by Travis Jeppesen on November 28, 2013
Volatility. If there’s one word to sum up the times we’re living in, that would have to be it. In conversation, people will often aver that the financial crises of the last few years have had little effect on the Berlin art scene. After all, the logic goes, when you have nothing or very little to begin with, it’s pretty hard for any force to come along and take it away.
Yet there is a slicker, cleaner and increasingly more professionalized side to Berlin’s cultural milieu, in contrast to the wild, anarchic orgy of creative expression I depicted in my December column. In the international art market, the German capital is a force to be reckoned with—still an up-and-comer, perhaps, compared to New York and London, but nearly on a par. Not only are some of the city’s major galleries adapting to standards of international blue-chip prominence, they are assuming positions of power and influence that have sent waves of angst throughout the city’s precocious gallery scene.
Those small waves coalesced into a veritable tsunami last year when it was announced that three of Berlin’s most prominent fixtures—Galerie Giti Nourbakhsch, Galerie Eigen + Art and Galerie Mehdi Chouakri—had been excluded from Art Basel. Three of the six jurors were Berlin dealers: Jochen Meyer of Meyer Riegger, Tim Neuger of neugerriemschneider and Claes Nordenhake of Galerie Nordenhake. Nourbakhsch and Gerd Harry Lybke of Eigen + Art voiced their outrage publicly, igniting a media backlash against the offending parties and giving rise to talk of a Berlin “art mafia.”
“I’m not sure you can really call it a ‘mafia,'” objects Philipp Haverkampf of Contemporary Fine Arts, undoubtedly one of Berlin’s most notable galleries, with a roster of artists that includes Daniel Richter and Jonathan Meese. “There are always people who know each other and do projects together, sharing common interests. But there is not necessarily a plan. There are many emerging galleries in Berlin. The competition is huge. The problem is that some of these people have been very active from early on.” Many others I talked to agree with Haverkampf’s suggestion that it’s somewhat natural—at least in a quasi-Darwinistic way—that those at the top of the food chain take charge, given that Berlin contains 400, 600, or even up to 800 galleries, depending on who you ask.
Few would deny that Berlin has too much influence on the Basel selection committee at the moment. Yet others feel that the ambitious stance of a few prominent Berlin dealers is what put the city on the contemporary art map—especially given its continuing dearth of collectors, which makes the local art market an “export only” business. While Jochen Meyer declined to comment on last year’s Basel controversy, citing the confidentiality of the jury’s decision-making process, he stated unequivocally that one of his goals when serving on such committees is to represent his colleagues back home.
Berlin is somewhat unusual among art capitals. Its larger, more established galleries nearly all have their roots in humble project spaces, labors of love endorsing the work of then unknown 1990s artists, who would subsequently go on to become international stars. Many key dealers effectively grew up with their artists, from the salad days through to the caviar nights. Included in that list would certainly be Esther Schipper, now one of the organizers of Gallery Weekend and the Art Berlin Contemporary fair, who was also recently elected to the jury of the new Frieze New York art fair. Says Schipper, “When I started working in the gallery scene in the 1980s, Germany was the main collecting country in Europe, if not the world. At one point, there was even talk that Cologne might replace New York as the center of the art world.” Then the economic downturn of the 1990s happened, and the winds began to change. “Cologne wasn’t offering us any situation. Things were getting very conservative. The old guard really blocked younger galleries. But then you had a situation here in Berlin that was quite the opposite.”
Giti Nourbakhsch, whose gallery opened in the former Eastern Bloc neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg in 1999, says that she originally wanted to create a bridge between Cologne and Berlin. “They were treating us in Berlin as the dirty kids, the Schmuddelkinder. They thought, ‘In Berlin, they are too fast, they just want to make money, they don’t have any style. But we in Cologne have our style because we’re old school.’ It was very German: ‘You have to go much slower!’ I didn’t want to accept these borders.” Nourbakhsch launched an ambitious program that featured Berlin and Cologne luminaries such as Hans-Jörg Mayer and Vincent Tavenne, and was subsequently enriched with international artists like Tomma Abts and Ida Ekblad.
Nourbakhsch was instrumental in helping to organize the first few editions of Gallery Weekend, leaving the project once she felt that there was no further work to be done. Many suspect that her exclusion from Basel was an act of revenge on the part of the committee.
Nevertheless, until her gallery closing scheduled for this month, Nourbakhsch oversaw one of the city’s most eclectic and daring gallery programs, retaining a youthful air of intellectual curiosity and a strong sense of purpose. “My idea was always to put something subversive or playful into society. Of course there is a power struggle going on now, but this is something that I was never interested in.”
