The opening of abc art berlin contemporary marked the start of Berlin’s fall art season. The excitement built up over a slow, lazy August at last came to a pitch on the night of September fourth 2008. Organized by the group behind Gallery Weekend each May, abc is a joint exhibition project featuring over seventy artists from more than forty Berlin galleries. Curated by Ariane Beyn, abc took place in the Postbahnhof am Gleisdreieck, an immense, raw, archaic industrial space well suited to capture the vibe and energy of the Berlin art scene.
Posted one its website, abc’s manifesto was this:
The focus of this year’s edition of abc will be on sculpture, installation, and the projected image – a direct reflection of Berlin’s unique creative conditions that allow ample space and artist dialogue amidst an ever-changing urban environment. abc art berlin contemporary offers new perspectives on the exciting Berlin art scene– the parameters of which extend far beyond the city’s walls.
While such wholesale characterizations of genre may be suspect, the show as a whole did well in transmitting much of the creative drive and dialogue of the city. With representation from many of the most-established galleries, abc created an engaging atmosphere, euphoric, overwhelming, celebratory, and entirely open. Not a typical trade fair, abc eschewed gallery booths in favor of a more organic approach. Some video artists chose to show their work in constructed theaters, but for the most part, all the pieces were practically on top of each other, eliminating the sterile white cube of the gallery, allowing for a rhizomatic conversation among the entire show. Sounds and images bled together, and at times it was difficult to distinguish individual pieces.
Some of the work suffered from this, especially some of the weaker installation and sculptural work that may have held up better in a more isolated setting. Many of the works that truly stood out were those that allowed for spectator engagement (whether intentionally of not), or those that could successfully engage with the pieces around them and the overall environment of the show. This aspect of abc was its strongest. Much of the art shown was completely uninspiring and forgettable, while some of it would be absolutely powerful in any setting. There were few overt commercial overtones, with gallery presence limited to a byline. The art itself was at the forefront, but even more so was the audience and its participation, at least on opening night.
Echoes of Nicolas Bourriaud were eminently present, the French curator who stated, “art is a state of encounter. ” As trade fairs and biennials become increasingly more common, and the old model of the gaze falls away to the interaction of bodies, contemporary artists and curators must accordingly address these questions of art as a social interstice. abc did not implicitly do so – though some of the works in the exhibition did (for example, John Bock’s Vas-Y!, addressed below) – but as an event and a cultural celebration it did serve to engage the community within the context of artistic exchange.
One of the most impressive pieces was Carl Andre’s Thrones, though dating back to 1978 can barely be considered contemporary. A long chain of rough-hewn timbers, Thrones is an exercise in modernist formality that questions the idea of the art-object as sacred. This is something that would undoubtedly transmit forcefully in a gallery or museum setting, but more interesting than the sculpture itself was how the viewers interacted with it in the party atmosphere of the opening. True to its name, it became a series of thrones, albeit rather democratic thrones. Weary revelers sat down upon the sculpture, wine glasses in hand, momentarily each kings and queens, at least now of their own experience. Andre, I think, would be pleased.
Early in his career Andre started putting his sculptures on the floor, encouraging the viewer to step on and walk over the piece. Sylvie Fleury – whose work deals with re-appropriating the work of famous male artists into a feminine discourse – exploited this aspect of Andre’s work in her piece Walking on Carl Andre (2007). Unlike Thrones, which appeared to be thrust haphazardly wherever there was room for it, Fleury had erected a platform with walls to mimic the white cube environment and closed off the sculpture from the surrounding hoi polloi. Composed of seventy-eight lacquered steel panels coming together in a circle, the installation also included a corresponding sound piece, the sound of women walking in high heels. Though the sound resembled the noise heard at crosswalks signaling do not walk, everyone was indeed walking all over Carl Andre. How exactly the installation recontextualized Andre’s work with femininity is a bit unclear, but it at least produced the desired effect with remarkable casualness.
John Bock’s Vas-Y! (2005) was one of the most spectacular works in abc, and perhaps one of the most successful. From the outside it looked like some sort of small low-tech spaceship. On the inside it resembled a disoriented reproduction of a teenager’s bedroom: a drum kit, bed, mess scattered all about. One look inside and it was easily dismissible, confusing and detextualized. However, later in the night, a line formed at the door as the contraption started to spin. This is an amusement park experience. Before you take the ride all you know is that everything spins and there’s a Skylabesque hamster wheel. When you get in and the door shuts behind you, a man takes your hand, telling you to walk forward. Your surroundings start to turn and your feet are forced forward. The drum kit’s not on the ceiling, nothing’s where it is supposed to be, paint chips fly everywhere.
Unfortunately, keeping up with gravity requires concentration on the floor beneath one’s feet rather than on the whole piece. But the accompanying video gives a view of the room as it is turning, with people inside falling up and down walls, over furniture. The state of confusion and disorientation Vas-Y! invokes, while certainly familiar, was particularly apt in its place in the exhibition.
Of all the video selections shown at abc, Stephen G. Rhodes’s Dualism 2 (2006) and Dualism 3 (2007) were perhaps the most at home in the eclectic environs of the Postbahnhof. Both videos feature a duel, with one opponent per channel, each channel projected on either side of the screen: the entire duel is never seen by the viewer, having to switch from side to side. The videos themselves are charming and absurd, reminiscent of the American Civil War, and portraying a sense of futility in head-on conflict. Projected on small screens constructed out of found objects – a bucket, half of a trombone, tree branches – the two films coalesce into a single piece. All the jumble, the clutter of the videos and the screens as sculptural objects blended into the background, bled through the works around them.
abc was as much a social event as a celebration of Berlin’s contemporary art. Overpriced drinks kept the fete to civility, but a performance by Peaches was at least a nod to the debauchery the city engages in. On the whole, the performance, though amusing, was a little boring. But it was karaoke: an imitation, an act the audience could sing along to (Total Eclipse of the Heart was a big hit). The highlight, what kept me from leaving after the first song to go back to mingling with so and so to talk about that or that, was Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights. Arms waving, wearing a celestial moon mask, Peaches out-Kate Bushed Kate Bush with overemphasized vocal quirks and “whoaoas” galore. After a series of onstage costume changes and a blur of eighties hits the singer apparently ended the performance singing her way out to an awaiting limousine, past Parisian collective Claire Fontaine’s giant neon sign blazing “Capitalism Kills (Love).” A true spectacle of tongue-in-cheek fakery and rehash.
At least abc is hip enough to admit that that’s what often goes on in the world of art these days, or at least let a foulmouthed American musician allude to it (I certainly hope the irony was intentional). There was very little political about the exhibition as a whole – though many works individually certainly had political agendas – and nothing grotesquely commercial or market driven. It lay firmly in the mainstream while providing something refreshing and engaging (if weak and boring at times), hardly surprising coming from over forty of Berlin’s preeminent galleries.
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Brittany Taylor is a writer and artist living in Berlin.