whitehot | September 2008, ABC Art Fair
“ABC is not an art-fair”
by Mira O’Brien
The first ever ABC (Art Berlin Contemporary) was a one weekend only exhibition organized by a group of Berlin galleries. From September 5-7, the exhibition took place in the former train station and post-office, Alter Postbahnhof am Gleisdreieck. The Postbahnhof contains no conventional gallery walls. Rather than build temporary walls, curator Ariane Beyn responded to the space. The expansive and raw industrial architecture dictated the theme of the show: installation, sculpture and the projected image. In addition to the obvious pragmatism behind the theme, focusing on installation also reflects a particular moment in Berlin’s art scene where painting has ceased to dominate.
The works included in the exhibition were selected by the 44 participating galleries, and placed by curator Beyn with an eye for emphasizing relationships between works and with the existing architecture. With 73 artists exhibiting often large-scale works, there was little breathing room. Some works disappeared to overlap with one another, occasionally with mutually beneficial results.
The overall mood of the weekend was festive, getting a kick-start with the opening of ABC on Thursday night. The invitation-only opening was packed with stylish Berliners and international visitors. Guests drank champagne and dined on steak, provided by the Royal Grill. The participating galleries held individual openings over the weekend, merging into a non-stop party for art connoisseurs.
The producers of ABC want to be clear that this exhibition is not an art-fair. Upon entrance, ABC indeed feels more like an art carnival. Lame foxes pose inside a neon fun house, in an installation created by the painter Daniel Richter. A spinning tent,by Lara Favaretto, takes the place of a carousel. Both pieces share the tone of a carnival gone awry: presented as broken and abandoned, these carnival tropes take on an air of mystery and melancholy.
The festive tone of the exhibition did not deter a more critical approach by certain artists. Mark Dion provided a lectern and costumes for visitors to pose in a photo-op as a political dignitary from the Whitehouse or the UN. The playful game of dress-up was employed here to critique the staging of political authority. Like many pieces in the show, including Carl Andre, Dion’s interactive installation is a recreation of an earlier work by the artist.
John Bock presented one of the few literally interactive works in the exhibition. A sort of human scale hamster-wheel bisected two Kafkaesque chambers. During moderated hours, visitors could climb inside and activate the wheel. The spectacle created by offering a sort of fair ride to viewers in the festive atmosphere of ABC lightened the tone of the piece dramatically. The psychologically charged interior space was at first ominous and dark, filled with signs of angst. The audience participation introduced an incongruous element of entertainment. Whether this heightened Bock’s intended effect or distracted is left up to the interpretation of the viewer.
Formally inspired works of elegance benefited most from the naturally lit, airy and expansive second exhibition hall. Olaf Holzapfel’s undulating partitions made from varying shades of blue cardboard appeared to almost shimmer. The simple materials of cardboard and rope engaged through form in a discussion with the 3-D modeling space of architectural design as well as the making-do aesthetic of temporary shelters. The effect of this installation and its potential engagement with the architecture of the Postbahnhof was ultimately limited by the crowding inof other artworks from all sides.
Perhaps the greatest success of ABC was not curatorial innovation or commercial gain, but rather the public attendance and appreciation generated by the exhibition. An estimated 9,000 visitors made their way through the Postbahnhof over the weekend. Sunday was designated “family day,” with reduced admission and free catalogues distributed to visitors. The festive and carnivalesque atmosphere of ABC seemed to welcome a wider swath of the general public, than the typical gallery-going type. Walking into a gallery in Mitte can be an intimidating experience even for one accustomed to the often times cold atmosphere of the commercial gallery. Despite the internationally diverse group of artists exhibited at ABC, all of the participating galleries are located in Berlin. Creating an exhibition that reaches out to a local populous, without losing the international rigor of the contemporary art dialogue, is an appropriate contribution. Many of ABC’s guests will not visit each individual participant gallery, but ABC provided a sampling of the best work these galleries have to offer in a more concentrated and accessible environment.
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief