Touching Based


Left: Artist Tobias Kaspar, “Based in Berlin” curator Scott Cameron Weaver, and artist Gerry Bibby. (Photo: Quinn Latimer) Right: Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit.

I WAS JUST GETTING my sea—nay, canal—legs when I suddenly found myself disembarking in Berlin last Tuesday for the controversy-knows-no-bounds mega-exhibition based in . . . well, you know. After Venice’s art marathon, I should have known that the running wouldn’t stop just because I had landed in the sober (?) north. To be sure, the exhibition’s organizers took on Berlin’s geographic largess with relish: The six-week show spreads over a labyrinthine main space in the Atelierhaus at Monbijoupark, art studios soon to be torn down, and four other assorted venues of varying elegance—Kunst-Werke Berlin, Hamburger Bahnhof—Museum für Gegenwart, Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, and the Berlinische Galerie. The political fury surrounding the project is well known and, by now, writ (quickly: It is a pet political project of Mayor Klaus Wowereit’s; critics derided its necessity and the 1.6 million euros allotted for it) so I won’t go into it here. Let’s keep it light, shall we?

Suffice to say, all was merry at the afternoon VIP conference, where Wowereit, the show’s godfathers/advisers (Hans Ulrich Obrist, Klaus Biesenbach, and the lovely Christine Macel), and the show’s actual young curators (Angelique Campens, Fredi Fischli, Magdalena Magiera, Jakob Schillinger, and Scott Cameron Weaver), as well as assorted other notables and incorrigibles, gathered for canapés and toasts in the sunshine. Or so I heard; in an early-summer daze, I missed my initial flight to Berlin and ended up just making the opening in Monbijoupark, which on first look appeared more like a rock concert than an opening. As Weaver fetched me from my cab, jauntily wearing Michael Stipe’s name tag since he had lost his own, I saw thousands of kids and elders thronging the grassy fields surrounding the space, throwing back beers in the night heat.

I greeted artists Nairy Baghramian and Tobias Kaspar, Silberkuppe directors Dominic Eichler and Michel Ziegler, Croy Neilsen’s Oliver Croy, and the Basel Museum für Gegenwartskunst curator Nikola Dietrich, all lounging in front of Mandla Reuter’s Nothing to See Nothing to Hide. Reuter had shown me the pretty plan for it in his studio in Basel a few weeks before, and now I saw it for the blithe and aggressive gesture that it is: He had removed the huge, well-tagged facade windows of the Atelierhaus’s front building, leaving gaping concrete frames and a suddenly pavilion-like room for, well, trashing.

Left: “Based in Berlin” curatorial advisors Hans Ulrich Obrist, Christine Macel, and Klaus Biesenbach. Right: “Based in Berlin” curator Jakob Schillinger. (Photo: Quinn Latimer)

In that spirit, we grabbed some beers and made our way through the crowd to where the exhibition lay in wait. Presciently, it starts with the excellent The Brave, Asaf Koriat’s split-screen video featuring a three-by-three grid, each square offering a “Star-Spangled Banner”–singing diva: Beyoncé, Cher, Mariah, Whitney, Celine, and whatnot. A woman walked by and pointed to a young, lithe Jessica Simpson belting it out. “I don’t know who that one is,” she noted in German to her friend, who simply shrugged.

One wonders whether she could have identified the people in Jay Chung and Q Takeki Maeda’s brilliantly deft address of the exhibition’s uneasy provenance—a series of photographic portraits of Mayor Wowereit’s former political opponents hung in a narrow hallway, so that they crowded you with both their defeat and their determination. Ouch. So many of the works touch on another political fact about Berlin’s artists—they’re from everywhere but here. Take Trevor Lloyd’s winsome suite of “Mom” drawings, for instance, which illustrates this fact perfectly if shakily. Upon moving to the city, the California-born artist realized that he hadn’t packed a picture of his mother, so he set about drawing a batch—eyes closed, balanced on his head. Obviously.

The next days unfolded in a series of standout works—Shahryar Nashat’s color-soaked Hamburger Bahnhof installation of 1990s-era Super 8 films and sharp color prints of recent sculptural works are gorgeous and moving, as are Keren Cytter’s Avalanche films; Kajsa Dahlberg’s Reclam-printed collation of hand-notated copies of Virginia Woolf’s 1929 A Room of One’s Own is excellent. One night, with everyone already alarmed at the prospect of Art Basel the following week, Macel imitated Basel’s many Ladies of the Art Preview, with their teetering heels and handbags and blackberries dangling from limp wrists. Somehow this morphed into a discussion of ten different kinds of body language that female donkeys—donkeys? no, monkeys, she said—have. Like everything else, it was hilarious and confusing in equal measure.

So were the performances, which popped with welcome alacrity. Jeremy Shaw’s scientific lecture on lasers was perfectly and fantastically unintelligible, until the lights suddenly went down, the green lasers went up, and he began singing “scream like a baby” in Auto-Tune—then it was just awesome. If one unnamed performance had everyone uncertain—even Biesenbach and friend were shaking their heads—Michele Di Menna’s pastel mise-en-scène, in which she and another white-clad beauty arranged quasi-phallic totems while a fishbowl sound track gurgled overhead (actually spa music from Baden-Baden), was another story. It was wonderfully convincing, even if we didn’t know quite what we were being convinced of.

Left: Artist Mandla Reuter. Right: Svenja Held, curator Nikola Dietrich, and Maria Loboda. (Photo: Quinn Latimer)

After Di Menna’s performance, a group of us piled into a cab to various destinations that escape me now, where more performing ensued. At one bar, a sleepy man was introduced to me as the “Hans Ulrich Obrist of Berlin.” Later, I tried on Di Menna’s Working Girl white pumps. Perfect fit. Still later, we all made our way to the Angry Chicken, a Korean fried-chicken place with a small club behind a sliding door in the back. As Gerry Bibby and Di Menna broke it down quixotically on the dance floor, someone told me that the smiling DJ, Daniel Wang, would be playing at a party at Art Basel the following week. It is a small world after all.

My last evening in Berlin found me hopscotching to openings around town: Nick Mauss’s inspired curatorial endeavor at Galerie Neu featured works by Lukas Duwenhögger, Birgit Megerle, Katharina Wulff, and Amelie von Wulffen, all of whom took the same jazzy poems as their point of departure. Next stop was the new Esther Schipper space, featuring a wonderfully lucid and spare Ceal Floyer solo. After drinks in the garden downstairs, we made our way to the Spree-side Grill Royal for the gallery dinner, where I sat down with frieze d/e editor Jennifer Allen and artists Christoph Keller and Monica Bonvincini in voluminous chairs that immediately made everyone feel like they were sitting at the kids’ table. Allen whipped out her iPhone to show us all the pavilions from Venice that I had missed and pretty soon Keller was declaring himself a “cultural relativist,” but sweetly. After chatting with Floyer outside a bit about her show, I begged off, claiming too many recent nights seeing the sun rise. Allen raised an acerbic eyebrow and noted: “Well, the sun rises at 4:00 AM here, so . . . ” True, but Art Basel was rustling just outside the door. It was time to get some sleep, long northern summer days (midsummer night’s dreams?) or no.

Quinn Latimer