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Berlin Gallery Weekend 2013

12 May

Although I was excited to be going to Berlin for Gallery Weekend 2013, I have to confess that part of the excitement stemmed from our mode of transport – we were travelling over on a private plane.  Spending a short time in a large city especially over a weekend devoted to art, openings and parties there will always be far too much to see.

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Off we go… Own photograph.

On Friday morning we made the most of the short-lived sunshine and wandered around galleries – two, in my opinion, deserve particular note.  Wentrup Gallery had just opened its doors to Session by Nevin Aladag.  The key work for me was a video piece addressing the interplay of instruments with which the artist make sound by using found objects from the environment.  The film shows different area of Sharjah, from the industrial district to the desert as well as the heritage areas.  Through this diversity, Aladag makes the instruments symbolically traverse different levels, places and hierarchies.  The composition of the film is beautifully created allowing a framework for these instruments to move about, as if on journeys of their own volition.  The other highlight was Import Projects – a truly fabulous project space in an old building.  Its atmosphere is conducive to the kind of great shows that they mount.  The current group exhibition, The Possibility of an Island, explores the relationship between the real and the imaginary, utopia and dystopia, selfhood and otherness and centre and periphery.

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Session, Wentrup Gallery. Own photograph.

Friday night saw nearly every gallery in Berlin hosting some form of opening.  With dinner booked, we had to plan our itinerary with military precision which involved mapping everything out so we could get the order right.  Our first stop was at Blain Southern – what a fantastic space!  For Gallery Weekend, they were showing a new group of video works by Douglas Gordon, exploring the collision between Europe and the Orient, desire and fear, light and dark, reality and fantasy and life and death.  This show remains one of my standout Berlin exhibitions.  Screens are dotted around the gallery and we journey through cityscapes in Morocco with Gordon.  The majority of the projections shown here are large-scale, inescapable and all-consuming, appealing to our sensory perceptions.

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Berlin’s Blain Southern.  Image via http://englishmaninberlin.wordpress.com

Directly opposite their courtyard was 401 Contemporary.  The gallery director was on hand to explain the mechanisms in Thomas Feuerstein’s works but I have to say I’m still slightly confused although I’ll try to retell the complexity at play here.  The main work is a process-based sculpture which attempts to give human form to books through biotechnical machines.  The work transforms books into sugar through fermentation.  Glucose produced from the cellulose of the books functions as fuel which facilitates the growth of invitro cultivated brain cells.  Even as I write this, I find myself getting muddled again but here goes – the brain cells in the exhibition are exclusively fed by literature from Hegel but other pieces of literature produce material for sugar glass which has been used to make the sculptures around the room.  It wasn’t that the works were particularly invigorating but the process was incredible – even if I may not have fully understood it.  We quickly popped downstairs where Mærzgalerie was showing a paintings exhibition by Sebastian Schrader.

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Thomas Feuerstein at 401 Contemporary.  Own photograph.

We decided to hire a taxi for our mad dash around Berlin and thank heavens we did as I’ve never seen rain start quite as suddenly as Friday’s downpour did.  We sped across Berlin where Tanya Leighton was showing an exhibition of Aleksandra Domanović which did little for me although the gallery space itself is intriguing.

Next, Reception Gallery was showing Leigh Ledare’s piece An Invitation.  When we arrived the gallery was practically deserted but it is a fascinating exhibition that I hope drew in the visitors over the weekend.  For one week in 2011, Ledare was commissioned by a woman, who remains anonymous in the works, to spend time at the home of herself and her husband in order to make a series of erotic photographs in which she featured as the subject.  This body of work looks at ideas of anonymity, legality and non-disclosure, raising questions about how we are presented as subjects through compelling textual and social frameworks.

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Leigh Ledare’s An Invitation at Pilar Corrias in London. Image via www.artnews.org

We tried to visit the Duve Gallery but sadly, after we climbed several dodgy looking flights of stairs in very high heels, it hadn’t followed the trend of opening on Friday evening for Gallery Weekend.  Instead, we headed to the exhibition of Jodie Carey’s works at Galerie Rolando Anselmi which involved walking through a whole series of industrial looking buildings and climbing another never-ending staircase.  The galleries in Berlin certainly are tucked into every conceivable corner of the city.  Carey’s works concern themselves with the dynamic between remembering and letting go, creating works that blur the boundaries between documentary-style archiving and poetic narrative.  One of the most poignant works was the Elegy series, five prints from original photographic glass plates.  Such plates are now extremely rare; these were probably produced in the 1920s.  By not cleaning these plates, Carey has kept the original physical defects in her digital prints memorialising the entire history of photographic printing.

