art forum berlin & abc art berlin contemporary: "light camera action"

Kirsty Bell

October 13, 2010
art forum berlin, Berlin
ABC Art Berlin Contemporary, Berlin
September 29–October 2, 2010

Strolling through the landscaped gardens—past elegant fountains and late blooming roses—that connect the light drenched 1930s halls staging Berlin’s art forum art fair and the abc art berlin contemporary exhibition in the 1950 Marshall Haus pavilion, it was easy to forget the gallery politics that have until this year separated the two. abc was founded in 2008 by the founders of Berlin’s popular “Gallery Weekend” event as a concurrent rival to the art fair, challenging the need for such a conventional sales platform in a city which may be the European capital of art production, but is definitively not a center of art collection. The alternative they came up with—a baggy exhibition of art works selected by individual galleries according to a chosen theme and installed in a large hall—was riddled with awkward ambiguities. Though insisting on its status as an independent exhibition, it was in effect an art fair without the booth walls, with gallerists hovering uncertainly near the large-scale works they had paid to have installed there. In its third incarnation, abc’s rather disingenuous self-promotion as an experimental “free” exhibition format seems even more strained, despite the smartly chosen theme of the influence of film on contemporary art practice, titled “light camera action.” Having this time situated itself across the grass from the fair itself, it seems, to all intents and purposes, to be an addendum to it; essentially the Art Unlimited to Berlin’s art forum. Could this signal a merger of the two former rival factions?

Despite this apparent harmony, local gallery politics were still in the air, with several of Berlin’s most prominent galleries not taking part in the fair, while three other big names—Neu, Klosterfelde, and Esther Schipper—squeezed together in one modest stand whose rationale was surely not the credit crunch but rather a marked ambivalence towards the fair itself. It was a considerably slimmed down fair in general, although this was also not so much a question of economy as the fair organizers’ desire to streamline the event and bring the “focus” sector of younger galleries out of the ghetto-like annex (where it languished last year) and into the main body of the fair’s two symmetrical halls. Set apart by diagonally installed walls (themselves a good fit for the preponderance of zig-zag formalism currently favored by young artists) were the 13 galleries selected by a committee, each of which was allowed to select a further gallery: a kind of chain letter approach that took advantage of the camaraderie often existing between newly established galleries. Most of the participants—from Melbourne to Athens to Seattle, with a handful of young Berliners—chose to show one or two artists, with Berlin’s Lüttgenmeijer winning the €7,000 prize for best stand with their pared down show of David Jablonowski’s photocopier panel and plaster sculptures paired with Erica Baum’s book page concrete poetry collages. There was a glut of small works: muted abstract paintings, delicate works on paper, polite serial sculptures. Standouts departed from this tendency: PSM’s solo presentation of Ujino Muneteru’s Plywood City, 2008/2010, a hypnotic sound sculpture in the form of an abstract city constructed from packing crates and vintage household electronics, wired up to modified turntables to make a pulsating rhythmic soundscape of the everyday; or the tower-like construction by Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs at Kunstagenten, with photographs on all sides from their series “The Great Unreal,” which seem at first to document the prototypical American road trip, until closer inspection reveals a staging of the Lynch-like hyper-reality they depict.

As ever in the fair context, those galleries that opted for the clarity of solo presentations fared well: Douglas Gordon’s antique vitrines filled with a fascinating collection of snapshots, playing cards, and the archival detritus of pre- and post-production at Yvon Lambert; Vincent Tavenne’s spookily blank masks and painted backdrop for Giti Nourbakhsch; the late 1960s psychedelic posters and video clips by Keiichi Tanami at Galerie Gebrüder Lehmann. However, old school booths like that of Jürgen Becker and Haüsler Contemporary, with its generous selection of works by Keith Sonnier, Hamish Fulton, Richard Tuttle, and Fred Sandback, were a welcome reminder of how fairs used to be.

There was nothing old school about the abc’s “light camera action,” except maybe the equipment, an impressive collection of 16mm projectors, slide carousels, and free-standing screens; a fact which Hilary Lloyd picked up on in her 1999 work One Minute of Water, where an enormously bulky video player and oversized stand supported a small monitor showing a close up of water rippling in multi-colors. The exhibition was curated by Berlin-based film historian Marc Glöde, although the constrictions on curatorial freedom must be considerable in an exhibition whose premise is that galleries pay to exhibit works they intend to sell. The theme, however, was broad enough to leverage a wide range, not just of films themselves (though there were plenty of these, which must have explained the relative lack of films in the fair proper), but also a series of photographs that designated a film trailer (Isa Genzken Arriving in New York (trailer for a film), 2001), collaged shots of classic black-and-white movie stills overlaid with critical text (Astrid Klein, Les taches dominicales, 1980), or the still projected image of a blank cinema screen (Alexandra Leykauf, Proszenium, 2010). Formal questions abounded about the nature of the moving image, performance, projected light, and the dilemma of time-based media, a dilemma reflected by the frustrating experience of popping into numerous curtained rooms to view snippets of random works—a voodoo skull; a restaged Ingres painting; a slickly suited protagonist face down in a peat bog. But even with these constraints, there were works which stopped you in your tracks: Marcel Odenbach’s Männergeschichten 2’, 2005, a double projection in which a gang of latter day Teddy boys have their quiffs trimmed or drive vintage convertibles to a rousing rock and roll soundtrack; the slick seamlessness of their primping interrupted by the clips of film footage from the 50s itself, with the superimposed sound of the whirring projector underlining the problem of original and retro-reproduction. “Why do we do this?” they ask. “You gotta do something don’t you?” This seems a fitting sentiment for the Berlin art forum and its experimental partner. Though squeezed disadvantageously right before London’s frieze and Paris’s FIAC, in a city bursting with this much artistic production, there’s always room for something.

Art Market

Kirsty Bell is a writer and art critic. Her book The Undercurrents. A Story of Berlin was published by Fitzcarraldo Editions and Other Press in 2022.

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