Interview with Xavier Laboulbenne, founder of the gallery Xavier Laboulbenne in Berlin
Xavier Laboulbenne is not a young gallerist. He has been in the art business for more than 25 years. But his Berlin gallery is young. He opened it in 2012 after having lived in the city for 15 years and having worked as a writer and a curator. The gallery is located in a beautiful loft on the first floor in a Kreuzberg courtyard, in Schönleinstraße, and still bears signs of its industrial past.
How did you choose your location?
When I opened, I was very aware of the migration of galleries to Potsdamer Straße, but I was more interested in being in a neighborhood where artists live, like Kreuzberg. I was more interested in the sociability of the neighborhood than in its business potential. Also, Kreuzberg has such an interesting political and cultural history.
Being further away from the other galleries can sometimes be difficult, but also gratifying, because the quality of perception of people who come to see you and not ten other galleries is much higher. Another advantage is that the artists whom I am working with can easily come and see every show and experience how the works of other artists work in the space and learn from it for their own exhibitions.
What was in this building before?
It was an old metal factory. It took me a while to find this space and renovate it, all the other spaces I saw were renovated in a sterile way, I wanted a space that reveals the ubiquitous presence of history in Berlin, an evocative place like clubs, old factories, former GDR offices. I am not the only one who questions the hegemony of the white cube.
I did an exhibition before renovation, to give people an opportunity to discover the raw space. It was an exhibition of Michel Verjux, a French artist from the 1980s who is also in the Hoffmann and Daimler collection.
How did it all start?
Before coming to Berlin, I move from Paris to New York, where I founded one of the first galleries in Chelsea, in 1995. I started coming to Berlin in the 1990s not because of the art scene, which at that time was not so rich like today, but because of its electronic music scene. I spent a lot of time going to clubs in Berlin, and I was impressed by the political subtext of this scene, by the political significance given to dancing and electronic music, something that in New York was disappearing. Now the club scene in Berlin is more about consumerism and hedonism, but at that time you could witness the transition from old factories being transformed into clubs, and see the evolution of society in Europe in the 21st century.
How is club culture related to art?
There has been a misunderstanding in the relationship between club culture and art. When the art world, especially the institutional art world started to recognize the club culture and to absorb it, something was lost in translation. Tate Liverpool organized a show, DJs started appearing at openings, but this was something that didn’t happen in the 1990s. I felt uncomfortable, it was false. I was not interested in bringing DJs into the art space for the opening, but going out there and engaging another type of conversation.
How is this visible in your artists?
Many of them are involved in Berlin’ subculture, and often I met them there. They are all influenced by the club culture, but not in a literal way. Sometimes it is about the relation to time, to psycho-stimulation. It is more suggested than expressed.
The only exhibition referring more literally to the club culture was the one I did was last summer, when I showed Berlin flyers from 1994 to 2014 from the archive of the owner of Berghain, another private collector and my own. There is a wonderful article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung by Kito Nedo entitled “Party aus Papier” about it. It was very nostalgic, today you use Facebook, but at that time this kind of graphic was the primary communication. I don’t see it is as art, but as cultural history. Apart from this, the reference to club culture is more oblique and subtle in the art I show.
Did the art scene in Berlin today replace the club scene?
No, but there are things they have in common, like the fact that they are both physical and intellectual. Seeing an exhibition, in fact, is still something very physical, tied to the object and the space. Also the club scene has this physical aspect, but it is also an intellectual and psychological experience.
Another thing in common is that both are observations of society, and both stimulate our senses.
How is it changing now?
The club population reflects the social evolution of Berlin: you see now a lot of foreigners, and the city is deeply defined by the foreign influence. You also find opposition to this, and the spreading phenomenon of nationalism, but what makes Berlin a unique place is the extraordinary amount of foreigners who are creative people and come here not for the business, but for the creative scene.
The gallery scene today is still incredibly German. When I arrived in Berlin, there was Max Hetzler, Neugerriemschneider and Neu. Then the galleries from Cologne arrived, and claimed their territory. But there have not been any international galleries, even if most of the artists are foreigners
Also among your artists?
It just happened. I do not go to Biennials to find my artists, here in Berlin I am surrounded by international artists: I have one Zimbabwean, one Swede, one Bulgarian. It’s like travelling without moving. It is a unique situation that you don’t have anywhere else, and my program reflects that.
Berlin used to be so attractive for artists also because it was cheap. Now it is changing?
