I’m standing in front of a painting and I feel guilty. The work is by Fiona Rae, and it looks like a deconstructed version of My Little Pony, thoughtfully applied on a canvas. Twirling lines caress misty surfaces of pigment, sometimes sprouting out of blob-like protuberances - or are they escaping from these one-dimensional tubers? I feel guilty because the only word I’d like to use to describe “Sleeping Beauty cools the air with sights” (2017) is, well, “beautiful”, but I’m immediately thinking that would not only be reductive, but also unprofessional. As I continue looking at the British artist’s works -on view at Galerie Buchmann for Berlin Gallery Weekend- I am relieved to realise that my spontaneous interpretation of this enticing body of work expand into less basic territories; its acidic color palette verges on the perverse; its seemingly harmonious compositions almost convey the sharpness of subtle sarcasm; and in its reminiscence of meteorological phenomena, the visual vocabulary used by the British painter conveys an aura of dangerous, yet exciting unpredictability.
But what if all that meant nothing, and Rae actually aimed to trigger that primitive longing one has for harmony, emotion, and beauty? After spending four days gallery-hopping trying to digest what I saw as quickly as possible, I’m tempted to consider Berlin Gallery Weekend from a rather populist perspective, placing a show’s sensory impact and ability to appeal to our primal desires at the front of the line. Yet limiting oneself to such criteria would certainly be a redundant trick - for both an artist and a writer - so bear with me for more conclusive arguments.
Fiona Rae’s exhibition came as an invigorating punch, and it shared the quality with others; what I previously dubbed “sensory impact” showed itself under many different forms.
At Galeria Plan B, the gallery team together with curator Mihnea Mircan mounted a quasi-institutional show by Becky Beasley. Her meditative exploration of perspective and subjectivity, painstakingly deployed in a broad range of media (sculpture, textile, photography, text, and prints) reconciled two concepts that you would conceive as diametrically opposed: conceptualism (for Beasley in a particularly refined and subtle form) and intimacy. This was perhaps best exemplified by “Bearings” (2014). Hanging from the ceiling and rotating at a slow pace, it’s a copper sculpture made of moulds from various twigs the artist gathered in her father’s garden after a storm. Only after careful observation do you notice that the different pieces of which it is composed do not exactly fit with one another. Patience is required to see the piece from all its angles, yet after a full, 360 degree rotation, you’re struck by how the slight differences of scale and structure between the various elements actually result in harmonious vulnerability.
Light disturbances were also key to Monika Baer’s exhibition at Barbara Weiss. A series of pale, yellow paintings stood out from a display of works close to gestural immobility. The artist intervened only minimally - but efficiently - on these monochromatic surfaces. By creating shallow creases in the paint and by attaching small, cable-like excrescences to the canvases, Baer generates a disturbance I’d liken to a grain of sand in an oyster. It triggers some defence mechanism in your mind, layering what initially appears as irritating with something smooth and soothing, until you find yourself with a desirable, accidental and exquisite jewel.
The German artist does painting about painting like no other, in a way that goes well beyond the dryness of academic blurbs, and she seems to trust the viewer’s intuition when confronting them with her work.
This trust in the viewer was clear too in Julius von Bismarck’s take on the spiritual aspects of movement at alexander levy. Visitors entering the gallery space found themselves stepping onto a giant treadmill (One Solution Revolution, 2018), operating at an almost unperceivable pace. The moment you notice the floor is moving, you naturally start walking in order to not collide with a wall, and also to see the two-channel video projection on view (Tiere sind Engel mit Fell, 2018). The uniform rhythm one is forced into feels ceremonial, halfway between a protest march and a funeral procession. All present people fall into a similar pace, which creates an impression of physical solidarity. The video projection you watch while walking is a slick slow-motion view of three dead animals (a stork, a racoon and a fox) being blown across a wind tunnel; its shamanistic vibe contrasts with its intense visual crispness, and so finitude and infinitude coagulate into a contemplative succession of images.
I found a continuation of these reflexions on timelessness at Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, where versions of apparently ancient artefacts by Yu Honglei stood sternly in the space. One group of sculptures resembled mud blocks, put on a pedestal and decorated each with a few red chillies: an odd impression of buried life emanated from them. I thought they looked like a series of Golems, and what one would possibly need to say to activate these objects on the verge of anthropomorphism. Another piece (I,,,,,,,,, 2018) consisting of eight steel rectangles, almost tombstone-like and each topped with a milky, shrunken head, reinforced my impression I’d found my way into some antediluvian cave housing mythical objects only waiting to release their power through some spell. Honglei’s sources of inspiration are manifold and often, he draws from the mundane aspects of our quotidian, things we barely notice anymore; it’s therefore particularly exciting to witness the ease with which he creates something looking old yet newly discovered. He appears to be equally magician, archeologist and digital connoisseur.
Yu Honglei at Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler - Courtesy the artist; Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin; Antenna Space, Shanghai - Photo by def_image
Claudia Comte at KÖNIG GALERIE - Courtesy of the artist and KÖNIG GALERIE - Photo by Roman März
Fiona Rae at Buchmann Galerie Berlin - Photo by Michael Schultze
Julius von Bismqarck at Alexander Levy - Courtesy of Alexander Levy
Louisa Gagliardi at Open Forum - Courtesy of the artist
Monika Baer at Galerie Barbara Weiss - Courtesy the artist and Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin
Claudia Comte has taken a different route to conflate chronology. At first glance, her show at KÖNIG appeared to showcase the remnants of a venerable forest. But the twenty tall spruces filling the gallery were, in fact, rustic plinths for the artist’s signature sculptures. Comte had hollowed out the tree trunks at different heights, placing her works in these excavated vitrines. Her bulbous bunnies, cactuses or donuts peak at you like some curious beings, nestled in the heart of these wooden cylinders. For this show the artist also created some new, more figurative works that aren’t quite as convincing, perhaps because she simply isn’t the first one to make a plastic bottle out of bronze, or a shell out of marble. But when Comte makes modernist design meet bronze-age runes via the exquisite materials she’s obviously fascinated with, times is suspended and suddenly explorable.
By coincidence, I concluded my weekend with a show by another Swiss artist trying out new things. At the project space Open Forum, Louisa Gaglardi had five new works on view. While three were variations on the oneiric digital paintings she’s known for, two of them caught my attention as I wasn’t sure, at first, what I was looking at. These were prints on blue denim, and the dark ink had spread less evenly or precisely than it usually is the case in her works; I first thought she’d been experimenting with some sort of obscure tie-die technique. But then, almost bleeding over the canvas’ edge, one could recognise the outlines of a cowboy. Here was an artist who’d had the good idea not to shy away from a cliché (jeans + cowboy = America) and instead of making it conceptually undigestible, gave it her own, innovating treatment. Whether it was Gagliardi’s expansion of vocabulary, Beasley’s delicate conceptualism or Rae’s twisted abstraction, many of Berlin Gallery Weekend’s exhibitions made the case for a hard to achieve balance between content and context, and for a certain courage to embrace emotionality without sacrificing conceptual stringency. It does make you look forward to next year.
Titled We don’t need another hero, the 10th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art is a conversation with artists and contributors who think and act beyond art as they confront the incessant anxieties perpetuated by a willful disregard for complex subjectivities.
New Museum, New York. The much anticipated New Museum Triennial, titled this year ’Songs for Sabotage’, opened in February presenting the works of twenty-six artists from nineteen countries, some of which are showing for the first time in an institution.