Making History

Left: Artist Cyprien Gaillard. Right: Collectors Christian Boros and Karen Boros. (All photos: Linda Yablonsky)

DATELINE: BERLIN. It’s Wednesday, September 12. Assignment: the German capital’s inaugural Art Week—not to be confused with Berlin Art Weekend, run by and for local galleries. Art Week has been conceived by a consortium of eleven organizations that include KW, the Akademie der Kunste, the Nationalgalerie, and two art fairs. They are (uppercase) PREVIEW BERLIN, once a satellite of the failed Art Forum Berlin, and (lowercase) abc art berlin contemporary, the five-year-old fair currently directed by dealers Guido W. Baudach and Alexander Schröder. New exhibitions in galleries and museums across the city further stack the deck. But tonight, the nonprofit Schinkel Pavilion is hosting a performance and exhibition by Cyprien Gaillard, the French artist for whom a demolition is the call of the wild.

The pavilion is the brainchild of its curator, artist Nina Pohl, known to some as the ex-wife of Andreas Gursky. Its exhibition space is a circular room within the hexagonal extension of a mishmash, 1962 building named after Karl Friedrich Schinkel, the architect whose glorious, gothic Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul towers over it. The pavilion itself overlooks a yawning construction pit, the stage for Gaillard’s performance. The site was once the location of a perfectly nice castle that was razed for the GDR’s humongous Palace of the Republic, torn down for the purpose of—guess what?—reconstructing the castle. I’m told it will be surrounded by starchitect-designed townhouses that only the very rich arriving in this gentrifying city will be able to afford.

This history is integral to Gaillard’s show, “What It Does to Your City,” “it” meaning the cycle of creative destruction that continually alters the skylines, and the life, of cities like Berlin. The event has drawn a large crowd that stands three-deep at the pavilion’s windows or on its L-shaped terrace, from only a corner of which the performance is visible. Inside, Gaillard is exhibiting single teeth from excavator shovels left to rot in the California desert. Displayed in glass cases on white plinths, they look like relics of the dinosaur age.

Left: Dealer Daniel Buchholz. Right: Kunst-Werke director Gabriele Horn, Denhart Harling, and artist Angela Bulloch.

Milling about are the ever-present duo of Eva and Adele, Kunst-Werke director Gabriele Horn, the Cologne-based dealer Daniel Schmidt, 032c editor Jörg Koch, Gaillard’s Berlin-based dealer Philomene Magers, and artist Angela Bulloch. The cathedral is aglow in red light coming from the pit, where three clanking, crunching excavators gnash their steel teeth in the smoke-filled air and pirouette to the music of a drum corps playing from an adjacent roof. I’m reminded of Matthew Barney’s clash of mechanical titans in Los Angeles a few years back, though that one was considerably more violent and erotic.

When the machines power down, some people leave but more start to arrive, I’m not sure for what—unless it’s to see Gaillard, who isn’t there. Magers takes me through a labyrinth of construction walls to a broad plaza several streets away, where Gaillard is the lone figure in a cobblestoned landscape so empty and dramatically lit that it feels like the set of a Cold War espionage film. He’s standing over a fluorescently lit, glass-covered room of empty bookshelves sunk into the ground before the state opera house. “This is a memorial to the books that were burned here by the Nazis,” he says. We gaze into it in silence, feeling the weight of history, the basic material of his show. “They are the artifacts of now,” Gaillard says of its elements. “They’re what I have left to work with.”

Left: Artists Space director Stefan Kalmár. Right: Dealer Aurel Scheibler.

The city’s real underbelly is its past. So the next day, while dealers are setting up abc and PREVIEW is, well, previewing in a hangar at the old Tempelhopf airport, I feel drawn to the Bunker in Mitte, where Christian and Karen Boros are showing reporters the first new hang of their collection in four years. (Rotation doesn’t seem to be their thing.) The five-story, concrete building is forbidding, but in the grand manner. Built in 1943 by the minions of Albert Speer, it vaguely resembles an Italian palazzo, albeit one with bullet holes drilled into the façade.

A smiling, bald-pated Christian Boros ushers me through the prisonlike door. In the windowless interior, all sense of life as we know it disappears. Hallways are long; the 120 chambers where up to three thousand Berliners once hid from air raids are small, walls are gray and artworks on the ground floor retain a grim palette of black and steel works by Alicia Kwade and Thomas Saraceno. I feel as if I’m in a refrigerator. Upstairs, the genial Karen Boros gives me the backstory as we pass through a generous portion of Klara Lidén’s New Museum show and rooms devoted to Wolfgang Tillmans, Thomas Zipp, and sixteen other artists. The Allies, she says, used the bunker for interrogations after the war. Later, it was a storage facility. In the 1990s, it became a hardcore rave club. In 2003, the Boros’s bought it, cleaned and lit it, and cut through the roof with diamond saws to build the Mies van der Rohe–style penthouse where they live. “The history of Berlin is in our building,” Karen says. It gives me shivers to think of having to hide from bombs in there. Somehow it’s no stretch to imagine doing drugs in the same place. As a private museum, however, it’s a bit creepy.

