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In Berlin, the art world spreads out to stay safe

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Visitors to the Messe in St. Agnes, a small art fair staged by the König Galerie as part of Art Week Berlin, which took place at smaller venues around the city, rather than under a single roof.

Berlin

IT HAS been a long time coming, but after six months of coronavirus-enforced inactivity, the international art world was re-energised by a hectic week here of live exhibitions and events.

With all the summer's most important live art fairs, exhibitions and auctions cancelled, Berlin Art Week, which ended on Sunday, became the art world's first significant international event since March.

Anchored by Gallery Weekend Berlin, a collaborative promotion of dealer-organised 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.

"For this moment, it's the perfect event," said Maike Cruse, the director of Gallery Weekend. "The exhibitions are decentralised and localised, and it's nice for visitors to be outside."

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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 centres 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 to Friday, before the galleries welcomed the general public over the weekend. A Saturday night dinner for more than 1,000 guests that usually takes place on Gallery Weekend was cancelled, 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. He said: "They don't have a problem with social distancing. 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 ultra-wealthy 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 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 (S$1.61 million), Ms Sprüth said.

"It's not the same as art fairs," she said of Gallery Weekend. Collectors' frenetic one-stop shopping at fairs like Art Basel and Frieze represent more than 40 per cent 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 US$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.

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 800kg strong 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. NYTIMES

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