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Berlin: big season, good season?

Berlin seems to have worked pretty hard to make itself the inevitable stopover of this season for those having an utter interest in modern and contemporary art. The German capital offers a calendar of big - at times, even huge - art events. But does ‘big’ necessarily mean ‘good’? Clearly not, at least in the case of the exhibition ‘Berlin North’ and the third edition of the Berlin Biennial.

Eija-Liisa Ahtila - The House - 2002
Videostill, 14 Min.
DVD-Installation for 3 projections with sound
Photo: Marja-Leena Hukkanen
© Crystal Eye Ltd, Helsinki
Courtesy: Klemens Gasser & Tanja Grunert Inc., New York
in ´Berlin North`, at the Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin

‘Berlin North’, inaugurated in January 31, won't fail to be a commercial success although the audience will go home rather disillusioned. Unlikely other events hosted by the Hamburger Bahnhof, this exhibition appears pretty chaotic in its desperate attempt to cover practically any form of art by 26 young artists coming from ‘the north’ (Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Iceland) but based in - or having strong bonds with - Berlin. And the absence of a few - it's really the case of saying ‘big’ names - such as Annika Larsson and Olafur Eliasson is a bit too prominent to go unnoticed...
The third Berlin Biennial was inaugurated on February 13 with all the frills of an international event (VIPs' cars included). It covers five thematic groups, forcibly renamed ‘hubs’: migration, urban conditions, sonic scapes, fashions and scenes, and other cinemas. It is hosted in three different locations: the Kunst Werke (an art centre in the heart of Berlin and its art scene), the Martin Gropius Bau (a rather settled art institution), and the cinema Arsenal (in Potsdamer Platz, a few steps away from the headquarters of the Berlinale, Berlin's film festival). It has just one, remarkable problem: it fails to create enthusiasm or deep interest. The most heard comment was the plain ‘dry’. As if working under the Venice Architecture Biennale's motto of 2000 ‘Less aesthetics, more ethics’, this Berlin biennial flattens the visitor with its overwhelming moral and educational vocation.

Umberto Boccioni - Unique Forms of Continuity in Space - 1913
Bronze (cast 1931), 43 7/8 x 34 7/8 x 15 3/4" (111.2 x 88.5 x 40 cm). Acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest
in ´Das MoMA in Berlin`, at the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin

On February 20, the exhibition ‘Das MoMA in Berlin’, in the Neue Nationalgalerie, opened to the public. Sometimes ‘big’ does mean ‘good’, but - honestly - what could go wrong when one has at its disposal probably the best masterpieces of the 20th century? Still, the joint work of the American and German staff of both institutions produced an almost perfect exhibition focusing on some of the best modern painting and sculpture, summarising in decades (from the beginning of the 20th century down to the '80s) almost 100 years of art movements. The exhibition is a orgy for the eye of almost anyone, from the art professional to the occasional visitor. It flows almost disregarding the edge, maintaining an improbable balance of interest in extremely different audiences. Indeed, an excellent work of the curators, probably a task - though - not freely chosen. It goes without saying that millions were spent for this exhibition and millions will have to find their way back to MoMA's cash registers to cover the costs. Because of this, the immense need of being like by almost anyone.
Related to the ‘Das MoMA in Berlin’ is the exhibition ‘SEEN AT MOMA, part I’, inaugurated on February 2, at the Kicken Gallery (again, in the very heart of the city and its art life). As the title suggest, the exhibition will take place in two parts, exclusively focuses on photographic masterpieces of the MoMA collection and is included in the frame of the ‘American Season 2004’ (a cultural festival celebrating, in Berlin, U.S. theatre, cinema, literature...) As the gallery itself put it, this ‘SEEN AT MOMA’ wants to be taken as a homage to an art institution that started to collect photography since the '30s and believed in it from the very start as another form of art, when practically nobody else was doing it. The visitor is taken through seventy years of photography thanks to the works of artists such as Ansel Adams, Walker Evans, Edward Weston, Tina Modotti, Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, Duane Michals, Robert Cappa, Stephen Shore and many, many others.

Darren Almond- If I Had You -
(Video still) 2003
at the St. Johannes Kirche, Berlin Mitte

Even an artist alone, very young and with a solo exhibition of ‘just’ one work, can be labelled as ‘big’ too. Having a C.V. much envied by unknown artists of the same age, Darren Almond deserves every bit of Berlin's attention for his ‘If I Had You’. The DVD film installation was taken to Berlin by the Galerie Max Hetzler and is being exhibited in a church, an alternative space to the usual premises of the gallery. ‘If I Had You’ consists of four videos projected simultaneously on both sides of four, extremely large screens: an old woman longingly gazing into emptiness; the elegant steps of a couple dancing in what seems an old-fashioned ballroom; intensely blue water watering flower-beds of vivid colours; a fake windmill taken at night. That is the way the British artist tells the audience about his grandmother, about her life, about her feelings, her longing for the husband who passed away twenty years before this video. It could have easily turned into something pathetic. Instead, Almond delivers a much-felt, extremely dignifying portrait of a woman whose life is shuffling away. Almond shouts at us the importance of such lives; small, common lives. In the end, our lives.
And finally, the Italian artist Fabrizio Plessi comes to Berlin (Martin Gropius Bau, from February 27) with ‘La Flotta di Berlino’, a homage to the German capital and another travel through the dreams, visions, hopes and fears of the metropolitan men.
Berlin North: contemporary artists from the Nordic countries in Berlin - until April 12, Nationalgalerie im Hamburger Bahnhof
3rd berlin biennial for contemporary art - until April 18
Das MoMA in Berlin - until September 19
SEEN AT MOMA - Part I, until May 5; Part II, from May 15 to September 18, Galerie Kicken
American Season 2004 - from February to September
Darren Almond - If I Had You - until March 14, St. Johannes Evangelist Kirche
Fabrizio Plessi - Retrospektive - until May 31, Martin Gropius Bau

Text: M. Cecchinato
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