Bohemian Rhapsody


Left: Artist Anna Blessman, Peter Saville, and Marta Fontolan. Right: Artist Tacita Dean. (Except where noted, all photos: Allese Thomson)

“BERLIN! THE LAST BOHEMIA!” declared Peter Saville in his baritone voice. “Not like London. The artists there have been driven out to the fringes. All my old spots now are supermarkets of wealth.” Balancing a cigarette in one hand, arm wrapped around artist Anna Blessman, Saville pushed his dark shoulder-length hair behind his ears. He wore a white linen suit and black shirt and seemed of an earlier age.

It was Friday night—Saturday, really, as the clock read past midnight—and we were in the back room of the Charlottenburg restaurant Florian, which was ablaze with warm light and the haze of smoke. People everywhere, rushing from table to table, crowding in corners, stealing chairs and swiping drinks and cigarettes from one another’s hands over messes of wineglasses and espresso cups. The air was musty with the smell of wet coats: A spring thunderstorm had unexpectedly broken earlier that night, giving the characters who had come together to celebrate solo shows by Tomma Abts (at Buchholz) and Nick Mauss (at Galerie Neu) a reason to stay in one place. Alexander Schroeder presided over a corner table next to artist Fabian Marti, all great big beard and long bushy hair, and a man who is a “rock star,” or so I’m told. John Knight squeezed in, confessing that he “does not like art,” as a woman dipped in costume jewelry whispered to Mauss: “I love your work.” He blushed. The party beat on until the beleaguered bar staff gently prodded: “We’d love to carry on, but, you see, it’s nearly 5 AM.” Berlin nightlife regulations have yet to address closing times. Perhaps Saville had a point.

Left: Schinkel Pavillon founder and curator Nina Pohl with Portikus curator Sophie von Olfers. Right: Art Basel director Marc Spiegler (right).

The next night, the final evening of Gallery Weekend Berlin, there was a most formal gala held at Kraftwerk, a cavernous warehouse that was, according to the piles of glossy pamphlets strewn about tables dressed with starched white linen, formerly a place for squatters. A line of pretty girls with iPads stood guard at the door, smiling with approval as they tapped each guest’s name. “Willkommen,” they chimed. At least a thousand people were in attendance—everyone from Art Basel’s Marc Spiegler to Texte zur Kunst founder Isabelle Graw. Gallery Weekend director Cédric Aurelle joined someone from BMW and head of VIP Relations Michael Neff to clink flutes of champagne and give the obligatory toast. I ran into the BMW man at the bar. “So you’re the corporate sponsor?” I asked. “We prefer to call it a collaboration,” he replied.

I am told that Berliners cling to an idea of bohemia. On Wednesday, I’d touched down in the City of Artists in time for an opening at a complex of warehouses in East Berlin, recently bought up and refurbished by a collector. The click-clack of women’s heels echoed in a vast space that boasted . . . Jacob Kassays. Further West, Kunstkritik darling Jana Euler opened at Galerie Neu. There, a darkly clad throng stood corralled behind a chain-link fence. “There are never this many artists at New York openings,” marveled a fellow American. Or perhaps we too cling to the Berlin-bohemia fantasy.

Left: Artist Alex Israel. Right: Dealers Alexander Schroeder and Alexander Hertling.

It was nearly noon on Thursday when Cologne collector Sabine DuMont turned a corner in Kreuzberg to find Schroeder and Paris-based dealer Alexander Hertling sipping cappuccinos on a black picnic table below Neu’s second space, MD72. She lit a cigarette and slid onto the bench, noting emphatically that she does not like fairs. “It is good, this weekend, because it is not just about the art but about the exhibitions,” she said, gripping the last word like a vice. “You see art in the places it was meant to be seen, eh?” She praised Supportico Lopez, which opened a show featuring La Crevette Amoureuse, a poem by the French avant-garde poet Henri Chopin, supposedly being presented in its entirety for the first time ever.

“Ah, here they come—four of them, no less.” DuMont raised her eyebrows as black GALLERY WEEKEND BERLIN BMWs pulled up to the curb. Suited chauffeurs leapt from the driver’s seats and opened the doors for their well-heeled charges. She shook her head: “I will leave before Saturday.”

“You’re not staying for the gala?” I asked, and she just laughed.

