Who needs bar-hopping…
People stood chatting in clusters, swilling glasses of Riesling and having a mighty fine time. They greeted one another with two or even three kisses, exclaiming in English, German, Italian, and Japanese. Some stood aside, taking pictures or messaging their friends. In fact, the only thing not happening was art spectatorship--no one seemed overly concerned with the works we were there to see.
“It’s always like that at an opening,” one of the artists, Wilken Skurk, told me. He was showing new iron and glass sculptures, heavy shapes with a likable heft that stood out in the crowded room. “But I saw you looking at my art. So you’re the exception.”
“I’m the one with no friends to talk to,” I corrected him. We laughed. Ah, the wonderful world of galleries in Berlin!
Berlin’s casual, open ambience, where gallery openings are accessible to all and artists actually talk to no-name visitors (like me), is created largely by the surplus of talent here. A decade of stable, low rents has drawn artists to the metropolis like moths to a light bulb, and many have planted long-term roots in the ever-growing scene. There are always creative figures who aren’t famous enough—yet—to have someone better to talk to than the average visitor. Meanwhile, the sprawling gallery scene is too unruly and quickly-growing to provide the incubating conditions for an elitist class of big-name dealers, art-media paparazzi, and privileged art celebrities. Like all places, it has its VIPs, but even they can’t make events “invitation only,” a phrase as likely as “no smoking” to pop up in promotional material.
The result is simultaneously relaxed and exciting: all are welcome—to ten events in one night. On last Friday’s warm, early spring evening, the few streets most heavily lined with galleries in northern Mitte were dotted with noisy islands of revelers spilling out otherwise quiet cobblestone streets. I attended three openings, each event growing naturally as pedestrians paused, attracted by the good time they had stumbled upon, and passing foot traffic converted into wine-fueled art viewing.
And it wasn’t just fun: the art was good too! Galerie Rossella Junck, where I chatted with Mr. Skurk, was also showing new work by Robert van de Laar. Himmel-Erde or Heaven-Earth was a series of glass circles painted with ink images of dream-like hands, faces, birds, and spirals that seemed a cross of Kiki Smith’s bodily fairy-tales and Joan Miro’s doodle aesthetic. The ink was visually delightful in its variability: at once heavy, dark, and splotchy; and light, immaterial, and fluid, where pigment mixed with water and feathered outward.
“They remind me of Goya’s ink and ivory miniatures,” I told the artist, who stood nearby in a tweed coat, agreeably chatting with visitors.
“Yes, they are a bit like that,” he agreed. “You don’t have total control over where the color goes when you are working in this technique.”
Down the block, Takafumi Hara was showing his Signs of Memory: Project Pink Windows. The project is an investigation of local geography, carried out by pink panels placed in the windows of selected buildings. From his native Japan to Berlin to Singapore, Hara has polled inhabitants about their thoughts and feelings and created tablets of their words, illustrated by child-like, whimsical images. The latest incarnation, on display here, was Singapore’s City Hall for the 2006 Biennale there.
“People said it was disrespectful to do such a thing to a historical building,” Hara explains. “They didn’t think it should or could be carried out.”
Yet he did it, and we get to enjoy the result—on display in the form of a model here—a work that neatly highlights Singaporeans’ ambivalence about their rapidly-modernizing nation’s role in the global world. By suggesting that the best way to “peer into” a building is through not a window but rather the minds of inhabitants, Hara reminds us, lest we take our physical, built reality too seriously, of the immateriality of hopes and reflections that must precede physical realization. The tension between material and immaterial, seen and invisible, was also present at the gallery’s bar, where drinks were rapidly going from existent to non-existent.
At each event, the anything-goes atmosphere was quite nice. Doubtless, the terrier accompanying one gentleman through Rossella Junck enjoyed it. So did the woman who set down her wine glass on a pedestal alongside the work on display.
In all seriousness though, this is the ideal way to view art--as objects that exists up close next to us, right in the middle of our messy lives, not as silent, sterile things in museum. Indeed, while museums charge us for the service of appropriate cultural edification, galleries court us, motivated by the hope that viewers will become customers. However, to summarize by saying that one walks out the Pergamon feeling educated and out of Rossella Junck with a shopping bag is to do the scene a disservice: where else can you view something new and interesting (in most cases, anyway), then turn and discuss it with the creator?
Besides, without much native industry or financial power, resource-poor and bankrupt Berlin can at least brag about its contemporary cultural edge over Frankfurt and Munich. For self-esteem, the capital makes neither steel nor glass—it turns them into works of art.
The group exhibition Ve:tro is at Rossella Junck, Auguststr. 28, +49 30 94 88 38 98 through May 26. Hara's Signs of Memory: Project Pink Windows is at DNA, Auguststr. 20, +49 30 28 59 96 52 through May 19.
Images: top, Galerie Rossella Junck. Skurk's Cathedral, Iron and glass, 2007. Two shots of Van de Laar's Himmel-Erde, Ink on glass, 2005. Hara's Singapore City Hall in miniature, text excerpted for lack of room on model. Hara in front of his exhibit. Wine glass alongside Julius Weiland's Relaxan, Blown glass, 2007.