Back in the brilliant sunlight a few hours later, I feel lost, transported to another realm. It’s great. I’m seeing the world through art, which isn’t the world but its cipher. Familiar faces return at twilight, when I bump into dealers Franco Noero and Pierpaolo Falone with curator Abaseh Mirvali. We cab it to Station Berlin, a former railroad depot, for the vernissage at abc, which is humming with humanity stalking art and each other.

Left: Artists Mike Nelson, Mathew Hale, and Tacita Dean. Right: Artist Wolfgang Tillmans.

Two mini-fairs lurk within. Up front is MISS READ, displays of art books piled on stacks of industrial pallets. Along one side of the hall is a souk of twenty-seven “initiatives” invited by Stefan Kalmár and Richard Birkett of Artists Space in New York. (The two also collaborated with Mousse on the fair’s partly inscrutable two-volume catalogue.) Their bazaar is buzzing. It was conceived to highlight alternative forms of cultural production, distribution, and exchange, and it does. Participants here display their wares—more books, magazines, T-shirts, mugs, vinyl records, even drinks—on their pallet consignments, each arranged to suit. At Bliss, punching bags that trigger keystrokes on a computer invite viewers to vent at will. Lots of fun. Posters at Triple Canopy are printed with a brilliant takedown of artspeak by Alix Rule and David Levine.

In the fair proper, art is not art but a “position” to contemplate. It still looks like art to me, and some of it is selling, though not at a very brisk pace. An exception is the large painting by Corinne Wasmuht at Johann König, who is hosting nightly dance parties at the Brutalist church where he lives. Laurel Gitlen is holding her ground with edifying ceramic-on-found-furniture works by Jessica Jackson Hutchins, and the leather couch that Leslie Fritz has sneaked in for viewers of Meredith Danluck’s brutal video makes a welcome pit stop. Johnen Galerie is showing a Jeff Wall photo and many of the clothes that are in it. I admire the guts of Daniel Buchholz, whose stand offers nothing but €25 copies of a paperbound catalogue of work by Jack Smith and Antonius Höckelmann. “People are a bit irritated,” gallery director Robert Winkler admits. “They want to know where we are keeping the objects.”

At the close, Peter Currie asks another dealer how he made out. “It’s Berlin,” the man replies. “Expectations are low. I think abc invited everyone but collectors.” Of course, it might have helped if the fair didn’t coincide with Rosh Hashanah, especially in Berlin.

Left: Artist Simon Starling. Right: Dealer Johann König and artist Justin Matherly.

Over a late dinner hosted by Sprüth-Magers’s Andreas Gegner at Café Einstein, everyone drops their forks when Tanja Pol confesses she sold nine paintings. “Of course,” she says, “they were small.” Larger—much larger—is Mike Nelson’s subtle (and nearly undetectable) intervention in a decrepit Mitte house that harbors a Weimar-era theater but has been closed for more than fifty years. He leads the way to it next afternoon, after a neugerriemschneider lunch at Trois Minutes with a starry bunch that includes Tacita Dean, Mathew Hale, Kirsty Bell, Tony Just, Tanya Leighton, Elizabeth Peyton, and the economic Simon Starling, who has replicated his current show in New York at his hosts’ gallery. “It’s the same,” he says. “But it feels a little different.”

After a happy hour with “Al Arabia Al Madfuna,” Wael Shawky’s whale of a show at KW, it’s time for the ceremony awarding the Kathe Kollewitz Prize to Douglas Gordon at Haus der Kunst. Hiding his tattoos under a natty black suit, Gordon awaits his moment with Simon MacDonald, Britain’s ambassador to Germany, in a darkened gallery where small monitors stacked across a platform are playing Pretty Much Every Film and Video Work From About 1992 Until Now that the artist has made.

Left: Dealer Alexander Schröder. Right: Publisher Helga Marie and Walter Klosterfelde with dealer Martin Klosterfelde.

The reverent audience is on the mature side, but Tim Noble and Sue Webster signal a hipper crowd at Blain Southern’s money-reeking white cube for Lawrence Weiner’s splash of an opening, though Buchholz might have the edge on cool at his reception for Vincent Fecteau, where I’ve been told to expect “lots of cute young artists.” That was almost true. Maureen Paley has dealer Amadeo Kraupa-Tuskany on one arm and Mousse’s Stefano Cernuschi on the other. Tillmans and Bullock are there, as are Birkett and Kalmár, with about a hundred other cuties who walk through a sudden downpour to Mao Thai for a combined dinner with the upstart dealer David Lieske. His show features 1970s painting by Robin Bruch, an American artist whose undeserved obscurity has made her the biggest discovery in the room.

