The fifth edition of Art Berlin Contemporary, or abc presented itself in refreshingly new colours this year. Gone were the awkward ‘curatorial’ premise of last year’s show (entitled All about Painting), and the strangely installative snaking wall. Instead, Manuel Reader’s exhibition design incorporated recycled construction site fences and partition walls, harmonizing rather well with the former parcel sorting station’s post-industrial mien. In contrast to the traditional fair format, each gallery was only permitted to show one artist per ‘booth’, however, there was no overriding theme dictated.
The elegantly spotlit pieces succeeded in achieving the impression of a well curated snapshot of predominantly Berlin based contemporary art production. The presence of a fistful of well-known artists (Subodh Gupta, John Armleder, Wolfgang Laib, Jonathan Monk/Douglas Gordon, Mona Hatoum) elevated it beyond a purely local jamboree, as did the inclusion of galleries from UAE to Seoul (who were showing Korean Minimal art from the 60’s). In total, 129 galleries from 18 countries participated.
Strains of arte povera, Minimalism and appropriation art predominated, with most galleries choosing to show either installation or assemblage. Leaders of the pack here were Galerie Anselm Dreher who showed John Armleder’s large scale ‘bicycle with metro cart and bookshelves and some neon’ installation, which alluded strongly or not, to the host city. Another post Minimal piece that in its sheer dimensional expansion breaks with the traditional art fair art mould was Galerie Buchmann’s presentation of Minimal artist Wolfgang Laib, consisting of numerous piles of rice arranged in linear patterns, with concrete blocks to break up the order. Concrete was in fact in evidence everywhere, from the Laib to Marcel Frey’s presentation of teetering pyramidal forms at Thomas Fischer Galerie.
Other audience favourites included Isabelle Le Minh’s piece ‘You Know The Artist Who’ (Galerie Christoph Gaillard, Paris), consisting of a vintage dot matrix printer which spewed out pages of a latter day art scene parlour game, naming artists’ styles and deeds. Towards the close of the exhibit, the printer was silent, perhaps indicating that even in the sheer mass that is Contemporaneity, even apparently unending lists must finish. Galerie Esther Shipper showing Christoph Keller’s expedition bus and shaman travel, which consisted a 60’s VW camper with a video piece featuring Buddhist monks. It proved very popular with the children.
The construed, fantastical narrative also reared its head in Kati Heck’s piece at Tim van Laere Galerie, for which she had constructed an imaginary art historical detective’s office, complete with desk and hybrid chair. Slavs and Tatars invited us to take a ride on a magical carpet, and Birgit Brenner’s assemblage alluded to the construed nature of the everyday, with faux-naïve budgerigars sharing a wall with oversize packages of anti-depressants and sedatives (Eigen + Art, Berlin/Leipzig). Jeff Wall’s well-arranged historical examination of a Jewish department store owner, featuring original 1930’s costumes provided another intriguing stepping point.
Ignacio Uriarte commandeered Einsturzende Neubauten’s Blixa Bargeld to provide a dramatic reading of the middle row of a computer keyboard for his sound piece. Veering between quietude and drama, Bargeld intoned the letters asdfghjklö in groups of nine. Uriarte was playing with the arbitrary construction of our typing habits – the original keyboard layout arose out of the need to place frequently used keys as far apart as possible to prevent the typewrite jamming (Figge von Rosen Galerie).
All have hailed this year’s abc a (critical) success – from attendees to reviews from Artinfo to Tagesspiegel, and indeed, it was a fair that managed not to feel like a fair. The intention, in fact, seemed to lie less on the commercial aspects of the work – there were few – but on demonstrating Berlin’s prowess in producing slightly awkward, interesting art. Kavi Gupta’s inclusion of Theaster Gates’ installations from his recent documenta piece perhaps represented the apotheosis of these aims: the pieces weren’t for sale, and a laconic gallery assistant, upon being questioned as to the reason for their attendance merely replied ‘because we were invited to,’ presenting an accurate reflection of the dominant ethos behind abc.
Jeni Fulton is a writer focusing in and on the international Berlin art scene. She is currently working on her PhD thesis in contemporary art theory. Having taken her MA in Philosophy at the University of Cambridge, she now lives and works in Berlin.