One word might describe the atmosphere at the much-anticipated opening of abc – art berlin contemporary as I was leaving at about 9pm last Thursday: frenzy. As I performed minor acrobatics to extricate my bicycle from piles of other later arrivals, in the distance—from within the yakking hordes around the bar—I heard a dog barking, desperately. The sound echoed above the din to plead: I want to be free!
I couldn’t help but think of the proud canines exuberantly galloping around the greens of Kassel’s Karlsaue Park at the season’s other art juggernaut, Documenta (13); the unwitting, over-semiotized performers in numerous pieces from Brian Jungen’s Dog Run to Pierre Huyghe’s Untitled. To what extent those animals were actually free is the subject of another essay. But the point is, though they were being used for the calculated ends of the art event, they didn’t appear to feel trapped by it. What were abc’s quadrupeds sensing that the bipeds were missing?
abc has always attempted to break out of the white-cubicular confines of the art-fair-type art fair by re-thinking and re-designing the architecture of the event, as well as the experience. But added to the pullulating bipedal scene of distinguished 60s-era conceptual artists revived from obscurity (with their well-inked autographing-pens), air kissing gallerina/os, self-proclaimed 20-something “art critics” for minor internet portals, intimidatingly beautiful girls in stockings, suited art collectors and tattooed couples with double-baby carriages, the lack of defined walls and rooms was a recipe for debilitating neurasthenia. We’re not fenced in, but we’re still trapped.
When it comes down to it, art fairs are for selling, and to imply otherwise—through design or other means—seems a bit sneaky. The frenzy of beautiful people is simply serendipitous marketing. Now, that’s not to say there wasn’t art worth seeing, or artists worth learning about. I have a notebook full of scrabbled notes about Third Line’s Rana Begum and her colorful wall crumples; Sofie Bird Moller and her blown-up, decapitated etchings; Klosterfelde’s Ulrike Heise and her wormholes; Mona Hatoum and her distressed tubes; Theaster Gates; Kraupa-Tuskany’s Slavs and Tatars with their levitating carpet; and Carbon 12’s Sara Rahbar, with her gas-mask banners. But after traversing about three football-fields-worth (dog-park-fulls?) my mind was all a-muddle, I was still yearning for something more tightly curated overall, and frankly, felt a bit used.
Where earnest intentions and city planning were a bit more evident, however, were among the so-called “artist interventions” organized by Artists Space from New York. Talks organized for the weekend as well as a “bazaar,” featuring publishers, architects, record labels and fashion designers—located next to the fantastic but more bashful MISS READ book fair—recognized the tenuous-slash-incestuous relationship the art world has with the market.
In the Bazaar, I was able to listen to LPs by PAN and Junior Aspirin labels, page through (and buy, if I had my druthers) publications by boundary-usurping publishers Mousse, Triple Canopy, and Bidoun; literally punch out letters on a screen with fashion-design collective Bless’s weird-ass punching-bag keyboard, and do my own impromptu art performance in exchange for a mug with exclusive typeface by Projects Projects. The catalog, a ‘reader‘ also organized by Artists Space and published by Mousse, was a worthwhile accompaniment and illuminating frame for considering such… ‘interventions.’
By placing the ‘bazaar’ in the far corner of the fair near the way out, abc gave a cheeky new meaning to ‘exit through the gift shop.’ But the location was also clever on their part; even after the mind-scrambling Charlie Foxtrot of the non-art-fair art fair beyond, no one quite leaves without feeling that they’ve chipped in their two cents.
Photo: WP117 by Rana Begum