I think that is not the point: people come here because of the history. Think of the separation between East and West – it was a very intense situation not happening anywhere else. That it is getting expensive it does not mean that it is getting less interesting. Berlin has been an incredibly utopian place. I am not interested in the discourse about gentrification and nostalgia. We live in a constant evolution. Now you have more and more artists, and also more money flowing into the art.
Why did you choose the format of a gallery? In your first years in Berlin you used to work as a curator….
I was a writer, I used to organize exhibitions with funds from the Hauptstadtkulturfonds. I curated large exhibitions outside usual exhibition spaces; for example the Christian Boltanski monumental installation in Pfefferberg, prologue to the Grand Palais in Paris. But it cost a lot of state money, and it did not attract very many people. So I was asked to be more commercial. This is why I chose the format of the gallery, which normally is supposed to be commercial. In my case, it was the other way round: in the institutional context I had to address more people, while the art market provided me a context to be very precise and specific, to address very few people. It gave me freedom. It represented the counterbalance to homogenization of culture.
How different it is to be a gallerist in New York and in Berlin?
As I said, in NY I was one of the first to open a gallery in Chelsea, and when I closed there were 200 galleries that had opened in less than 5 years. I used to show artists like Marilyn Minter, Charles Atlas, David Hammons. You know, this question about the program, the gallery program is something that you understand with the passing of time. It just happens. On the other hand, there are dealers who were very well known for a certain agenda, but today their offerings are very fragmented because of the pressure of the market. You see it art fairs, before they had a direction, now they show a bit of everything.
You have been in the art world for many years. Is this visible in your program?
I have been in the art for 25 years, and I try to articulate this in my program in advantage to younger artists. Every year I do an historical exhibition. For example I did Steve McQueen’s first show in Berlin, and I showed José Maria Sert, a show which felt oddly contemporary, even if it included works from the 1910s-20s.
You have just two women artists in your program…
I have only two women, but I have Asian artists, black artists, gay artists, nobody asks me about that. I refuse to be politically correct and work with a woman because I have to. You don’t need to be black to talk about race, you don’t need to be gay to talk about gender. We are in a post-gender world. And Berlin is very progressive in these terms of social interaction, it is full of emancipated people.
What relationship do you have with other Berlin galleries?
I understand that Berlin has been a difficult place to develop as a gallery. Pioneering galleries crossed the desert for years, and now they cling to this power leading to an undeniable sense of nepotism that might paralyse evolution. I have known many of the established galleries for many years, but I live an ambiguous situation because I vanished for more than ten years and then I reemerged. Now I am in the singular situation of not an old gallery, but also not a young gallery. It is ambiguous, but also kind of fun. Adding the fact that I am not German in a mainly German system… I am marginalized for many reasons but I am not complaining, because in the margins you have the freedom. I am in an eccentric position.
Is it true that Berlin has no collectors?
I have collectors, but they are not in Berlin. I work with Daimler, for example, but they are in Stuttgart. I have worked with Erika Hoffman. I have friendly relationships with Berlin collectors, but I am not working with them now. I am working with an handful of collectors from outside, and I have really interesting relationships with them.
In New York, I felt exhausted as I had many upper-middle class collectors buying small works. For me it is same amount of passion I put in a 5,000 or a 50,000 dollar work, so it is better to work with collectors who buy important works, and build strong relationships with them. It is true that when you depend on very few collectors, you are much more vulnerable, but you can build amazing relationship with these people, very human relationships. Now I have the chance of working with very good collectors with whom I have the same quality of exchange as with artists and art critics.
Is there anyone who has influenced you in your career as a gallerist?
I would not say one person in particular from the art world, there were many people that influenced me, and not only from the art world, also from other creative industries, like design, fashion, music, and architecture.
What about art fairs?
At the beginning I did not want to do fairs, I wanted to concentrate on what I was doing here. So I waited a while to starting going to fairs and launching my website. But then I did my homework, and I felt confident about going international with something consistent. I will go to Contemporary Istanbul, I did abc in Berlin, I did parallels project to Art Basel Miami Beach and Hong Kong last year where I showed Carmelo Tedeschi in collaboration with Christian Louboutin. This is another thing I like: the crossing of genre, like in the case of Swedish artist Sara Mathiasson who works with a particular way of braiding hair to build masks.
And what are your plans for the future?
I am planning an exhibition of Donald Judd’s furniture in the Spring 2016. Judd used to keep his furniture and his sculpture separate, even if they were made in similar fashion. What I want to do is exactly the opposite: I want to show his furniture as sculptures, deprived of their ergonomic function, I want to underline the ambiguity, and see how people reconsider this remarkable aspect of his work.
Wednesday – Saturday: 2pm – 6pm