Hello Again

Kristian Vistrup Madsen on gallery reopenings in Berlin

Daniel Pfau and Luisa Mann in Mehdi Chouakri, wearing face masks designed by April von Stauffenberg. All photos by author.

IT’S BERLIN GALLERY WEEKEND, or week seven of corona quarantine, which means face masks are obligatory on public transport and in shops, and I’m busy with the third volume of Proust and how-tos for making schnitzel zu Hause. Meanwhile, leaving the house is the new Instagram: potentially bad for your health, but a great source of affirmation, where sanitary salutations—foot and elbow pumps—accumulate like Likes. “We are walking on thin ice,” reminded Mutti Merkel as galleries started reopening last week. But everyone is so happy to see you. At Galerie Barbara Weiss, Bärbel Trautwein and Daniel Herleth told me they’d had just one other visitor: a mother desperate to distract her homeschooled children and who would have walked in anywhere. Like most shows at the moment, theirs—an eclectic collection of portrait drawings by Friederike Feldmann titled “Printemps 2020”—opened just before lockdown, in mid-March, and is now extended.

At Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, four masked staffers were tapping away at their iMacs, a startling apparition of a twisted new normal. On view were older works by Anna Uddenberg and Guan Xiao—the latter’s collage sculptures, staged on snake-print photo backdrops and looking as if they were digital renderings, are not exactly what you want to see after seven weeks in virtual space. What you want to see is people, we all agreed, glancing around the empty courtyard. Where was the collector packing a purse full of uppers? The Marxist curator? The Städel dropout? I even missed the hopeful twink with the bad paintings.

At least at Robert Grunenberg’s gallery, there was the weekend’s first and only offering of regional booze: apple wine from the gallerist’s home turf of Frankfurt, and produced by his own brother, no less. “It’s an acquired taste,” Grunenberg admitted. “Oh, I’ve acquired it,” barked artist Willem de Rooij, who maxed out the visitor quota with me. “I just don’t like it.” Easier on the palate were the funky sculptures by Anna Fasshauer, courtesy of Galerie Nagel Draxler, and large paintings by Matthias Schaufler. Channeling a post–Hetzler Boys kind of neo-expressionism but without their predecessors’ masculine sense of self-evidence, his canvases make room for qualities such as hesitation and criticality.

Dealer Robert Grunenberg and artist Willem de Rooij.

A bouquet of peonies had exploded in Grunenberg’s office—“like wounds,” I muttered—and the streets of Charlottenburg had similarly bloomed during the regime of #zuhausebleiben, now roofed by fluorescent beech trees. All transformation is painful and exhausting. Willem and I had this conversation as we walked across Fasanenplatz, lush as a rainforest, still as a grave, before entering Mehdi Chouakri, where staff sported masks by April von Stauffenberg, the designer famous for using upcycled fabrics. Perhaps these masks will have yet another life after this is all over, as coin pouches, or maybe thongs. Certainly, the new safety measures have spawned sartorial challenges for some while inspiring others: When I met artist Richard Kennedy at the Humboldthain park, he was wearing a wonderful fashion bonnet, bow and all, by a New York creative known on Instagram as zzzits. The trick is to pair it with something incongruent, like a Supreme hoodie, advised the artist, whose exhibition at Peres Projects is due to open this week. Could the return of the bonnet be the answer? König Souvenir might do for COVID-19 what they did for the EU and design some trendy virus gear for the post-post set.

Bärbel Trautwein and Daniel Herleth.

There are lots of real questions, too—most of them concerning the livelihood of everyone, financial and otherwise—but the future is barely legible beyond the next round of safety-measure “relaxations.” As fair cancelations send shockwaves through the continent’s cultural economy, registered freelancers in Germany were thrown a five-thousand-euro ring buoy to keep us afloat through the summer. Meanwhile, for those not recognized by the system, the only relief on offer is the empty U-bahn. Some dealers, including Tanja Wagner, noted positive feedback on her gallery’s comprehensive online program (“Social media turned social again,” she whispered. “People are responding, and actually seem to care.”). Still, no one is willing to bet there’ll be another fair this year, and with Berlin’s meager market, galleries such as Wagner’s will have to continue to scout for alternative models. In a daring move, I staged a four-person gala dinner on Saturday to substitute the canceled festivities. We wore our broadest shoulder pads and shared porn recommendations. Artist Elif Saydam pointed to a tattoo on her impressive bicep: Still Alive. Let that be the message from Berlin, for now.

Tanja Wagner.

Sarah Theurer, Catherine Wang, Amadeo Kraupa-Tuskany, and Nadine Zeidler.

Dealer Juan Pablo Larrain.

Artist Elif Saydam.