Nourbakhsch is clear about what really matters to her. “For me, it’s more relevant at the moment to talk about motivation, ideas, heroes. Whether we still remember our old heroes. You change a lot over time. . . . We used to talk more about art in the past than we do now. Our fights in the art world were about things like, ‘Is it strong enough to show? Is it really punk enough?’ Now it’s all about positioning oneself in relation to others, it’s about power. If you’re not interested in this, then it quickly becomes very boring.”
It could be suggested that the Berlin scene is a victim of its own spirit of independence, its boundless capacity for creativity, and its passion for radical, anti-capitalist politics. To an extent, I’m convinced by Jochen Meyer, when he points out that this year’s Gallery Weekend has reached out to younger galleries by lowering their participation fees. But, again, Gallery Weekend is regarded by many as an affair of the elite, including only 50 galleries on the official program, though locals are all aware that every gallery in Berlin tries to put on something big for Gallery Weekend. It seems that, once the “bottom line” mentality of the international art market takes hold, no attempt at innovation can be much more than an empty gesture.
Take Art Berlin Contemporary, the art-fair-as-group-exhibition (or group-exhibition-as-art-fair) set up to be an alternative to the now deceased Artforum Berlin. At last year’s ABC, the most prominent galleries, many of which played a role in organizing the event, clearly received the best placement in the exhibition halls, while up-and-coming galleries were left in a no-man’s-land on the far side of a mazelike architectural structure. For this “exhibition,” two curators – Rita Kersting (former director of the Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen) and Marc Gloede (film theorist) – chose a single artist to represent each of the participating galleries. Many visitors, however, were left with the strong impression that the curators were little more than puppets hired to create an illusion of critical independence. ABC is perhaps the best example of how radical chic plays out in Berlin: a meek challenge to an established concept, serving only to enhance the existing power structure.
Maybe the situation makes sense only from the outside. No one here still believes in a canon of greatness, a Grand Narrative. Indeed, one need only briefly survey the current art landscape to find that “making it” as an artist is almost completely arbitrary. And yet dealers are forced to pretend otherwise. The art market is ruled by certain now classic dealer types, not a few of them opportunistic schemers. Everyone knows that many Berlin spaces will close in the coming years; there is simply no infrastructure to support so many galleries. Much of the questionable behavior can be attributed to the fear of an increasingly uncertain future. Some dealers are hunkering down and doing whatever they perceive is necessary to preserve their slice of the cake, while others are taking bold and risky steps—including downsizing.
Oliver Koerner von Gustorf founded September with Frank Mueller in 2007. It quickly blossomed into one of the flashiest galleries in town and established an international reputation for showing work typically found in Berlin’s “off” spaces in a sleek commercial context. Despite their relative success, September recently shocked its represented artists and the public alike by announcing that it would cease operating as a gallery and reopen in April as a project space. This move was accompanied by the symbolic decision to leave the Mitte gallery district and relocate to Kreuzberg, a neighborhood where many of the city’s edgier commercial galleries and project spaces are congregated.
“The more I got to know the whole system, the less I liked the job of being a gallerist,” admits Koerner von Gustorf. “It means, for me, that you’re some kind of a pimp. You bring your whores into the art market, and you create something like a fashion line or product. The normal thing you do as a young art gallery is participate in four or five art fairs a year. We had a good reputation, but this means stress, because you have to invest in all the art fairs. I wasn’t completely broke when I decided to close down the gallery, but I didn’t want this lifestyle. I didn’t want to be living out of hotels, always talking to these prototypes of collectors you see everywhere—the women with the helmet hair and yoga arms, the men with the high blood pressure in tailored suits. I know it sounds arrogant, but I just couldn’t do it anymore.”
Koerner von Gustorf fully intends to continue working with his roster of artists, though he will no longer be representing them as a dealer. He is also happy that his new uncompromised position enables him to return to the activity he left behind to start the gallery: criticism. Indeed, Koerner von Gustorf has always been less a salesman than a public intellectual, and his daring extends to questioning the role of art and the intentions of artists. “Perhaps now is not the time when art has the most important thing to say. Maybe something like Occupy Wall Street is more relevant right now. You can’t be critical and then go have dinner with the bankers you criticize, who are buying the stuff. Then again, it’s not easy to escape this system. I’m not so naive as to think that I’m now outside of it just because I’m doing a project space.”
He pauses to reflect. “But that’s the thing—if art were to change, then the way you represent it would also have to change. If everything is falling apart, why should the art market stay the same? The few blue-chip galleries that are still selling loads of art are the one percent that don’t care about the crisis. But the others will have to rethink the structures they’re working in. They should at least have an interest in doing that. Because those structures are going to crumble.”
Originally published in the March 2012 issue of Art in America, as the second of my three-part “Atlas Berlin” column. The first installment can be read here.)