I know my blog is all about the London contemporary art scene, but as I’ve just spent a few days touring the best Berlin has to offer, and not for the first time, I thought I’d drop a few comments. I’m just that kind of maverick wild card.
Since the two cities are infamously competitive, I think it’s worth mentioning that London is kicking Berlin’s arse. Don’t get me wrong – Ich liebe Berlin. With its industrial-unfinished-street-art aesthetic, trains that runs all night on the weekend, and mad array of alternative bars decked out with fat scruffy sofas, what’s not to love? But when it comes to modern art, London stole my heart.
The old school stuff, great in itself, is Berlin’s forte. Of course the Pergamon is stunning, the confusingly named Neues Museum does a great line in Ancient Egypt,
and the Alte Nationalgalerie presents the best of art up until the 19th century in a beautifully lit setting, a hundred miles from the dark and slightly dingy view of the classics we get in London via the National Gallery et al.
Berlin’s pretty but slightly second rate modern galleries seem a little outdated or present us with small fry; tiny doodles from major Surrealists that larger galleries couldn’t be bothered with at Museum Berggruen; Diane Arbus at Martin-Groplus-Bau; yes, she’s great, but she died in 1971.
Worth visiting is the Helmut Newton Museum. Newton was a visual genius of erotica and the female form, and he bequeathed a vast collection of his photographs and personal paraphernalia to Berlin for permanent exhibition. You can bathe in his timeless images for a couple of well spent hours.
The Deutsche Guggenheim shows four site specific exhibitions a year, and is always one to check out. This quarter’s artist Gabriel Orozco’s Asterisms is an new take on the now somewhat tired theme of found objects, as he transforms the assorted plastic, metal and paper debris from a deserted playing field into a series that resembles natural minerals under their glass case, and some kind of periodic table in his photographs.
Also well worth visiting is the Berlische Galerie, Berlin’s self-proclaimed Museum for Modern Art. Again, a beautiful space, but most of what was impressive here was post 1870, so again, boo sucks to Berlin when it comes to the contemporary stuff. Vattenfall Contemporary 2012 winner Michael Sailstorfer’s installation Schwarzwald (Black Forest) left me cold. Its rotating upside down trees didn’t subvert the idea of sculpture or make me question artificial versus natural spaces. I just thought, one tree isn’t that interesting, why repeat it five times?
Special shout out to Alfredo Yaar, the only Berlische Galerie artist who’s work haunts me still. I enjoy the hallmark of contemporary British art; the art-for-arts-sake, ironic, playful stuff (Jeremy Deller and his, for example, imaginary project on middle class gang hand signals), but Yaar is trying to say something deeper. In this day and age, our jaded art palates might dismiss serious art around subjects like the crisis in Rwanda and famine in Ethopia, as too ‘earnest’ or ‘high minded.’ Yet there’s nothing playful or ironic about murder, death and pain and the artist who looks at it has a heart in the right place.
Yaar’s contemplative pieces, free of shock factor and examining how the West looks away, pack a punch. Searching for Africa in Life and Time after Time display hundreds of front covers of Time and Life magazines, like a jigsaw puzzle, defying the viewer to find a mention of the African atrocities among the spreads on George Clooney and Madonna. His video installation Kevin Carter, about the Pulitzer prize winning photographer who killed himself soon after this success, leaving the most poignant suicide note you’ll ever read, is earnest, high minded, and hurts like hell.
The picturesque Hamburger Bahnhof really didn’t have anything worth mentioning; their kingpin piece, Anthony McCall’s Five Minutes of Pure Sculpture, lacked in depth what it made up for in size. His massive light sculptures provided me with a moment of childlike delight and then never crossed my mind again.
So, Berlin, I loved you and left you, and next time I see you, I say I’ll spend more time drinking Pilsner on those comfy sofas than pounding the gallery floors. Yeah, right, answers my inner art fiend.
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