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Sales satisfactory at Berlin Art Forum '97, though dealers may have to be patient for fair to come into its own

Dealers and collectors alike come here to see the city and its contemporary art world take shape but immediate sales were limited

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The second edition of the Berlin art fair took place from 30 October to 4 November in the exhibition halls at the Berlin Funkturm. In the words of one of the fair’s promoters, dealer Elke Zimmer, the fair aims to be “not an international fair of contemporary art, but the best European fair of contemporary art”.

It still has a long way to go but it is growing in size: 20,000 people attended, a 20% increase over last year. As well as hosting a plethora of German galleries (40% of the 135 participants) Berlin attracted prominent European galleries and a few from the North and South America—all curious to see how the new capital is taking shape.

Indeed the excitement mixed with the chaos of this city in flux, with vistas of cranes and construction sites at every turn, makes Berlin the most fascinating, if not the most beautiful of European cities right now. But although the Art Forum promotes Berlin as the next great European art capital, able to challenge the power of the American art market with the power of a united European market no longer riven by nationalism, European dealers feel more ambivalent. Conversations with the many French and Belgian dealers here for example, frequently led to the remark “ils vont nous bouffer” (they are going to eat us up), spoken only partly in jest. Paris dealer Chantal Crousel, while elated to have sold a wacky and unwieldly Thomas Hirschhorn aluminium foil sculpture to Jan Hoet of the Ghent Museum, noted that her Berlin hosts remained extremely territorial about their collectors and artists.

The political will for Berlin’s artistic ascendency is affirmed by the patronage of Rita Sussmuth, president of the Bundestag, for the Art Forum and the sponsorship of Bank Gesellschaft Berlin, which paid for some thirty curators from American and European museums to come to Berlin for the duration of the fair. They were invited not only to view the Art Forum, but to tour the city’s contemporary galleries and institutions and make contacts at every level. Thus, the Sigmar Polke exhibition at the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum of contemporary art (inaugurated last year during the Art Forum) opened to coincide with this year’s fair.

Although some controversy surrounds the fair—in particular its perceived rivalry with the well-established Cologne fair—most prominent galleries of avant-garde art participated to get a feel for this emerging city; high turnover, while important, is not the primary objective of the European Galleries Projektgesellschaft. It remains to be seen whether the participating galleries realise enough sales to want to return. Chantal Crousel, for example said that she was attending both Berlin and Cologne this year to decide which one to participate in next year. “Since the Paris market is so flat at the moment, it makes more sense for me to go to fairs than to stay in my gallery.”

In 1998 Art Forum Berlin will be held from 8 to 12 October, to coincide with the first Berlin Biennial of contemporary art.

Who showed what?

On opening night the Sekt (German sparkling wine) flowed freely as invited guests walked through the stands (the fair’s admission price of DM 30 weeded out casual visitors when the fair was open to the public). The numerous works on show were of high quality, and often very large. Many seemed chosen to appeal to the German bank buck, since banks here are obliged by law to spend one percent of their annual turnover on art. Berlin dealer Max Hetzler’s busy stand with a sprawling mosaic floor by Albert Oehlen and immense canvases by Philip Taaffe, was a perfect example.

On display were predominantly works made after 1945 with particular emphasis on the Nineties. From the minimalism of Donald Judd (Bugdahn und Kaimer, Düsseldorf) to the purest forms of conceptual art epitomised by the work of On Kawara (Lisson Gallery, London; Konrad Fischer, Düsseldorf) and Gabriel Orozco (Micheline Szwajcer, Antwerp). An imposing igloo by Mario Merz (DM 220,000; £76,000; $121,000) and a wooden cross made up of thirteen blocks of red cedar by Carl Andre ($150,000) were also on view at Fischer’s stand. The disconcerting, even threatening army of Magdalena Abakanowicz’s headless figures (Pels Leusden, Berlin) provided a welcome contrast to the eccentric, agitated madness of Tinguely’s mechanical creatures on the stand of Renée Ziegler from Zurich (prices varied according to the complexity of the works from DM 80—£27; $44—to DM 480,000—£165,500; $265,500) and Panamarenko’s poetic inventions (Christine and Isy Branchot, Brussels) with prices from DM 100,000-150,000 (£34,000-52,000; $55,000-83,000) for the projects and DM 7,500 (£2,500; $4,000) for the drawings.

The arrangement of the stands in alphabetical order encouraged this constant change of vision: from the work of Zorio (DM 7,000; £2,400; $4,000), Kounellis and a slab of “Green from Aosta” by Anselmo at Amsterdam’s Akinci gallery one passed directly to the mysterious landscapes and portraits by José Manuel Ballester (DM 7,000; £2,400; $4,000) with Antonio de Barnola, Barcelona. Theatrical drama at the stand of London’s Anthony D’Offay gallery which presented a huge work by Gilbert & George and a great stone spiral by Richard Long, while a separate room was devoted to an installation by Tatsuo Miyajima. Almost all the small cards by Gerhard Richter, displayed together on one wall, sold like hotcakes.

Lia Fried of New York’s Lombard Fried gallery, was a first-time participant, who has never before shown internationally. “We sold a lot more than we expected to at the fair. We were impressed with the amount of attention and focus shown by young German collectors. There was a lot more interest in conceptual work, at looking at art that does not have instant name recognition.” The fact that Lombard Fried kept their prices between $1200 and $2500 helped sell work by up-and-coming New York-based artists include Ming Wei Lee, Mike Stephenson and Maciej Toporowicz.

Photography was everywhere, both in the form of fine art and vintage prints. Andreas Brändström from Stockholm showed stunning C-print photographs of truckers on the American highways by Annica Karlsson Rixon, a Swedish artist based in LA (DM 6,700; £2,300; $3,700). But Stockholm dealer Charlotte Lund, who attended for the first time, admitted “sales could have been better”. Moscow’s Aidan showed digitally manipulated photographs of models and reconstructions of ancient sites, such as Trajan’s forum, by Anatoly Shuravlev, which the artist refers to as photographs of the ancient world (DM 5,000; £1,700; $2,800). And Camargo Vilaça from São Paulo displayed a strong selection of Brazilian artists, including Vik Muniz, whose Cibachrome photographs constantly subvert the maxim that “the camera never lies”. Muniz, whose work is currently on show at MoMA New York, dripped chocolate artfully over a lightbox in the form of a portrait of Jackson Pollock ($5,000 for a print from an edition of three).

Maureen Paley of London’s Interim Art sold a delicate pen and ink drawing by young British artist Ewan Gibbs to designer Agnès B. within hours of the fair’s opening (£800). Finally, White Cube displayed various sculptures by Marc Quinn and Antony Gormley and a 1996 Damien Hirst glass vitrine with six skeletons hanging inside on offer for DM 165,000 (£57,000; $91,000).

By Sunday night, red dots were displayed alongside several works, but despite the fair’s declared aim of “straining towards the future”, most of the works sold were paintings. Meanwhile on 1 November at the auction house, Ketterer’s, a Gerhard Richter canvas from the Sixties sold for DM 700,000 (£241,000; $386,000).

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'A long-term investment'