Berlin’s tale of two art scenes

Berlin's tale of two art scenes
Photo: Susanna Majuri via Art Forum Berlin
The Berlin Wall might be a thing of the past, but Daniel Miller believes there might as well be a death strip dividing the German capital's art scene.

Berlin these days is being touted in some quarters as the current hotspot of the contemporary art world. But the historically divided city hasn’t managed to forge a common art scene.

This was made abundantly clear last week as the German capital hosted two separate art world events, radically different in scale and ambition.

From October 31 to November 3, the 13th annual Art Forum Berlin returned to the gigantic fair grounds in the city’s well-heeled Charlottenburg district. Featuring 127 galleries from 26 countries, showcasing a total of around 2,000 artists, the high-profile event was even opened by Mayor Klaus Wowereit.

The mayor’s presence was called for, since Art Forum Berlin exists at the commercial heart of the city’s art scene and it plugs it into the international cash nexus. Berlin may yet “be creative,” as Wowereit’s current city-branding campaign “Be Berlin” suggests. Yet, like most of Berlin’s money, most of the finance that fuels this creativity comes from outside the city.

The forum is primarily a magnet for moneyed investors, even though the event attempts to be coy about this by hosting a series of lectures and a curated special programme alongside its spread of commercial galleries. But in the end, Art Forum Berlin is a trade fair, with priorities to match. This year, a performance by the art collective Fame – which would have involved handing out free bowls of soup – was cancelled after the official caterers, fearing for their profit margins, applied pressure.

A number of gallerists believe that this commercial focus is about to intensify further. Art Forum Berlin 2008 will be the last one directed by Sabine van der Ley, who has managed the fair for the last eight years. From next year, the helm will be taken by two former Art Basel employers. Eva-Maria Haeusler and Peter Vetsch.

“Art Basel is a more strictly commercial affair,” noted Hajnal Németh of the artist-run Lada Project. “In the future, it’s possible that there won’t be space here for galleries like ours.”

Along with this commercial question, the size of the fair also caused problems for visitors. “I see many people walking through here hands behind their backs, strolling through like a walk in a park,” observed Hans Gieles of the Amsterdam gallery VOUS ETES ICI. “As a result, they never really have an encounter with any particular work. Other people go up to every piece and stare at it intently and then at the end of the day are exhausted.”

Gieles suggested that there is an art to attending an art fair: “What my wife and I say, is that if you go home with three or four really memorable works stuck in your mind, you’ve done pretty well.”

Of course, the other alternative is to avoid the trade fair entirely by going underground.

Bang in the middle of Art Forum Berlin a very different kind of art event took place in the city’s gritty Neukölln district. Essentially a sort of urban safari involving a good deal of walking – despite the free taxis – the neighbourhood arts festival Nachtundnebel presented art in the context of a living, breathing city, as opposed to the context of a shop floor.

Nachtundnebel, which means “Night and Fog” and is the German phrase for “cloak and dagger,” was organized by Markus Pachowiak of the Schillerpalais gallery. Pachowiak set up the festival in 2002 and for the past seven years it has served as a way of linking Neukölln’s burgeoning art scene together.

“Neukölln is the place were something new can develop,” he said. “There is a still a lot of empty space here, with new artists moving in every day.”

There is a widespread idea in the art world that fairs offer the widest variety of contemporary art works and trends. In fact, this is only partially true. Because fairs only exhibit works which can easily be sold as a commodities, they tend to be more restrictive than they seem at first glance.

The range offered by Nachtundnebel was more genuinely diverse. The attractions included an amateur fashion show, a talking dragon in a shipping container, live performances and a playful installation consisting of old arcade games. Perhaps none of the work on display was as accomplished or smart as the best at Art Forum Berlin, but unlike the trade fair, the safari in Neukölln was greater than the sum of its parts.

And one project – a richly atmospheric “art apothecary” devoted to deploying art towards therapeutic ends – seemed to mirror how one half of Berlin’s burgeoning art scene is contributing to the rapid transformation of a troubled neighbourhood like Neukölln.