View of “May the bridges I burn light the way,” 2018. From left: Nschotschi Haslinger, Brennende Tasche (Burning Bag) I and II, both 2018. Photo: Christian Siekmeier.

View of “May the bridges I burn light the way,” 2018. From left: Nschotschi Haslinger, Brennende Tasche (Burning Bag) I and II, both 2018. Photo: Christian Siekmeier.

“May the bridges I burn light the way”

In the decade since its inception, Exile has partaken in several high-profile art fairs around Europe and attained an international profile as a major small gallery. But its growth has undoubtedly been impeded by gallerist Christian Siekmeier’s outspoken critical stance toward overarching power structures. In particular, he has refused to take part in much-lauded events such as Gallery Weekend Berlin, which he views as a kind of protectorate. Siekmeier embodies all the paradoxes of the individual burdened with a conscience, thumbing his nose at the gatekeepers’ pretensions toward exclusivity while never leaving the party, reveling in the utopian aspirations more commonly found among artists than among gallerists while remaining quietly cynical about the real chances of overcoming systematic inequalities that permeate (and are actively promoted by) the art world.

Now Exile has closed the doors for good on its Berlin space, with the fittingly titled exhibition “May the bridges I burn light the way” as its swan song. Curated by Siekmeier and his codirector, María Inés Plaza Lazo, it was not at all a tear-jerking homage to the gallery’s legacy with works by its represented artists. Actually, only two artists from the gallery roster, Kazuko Miyamoto and Patrick Fabian Panetta, had works in the show. Rather, the exhibition seemed geared in a more literal way toward the gallery’s next chapter, which commenced this fall when Exile reopened in Vienna.

Flames featured bluntly in Nschotschi Haslinger’s two glazed ceramic pieces Brennende Tasche (Burning Bag) I and II, both 2018. The first depicts a shit-brown handbag with a chain for a strap being eaten by flames; in the second, the purse is white and open, the fire being spat out from within. The work’s anti-capitalist animus was echoed in Panetta’s SOLD, 2013, a silk screen of the eponymous word in block capitals on wood. And a video advertorial for the artist group Club Fortuna’s private-island initiative, Motu Matatahi, 2018, suggested that in order for a slice of utopia to exist on this planet it will necessarily have to remain untouched by human hands.

Just as that lone island right below the equator in the South Pacific Ocean might one day be engulfed by the powerful waters surrounding it, small and medium-size galleries in Berlin continue to shutter while the big boys flourish. Well, nothing stays the same. “Poor but sexy” Berlin, with its cheap rents and countercultural indulgences, has become the Berlin of tech start-ups, Google, and Amazon, replete with a housing shortage that makes it all but impossible that a new generation of artists will be landing here anytime soon. If there is any sense in mourning, it shouldn’t be rooted in a nostalgic attachment to the recent past and our inability to sustain it, but in acknowledging that this city, which offered a home to so many of us over the years, is in the grip of a transformation unlikely to improve it. But hey, there’s always an elsewhere. Exile’s closing is Berlin’s loss and Vienna’s gain.