‘A Cast of Characters’: Exhibitions Around Berlin Highlight the City’s Artistic Communality

On Akim Monet, Ian Wilson, Cécile B. Evans and Yuri Pattison, Julie Mehretu and Jessica Rankin, 'My Abstract World,' Dean Sameshima, Cindy Sherman, and Hanne Darboven and Charlotte Posenenske

Hanne Lippard, Flesh, 2016, installation view. KW Institute for Contemporary Art. FRANK SPERLING/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND LAMBDALAMBDALAMBDA, PRISTINA

Hanne Lippard, Flesh, 2016, installation view. KW Institute for Contemporary Art.


In a February presentation at KW Institute for Contemporary Art on fellow artist and expatriate resident Elijah Burgher, AA Bronson noted that “Berlin is about relationships. I think of galleries when I think of other cities, but when I think of Berlin, I think of a cast of characters.” Unlike more gentrified cities, Bronson observed, Berlin remains a network of “risk-takers,” in which personal connections fuel expats’ and locals’ social and creative lives. Proving Bronson’s point were exhibitions and events throughout Berlin this spring that explored and celebrated artists’ intimate bonds, dialogues, and long-term relationships with each other, their galleries, their artistic forebears, and the city itself.

At his Side By Side gallery, Swiss-American photographer and gallerist Akim Monet paired four sculptures by Auguste Rodin and one by Rodin’s lover Camille Claudel with his own large-scale photographs of the same. Printed with the colors reversed, as if they were negatives, Monet’s hallucinogenic close-ups—of bodies arched in ecstasy, of the lightly brushing hands of lovers, of tortured faces—convey his adoration of these masters of human expression.

Interchange was the subject of a four-part exhibition at KW, which centered on the work of South African conceptual artist Ian Wilson. A former painter, Wilson’s sole medium for the past four decades has been the act of discussion. A solo show devoted to Wilson’s work was joined by installations by Hanne Lippard, Adam Pendleton, and Paul Elliman, each of which served as a framework for Wilson’s spoken-word pieces. The reward, for example, for climbing a circular staircase up to a listening space—with hazardously low ceilings and sound-muffling carpeting—designed by Lippard was to be immersed in Wilson’s ruminations on language and contemporary communication.

The overlap of life and work was the subject of a show by Cécile B. Evans and Yuri Pattison at Helga Maria Klosterfelde Edition Berlin. A series of cerebral sculptures, the joint exhibition examined a project for IBM by iconic mid-century designers Ray and Charles Eames. Bernice Alexandra “Ray” (née Kaiser) Eames and her husband designed the company’s 1964 World’s Fair pavilion, whose immersive environment was a visionary demonstration of how computers might become integrated into ordinary lives. Taking the Eames’ project as their starting point, Evans and Pattison replicated three chairs from the Eames Office in plexiglass, adding to them video, mixed media, and drawing. Precariously set on their cardboard packaging, the chairs emerge as
fresh and experimental products incorporating pieces of computer hardware, tiny video monitors, and renderings on clear plastic one of which shows an anonymous couple sitting chest-to-chest, one astride the other’s lap, each facing a computer keyboard and focused on their separate screens, yet completely connected and conjoined.

Julie Mehretu and Jessica Rankin, Struggling With Words That Count (detail), 2014/2016, collage on paper, dimensions variable. carlier | gebauer. COURTESY THE ARTISTS AND CARLIER | GEBAUER, BERLIN

Julie Mehretu and Jessica Rankin, Struggling With Words That Count (detail), 2014/2016, collage on paper, dimensions variable. carlier | gebauer.


Also exploring a shared creative and romantic life are Julie Mehretu and Jessica Rankin. The artists, formerly based in Berlin and now living in Manhattan, presented a dual exhibition (billed as a single artwork) at carlier | gebauer titled “Struggling With Words That Count.” As seen in this show of small-scale framed works on paper, Mehretu and Rankin employ abstraction to very different ends: terrestrial for Mehretu, celestial for Rankin. Rankin creates maps of the night sky corresponding to important moments in her life, while Mehretu focuses her attention on the frenetic energy of contemporary urban existence.

Expanding on abstraction’s expressive range was “My Abstract World” at the ME Collectors Room, the personal Kunsthalle of collector Thomas Olbricht. For this exhibition, Olbricht presented approximately 350 abstract works by ninety artists from his own collection, with one figurative portrait by David Nicholson functioning as the show’s axis and idealized viewer. The works ranged from eye-popping to tranquil, playing off each other and providing a crash course in trends in abstract art over the past thirty years.

“My Abstract World” featured largely well-known international names like Katharina Grosse and David Ostrowski, but it also included a rare gathering of work by an informal artist collective that embodies Berlin’s creative ethos. For more than a decade, Nicholson, Zhivago Duncan, Andreas Golder, and John Isaacs have worked in a renovated former GDR weapons factory of nearly 54,000 square feet in Weissensee owned by painter Jonas Burgert. Though they don’t host formal events, the collective’s studios have long served as a creative hub for Berlin’s expat artist community, and their works’ inclusion imbued the show with the character of the city. Duncan’s stitched-together patchwork of fragments of screen-printed and painted fabrics, in particular, seemed an apt metaphor for the relationships eulogized by AA Bronson.