Left: Artist Oscar Murillo. (Photo: Marco Funke) Right: Curator Carson Chan and director of Hauser & Wirth New York Anna Erickson. (Photo: Maxime Ballesteros)

The social dynamics in Berlin, where critical capital often competes (and dovetails) with those more “vulgar” kinds, are decidedly complicated. Consider Oscar Murillo, a talented and controversial artist who opened three exhibitions in Berlin that week, all aptly yoked together by the title “Enjoy the food, but you’re not welcomed at the table.” The artist used a variety of forms—painting, performance, video, as well as crafts like sewing—to examine class hierarchy via cooking and street food. “He’s building on relational aesthetics,” explained Isabella Bortolozzi director Andrew Cannon, noting the interest of Hans Ulrich Obrist and Liam Gillick. “The energy is in the paintings.”

“The problem,” said a curator friend as we stepped over unstretched canvases that descended from the ceiling and across the floor, “is that some may read his work as a retrograde return to neo-expressionism; the issue is the amplification of his ego and the dissolution of community.” Indeed, throughout the week, I asked Berlin artists and dealers about Murillo’s work and was met with a glib, “You mean the new Basquiat?”

At Peres Projects, Alex Israel was continuing to twit the cult of personality. He’d called on Warner Bros. studios to fabricate identical fiberglass profiles of his head. “It’s so gauche to make a self-portrait,” he shared. “And Berlin seemed the place to do it. Kippenberger, Richter, Oehlen—they all did it too.” Reduced in palette, they seemed more California ice cream parlor than Teutonic lucubration. “I have no desire to be on the outside of culture critiquing. I want to be immersed in the thick of it.”

Left: Artist Anna K.E. and dealer Barbara Thumm. Right: Artist Calla Henkel (left).

On the other side of the spectrum, a New York–based novelist explained to me why he’d left Berlin for good: “In the early 2000s you could do anything: Serve liquor and you had a bar, put up a pole and you had a strip club, allow sex and you had a whorehouse.” He took a sip of whisky. “That era is gone, over. If I want to feel like a cardboard cutout, I go to Berlin.” But then you have artists like Calla Henkel, who moved here from New York two years ago and subsequently set up a bar and theater. Traces of the old bohemian/entrepreneurial chimera persevere—with qualifications. She and Max Pitegoff had organized a show at Tanya Leighton gallery featuring photographs of piles of receipts belonging to artist friends Simon Denny, Yngve Holen, and Fredrik Vaerslev—visual testimony to the inexorable tides of professionalization. Leighton celebrated the duo with a lunch at Paris Bar, the legendary Charlottenburg boîte with framed photographs of celebrities (Gorbachev, Madonna) hung salon style over red walls. An international group of young artists joined for steak and frites: Simon Fujiwara, Dan Rees, Aleksandra Domanović, Liz Magic Laser. “I haven’t booked a ticket back,” Laser laughed.

Later, discussing the nature of Berlin nostalgia over dinner, Rirkrit Tiravanija beamed and said: “There are pre-wall people and post-wall people and no-wall people.” Tiravanija moved to Berlin shortly after the wall fell and now keeps his archive, along with a home and studio, there. “The new becomes authentic,” he continued, “like the former West. And the old becomes meta, like the former East. And people are always looking at shadows, hoping that it never goes away with dawn. Most of the holes have been bricked up—many still behind it and others have moved beyond—but perhaps neither knows which side they are standing on in time.”

Allese Thomson

Left: Dealer Johann König. Right: Artist Fabian Marti (right)

Left: Artist Peter Saul. Right: Artist Michael Krebber (right).

Left: Dealer Friedrich Petzel. Right: Dealer Jonathan Viner and artist Oscar Tuazon.

Left: Gallery Weekend Berlin executive director Cédric Aurelle. Right: Dealer Daniel Buchholz and artist Tomma Abts.

Left: Curator Stephan Sastrawidjaja and Liz Magic Laser. Right: Dealer Burkhard Riemschneider.

Left: Veruschka. Right: Collectors Christian Boros and Karen Boros. (Photos: Maxime Ballesteros)

Left: Artist Billy Childish (right) and son. Right: Dealer Alexander Schroeder (second from left) and artist Nick Mauss (right).

Left: Dealers Marie-Blanche Carlier and Ulrich Gebauer. Right: Michael Stipe.

Left: Artists Dan Rees and Simon Fujiwara. Right: Dealer Barbara Weiss (right).

Left: Advisor James Lindon and Patricia Marshall. Right: Artist Max Pitegoff (left).

Left: Abaseh Mirvali, curator Juan Gaitán, and curator María Inés Rodríguez. Right: Advisor Alex Marshall, Swiss Institute curator Piper Marshall, and dealer Sam Orlofsky.