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Jodie Carey’s Elegy series. Image via www.artslant.com

The exhibition at Galerie Crone is one of the most aesthetically memorable.  The ground floor gallery shows a film, following an S-Bahn that circles Berlin with performers, who appear and disappear, wrestling for a bloody bone.  The story plays on the quest for the Holy Grail.  This seemed good but not particularly sensational until we headed upstairs to find a sandy beach complete with boulders, stones, bones, animal skulls, painted bricks and branches.  In amongst these were frogs in small containers; apparently, they were meant to be hopping around but when we were there, they were doing their very best to bury themselves deep in the soil.  The first floor is meant to be the ‘Brain Cave Spaceship’ and the hopping frogs are meant to prompt thoughts about breaking out of the order of things and making transitions from different environments, maybe even different universes. This was another quite confusing exhibition but it did leave food for thought.  Plus, there’s the obvious simple excitement of people playing in the sand.  Many took off their shoes and socks and ran around – not what you normally expect to see in a gallery.

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Galerie Crone’s beach. Own photograph.

Galerie Crone is in a little arts hub in the same courtyard as the popular Alexander Levy who was showing works by Julius von Bismarck.  They share a building with Galerie Isabella Czarnowska who had mounted a joint exhibition of works by Annette Messager and Alina Szapocznikow (whose works were included in the East Wing VIII exhibition with which I was involved at The Courtauld).  Plus there was Veneklasen/Werner with an exhibition of paintings by Peter Saul whose works the gallery describes as ‘lurid’ – well that certainly is one way to put it!

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Partying on all floors around the courtyard. Own photograph.

After dinner, by which time the monsoon had got even worse, our evening ended at Carlier Gebauer – I will confess that seeing as we were at the gallery for late night drinks, I didn’t see as much of the exhibition as I would have liked.  What I did see though has ensured that this gallery is high on my list for my next trip to Berlin.

On Saturday it was time to abandon commercial art for a bit, having overdosed the night before, and we headed to Museum Island which is both an incredible and overwhelming set-up with its five mammoth museums.  The current building work (I say current but I believe it’s been going on for over a decade) means the museums aren’t as well connected as they could be and quite a lot of walking is involved.

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Bode Museum. Own photograph.

The Bode Museum rises from the water with two impressive copper roofed domes.  It is a stunning building and the recent restoration and conservation work – both to the exterior and interior – that has been carried out on this architectural giant deserves praise.  Entering into the grand circular hall, we are greeted by a majestic equestrian statue.  The building is designed like a palace rather than a museum although we are used to equally grandiose buildings in London.  The French classical Baroque style imposes unity and symmetry on the building.  The central basilica is an architectural treat, a passageway that suggests an ecclesiastical setting.  Where we might expect to find an altarpiece we find a corridor, flanked by columns and crowned with a half balcony.  The Museum contains one of the world’s largest collections of sculpture and, with nearly 70 rooms, it shows sculptures and paintings ranging from the 10th to 18th centuries, Byzantine art and an unrivalled coin collection.  Paintings and sculptures are not separated out into different galleries but shown alongside one another elucidating contextual and thematic relationships between works.  There is a strange lack of information around the museum; we don’t learn much about what we are looking at and it’s easy to get lost but what the museum does offer is a visual feast where our eyes are invited to learn and soak up the history of art under one roof.

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The basilica at the Bode Museum. Own photograph.

As you can imagine, the day disappeared quickly while we wandered around the Bode Museum but we still had enough time to head to the Neues Museum.  This holds around 6,000 objects studying the European prehistoric cultures, Nordic mythology, artefacts from Troy, Roman archaeology, the Stone Age, Bronze Age and the pre-Roman Iron Age.  The building suffered severe damage in World War II and an international competition was launched to find an architect to reconstruct the museum building.  David Chipperfield won (no surprises there) and the building is a joy to look at.  After being closed for 70 years it reopened to the public in 2009.  Chipperfield has incorporated the past structure with a fresh and modern approach – this is a lesson in how to merge new and old, retaining the past spirit while imbuing a space with life and contemporary dynamism.  His response is different in every room, reacting to what he found; his design is perfectly suited to this museum – in parts the old fabric is almost intact, some rooms contain fragments and some have an entirely modern feel.  What Chipperfield does triumphantly is works with what is there; his hallmark has been stamped on the building yet its distinctive style still shines through.