In Bronson’s discussion of Elijah Burgher’s work—and the shamanistic queer rituals that provide the basis for many of Burgher’s drawings and paintings—Bronson also spoke of Berlin more specifically as a gay refuge: to quote his press release for the talk, “a place of isolation, interruption and perversion, that is to say freedom, and transformation.”

Installation view of "Dean Sameshima: 647(a)," 2017, at Peres Projects, Berlin. MATTHIAS KOLB/COURTESY PERES PROJECTS, BERLIN

Installation view of “Dean Sameshima: 647(a),” 2017, at Peres Projects, Berlin.


Similarly, the city is an oasis of creative and sexual freedom for Berlin resident Dean Sameshima, whose solo exhibition “647 (a)” at Peres Projects, delved into Sameshima’s intellectual and sexual inspirations. The show’s title refers to the California penal code for engaging in, or soliciting, lewd conduct in a public place and appears on a citation Sameshima received for engaging in public sex. That document was enlarged in paint on canvas, as were such items as a receipt from a gay bar; the cover of Edmund White’s 1980 book States of Desire: Travels in Gay America; a membership card for a private club; and a Polaroid of a “rough sex” mural painted on a friend’s wall. Through the retrieval and representation of such objects, he exposes the recent history of gay expression and repression to uncluttered contemplation.

Burgher’s work is mystical and Sameshima’s is scholarly, but they have both honored gay precursors. At Peres Projects, a black-and-white painting of Morrissey licking his lips with the words A LOVER’S DISCOURSE hovering above his head paid homage to the singer and to Roland Barthes—both influences on Sameshima’s worldview.

Although Bronson drew a division between Berlin’s gallery-centered and community-based art scenes, a number of exhibitions highlighted creative relationships between artists and their dealers. Cindy Sherman’s sixteenth solo show with Sprüth Magers gallery explored how society perceives older women. In a group of self-portraits from 2016, Sherman presents herself as a series of aging cinema actresses from the 1920s, variously defying, saddened by, and gracefully accepting of, time’s effects on their faces and bodies. Heavily made up and bedecked with furs, hats, gloves, and baubles from another era, Sherman salutes the first generation of female film stars to have real control over their acting roles and careers—even as she subtly reflects on her own status as a middle-aged woman. The show itself was also a celebration of trailblazing women in the art world, the decades-long professional bond between Monika Sprüth and Philomene Magers and Sherman exemplifying the symbiosis between artist and gallery at its most productive.

Installation view of “Hanne Darboven Charlotte Posenenske,” 2017. Konrad Fischer. ROMAN MÄRZ

Installation view of “Hanne Darboven Charlotte Posenenske,” 2017. Konrad Fischer.


This year, Konrad Fischer gallery will commemorate its fiftieth anniversary with a series of shows reflecting on its history. The first exhibition of the series revisited Hanne Darboven and Charlotte Posenenske’s 1967 joint show at the gallery’s original Düsseldorf space. Here, Posenenske’s cardboard sculpture Square Tubes Series DW, paired in the original exhibition with Darboven’s 120-drawing work Konstruktionen (1966/67), was shown with Posenenske’s metal sculpture Square Tubes Series D and two later works by Darboven: Wunschkonzert Opus 17A und B, Opus 18A und B (1984), and 42/100 Ein Jahrhundert ABC (2002).

In a manifesto published in Art International in 1968, Posenenske described her admiration for the cheapness and durability of cardboard. While both works in this iteration of the exhibition were made in 1967, the metal “D” series predates the cardboard “DW” series, reversing the normal course of production in which cardboard is used for preparatory models. Resembling an earthbound HVAC duct, Square Tubes Series DW wound through the gallery, its geometries echoing the ranked rows of Darboven’s drawings. At the same time, the modularity of Posenenske’s Square Tubes Series D—customizable to fit any space—resonated with Darboven’s own methodologies, epitomized by the “Wunschkonzert” series of 1,009 framed pages divided into four interconnected parts.

Each opus is made up of 36 number poems, with every poem starting with a title page collaged with an antique greeting card and, below it, a column of six sheets of numbers. The collaged sections are a disarming sprinkle of kitsch hovering over stark sheets of numbers on paper. The unexpected warmth of glittering angels and sweetly drawn poinsettias encapsulates the charm and tenderness Darboven drew from her inspiration—a Sunday public radio program where listeners requested music to commemorate friends’ and loved ones’ special occasions. This genteel totem of friendship is probably not what Bronson imagined when lauding interpersonal bonds, but it is still a sweet reminder of the communality of the Berlin art scene.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 123 under the title “Around Berlin.”

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