The Berlin Art Scene: Dead and Alive

tamtam, ‘eleven songs – halle am berghain’, 2020, sound installation. Courtesy the artists; photograph: Roman März

When I moved to the city, eight years ago, I assumed the artworld would be humming – why has it become so sleepy?

On my bedroom wall in Berlin is a framed Lawrence Weiner poster, a typically artful fusion of poetics and graphic design whose text reads: ‘A simple vector in the realm of concentricity / the middle of the middle of the middle of’. Sometimes, when I wake up, I ponder it awhile, wondering what I might be in the very middle of, and lately there’s been an obvious answer: pretty much nothing. When I moved to the city, eight years ago, I assumed the art scene would be humming, as it had seemed to be on the short trips I’d made before that point. Fairly soon, though, I was making invidious comparisons to London, where, on my return visits, there seemed to be far more risk and dynamism across the board – from fledgling galleries to the programming in institutions. Over the ensuing years Berlin seems to have gotten sleepier still, and sometimes the signs have been explicit. At the end of 2019, after years of tinkering with the model, the Art Berlin fair was cancelled. Collectors with private museums are moving out, saying they feel unloved. And right now is the absolute still point of this barely turning world; after being involuntarily closed for months, Berlin’s galleries winked an eye open, noticed it was time for the annual ‘summer pause’, and promptly shut again.  

Johann König, Blinder Galerist, 2019. Courtesy Ullstein Buchverlage; photograph: Lukas Gansterer

That the aforesaid inertia is broadly the rule is proved by a noisy exception. In the last year or so, Johann König, scion of the venerable König art clan, has published an autobiography, boldly titled Blind Gallerist in reference to his historical eye problems; held his own art fair in his converted Brutalist church, St Agnes; announced loudly on social media that he was going to lead the way in the post-COVID-19 artworld; and popped up endlessly on Instagram talking up his artists. He also has his own in-house magazine, named – of course – KÖNIG, which presumably is also available in the family-owned chain of art bookshops. This tireless hustle is entertaining to watch, and creditable in its way. But it exists against a context in which even the bigger Berlin galleries seem content to cycle through the same artists in the same spaces they’ve been in for decades. (I’ve measured out my life, or the last half-dozen years of it, in shows by the same clutch of 1990s artists at neugerriemschneider.) I’m no fan of expansionism for its own sake, but stasis gets old quickly. The upside of all this, I guess, is that it has been useful training for the wider, hobbled artworld in 2020; my personal treadmill was already set to cooldown mode.

Courtesy: the author

And sometimes said machine was completely off, because the one way I’ve managed to make Berlin relatively exciting is not to be there all that much, to be somewhere with a slower pulse. A few years ago my wife and I started spending more time in a GDR-era dacha an hour or so away from the city; on some level, I wanted to do what a literary hero of mine, E.B. White, did when he left Manhattan in the 1930s to live on a farm in Maine, from where he wrote a series of columns later collected as One Man’s Meat (1944). I can’t afford a farm, but I did manage to get the same breed of dog. Country living, though not without its tensions – you can track the creep of ugly nationalism faster in the sticks than in the city – modulates, in its ungovernable slowness, the metropolitan experience. Just as when you look at minimalist art the smaller details carry more weight, if you spend enough time not seeing shows then when you come back and do – after doing what I did yesterday, which was to alternate editorial work with literally watching grass grow – it’s more intense. I can’t make Berlin any livelier; but I can, to a degree, make my own life slack-jawed enough that the contrast is marked. 

E.B. White and dachshund Minnie. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons; White Literary LLC; Creative Commons

In any case, currently there is almost nothing to catch up on: again, it’s Sommerpause except for a few galleries including, yes, the indefatigable Galerie König. So not even much viewer’s guilt, and if there is any it can be rationalised away with the previous paragraph’s sketchy arguments. There is, of course, an undertone of anxiety: this break could well be concealing the fact that some of these spaces will never reopen, such that right now Berlin’s artworld, like those in other cities, is Schrödinger’s cat, the box sealed. But if, looking for silver linings, we park that issue for a moment, then this recess-after-a-recess makes a kind of consolatory sense. While galleries being open right now would mean masks and appointments and hand sanitiser, their being closed for summer is the one possible move that feels like the old normal. I’m going to miss it when it ends.

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