The Art Space as a Non-Space

The Artworld in Berlin

As in the rest of the world, so in Berlin: art is displayed in an environment consisting of industrial glass, white walls, the dull sheen of concrete, and other diluted staples of modernist architecture. The space, though vast, feels cramped due to the sheer amount of foot traffic. The service encountered ranges from the overly bubbly to the clearly bored. Non-native speakers dish out English efficiently. The food aims to be much too gourmet and ends up much too expensive. We can add the art space—gallery, museum, or art fair—to the list of universal institutional non-spaces like airports and hotel chains.

If Berlin weren’t in this art fair–cum-exhibition’s unfortunate title, abc or “art berlin contemporary,” the location of the entire ordeal would hardly be obvious, despite the incessant chatter about the city’s need for an art fair or biennale to keep it on the international art circuit. Paradoxically, what might maintain Berlin’s status—abc shovelling contemporary art into an old refurnished postal railroad station for five days before crating it back to its respective galleries or new owners—has little to do with the city itself.

Nevertheless, judging by the packed invite-only opening directed at potential buyers, many visitors must have drawn up whole travel agendas consisting of nothing more than a shuffle from non-space to non-space: airport, hotel, art in contrived converted industrial chic settings, airport, and then home, which is likely part hotel and part industrial chic setting anyway. One can travel thousands of miles without ever quite leaving.

Hotel chains have long thrived on this principle; they construct familiar environments away from home. Likewise, the airport embraces its role as a place between places. The invisibility and interchangeability of the contemporary art space, less obviously but no less surely, also situates its visitors in some sort of limbo. The conventions of the art space—the design codes that now seem somehow natural to us—have come to legitimize the works exhibited there. In turn, they often mask those works’ dullness and bar us from critical assessment.

Of course, these spaces often have their reasons for sidestepping that kind of assessment. This exhibit, given the unfortunate theme “about painting,” was as much about painting as this essay is about sentences. There were paintings. There were pretty abstract compositions; monochromes in every which color and non-color; geometric shapes; figurative works; text-heavy compositions; figurative panels made of duct tape; parts of the white wall removed; sculptural pieces involving canvasses or paint; and everything besides and in between. Many of the works were shadows of movements long past, and all of the works sat in vague and superficial relations to one another; but then again, what can be expected from a system in which a curatorial team is hired to organize 120 different galleries and their artists into one cohesive blob, aiming not only to hawk the works like any art fair must but also to be taken seriously as a major exhibition?

Unsurprisingly, abc managed to do neither well; but, surprisingly, the space was crowded almost every day, and the reviews in major German newspapers Die Zeit, Der Welt, Die Berliner Morgenpost, and others were generally positive.

The majority of the reviews spend a good amount of time lauding the old refurnished postal railroad station where abc took place and praising German architect Jan Ulmer’s intersecting white walls interspersed through the sprawling space. The famous white cube stereotype has undergone some remodeling worldwide, expanding beyond the simple cube and moving to annex the abandoned factory. These templates sound harmless—after all, they’re just containers for holding art—but in the 1960s Institutional Critique laid bare the complete un-neutrality of such institutions, pointing out the economic, social, and political assumptions these museums and galleries rely on to establish and reestablish the value and importance of the art housed within them. Today the impact of these reinforced assumptions is less restricted to recognized institutions than ever before. Contemporary art galleries and art fairs are sprouting up all over the world. With art fairs and bienniales, the spaces are necessarily not permanent ones; rather, they are taken over for a few days, a week, or a month, crammed with contemporary art, and engineered to convince the global art audience that what they are seeing is the “new thing,” deserving of a spot on the contemporary art map.

So maybe abc had it right; you’re not in Berlin, London, Basel, Moscow, or Miami, but in some artistic suspension—the convergence of the autonomous art space, sleek modernist design, and the unprecedented market for contemporary art.

How about that for a performance-cum-installation piece?

­—Columnist Kristie T. La can be reached at kla@college.harvard.edu.

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