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2. MÑnnikkî and Turunen

Gallery Weekend 2013

As 50 galleries opened wide across the city, can art Berlin keep its radical dream alive?

Encompassing over 50 galleries and art institutions hosting special exhibitions, and attracting interest from international investors, Berlin's Gallery Weekend 2013 welcomed collectors, locals and curious tourists alike to explore the work of established and emerging talent.

Old-timer VALIE EXPORT’s [Images of Contingence] (until 16th June), as expected, caused a stir. Zak | Branicka’s gallery space has been transformed into an arresting installation, consisting of glowing light bulbs suspended on wires dipping in and out of long, thin containers of milk, water and oil. The sexual connotations are immediately noticeable, as the oil sticks stubbornly to the bulb, dripping off slowly but not before it’s resubmerged. I was reminded of the destructive dependence of humans on fossil fuels, and it made me feel dirty.

The environmental theme continued over at Galerie Nordenhake with an exhibition by Finnish collaborators Esko Männikkö & Pekka Turunen (lead image). Based on a photographic essay compiled by the pair between 1989 and 1995, Pemoht (until 22nd June) captures a remote area of Russia in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Their focus is the heavily industrialised Kola Peninsula, a landscape ravaged by nuclear contamination and nickel smelting. Despite recurring details of destruction and desperation, Männikkö and Turunen’s images reveal a beauty that draws you in with some kind of dangerous dystopian desire.

With characteristic imagination, popular multimedia gallery Johann König commandeered an old church in Kreuzberg for Berlin-based artist Alicja Kwade’s impressive piece entitled Nach Osten (To the East - until 26th May). Another light bulb suspended on a wire, this time reaching to the top of the bell tower in a play on Foucault’s famous pendulum, provides the interior’s only light source. Shadows of observers dance disconcertingly on the walls, moonwalking back and forth as if to remind us of the futility of trying to understand the forces that govern the universe. A mic rigged up to the swinging bulb provides an unnerving, rhythmic soundtrack.  “The world itself does not care, it just turns,” explained Kwade. “Just like us circling around these questions.”

The paintings of polymath Billy Childish at an offsite Neugerriemschneider exhibition provided a surprise highlight of the weekend. All Apparent Achievements are Misdemeanours and Non Defining (until 22nd June) comprises a collection produced recently in the artist’s birthplace of Chatham in Kent, where he continues to live and work. Charmingly anachronistic scenes in his scrawly style combine old fashioned stories with an unmistakable sense of modernity. As with his music and poetry, there’s a desolation to these paintings, but also an unexpected joy that’s often absent from his work in those other media. A dreamlike sequence on the Sea of Galilee is colourful and hypnotic, the shimmering lake reflecting stars and harbouring an anomalous seaplane. And though the Thames Estuary is a far cry from Galilee, even Childish’s depictions of the River Medway manage to turn his profane hometown into something sacred.

Of the 60-odd shows that opened for Gallery Weekend, these few that stand out have aspects in common: all ask painful questions about our past and present, and all acknowledge a darkness that’s particularly poignant as we hurtle towards a precarious future. But this is a city that knows a thing or two about defeating dejection. This is Berlin, where hope still prevails.