Main Attraction


Left: Portikus director Daniel Birnbaum with Irish critic Caoimhin Mac Giolla Leith. (Photo: April Elizabeth Lamm) Right: Artist Simon Starling and gallerist and Art Now coauthor Burkhard Riemschneider. (Photo: Jonas Leihener)

Crossing the Old Bridge to an island in the River Main one discovers an oversize, rust-red shed, a medieval speicher. It’s the site of Frankfurt’s oldest rowing club, inaugurated in 1865, and now also of the city’s newest art house: Portikus, the gallery of the Städelschule and laboratory of curator Nikola Dietrich and director Daniel Birnbaum. As I made my way there last Friday, spring had sprung—just at the moment when it seemed as though we’d be sticking with winter. The meteorological surprise (which should have been par for the course) lent an idyllic tone to the evening – spectacular views of Germany’s only high-rise skyline were accentuated by the golden gleam of the Commerzbank building. Although the gallery’s architecture (by local Christoph Mäckler) has not been embraced by its public, it yielded fodder for many quips. Referring to its corrugated-cardboard façade, Irish critic Caoimhin Mac Giolla Leith suggested “an ‘appropriation’ of the pleated fashions of Issey Miyake.”

“Personal States / Infinite Actives,” the venue’s debut exhibition, features work by Tomas Saraceno and Marjetica Potrc. Saraceno’s transparent balloons, fanciful dwellings designed for an overpopulated world, drifted around both inside and outside the gallery, the floating utopia they evoked threatened only by our cocktail sticks. Underneath, discussion of improvised housing filled the air around the artist’s Prishtina-House, a vaguely baroque yellow-brick favela.

Left: Artist Olafur Eliasson. Right: Artists Ronald Jones and Felix Gmelin with bodyguards. (Photos: Jonas Leihener)

A garden party on an island in the middle of Frankfurt is hardly an everyday affair. We talked of philosophy and the long-forgotten sociologist Max Horkheimer. The drinks here were cheap, the taxis to and fro unnecessary (everyone arrived by bike), and I missed Birnbaum’s inaugural speech, which he himself described as dry and perfunctory. But while Frankfurt’s future and former culture ministers very nearly came to blows, most other guests were in good spirits, including the directors of Frankfurt’s three other major art institutions: Max Hollein (Schirn Kunsthalle), Udo Kittelmann (MMK), and fresh arrival Chus Martinez (Frankfurter Kunstverein). Nevertheless, Sofia Bertilsson, director of Nordenhake Berlin, reminded me that, “Franfkurt is full of surprises. You remember the last time that Frankfurt made the tabloids? The headline was ‘Hessen-Hannibal fraß Bernd, aus Berlin!’” Her reference was to a 2002 story in which a local man (a Frankfurter) had chopped off a Berliner’s penis and cooked it up as a supper for two, then brutally stabbed him to death.

Städelschule’s self-styled “punk” professor Mark Leckey, the best-dressed man in the room (though Tobias Rehberger, Simon Starling, and Michael Neff, all on hand, have provided strong competition in the past), was approached by a joyfully jesting Art Basel power player, Maria Finders, with the query, “Hey, aren’t you the fellow who did that Fiorucci Made Me Gay?” He retorted, “Gay, no. Hardcore, yes. Hardcore.” Busy bee Olafur Eliasson arrived late and left early, which was forgivable since he’ll be seeing a lot more of Frankfurt over the next two years: An elated Birnbaum recounted asking the Berlin-based artist to work on a project for Portikus and receiving the more-than-encouraging response, “Only if I can do twelve!” The first is an installation that turns Portikus’ rooftop into a nighttime showroom for a solar eclipse. What we couldn’t see that night, but was visible the next day, was that the bridge under our feet was tagged with a cryptic motto: “There is no demonstration in Disney Land.” How were we meant to read this foreboding declaration? The answer remains uncertain, but the Chronology—to borrow the title of Birnbaum’s new essay collection—of the new Portikus had begun regardless.

Left: Artist Tobias Rehberger with Mark Leckey. Right: Curator Henriette Bretton-Meyer and gallerist Michael Neff. (Photos: Jonas Leihener)

Left: Schirn Kunsthalle director Max Hollein. Right: Curator Henriette Bretton-Meyer with Simon Starling and Daniel Birnbaum. (Photos: Jonas Leihener)