Made in Berlin    

By: Matthew Rose         

"The moment the Berlin Wall came crashing down in 1989, art galleries began going up," recallsOliver Zabel, 36, an artist and the director of the Rossella Junck Gallery in the burgeoning art district of Auguststrasse. "Now galleries from all over the world want in on Berlin."

With reunification more or less complete, Berlin's transformation into culture-business central is going full blast. "Two galleries open here for each one closing," notes Zabel. Art Forum Berlin, which began more than a decade ago and occurs each October, is a significant driver of international art tourism, fueling the land rush for art spaces, mostly in East Berlin.

"The East Berliners were dying for color," says Gloria Zein, 37, an artist who had her first one-person show at Rossella Junck in June. "They splashed red and yellow and orange and green and blue all over their drab apartment buildings. The art world followed soon after."

Berlin's story is one of "tipping point" growth, a perfect storm of a rapidly rising international art market, cheap studios, cheap rents for galleries, a plethora of bars and clubs and thousands of artists. With more than 400 art galleries, there is inevitable yearning as well; the visitor can't help but notice the "When will I be famous?" graffiti throughout Berlin's art quarters—Auguststrasse, Zimmerstrasse, Brunnenstrasse, Janovitzbrücke and the newest art hotspot, Kolonie Wedding; it's both a legitimate question and a cynical one—and an artwork itself.

A stone's throw from the one-time Checkpoint Charlie is the Zimmerstrasse, often crowded with tourists snapping pictures of themselves with sandbags or shopping for souvenirs of Russian caps and U.S. Army helmets. Here, a dozen galleries offer a range of contemporary art. The spaces are museum-like and the offerings are dynamic, such as the wind- and motor-propelled sculptures by Roman Signer at Galerie Barbara Weiss. Among the best known is Arndt & Partner, one of the first galleries to plant a stake in Berlin. In the vast Chelsea-sized spaces of its third Berlin location, Arndt & Partner regularly runs two simultaneous exhibitions. This past spring you could have gotten lost in Thomas Hirschhorn's installation "Stand-alone." Consisting of furniture wrapped in the artist's signature packaging tape, endless piles of books, violent images taken from the Internet, computers taped to the walls and giant cardboard columns that angled through each room, the work is overwhelming. Destined for a museum, it is being offered for more than $450,000. Upstairs, the fare was bit lighter: "The Aggression of Beauty II," a show of gallery artists including Wim Delvoye's "Donata," 2005, a stuffed tattooed pig contemplating a work of art.
Eigen + Art is another gallery pioneer. Located on Auguststrasse, perhaps the most developed art quarter—the "Mitte's Art Mile"—the gallery's roots are in Leipzig, where dealer Gerd Harry Lybke helped launch the brilliant careers of some of Berlin's most visible stars, most notably Neo Rauch. The Leipzig-based artist, who recently enjoyed a retrospective at New York's Metropolitan Museum and whose mysterious canvases of 1950s quasi-advertising/scientific images now sell for upwards of $1 million, is almost single-handedly responsible for returning painting to the art world and for bringing Berlin to the international scene. (The gallery arrived in Berlin in 1992). Eigen + Art's spring exhibition of Birgit Brenner featured a giant "Hollywood"-style sign made of cardboard stretched through the expanse of the gallery shouting "HEUTE NICHT" ("NOT TODAY"). "I think art history is being made in my gallery," Lybke modestly told Taschen Books.

Created in 1990 to celebrate the collapse of the Berlin Wall, East Side Gallery contains one of the few surviving pieces of the Wall.

abound in this city. Nearly any space will do: drawings, collage works and smaller conceptual pieces pinned to the walls will attract hordes of art seekers. ABEL Gallery is typical. The apartment-turned-gallery was launched seven years ago by the engaging Boris Abel, now 32, who says he pays an "inexpensive rent" and has an "aesthetically oriented landlord." Recently Abel exhibited drawings and watercolors in a show called "Empowerment," in which lewd, funny drawings about sex, violence, gender, identity and power are shown pinned to the walls.


Auguststrasse offers a range of art spaces with a local profile, including the Kunst-Werke collective, a cultural mecca and art school with a full program of films and visual art. Next door you can find quirky spaces such as the bunker-like Neues Problem with its papered-over walls, and this past spring, an installation of trains and architectural models in half-light separated by a plastic garbage bag from a series of artists' books sitting on a wood shelf. Neues Problem's mission is to "try to do something without money," says artist Uwe Jonas, who started it in 2003. "It's the history of Berlin," he adds with a laugh. "And sometimes I even sell things." Jonas can always take a break in the nearby outdoor garden at Clärchens Ballhaus, a 1919 dance hall and theater turned into a successful local hangout.

Across town on the Brunnenstrasse, a number of new galleries are garnering international attention. Among them are Amerika, Martin Mertens, the experimental Artnews Projects, transplanted New Yorker Sarah Belden's Curators Without Borders and the Berlin extension of Chelsea gallery Goff + Rosenthal. Amerika was launched by Sebastian Klemm, 30, and a number of artists who hired him as a "producer," and the storefront gallery's smooth cement floors and cutting-edge stable of artists quickly made it a must-see space. "We're now showing our core group of artists at Art Forum Berlin and looking at other fairs," says Klemm.

Pierogi Flatfiling, based in Brooklyn, dropped into the city with its cabinets in tow and had a full house at its May opening in collaboration with space owner Artnews Projects. "We basically rolled into Brunnenstrasse and set up shop to a full-capacity opening," says Leif Magne Tangen, Leipzig director of Pierogi. Works were pinned to the wall salon-style, and sales were very strong. After an afternoon on Brunnenstrasse, Berliners climb up a small hill through a leafy park to Nola's, a Swiss-style bar and restaurant that overlooks this hot art district and cool off with a glass of Berliner Kindl Weisse.

And galleries are not alone in capitalizing on the city's momentum. "All the auction houses have moved into Berlin," says Ruth Baljöhr, specialist in 15th- to 19th-century prints, drawings and paintings at Galerie Bassenge. "The most visible auction house is Villa Grisebach, which offers classical and Modernist works as well as photography, with a bustling department in contemporary art," she says. "But everyone—Sotheby's and Christie's included—has set up some kind of office here. Berlin is way too important now to skip."

Berlin has embraced contemporary art as a way to define itself. Take a look at the graffiti'd-over Tacheles, a mad series of artist-made rooms in an old ruin on the Oranienburger Strasse; "tacheles" is an old Yiddish word for "disclose," and indeed the open bombed-out aesthetics does just that and more and is also a great place to have a beer and browse the art store there.

The Wall itself is still on display at the always-open East Side Gallery Berlin Wall museum in front of the Ostbahnhof, bordering a "beach" and hip bars along the Spree River waterfront.

At the small AnyWay Gallery on Boxhagenerstrasse, a performance artist danced in and out of a blue plastic garbage bag; an earlier exhibition at this tiny space run by Maud Piquion had yet another performance artist curled up in the storefront's vitrine. Pretty much anything and everything is now on view in Berlin. The city is wide open for business. Matthew Rose, Art&Antiques' Paris correspondent, is both an artist and writer. He has written about art, culture and business for Entrée, The New York Times and The New York Times Magazine, among others.

October 2007