Berlin / Los Angeles: A Tale of Two (Other) Cities

Reviewed by Robin Murphy

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This little catalogue for the show Berlin / Los Angeles: A Tale of Two (Other) Cities, held at Galleria Massimo De Carlo in Milan in 2009, gives no direct explanation of the curatorial impetus to bring artists from these locales together. Instead of being didactic, it presents a constellation of images, text and install shots. In this setting however, the shots of individual works don’t feel like the focus, but rather the appendix to this collection, eliminating and pretense of the catalogue capturing some kind of essence of the experience of the show and freeing the book up as a thing in itself.

The essays accompanying the catalogue by Stefan Heindeinreich and Thomas Lawson are printed in parallel and are echoed in English, German and Italian. Together they draw indirectly the comparative presences of each place and the specificities that has shaped the nature of their art scenes.

Each text touches on centering, or rather its lack—Berlin due to the post-war split having developed as a political and civic center without being an industrial or economic core, and Los Angeles as a city of many disparate centers orbiting each other. Heideinreich suggests that in the information age it is not so much a sense of place that seems important to the nature of the conversation, as much as space. This rhetoric of the ‘global village’ that Heideinreich uses has died down somewhat since the catalogue’s publication in the late 2000s, except perhaps in the essays of biennale curators, but it’s still a useful term of reference. He describes Berlin as an island where cheap rent provides this space for artists and draws them into a milieu with each other, within which chance encounters and unexpected occurrences can happen, and diversity can develop without a financial imperative.

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These chance encounters are something that Lawson points out are largely absent within the car culture of Los Angeles. If Berlin is an island, Los Angeles is an archipelago, a cluster of dislocated centers virtually unnegotiable by foot. Lawson describes the classic story of Los Angeles— that beneath the idyllic sunshine festered a tumultuous darkness of corruption, race riots, and internment camps. Meanwhile Heideinreich only lightly touches on the darker aspects of Berlin’s very dark history.

There’s a frosty tinge through several of the Berlin works. Kristine Roepstorff’s Winter Mute Revolt #1 (2009) and #2 (2009) are lightly hanging mixed media works where cut-outs of snowy trees cover scenes of unrest. A small text contributed to the book by Josef Strau is a slippery trip through icy Berlin streets with a head cold.

Against this, LA is high gloss and bright light. Perhaps most emblematic of this is Frank Benson’s Chocolate Fountain #1 (2008), a glossy varnished chocolate fountain perched on a hydraulic platform. Part of the reason that this work seems so LA to me is that it is also the only piece from the show that I’ve encountered in person: I saw it when I was an attendant in the Beverly Hills home of a collector, where it was camouflaged by the fact that it could plausibly have been a working version about to be wheeled by catering staff into the party.

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In the center of the room, barely visible in the installation pictures, were racks of tourist information from both cities. Milan is also drawn into the mapping of space through Dan Rees’ The Postman’s Decision is Final (2009) in which double sided postcards are posted with two possible addresses, exhibiting the cards that made it to Galleria Massimo instead of their alternate destination.

There seems to be something beyond being sister cities that brings Los Angeles and Berlin into the same sentence so often. While this book does not exactly explicate this, it does illustrate how they occupy a similar position in the strata of the art world. Both are Western outposts of the ‘global village’ of the art world that Heideinreich mentions in his essay. Not quite in the periphery, they are centers on the semi-periphery that attract a similar kind of crowd to very different locales and that occupy similar places in the imaginations of young artists from centers even further afield.

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Stefan Heideinreich and Thomas Lawson, Berlin / Los Angeles: A Tale of Two (Other) Cities, (Galleria Massimo De Carlo/Mousse, 2009)

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