On Thursday afternoon, Art Forum Berlin, Berlin’s largest art fair with 163 exhibitors, initiated its series of “Berlin Talks” in the Palais am Funkturm. The talk for this session “Does urban space need art?”-a topical conversation not only because of Berlin’s obsession with public space (the result of gaping holes in the once-divided city, primarily), or because contemporary art often overlaps with Berlin’s propensity for memorials. Rather, the talk reflected, self-reflexively, on the unusual format of Art Berlin Contemporary, which this year eschewed the usual booth format for a new conceit. “DEF—Drafts Establishing Futures,” the exhibition’s title, presents designs for future public art projects.
The panelists included three curators, all of whom were happy to expound on the landscapes affecting public space (architectural, political, cultural) and defining the role of a public artwork. Indeed, any discussion of the proposed need for art in “urban space” was quickly dropped. Vitamin Creative Space’s Zhang Wei juxtaposed the different needs of natural space and manmade space. In her comments, she mentioned Chu Yun’s piece, one of the most successful of “DEF,” a postcard of public sculptures from Dongguan, an industrial city on the Pearl River Delta. On the card Yun has scrawled a note the artist’s sculpture was stuck in customs and would arrive the following day. Yun argued, “Those sculptures in Dongguan exist not because they have any value, aesthetic or any other. They gain value, aesthetic or any other, because they exist.” (LEFT: THURFJELL’S INSTALLATION. PHOTO BY NICK ASH, COURTESY ART BERLIN CONTEMPORARY.)
The other two curators, Brigitte Franzen and Jochen Volz, have been involved in the production of major public art projects: the 2007 edition of Skulptur Projekte Münster; Instituto Inhotim, a sculpture park in southern Brazil, respectively. Each emphasized the importance of using art to create a social context, bring ideas and utility into broader circulation, and to define public space not according to ownership, but by the behavioral negotiation among members of a community.
Raimer Stange, an art critic who, along with Susanne Küper of Berlin’s neugerriemschneider gallery, acted as moderator, brought these musings to a halt. “There is no public space left in the Western world,” he argued, taking issue with the discussion’s very premise. After repeated attempts to define “public space,” against the rebuttal of Volz on one side and Franzen on the other, his mounting frustration visible, he finally cut the talk off: “Let’s stop here. Thank you everyone for coming.”
If the talk failed to address the relationship between art and urban space, or Art Forum Berlin’s interest in discussing it, then “DEF—Drafts Establishing Future” caused even more head-scratching. Installed at the classic 1950s Akademie der Künste, Art Berlin Contemporary traded the art fair booth for a mass-produced and supposedly renowned plastic table designed by Egon Eiermann. The rows of tables were intended to enhance the feeling that these were blueprints still on the drawing board, if you will—or, as a disgruntled visitor described it, “projects presented at a high school science fair.”
So what did these “visions for art projects in public space” look like? Like nothing related to public space at all. Relatively established artists like Pawel Althamer of neugerriemschneider and Jörg Herold, represented by EIGEN+ART, simply destroyed their tables: Herold turned his into an Eiermannbarrikade (“Eiermann barracade”) punning on the table’s name (“Eier” means “egg”) by covering his table with feathers and other debris, while in Stoliczku Narkryj Sie, Althamer added some spray paint and an ashtray carved from a loaf of stale bread. Johan Thurfjell, from Galerie Nordenhake, embraced the science fair quality with “Eight Dreams and the places dreamt about,” a terrarium-cum-architectural model, narrated by dreams neatly typed out and framed on the wall. RAQS Media Collective, presented by Nature Morte, re-sanctified the work of art with a carved golden plaque stating the work’s title: “Please Do Not Touch the Work of Art.”
Other than Chu Yun’s send-up of Chinese public sculpture, the most focused project was Tercerunquinto’s Baldio (Waste Land). The collective of Mexican artists Julio Castro Carreón, Gabriel Cázares Salas and Rolando Flores Tovar, represented by Mexico City’s Proyectos Monclova, describes itself as devoted “to question the boundaries between private and public space, examining the organized frontiers around the constitution of such definitions.” Baldio consisted of a projection of a Berlin street, recognizable for TV Tower, slowly evolving, with buildings slowly disappearing, quietly paying homage to the slow evolution of the cityscape.
Art Berlin Contemporary is on view through September 27. The exhibition space is Akademie der Kunste, Hanseatenweg 10, Berlin.