Berlin: An Art Scene and a City in Flux

“Kate’s Canteen,” an installation by Patrick Will and Caspar Wülfing, was among the works of more than 150 contemporary artists showcased at the exhibition “Ngorongoro II” in Berlin.

BERLIN — “We choose what is intense, even if we don’t like it,” said Jonas Burgert, an artist based in Berlin, pausing, bemused, in front of a stainless steel buffet unit spouting luridly pigmented water on the gallery floor.

Mr. Burgert is one of seven Berlin artists who organized “Ngorongoro II,” a four-day exhibition of works by more than 150 contemporary artists that coincided with the 14th edition of Gallery Weekend Berlin, which closed on Sunday. Ugliness was no barrier to inclusion, he added.

Named after the predator-packed crater of an extinct volcano in Tanzania, “Ngorongoro II” was held in Mr. Burgert’s sprawling 65,000 square foot studio complex in the north of Berlin. It was the second iteration of a radical exhibition concept that in 2015 attracted 15,000 visitors, according to the organizers.

Mr. Burgert pointed to Patrick Will and Caspar Wülfing, the young creators of the installation “Kate’s Canteen,” sitting outside in the sunshine. “They work as assistants for Anselm Reyle,” he said, referring to a fellow Berlin artist and friend, who had created a nearby group of large ceramic sculptures. Mr. Burgert added approvingly that Mr. Reyle’s pieces “looked rather nice, but when you get close, they’re really ugly.”

The exhibition’s concept is simple: Artists invite other artists to show their works. No curators. No labels. No sales. Visitors are free to wander through a former East German ceramics factory, and simply look at art, for four days.

“There’s no intellectual concept. It’s just the artist’s point of view,” said Mr. Burgert, one of the seven artists who organized the event. Costs were covered by sales of a set of seven limited-edition prints by the organizers, priced at 2,000 euros, or about $2,400.

George Condo; Paul McCarthy; Shirin Neshat; Tim Noble and Sue Webster; and Anri Sala were among the many international names eager to show works. Mr. Sala drilled a hole in a concrete wall, through which could be viewed his video “If and Only If,” showing a musician playing a viola with a snail on his bow. The lesser-known Julian Röder’s photographs of exhibitors at an arms fair were suitably displayed in a room that had been gutted by fire. Mr. Sala and Mr. Röder, like the exhibition organizers, are among Berlin’s population of at least 8,000 artists.

Mr. Burgert himself showed four paintings that now have a waiting list of buyers at the Berlin and London dealership Blain Southern. His fantastical figurative paintings command more than €300,000 for the larger canvases, he said.

“There’s a free spirit here,” Mr. Burgert said. But, like so many artists in a changing Berlin, he is grappling with the issue of gentrification. “It’s happening. We know it,” he added. “But Berlin is still cheap compared to Paris and London. There’s still a lot of good art in this city.”

Every April, Gallery Weekend allows Berlin’s renowned network of dealerships to showcase that art in their galleries. This year, the event featured 47 participants, including four newcomers. Among those showing in the event for the first time was BQ, a specialist in young, emerging art, which has opened a 2,000 square foot space in the Mitte district in 2009.

BQ presented “Skinless,” a debut one-person show of works by Leda Bourgogne, 28, a recent graduate of the Städelschule art school in Frankfurt. Ms. Bourgogne showed more than 20 works in various media, meditating on the mutability of the human body — particularly the skin. These were available between €3,000 and €9,000.

The financial challenges facing bricks-and-mortar galleries like BQ has become a hot-button issue in the art world, one that was discussed earlier in the week in Berlin at the New York Times’s Art Leaders Network conference.

“You take a risk,” said Jörn Bötnagel, BQ’s co-founder. “In my opinion, it’s helpful if artworks of young artists are not too expensive in order to focus on the art and not on the price,” he added.

Mr. Bötnagel said he appreciated BQ’s relatively affordable rent of about €3,200 per month. During Gallery Weekend, BQ sold 10 of Ms. Bourgogne’s works, he said.

With more and more clients choosing to interact with dealers at art fairs or through the internet, the traditional gallery model is under pressure. But Berlin’s physical spaces continue to be a draw for discerning collectors.

“There’s no substitute for seeing art in the context of a gallery show,” said Emma Goltz, an Irish collector who is a trustee of the Contemporary Art Society in London. “Art fairs are like speed dating. I collect sculpture, and want to have a proper conversation with the professionals involved.”

Ms. Goltz said she was impressed by the exhibition of monumental log sculptures by the young Swiss artist Claudia Comte at König Galerie, titled “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth.” Ms. Comte has created a spectacular forest of scorched totems, each containing a smaller sculpture, in the former nave of a 1960s Brutalist church. These were priced at €45,000 each, according to the gallery’s owner, Johann König.

Such distinctive spaces are one of the great draws of the Gallery Weekend. Yet these, too, are under pressure as generic luxury apartment blocks proliferate, transforming Berlin.

“It’s awful. These expensive plastic buildings are destroying the city,” said Nina Pohl, an artist who runs the Schinkel Pavillon, an atmospheric G.D.R.-era structure now used for contemporary art exhibitions. It is currently hosting a show devoted to Louise Bourgeois works featuring sack forms.

“This is happening everywhere. Artists can’t get any free spaces any more,” Ms. Pohl said, gesturing toward a lifeless, black-windowed block opposite the pavilion. Excavations for the block’s parking lot have destabilized the foundations of the adjacent neo-Gothic Friedrichswerdersche Church, designed by the Prussian architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, necessitating its closure.

For others, changes to Berlin’s image as a “poor but sexy” town are welcome. “The trajectory is good. Things are stronger,” said Thomas Schulte, speaking at a bustling Friday breakfast preview of a show of paintings by the American artist Pat Steir at his gallery in the city center.

In 1991, Mr. Schulte’s Berlin gallery mounted its first show of paintings by Ms. Steir. “No one came. No one even came to the dinner,” Mr. Schulte said. But now Ms. Steir, 78, has become a market darling, and one of her admired “Waterfall” paintings sold in November for $975,000, an auction high for the artist. Large paintings at Mr. Schulte’s current show were priced between $675,000 and $875,000. “It will not have been commercially senseless to have done this exhibition,” Mr. Schulte said, though he would not confirm any specific sales.

“We’re having serious conversations with clients from Germany, which is a breakthrough,” Mr. Schulte said, recalling that Berlin was devoid of collectors in the early 1990s.

“One of my clients in London has asked me to find a 200 square meter apartment here,” he added. “Berlin is a city in a state of total flux. There are pluses and minuses.”

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