November gallery tour – exploring Mitte

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In November it was finally time to explore the art district where it all began in the nineties in Berlin. This liberal and very experimental art scene which is still a big draw for artist, art professionals and art enthusiasts today, started in a small area; the Auguststraße and the Linienstraße in Berlin Mitte. The 2 hour gallery tour brings you along veterans and newcomers.

Karl Heinz Adler @ Eigen + Art
Karl Heinz Adler @ Eigen + Art

Eigen + Art
Our starting point is gallery Eigen + Art, one of the veterans of the Auguststraße. Gerd Harry Lybke started his gallery in Leipzig in 1983 in his attic, where he showed the dissident young GRD artists, most of which he met whiles posing in the nude for art academy students. In 1992 he opened a second space in Berlin in the Auguststraße.

The exhibition Systems brings us back to the GRD. On show are the personal drawings, collages and sculptures of a forgotten GRD artist, Karl Heinz Adler (1937), a powerful persona with his white beard and walking stick. Adler, a teacher at the TU Dresden, made his money during the GRD time with “Kunst am Bau”, an artful interpretation of walls, fountains and wall elements.

He designed prototypes for the so called Formsteine, 10 basic shapes with which the combination possibilities were endless and which could create geometric as well as organic designs.

Karl Heinz Adler, Formsteine @ Galerie Eigen + Art

“Huh? Experiment? In the GRD?”, I hear you think. Yes, it’s kind of a mystery. It sounds like a Bauhaus practice, this experimentation with shapes and forms.  Adler’s Kunst am Bau was tolerated because the GRD needed work force. Dresden was a city in ruins after WW2 and what Adler proposed was easy to produce. His modular blocks could be manufactured en masse and were made of concrete, a material that wasn’t to expensive.

But modular blocks weren’t the only things he designed. In the exhibition we see a series of collages, drawings and sculpture that has almost never been exhibited.   Except for the Formsteine, his personal oeuvre was declined by the GRD, because it was too ‘western’, too ‘bourgeois’.  It was exhibited only a few times, under the heading of “architectural drawings’. Now we can see the work for what is is.

Our second stop is KW Institute for Contemporary Art. Once an old margarine factory from the 19th century, artists created studios here in the nineties. This street then, was very different from how it looks today. After the wall came down, this area was deteriorated and gray, but with cheap rents a magnet for artists.

On this terrain, Eigen + Art found its first home. Klaus Biesenbach, now director of MoMA PS1 in NY and chief curator at large at MoMA, founded Kunst-Werke, and made it the well known and respected art institute that it is today. At the moment it is closed for renovation until mid January 2017 after which it will open with a exciting program by the new dutch director Krist Gruijthuijsen.

Site-specific work by Renata Lucas in front of KW
Site-specific work by Renata Lucas in front of KW

It is still worth to stop there for a moment, not only for the beautiful courtyard, but also for the art interventions in the public realm. For example, before you enter through the double doors (which are also an art work by the way), look down and notice that the sidewalk is crooked.

This is not a building accident but a deliberate twisting of the curb. Brazilian artist Renata Lucas (1971) has turned the side walk 7 degrees anti clockwise, the way you would set an old fashioned analogue timer. As if she wants to turn back time and let us take a moment to experience the path we are walking and the disruption (she did something similar with a fountain) she created.

The color of the doors is a project by Belgian artist Philippe van Snick (1946). The artist works with a minimalist color palette which he combines with metaphysical ideas. Dualism is central. Called Day and Night, the black and blue doors, are opposed to one another and also next to each other.

More site specific projects can be found here

Michael Fuchs
In the in 2012 reopened old Jewish girls school, designed by Alexander Beer in 1927-30 in the style of the New Objectivity, we find our next gallery. Unfortunately the devastating reality of Hitler’s rule only gave the school a few good years. As of 1933, the school was soon overcrowded  because of a law denying Jewish students access to regular ‘German’ schools. Until in 1938 the opposite happened and the school was almost empty due to mass deportations. Almost no students, teachers or even the architect of this school himself, survived the war.

It took the city of Berlin until 2009 to return the building  to the Jewish community. By that time it was heavily deteriorated. In 2012 gallery owner Michael Fuchs proposed a renovation of which we see the end result today.  A beautiful building , which now houses a combination of art, dining and drinking.