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The main entrance at the Neues Museum. Image via http://aaron-m-sweeney.blogspot.co.uk.

All in all, we saw a lot of great things.  I did feel some of the galleries were trying just a little too hard.  They were mounting racy exhibitions of what they thought the public wanted with not enough regard to what worked coherently for their programmes.  But, all in all, it was a wonderful weekend and we still headed back to the plane with smiles on our faces.

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Sète Pieces – Musée Paul Valéry

16 Sep

At night, the lights of Sète shine across the étang from Marseillan.  During the day, Sète is a busy commercial port but it is also known for its art (and seafood).  You could easily spend the day exploring its four museums and numerous smaller galleries.  Sadly, I had time for only one.  The Musée Paul Valéry is named after the town’s famous poet.

Musée Paul Valéry, Sète. Own photograph.

Musée Paul Valéry has recently undergone a major refurbishment – it is nicely designed and a pleasure to walk through.  Their permanent collection focuses on local artists with a strong maritime theme but, unfortunately, it’s not up to much.  Some of the works are really rather bad and it won’t take you more than ten minutes to walk through this part of the museum.

Musée Paul Valéry, Sète. Own photograph.

Upstairs is a different story and the current exhibition, Juan Gris: rimes de la forme et de la couleur, is an unexpected delight.

Born 1887, Gris’s family had determined he would become an engineer but, contrary to their wishes, he chose a more artistic route.  Arriving in Paris in 1906, he met Picasso and numerous other influential artists of the time and witnessed the emergence of Cubism.  There is no doubt that Gris was instantly smitten although, for some years, in order to make a living, the majority of his time was given over to contributing drawings to periodicals.

Man Ray, Juan Gris in 1922. Image via http://museepaulvalery-sete.fr/

Gris watched and learnt from his artist friends.  Borrowing techniques from the analytical style of early Cubism, he broke away from the Cubist palette and distinguished himself from Picasso and Braque by introducing his own vision, working in the style of Synthetic Cubism.

Juan Gris, La vue sur la baie, 1921. Own photograph.

I was already a fan of Gris’s painting and there is no doubt that he is a successful master of composition.  His scientific mind is evident from his studies and some of his works are very minimalistic and austere.

The exhibition is extensive and follows Gris’s entire career – brief though it was.  Quotes on the wall from Gris and his contemporaries are a nice touch.  A series of unusual drawings from 1910-11 is an interesting inclusion that I hadn’t seen before.

During World War One, he developed his own syntax and his shapes are formed by an enigmatic interaction between line and colour.  Gris invites the spectator to consider the forms he has presented.  As objects balance and perch one on top of another, they vie for our attention in a subtle and understated way.  His works are not about making big bangs but taking a back seat in a powerful way.

Juan Gris, Arlequin assis à la guitare, 1919. Own photograph. 

Although still lives dominate Gris’s oeuvre, there are still characters all of whom have an identifiable aspect.  Despite these recognisable features, the ‘portraits’ have an absence of reality – they are more human prototypes than actual people.  The figures belong to a dramatised fiction, accompanied by an occasionally unsettling timeless silence.

After the war, Gris developed ‘visual rhymes’ where there was more room for metaphors of shape.  The works from 1920-25 are striking for their extreme simplicity and thick heavy outlines.  He repeatedly studies the same subject, managing to vary the method or portrayal each time with an almost poetic intuition.

Juan Gris, Personnage assis, 1920. Own photograph.

This is a large but easily palatable exhibition, spaciously hung and enjoyable to visit.  The reflections in the glass are often a problematic distraction, but this is an on-going concern of mine.

Gris was prolific – although he painted for less than 20 years, he left around 600 paintings.  This is a great introduction to the artist if you are not already familiar with him.

Directly across the road from the gallery is the Cimetière Marin – the Sailor’s Cemetery.  Perched on a cliff and facing the sea, this is one of Sète’s most famous places and has one of the most stunning views.  It also houses the grave of Paul Valéry himself.  With an impressive air of Classicism surrounding the layered tombs, it is definitely worth a visit.

Cimetière Marin, Sète. Own photograph.

Sète itself is tranquil, yet bustling and unpretentious.  If you manage to avoid the more touristy areas, it’s a charming town to visit.  I headed off on a boat to tour the canals and then once more unto the beach.  Surprise, surprise I headed back to La Ola for the rest of the afternoon to soak up some rays!

Sète. Own photograph.

Juan Gris: rimes de la forme et de la couleur is at Musée Paul Valéry until 31st October 2011, http://museepaulvalery-sete.fr/.

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