Bild to Last

Daniel Boese around openings in Berlin


Left: National Gallery director Udo Kittelmann with Fondation Beyeler director Samuel Keller. Right: Artist Thomas Demand. (Photos: David von Becker)

“HOW GERMAN IS IT?” asked Udo Kittelmann on a recent Wednesday at the opening of Thomas Demand’s “Nationalgalerie,” fittingly installed at the Neue Nationalgalerie. Nearly three and a half miles of curtain had been used to transform the Mies van der Rohe building into an intimate Bilderkammer, and the press-savvy Kittelmann was busy talking up the “Gesamtkunstwerk” to journalists. The opening was the kickoff to a week of events in the Berlin art world, and, to be sure, it was a very German affair. Demand’s pictures, some of them never before exhibited, not only showed the (German) forest but offered a “best-of” sampling of (German) history: the bathtub in which conservative politician Uwe Barschel was found dead, the turmoil in the Stasi offices after the fall of the wall, the gangway of a Lufthansa plane.

“Nationalgalerie” is Kittelmann’s first show since taking up his position as director of Berlin’s state museums, and with it he has clearly brought the eponymous institution closer to the twenty-first century. Not coincidentally, this branding effort is fueled by industrial interests: Kittelmann’s introduction was soon followed by a speech from Wulf Bernotat, CEO of the power company EON, the exhibition’s lead sponsor. It’s perhaps a very German irony to romanticize the forest—as Demand does in his Lichtung, in which he folded several hundred thousand pieces of paper into green leaves—and then have a coal company foot the bill.

Anyway, at the dinner that followed, the Königsberger Klopse and the potato soup EON paid for were great, though by midnight there was a strange abundance of leftover currywursts. (Everyone preferred the apple cake.) Le tout Berlin was in attendance: Andreas Gursky with Julia Stoschek, artists Markus Lüpertz and Katharina Sieverding, and big buyers such as Christian Boros, Erika Hoffmann, and of course Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch, whose Surrealism collection is still on display on the Nationalgalerie’s ground floor. I spoke with curator Louise Hojer about the dematerialization of art, absence, and the missing cake; all in all, a pleasant, good-humored evening.

Left: Paul Maenz with Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit. Right: Christian von Borries, Alice Creischer, and Andreas Siekmann. (Photos: Daniel Boese)

The next day, I found a very different model of history at the Berlinische Galerie’s opening for “Berlin 89/09.” Curator Heinz Stahlhut has assembled a group of artworks derived from local mythologies: from Sophie Calle’s work on the removal of Socialist icons to Arwed Messmer’s chronicle of Potsdamer Platz. The pulse of the show is a sound installation by Nina Fischer and Maroan el Sani, which features giant speakers playing a low-frequency rhythm by Carsten Nicolai: It sounds like the city’s heartbeat. (One recalls that techno beats served as Berlin’s defibrillator after the fall of the wall.) The Berlinische crowd was much more diverse than the one for “Nationalgalerie”: old hippies, young hipsters, serious theorists, and decadent partygoers—the same mix that continues to fuel the Berlin club scene. I chatted with Susan Sontag biographer Daniel Schreiber about how inconvenient it was that we had to pay for our wine; that’s what happens when an energy company isn’t sponsoring the museum.

Whether it was postcrisis earnestness or an echo of the twenty-year anniversary of the wall’s fall, the theme of German identity continued throughout the week. On Friday, artists Andreas Siekmann and Alice Creischer and composer Christian von Borries staged a reenactment of a press conference by the three “generals” of Germany’s major museums. Roughly a year ago, at the Temporäre Kunsthalle, Peter-Klaus Schuster, Martin Roth, and Reinhold Baumstark presented their plans for a universal museum in Dubai. With the actors repeating the speeches word for word, now, in the post-Lehman world, it was hard not to be struck by the megalomania of their vision. During the performance, the organizers interjected images and videos of life and death in Dubai—underscoring the mortality of the immigrants at work on all the giant buildings—while sounds played from Berlin’s phonogram archive. Colonialism, nationalism, culture, the state, Hegel, Humboldt, globalization, the bubble—all this and more were presented. It was boring, unbearable: in sum, a magnificent performance.

Left: Artist Omer Fast. Right: Artist Keren Cytter. (Photos: David von Becker)

An appreciation for critique reemerged on Monday during a ceremony for the Prize for Young Art at the Hamburger Bahnhof. After a determined but long speech by Kittelmann, Centre Pompidou curator Christine Macel announced Omer Fast the winner. Fast’s three-part film installation Nostalgia, which depicts the fate of illegal African immigrants in Europe, was the most critical piece in the show. (The other contenders were Annette Kelm, Keren Cytter, and Danh Vo.) During the champagne-fueled celebration, Kunst-Werke’s Gabi Horn and I spoke with a (uniquely sober) Fast, who outlined his current work involving former underground terrorists from the US. Much of the crowd, however, still preferred champagne to critique; this time, BMW sponsored the bar (another example of the transubstantiation of nongreen economic capital into cultural capital).

The prize’s afterparty was nothing compared to the vodka-doused fete in the old Weimar-style dance joint Clärchens Ballhaus, where Neo Rauch celebrated the opening of his show “Schilfland” at Eigen + Art. My companion and I departed shortly after Contemporary Fine Arts’s Bruno Brunnet removed his shirt and gave a bare-chested speech—loud yet incomprehensible—from the balcony. When we ran into Eigen + Art’s Judy Lybke a couple days later at the Art Forum fair, he told us that we’d missed the best. Brunnet himself said he didn’t know what he’d yelled. “They gave me all this vodka,” he shrugged.

Left: Dealer Tim Neuger (second from left) with art adviser Thea Westreich (on right). Right: Collector Julia Stoschek with artist Andreas Gursky. (Photos: Daniel Boese)

The hunger for critique was almost satisfied by the time Art Forum commenced. Everyone seemed to agree that the fair’s new directors, Eva-Maria Häussler and Peter Vetsch, had done a bang-up job. The quality of participating galleries decidedly improved; even the notoriously critical blue-chip Berlin galleries like Neugerriemschneider and Max Hetzler (both of whom had avoided the fair for years) seemed pleased. “Professional but boring” was about the worst of the grumbles. The amiable atmosphere was so strong it even seemed to extend to a panel discussion, held at the Hamburger Bahnhof, about the necessity (or not) for a more permanent Berlin kunsthalle. Mayor Klaus Wowereit, MoMA’s Klaus Biesenbach, critic Niklas Maak, and artists Monica Bonvicini and Olafur Eliasson all argued the same position: We need a kunsthalle, possibly right next to the Bahnhof. Eliasson went so far as to suggest installing a Knallkopf—he suggested Hans Ulrich Obrist—as director. Who could argue?

Left: Bert Antonius Kaufmann with collector Christian Boros. Right: Critic David Ulrichs, artist Douglas Gordon, and singer Ruth Rosenfeld. (Photos: Daniel Boese)

Left: Artist Christian Jankowski with André Odier of the Verein der Freunde der Nationalgalerie. (Photo: David von Becker) Right: Musician Gudny Gudmundsdottir and artist Jonathan Meese. (Photo: Daniel Boese)