Galerie Michael Fuchs, overview
Galerie Michael Fuchs, overview

Fuchs has his gallery on the third floor, in the former auditorium of the school. He himself lives on the fourth floor with access to the rooftop terrace, the former school garden. At the moment, he shows four contemporary Mexican artists which coincides, by accident I am told,  with the German-Mexican year.

Upon entering, we see the video Golden Hours by Gonzalo Lebrija (1972). A white sailboat calmly sails on a blue ocean towards the horizon.  Although the sky is clear with a few clouds, we can only guess the time, place, temperature, season, etc. On second view we see the boat is empty. No one is steering it, but the wind.

Our second reference to a melancholic journey of some kind are the big paper works with folds. The title of the work, Unfolded paper planes, tells us their origine (although I tried to refold them and didn’t succeed). In any case, they are not going anywhere anymore in their present state.

Christian Jankowski. Artist's Path, 2010 @Galerie Michael Fuchs
Christian Jankowski. Artist’s Path, 2010 @Galerie Michael Fuchs

On the floor we see two carpets, designed by the organizer of this exhibition, artist Christian Jankowski (1968), who was the curator of the last Manifesta, which took place this summer in Zurich. We see a quick sketch of a route, from an artist studio to the Pacific Ocean. Normally, one would throw this kind of paper away after use, now it is transformed into a luxury product.

Eduardo Sarabia (1976) is a storyteller and proposes in his work a new kind of Mexican mythology, based on the actual state of Mexican society; the impact of the drugs cartels. In the middle, we see two prints with ceiba trees, which play an important role in for example Mayan mythology. It represents the world, reaching with it branches into the sky and with its roots in the ground. The dancers wear bird masks, and birds are also surrounding the prints. They actually refer to drugs trafficking talk, where a parrot is a code name for cocaine. On the tree we see money, this is why they dance, this is where the world revolves around.

Eduardio Sarabia, Sacred Ceiba Tree @Galerie Michael Fuchs
Eduardio Sarabia, Sacred Ceiba Tree @Galerie Michael Fuchs

Across the street we find another newcomer and a different type of exhibiting space, The Alfred Ehrhardt Foundation. It’s goal is to show and promote the work of German photographer Alfred Ehrhardt (1901-1984), famous for his 1933-36 series Das Watt,  and also to exhibit contemporary artists whose work links with his.

Andréas Lang @ Alfred Ehrhardt Foundation
Andréas Lang @ Alfred Ehrhardt Foundation

At the moment, the exhibition Amazed landscapes by German artist Andréas Lang (1965) is on view,  whose work is simultaneously presented in the Deutsches Historisches Museum. Lang, like Sarabija is  interested in stories, only this time hidden in the landscape. Not just mythologies, it could also be fairy tales, histories, or personal memories.

The artist himself was born in Reinland Pfalz, a part of Germany that changed rulers (it belonged to France on more then one occasion) several times. We could ask ourselves to what extent the landscape we were born into or live in influences our identity. For the Germans for example, the forest plays an important role, for dutch people, it is the see and the water. German national history starts with the famous Hermannschlacht where the German tribes fought together and defeated the Romans…in the forest. And also think about Grimm’s fairy tales, in most of which a deep and dark forest is the main location.

Langs also seeks a connection in his work with the famous German painter Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840). (What is up with this romantic painter anyway? In our last gallery tour we also met an artist, Ugo Rondinone at Esther Schipper’s, who focused on Friedrich). Friedrich made sketches out in the open, but finished his paintings in the studio because he believed that the inner eye was as important as the outer one. He tried to put a soul, as it where, in his landscapes. In Langs photo’s, we can see a lot of Friedrich-style motives like, of course, the forest, but also ruins, graveyards, the moon and the sea.

When you go outside again, don’t forget to look across the street, at the facade of Kunsthaus KuLe, an artist driven community that has been there since the start. Next to events, performances and exhibitions inside, they run a facade gallery outside. At the moment it shows a gigantic banner about the Black Berlin Biennale, which coincides with Langs exhibition in the Deutsches Historisches Museum about German colonialism.

Alfred Oehlen @Galerie Neu
Alfred Oehlen @Galerie Neu

Galerie Neu
Hidden in a courtyard in the Linienstraße, we find Galerie Neu. This gallery has also been here since the nineties and moved around Mitte a few times, before settling in an old boiler house.

The title of the group exhibition “Dig deeper, you beauties”, is derived from a work made by another famous German artist, Alfred Oehlen (1954) in 1998. It is from a series he called poster paintings. They are collages made in an very early version of Paint or maybe even Photoshop. Although they look a bit scruffy, if you place them in their time, they actually are totally modern.

