LAST WEEK, Art Forum Berlin (AFB) and Art Berlin Contemporary (ABC) decided to try cohabitation—but at a distance. AFB took up its traditional space in the Palais am Funkturm, albeit about twenty galleries lighter this year, with 110 stands. In a conciliatory gesture, the younger rival ABC presented the exhibition “light, camera, action,” focusing on art and cinema, in the Marshall-Haus located in the garden behind the Palais.
“It didn’t work out for Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton either,” quipped one patron, heard grumbling in the golf carts shuttling visitors between the two sites. Unlike Taylor and Burton, who divorced twice, ABC and AFB won’t be trying cohabitation again next year. The official reason: ABC changes its exhibition site for each edition. (The two events are still tentatively slated to take place at the same time next year.)
For those just tuning in, ABC was created in 2008 by a group of the Berlin gallery heavyweights—Alexander Schröder, Esther Schipper, Tim Neuger, Max Hetzler, Martin Klosterfelde, Claes Nordenhake—who had already formed a new spring tradition in 2005 with the now-successful networking-nirvana of Gallery Weekend Berlin. (None of my friends had any spare couch space last May.)
ABC and the Gallery Weekend are an alternative to AFB, which is operated by the fair company Messe Berlin GmbH. The fair’s new directors Eva-Maria Häusler and Peter Vetsch (of Art Basel fame) and a board of gallery advisors can’t quite seem to get Messe Berlin to understand the difference between a dental expo and an art fair. AFB patron and city mayor Klaus Wowereit’s much-quoted municipal motto—“Berlin is poor but sexy”—can be reduced to a tweet: 2 few buyers 4 gr8-looking art.
Basically, this means a noncommercial fair—a crazy idea anywhere else outside Berlin. “Gallerists don’t come here to do business but to contact curators,” said Le Monde’s art-market specialist Roxana Azimi. “Collectors attend the opening and leave.” Of course, there were other fairs to visit—Berliner Liste with 107 stands at the former state mint and Preview Berlin with sixty stands at the former airport Tempelhof—but many treasure hunters were likely at spaces that shunned any fair, from Isabella Bortolozzi to Circus, from Supportico Lopez to Silberkuppe.
The early VIP exodus didn’t seem to bother all the dealers at AFB—at least not the foreign ones, like Yvon Lambert, who turned his very first stand at the fair into a mini-solo-show for Douglas Gordon. Up-and-comers who this year graduated from a murky backroom to center-stage booths in the main halls also seemed pleased. “I have all New York–based artists,” said On Stellar Rays’s Candice Madey, showing me Tommy Hartung’s video The Ascent of Man, which took off in this year’s “Greater New York.” “For me, it’s about giving exposure to artists whose work hasn’t been seen in Europe before.”
And it’s also about getting artists into Germany’s expansive network of Kunstvereine and Kunsthallen. “We have a very curated stand,” said Raphaelle Bishoff from London’s Bishoff/Weiss, which was targeting not collectors but institutions with a ready-to-hang show composed of only two artists: Ruairiadh O’Connell’s aluminum screen prints of pantyhose and Matt Golden’s giant MDF board sanded down to dust—five hours of work that the nighttime cleaning crews almost swept away.
A noncommercial fair did not quite seem to appeal to those involved in ABC and Gallery Weekend—at least if one judged from the size of their AFB stands. Neugerriemschneider could have been awarded the prize for “most transparent gallery” for renting a large space that reflects their success while supporting the fair. Contemporary Fine Arts had a smaller booth than Johnen (although everybody loved CFA’s also very “curated” solo-show of Max Frisinger’s glass vitrines filled with junk thrown out by Berliners—a cross between Joseph Beuys’s swept-up dirt and Florian Slotawa’s balancing acts of retro-furniture).
The galleries neu, Klosterfelde, and Esther Schipper went for closer-cohabitation by sharing one single stand, smaller than neugerriemschneider’s. Commercial minimalism? “No comment,” said one guest. The downsizing seemed strange when two neu artists—Kitty Kraus and Karen Lidén—were nominated for this year’s National Gallery Prize for Young Art along with Cyprien Gaillard and Andro Wekua.
If the ABC organizers believed that they would teach AFB a few lessons about how an “innovative” fair is done, they have a ways to go. I can’t blame the artworks, which were exceptional, from Pavel Büchler’s rudimentary projector made with a flashing filament light bulb and a magnifying glass to Hanne Darboven’s 4 Jahreszeiten Film 1-6 (4 Seasons Film 1–6) from 1968. “That’s the work I’d want,” said Discoteca Flaming Star’s Wolfgang Mayer without a moment’s hesitation. But curator Marc Gloede appeared to be caught between the ABC organizers pushing particular galleries and the galleries pushing particular artists. And the otherwise splendid Marshall-Haus—with huge windows and winding staircases—couldn’t have been less suited for film projections and cramped black-box spaces.
What to do, now that the AFB–ABC “rivalry” seems to need refueling? Everyone, of course, had something to say—“revamp AFB”; “revamp ABC”; “open both in the first week of September”; “wait until Berlin gets rich and unsexy.” But, as usual, no one wanted to go on record, except for critic Raimar Stange: “The weather was the best part.”