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In Berlin, the art world spreads out to stay safe
Visitors to the Messe in St. Agnes, a small art fair staged by the König Galerie as part of Art Week Berlin, Sept. 12, 2020. The first major international art event since the coronavirus pandemic took place at smaller venues around the city, rather than under a single roof. Gordon Welters/The New York Times.

by Scott Reyburn

BERLIN (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- It has been a long time coming, but after six months of coronavirus-enforced inactivity, the international art world was re-energized by a hectic week here of live exhibitions and events. With all the summer’s most important live art fairs, exhibitions and auctions canceled, Berlin Art Week, which ended Sunday, became the art world’s first significant international event since March.

Anchored by Gallery Weekend Berlin, a collaborative promotion of dealer-organized exhibitions that was postponed from its usual slot in April, the event also included the Positions Berlin fair, a platform for less-prominent dealerships, primarily from Germany, and numerous satellite shows at which the art was also on sale. These coincided with the openings of longer-term, noncommercial exhibitions like “Studio Berlin,” a collaboration between local married collectors Christian Boros and Karen Lohmann and the techno club Berghain, and the Berlin Bienniale.

“For this moment, it’s the perfect event,” said Maike Cruse, the director of Gallery Weekend. “The exhibitions are decentralized and localized, and it’s nice for visitors to be outside.”

The spread-out format of Gallery Weekend, with shows by 48 galleries around the city, is better suited to these virus-conscious times than the enclosed convention centers of fairs such as Art Basel. But many international collectors continue to be wary of — or prohibited from — boarding airplanes. As a result, this year’s Gallery Weekend Berlin attracted a smaller, more local crowd, leaving dealers to rely on online transactions to top up their sales.

To ensure safe visits for those who could be here, opening hours were created for VIPs from Wednesday through Friday, before the galleries welcomed the general public over the weekend. A lively Saturday night dinner for more than 1,000 guests that usually takes place on Gallery Weekend was canceled, replaced by an open-air brunch.

Face masks were mandatory in galleries. But, as Michael Short, a local art adviser, pointed out, overcrowding is rarely an issue for Berlin’s widely scattered art dealerships. “They don’t have a problem with social distancing,” Short said. “There aren’t that many people in the galleries. Most galleries don’t sell here. They have long-term relationships around the world.”

Berlin has a reputation for lacking the ultrawealthy local buyers that can sustain a major international art fair. But city authorities estimate that more than 5,000 artists live in the city, and they are served by an impressive array of serious-minded dealers.

In recent years this combination, with its promise of discovering fresh talent at source, has attracted a global audience of discerning collectors to Gallery Weekend. This year, travel restrictions made it difficult for visitors from countries like the United States, Spain and China to attend.

“We’re selling to Americans,” said Monika Sprüth, the co-founder of the Sprüth Magers gallery. “Usually they want to see the works. Now they have to dare to buy without seeing them.”

“International collectors trust our gallery,” she added.

Sprüth Magers is holding its first Berlin exhibition of new works by acclaimed German photographic artist Andreas Gursky in 10 years. As Gursky is an art world star, the gallery anticipated higher visitor numbers: Entry to this show was by appointment only.

The pin-sharp precision of Gursky’s monumental photographs allows would-be buyers to be able to make informed assessments via the internet. One American collector was sufficiently impressed by high-resolution images of “Kreuzfahrt,” Gursky’s astonishingly detailed 15-foot-wide study of a skyscraper-high cruise liner, that they bought it unseen at 1 million euros, or about $1.2 million, Sprüth said. Another from the edition of six was bought by a European collector, the gallery’s public relations consultants said.

“It’s not the same as art fairs,” Sprüth said of Gallery Weekend. Collectors’ frenetic one-stop shopping at fairs like Art Basel and Frieze represent more than 40% of many dealers’ annual turnover. “Businesswise, they are a different number,” she said.

Some Gallery Weekend participants mounted shows at which all the available works sold, albeit at lower price points. Eight new paintings by Berlin-based Romanian artist Victor Man were snapped at Galerie Neu, priced between 100,000 euros and 200,000 euros. Seventeen mordantly humorous watercolors by Sanya Kantarovsky, an artist based in New York, all went at Capitain Petzel, at $8,500 each.

It was the more commercial, easy-on-the-eye medium of painting, rather than sculpture, installation or video, that predominated at Gallery Weekend. But Alexander Levy was one of the galleries offering something more conceptually challenging at the space in the Mitte district.

The Berlin-based artist Felix Kiessling explored the transformative effects of Newtonian mechanics on the hardware of our industrialized society in his show titled “Taumel” (“Tumult”). An old steel door, for example, has become a buckled relief sculpture after having an 800 kilogram (or about 1,760-pound) concrete weight dropped on it from a crane. This was spotted online by a collector in Copenhagen, who bought it for 12,000 euros, according to the gallerist, Alexander Levy.

In recent years the effects of gentrification on Berlin and its perceived decline as a crucible of creativity have been much talked about. But the city continues to inspire him, Kiessling said.

“It’s a melting pot of amazing artists that’s still cooking,” the artist added. “It gives me the mental space. It’s relaxed and still relatively cheap. And where else can you borrow a crane?”

But a steel door buckled by a concrete block isn’t necessarily in tune with international collectors’ current preoccupation with artists who deal with issues of identity, gender or social justice. Berlin Gallery Week gave collectors the opportunity to acquire works by talented, but little-known artists, long before they are overwhelmed by the speculative heat of the auction market.

The Berlin Bienniale, for instance, featured works by Polish artist and social campaigner Malgorzata Mirga-Tas, who gives a contemporary twist to the vibrant textile collage techniques of her Roma heritage. Folding screens by Mirga-Tas, incorporating tender images of family life, were on show at the KW Institute of Contemporary Art.

Although those works were not for sale, they impressed Brussels-based collector Alain Servais, one of the shrunken group of foreign collectors in town. He was able to buy a Mirga-Tas screen for 12,000 euros from the Warsaw gallery Szydlowski, one of the 130 exhibitors at the well-attended Positions Berlin fair in the vast Third Reich-era Tempelhof Airport. Although the screen was not on display at the fair, Servais said he had bought it on the basis of a photograph from the dealer’s inventory in Poland.

“I’m not fond of fairs; I go to cities,” said Servais, who, before the pandemic, would typically attend at least 20 international art events a year. “The Biennale is very good, the Gallery Weekend is good,” Servais added. “The whole city has put on its best clothes. Berlin is a once-a-year must.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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