At the time Oehlen made the poster painting with the text Heil Europa, Europe was getting ready for the Euro. The idea of more unification was something positive. Now, instead of feeling more unified, nationalism is on the rise. If we move to the next work in the exhibition by Reena Spaulings, a fictional artist personage, driven by an art collective who also run a gallery, we see a flag disappearing into a garbage bag.

Reena Spaulings @Galerie Neu
Reena Spaulings @Galerie Neu

It is a yellow flag, which means danger, in formula 1 racing as well as on the beach. So maybe we better stay on land instead of going into the water, and dig a little deeper. One method to dig deeper, to learn more, is to take things apart. Like that alarm clock you so desperately want to know how it works. Other artists in the exhibition, like Yngve Holen, Anne Collier and Sergej Jensen also take things apart to learn more.

Ynge Holen (1982, Germany), presents us, like some kind of hunting trophy on the wall, a piece of a standard VW van. Only now it is sprayed in bright green, the exact color of a luxury Lamborghini. Like Reena Spaulings, being a dealer as well as an artist collective, Holen brings two worlds together that at first glance don’t seem to belong in each others presence.

American artist Anne Colier (1970) documents the representation of women or that of the female body. Like an archivist, she collects images, mostly from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s which she then photographs against a clean white background. In this work, we see the endpapers of a book, where a headless woman’s body is cropped together.

Sergej Jensen’s (Denmark, 1973) work Geometric Nightmare from 2007 takes the medium of painting apart. Instead of paint, he uses the canvas itself to construct his compositions, in an geometric abstract style.

Galerie Neu overview with left to right Anne Collier, Sergej Jensen and Andreas Slominski
Galerie Neu overview with left to right Anne Collier, Sergej Jensen and Andreas Slominski

To present a toilet in the museum as art, again? Andreas Slominski (Germany, 1959), who had an overview exhibition in the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg this summer, does it. When Duchamp hung an urinal upside down on the wall in 1917 and called it a fountain, he couldn’t have created a bigger contrast. Slominski does something similar. He uses the material from a portable toilet to create a pedestal. And what is presented to us as a precious art object, secretively hidden under a handmade cover: the toilet roll.

Abigail Reynolds @Kuckei + Kuckei
Abigail Reynolds @Kuckei + Kuckei

Further down the Linienstraße, we find Kuckei + Kuckei, a gallery run by two brothers. The exhibition A point in time shows intimate works by English artist Abigail Reynolds, where we see the changing city of Londen presented on photo’s from old travel books that were folded together.

Although at first glance it looks like work about place (or space, as is the case in the work of Sinta Werner, which we visited during the Gallery Night Gallery tour), in this case the city of London, it actually revolves around time. Reynolds combines two photo’s taken from the same stand point at different times in London and folds them into each other.

Like Anne Collier, Reynolds is not making new photo’s, but rather uses what is already there.

In her work she shows us that place is static and time dynamic. By combining two photo’s from different times, you see the changing landscape around a monument in one view. Reynolds got inspired by the Chinese saying that the river never looks the same because it is always moving. Like a city, where time flows through like a river.

Gerhardsen Gerner
Our last stop is a newcomer in the Linienstraße, Norwegian gallery Gerhardsen Gerner, who show photo-like paintings by English artist James White (1967), which fooled a lot of visitors. White comes from the experimental and sometimes shock-on-purpose YBA movement back in the nineties but now produces paintings where a personal painting style is not important.

With an almost invisible brush stroke, he paints black and white snap shot-like images, taken in impersonal surroundings, like a hotel room. Mirrors and shiny surfaces appear a lot in his work, which link the paintings with the seventeen century still life tradition where it was common practice to include as many surfaces and textures in a painting as possible, to show of your craftsmanship.

James White @Gerhardsen Gerner
James White @Gerhardsen Gerner

They are firmly rooted in our time though, with their white frames, like you would find in a magazine. But they also have a film still quality, as if we peek into a scene. The white frame functions as a border between the image and reality. If you look really close, you can detect that the image becomes painterly unsharp at some points. This makes them paintings after all and distinguishes photography from seeing.  The human eye can’t  see everything sharp, it has to focus. The rest becomes a blur. So in the end, although we see most of our images via a screen, White brings it back to our analogue viewing devices: our eyes.