to the pro EU campaign. With his double presence, Tillmans also contributes heavily to the predominance of photography, the medium, which seems to mark this edition of Gallery Weekend: Ketuta Alexi-Meskhishvili at Micky Schubert, Anne Collier at Galerie Neu, Heinz Peter Knes at Silberkuppe, Jochen Lempert at BQ and Christopher Williams at Capitain Petzel all notable examples of this. At BQ, Lempert’s photographs the textures of animal skins, follicles or feathers whose ambiguity hints at the morphological mimicry Surrealist writer Roger Caillois described as a surrender to the ‘lure of space’, a kind of ‘scattering of self across landscape.’
Showing at Micky Schubert, Alexi-Meskhishvili’s images are also interstitial, suggesting a pre-linguistic confrontation with the abject, which Julia Kristeva defined as ‘death infecting life’: that which ought to belong to the subject, but has since become an object, which, in its estranged autonomy, foreshadows the death of all subjectivity. Aleksandra Domanovic´, in an exhibition across both of Tanya Leighton’s spaces, also presented a new photographic series, ‘Bulls Without Horns’, depicting bull calves genetically modified to be just as the title suggests. I must admit I found the large-scale glossy prints hard to reconcile with the symbolic character of her sculptures, three of which are also on show, which extend the multivalence of the cyborg-body beyond the technological field, to include aesthetic and spiritual registers.
Perhaps most telling about this edition of Gallery Weekend is the near total absence of that thing which has become synonymous with Berlin’s expat art scene over the past few years: the post-internet mode and its ‘aesthetics of liquidity’. Whether this is because the jaded psychology post-internet art represented, has been overtaken by a political dimension it couldn’t recognize, or because liquidity as style was born amid discussions about financial liquidity that might be dwindling, is hard to tell. Either way, there seems to be a departure from the conventions of representation championed by digital naturalism and from ist embrace of corporate animism. Rather, everything is rough, gritty, textured: Rachel Harrison’s lumpen gym- and office culture-citing sculptures at Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Thea Djordjadze’s rugged surfaces at Sprüth Magers or Stephen G. Rhodes’s manic assemblages and frenzied video works at Isabella Bortolozzi’s second space, Eden Eden. One could perhaps describe this shift as a more general disaffection with the idioms of consumer culture – still present in the works of Ed Fornieles at Arratia Beer or Petra Cortright at Societé – and the Warholian currency (appropriation, debasement, iconophilia) post-internet still traded in. These are -displaced by a preoccupation with the conditions of phenomenological experience – firmly rooted in the truth claims of photographic indexicality – and in a renewed obsession with materiality.
Nowhere is this multivalence more present than in the mercurial retrospective the Martin Gropius Bau dedicated to Isa Genzken, ‘Make Yourself Pretty!’.Though clearly influenced by Pop, Genzken never accepted the naturalism of the given image as a compositional whole. Her kaleidoscope of ready-mades refers, at once, to the commodity-form vibrant materiality and to the modes of exchange it fosters or displaces. It is often said that Genzken stages the ruins of modernism, I rather think she stages the ruins of capitalism, and its entanglement of glitz and junk-space, spec-tacle and abjection. Also worth mentioning is Nervous Systems at the HKW (Haus der Kulturen der Welt), curated by Stephanie Hankey, Marek Tuszynski and Anselm Franke, an exhibition which explores the models and modes of algorithmic governance and the cultural logic they engender.
Engaged with material culture – albeit with a different slant than Genzken – Michael Rakowitz’s ‘The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist’, at Barbara Wien, is an attempt to bring back to social life the thousands of stolen artefacts that were looted from the National Museum of Iraq, following the American invasion, in 2003. This process of plundering was described by Peter McPherson, the senior economic adviser to Paul Bremer, the US diplomat who headed the Provisional Authority in Iraq following the 2003 US invasion, as a form of public sector ‘shrinkage’ or ‘sort of naturally occurring privatization’ (quoted in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, 2007). ‘The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist’ was the name of the street, which passed through the Ishtar Gate in Babylon – now in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum. Archaeology is implicated in the narratives of nation building, no wonder the process of dismantling a nation would entail the ‘privatization’ of its cultural heritage and collective history. Rakowitz’s ongoing project aims at undoing this erasure, reconstructing one-by-one the looted artefacts with papier-mâché and US import leftovers. The result is a table full of colourful, free-standing miniatures, each of which represents a lost artwork.
Exhibiting at carlier | gebauer, Iman Issa also takes cultural heritage as a point of departure. Her objects however are not attempts at recovering a lost legacy but rather a repurposing of their formal grammar. Together with Hiwa K at KOW, who also thematizes post-war Iraq, Issa and Rakowitz also stand out as the only artists dealing with extra-occidental references, and, in Issa and Rakowitzs’ case, the only artists reflecting on the type of subjectivities, which get activated or extinguished through the construction and deconstruction of collective history.
If you were to drive down Leipzigerstrasse on Sunday, 1st May, the last day of Gallery Weekend Berlin, International Worker’s Day, you would see a steady flow of BMW’s emblazoned with the event’s logo, cruising towards Potsdamer Straße. Driving in the opposite direction, you would find a completely different fleet of vehicles: riot police heading towards Kreuzberg. As US political commentator Robert Reich noted, under the conditions of globalization, members of the same society no longer inhabit the same economy. Increasingly these partitions also seem to manifest themselves aesthetically. Now that he (star)dust has settled and the real estate stock fully privatized, Berlin’s art scene is clearly divided between winners and losers, global players and a struggling majority (among them mid-career artists and small or medium-sized galleries). This matters because in a city whose institutions have notoriously turned their backs on the majority of artists based in Berlin, the mid-size galleries have been fulfilling the institutional mandate – yet galleries are commercial venues, and as such their operations are restricted by market pressures. Whatever doesn’t fall within these categories – of novelty on the one hand (young artists), or historical validation on the other (old ones) – tends to fall through the crevices of exhibition policy. Klaus Weber, Gitte Villesen, Eran Schaerf, Natascha Sadr Haghighian, Judith Hopf, Angela Melitopoulos, Leonor Antunes, Karl Holmqvist and Hito Steyerl, who seem to be virtually everywhere, never had institutional solo shows in Berlin. Within this picture, until something breaks or bends, ‘international art scene’ is just a code word for a market-dominated arena.