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Big city lab

Elke Buhr on Berlin's hot fall art season

Berliners don't celebrate carnival and they won't ever celebrate it, no matter how much Kölsch washes down the gullets of the exiled Rheinlanders in the Ständige Vertretung. But with the Kunstherbst (Art autumn), the city has indeed invented its own fifth season. A season which feels almost feverish this year from all the heat.

If you want to see it all, you have to run. As was the case last year, there are three contemporary art fairs competing for your attention: Preview, Berliner Liste and Berliner Kunstsalon. Hamburger Bahnhof, the museum for contemporary art, celebrates with the openings of its best exhibitions of the year with video art, a retrospective of Felix Gonzales Torres and a big show by the Atlas group. With the programme "Art France Berlin," French art is being presented in festival format throughout the city. Various locations deserve a visit, although the central exhibition "Peintures" in Martin Gropius Bau with its alphabetically arranged smorgasbord of paintings is a real disappointment.

ART FORUM BERLIN 2006Art Forum Berlin, 2006

And of course the Art Forum is the focus and pulse generator of it all, where the hype is converted into business. It's full at the opening in the convention centre; sweat is running along the black glass rims of the suit-wearers, the collectors do kissy-kissy and dab their foreheads with a groan, and only the young beauties running about in short cocktail dresses – young collectors? artists' daughters? - seem indifferent to the not at all autumnal humidity of the halls.

It's still warm in the evening and the gallery tour doesn't want to stop art-surfing. People are standing around in packs in Auguststraße, the omnipresent wives of industrialists are mixing with the beer bottle tipping local art crowd. While playing Mediterranean relaxed, they are absolutely determined to stage a myth: Berlin is cool, that's why we're here.

Berlin as an art capital has functioned for a long time as a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more everyone talks about it, the truer it becomes, because if everyone comes, then everyone's there. The magazine Art is not the first to devote an entire issue to the myth; all the artists interviewed confirm the rumours about this city's cheap studio rents and fantastic scene.

Ben ´J´attends la guerre´, 1981.© Ben / VG BILD-KUNST, Bonn 2006Ben 'J'attends la guerre', 1981. © Ben/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2006

And the organisers of the Art Forum serve up the myth on a sliver platter with their famously polished VIP programme for the collectors that have gathered: if art is lifestyle, then its purchase has to be made into an event.

It's obvious that the Art Forum is entering the established camp, losing its newcomer status. It's now the off-fairs like the Liste where some galleries entice with blood and sperm, where nose-pierced young collectors in Gothic look engage in negotiations over large format paintings of the New Romanticism (more here). But at the Art Forum, you're no longer likely to meet a provocatively photographed Russian Lolita for the bedroom on every corner.

Art Buero Berlin. Andrej Pirrwitz. 2 walls between us (2004)Art Buero Berlin. Andrej Pirrwitz. 2 walls between us (2004)

Of the 400 galleries that applied, 121 from 22 countries were selected and the motto quoted by star gallery owner and fair consultant Harry Lybke at the opening was: quality. For the presentation of his Eigen + Art Gallery, he left his Neo Rauch at home, and showed sculptures instead, proclaiming the passing trend. Some galleries followed suit and turned their berths into total exhibitions. The Berlin gallery Mehdi Chouakri for example, had a candy coloured David sculpture by Peter Feldmann in the middle. The Upstream Gallery from Amsterdam showed a large, poppy tower of material by Mark Bijl and the new Gallery Linn Lühn from Cologne featured a neo-Baroque installation by Alexej Koschkarow.

The sculptures open up new possibilities for collectors who are not just shopping for their living room walls. Beyond these ambitious and unique pieces, the fair is dominated by the so-called flatware – photography and of course painting, which thankfully no longer refers only to the tired old cliches of figurativeness but rather the abstractions of the classic modern. Taste in its classic sense has been rediscovered and there's an interest in decency, which is why drawings are visibly on the rise.

This is how collectors and fair grow up together. And you get a good idea of how many young collectors are following suit in the off-fairs, where a completely new class of 30 to 40 year olds buy cool accessories for their turn of the century apartments or penthouses.

The art market is over-heated; that's what you hear whenever a contemporary painter registers a record price at an auction. And the bubble has to burst, as it did in the 1980s, when the art market was booming and then suddenly crashed. But the pearls of sweat on the gallery owners at the fall fair in Berlin aren't proof of anything. Art has long since entered the mainstream, along with the Espresso machine and the new car. Even if the art fall seems something like a carnival, Ash Wednesday is not yet in view.


This article orginally appeared on October 9, 2006 in the Frankfurter Rundschau.

Elke Buhr is art critic and editor at the Frankfurter Rundschau.

Translation: nb

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