Berlin offers plenty more to see but the weekend brings the closing of Documenta 13, so I hop a train to Kassel. The town is crawling with thousands of regular people willing to stand in long lines for each attraction. The hot ticket is a performance with Zurich’s Theater HORA on Saturday afternoon at the plush red and gold Kaskade Cinema, a collaboration with the choreographer Jérôme Bel. Who should be in the front row but MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach. “I came over just for this,” he said. “How’s Berlin?”

By the end of this disturbing, elevating, unforgettable performance, Berlin seems a world away. I wasn’t given a program. I didn’t know that the work’s title was Disabled Theater, or that its eleven actors had Down Syndrome and other learning disabilities. Listening to them talk, watching them dance, hearing how they feel about themselves is unnerving and fascinating, and that fascination makes me feel ill at ease and enlightened at the same time.

Left: Ambassador Simon MacDonald and artist Douglas Gordon. Right: Dealers Amadeo Kraupa-Tuskany and Maureen Paley with  Mousse’s Stefano Cernuschi.

Afterward it’s hard to think about anything else—until Markus Aulehla and Louise Bürmann, my trusty Documenta guides, lead me to the fantastical concrete and unfired clay sculptures that Adrián Villar Rojas had installed on the Weinberg Terraces overlooking the city. They look like relics of Pompei, without the agony, even though the property once belonged to a family that manufactured weapons for the Nazis. Again, I’m amazed.

That feeling only deepens in Karlsruhe Park. My nostrils flare when I chance on the patchwork tent where Robin Kahn is cooking up a farewell couscous for her project with women from the Western Sahara desert. Between Song Dong’s compost garden and Pierre Huyghe’s Beuysian enclave, we’ve worked up healthy appetites. But before we can get any dinner, sound artist Tarek Atoui begins an electronic set on the steps of the Kunsthalle Fridericianum. I’m so riveted by his movements, I don’t even notice that I’m standing beside Documenta director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. She doesn’t want to leave, but by 10 PM she’s sitting with the exhibition’s butterfly-garden artist Kristina Buch, linguist Warren Niesluchowski, and Huyghe at the Kaskade Theater, where Joan Jonas further rearranges our senses by giving an utterly beautiful performance of Reanimation with the jazz pianist Jason Moran.

Have I ever had a more perfect day in art? “Documenta is like a passport,” Christov-Bakargiev says, when we meet late Sunday afternoon to compare notes. “You get a visa to places you can’t usually go.” Art forms don’t interest her as much as attitudes from which artists take action. But don’t call her a curator. “You curate pork to make prosciutto,” she says. Her title is Artistic Director. What has fueled her Documenta is “love as a political force.” Hmm. “An exhibition is not an event, or spectacle, or something you live with. It’s about creating an interesting time.” Over her show’s one hundred days, 860,000 people—its largest number of visitors ever—had one. “Kassel is a town of seriousness,” she concludes. “You don’t joke around with irony here.”

Left: Linguist Warren Niesluchowski, Documenta 13 artistic director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, artist Pierre Huyghe, and artist Kristina Buch. Right: Artist Joan Jonas.

Left: Scott Cataffa and artist Vincent Fecteau. Right: Dealer Tim Neuger.

Left: 032c editor Jörg Koch. Right: Artists Jorinde Voigt and artist Christian Jankowski.

Left: Dealers Peter Currie and Alex Zachary. Right: Dealer David Lieske and artist Robin Bruch.

Left: Artist Jessica Jackson Hutchins. Right: Dealer Laurel Gitlen.

Left: Dealer Franco Noero. Right: Dealer Leslie Fritz and artist Meredith Danluck.

Left: Dealer Mehdi Chouakri. Right: Writer Kirsty Bell and artist Tony Just.

Left: Artists Sue Webster and Tim Noble. Right: Dealer Andrew Hamilton.

Left: Dealer Tanya Leighton and curator Abaseh Mirvali. Right: Artist Miroslaw Balka.

Left: Artists Space curator Richard Birkett. Right: Documenta CEO Bernd Leifeld with Henrietta Gallus (communications), Christoph Platz (Head of Project Management), and MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach.

Left: Dealer Florian Christopher Seedorf with Yello's Dieter Meier. Right: Schindler Pavilion director Nina Pohl.

Left: Artist Carel Balth with collector Barbara Bernoully and Konrad Bitterli, curator and director of Kunstmuseum St. Gallen. Right: The vernissage of art berlin contemporary.