30 May 2016

In the Spessart region, not far from Aschaffenburg, Frankfurt natives Johanna Stemmler and Friedrich Gräfling run the Kunstverein Wiesen. Its current exhibition “Soft Costs” is centered entirely around limitless greed. A great idea for an excursion.

By Alexander Jürgs

You travel through forest, forest and more forest. The sunlight falls through the canopy of leaves, and as you round a curve you see the place: Wiesen in Lower Franconia, approximately 1,000 residents, a village shop, an inn whose name translates as the “Spessart Retreat”, a village hall and a church – sleepy and charmingly beautiful. Located only around 60 kilometers from Frankfurt, it’s a whole other world. In the heart of Wiesen is a beautiful Renaissance building, an old hunting lodge that belonged to the Elector of Mainz. The purchaser of the house has been working for almost 20 years on restoring the property showing as much attention to detail as possible. The individual rooms are each due to be furnished in the style of one of the eras of the building’s history – it is a Sisyphean task.

Benedikte Bjerre, exhibition view "Soft Costs. Money Over World. Wiesen" 2016

In this part-cabinet of wonders, part-building site, two natives of Frankfurt, Friedrich Gräfling and Johanna Stemmler, have for some time been running an art association with an ambitious program. In the hunting lodge in Wiesen, which belongs to Friedrich Gräfling’s family, the half-renovated rooms have already hosted works by Douglas Gordon, Alicja Kwade and Jeppe Hein. It is hard to imagine a more unusual art association than that in Wiesen. “Soft Costs” is the name of the current exhibition, which is part of a bigger project by artist Benedikte Bjerre, which bears the title “Money over World”. 

Crooners, elephants and zebras put on a show 

In it Bjerre, a graduate of Frankfurt’s Städelschule who was born in Copenhagen in 1987, examines one of the most intriguing cases of property fraud ever to have taken place in Germany. The place this scandal was focused on lies directly opposite Salon Kennedy, the second exhibition space Stemmler and Gräfling run, located on the smart Kennedy Allee in the Sachsenhausen district of Frankfurt. Building number 123 was the headquarters of S&K Immobilien, a company set up by two childhood friends, Stephan Schäfer and Jonas Köller. With the help of a snowball system, the pair are supposed to have swindled the countless investors who put money into real-estate funds with S&K.

Friedrich Gräfling and Johanna Stemmler, Kunstverein Wiesen, 2016, photo: Alexander Jürgs
Lina Selander, exhibition view "Soft Costs. Money Over World. Wiesen" 2016

The money the savers were aiming to grow probably ended up largely in the pockets of Köller and Schäfer themselves. They spent it on luxury goods, buying flashy sports cars and villas in the Taunus region; they also rented a VIP box in the Commerzbank Arena. They cruised around Frankfurt in a stretch limousine and traveled with their clients to Dubai or Las Vegas. At their parties women lounged in giant champagne glasses, whilst has-been crooners appeared alongside elephants and zebras. A total of 240 million euros seems to have disappeared into thin air, and the case against Köller and Schäfer has been ongoing for a little over six months at Frankfurt District Court. 

Greed is universal 

In the “Money over World” project, Bjerre examines the greed that lies behind such deception – not only the greed of the supposed fraudsters, but also that of the investors. The fact that this greed is universal is apparent not only upon examination of the property business, but can also be seen, for example, in the overheated art market. Bjerre’s previous “Money over World” presentations therefore also included a party held as part of the art fair “Art Cologne”. Other stations in the project included an empty hotel in South Tyrol and a London multi-story parking lot where Bjerre exhibited some of her own, location-specific works. For Kunstverein Wiesen she has now put together a group exhibition. To this end she invited Nanna Abell, Rosa Aiello, Karoline Dausien, Adam Fearon, Freja Sofie Kirk, Hannah Levy and Lina Selander to take part.

Karoline Dausien, exhibition view "Soft Costs. Money Over World. Wiesen" 2016

In their works for “Soft Costs”, these young artists also offer their reactions to the S&K scandal, sometimes very directly, sometimes more generally. In her series “SK”, for example, Karolin Dausier took a look at Schäfer and Köller’s ostentatiousness. She stitched small sketches from the lives of the pair into leather. Thus we see, for example, the cover of an American business magazine onto which the two have superimposed a portrait of themselves using Photoshop, and which they presented proudly to their clients. 

Glimpses behind the façade 

Freja Sofie Kirk, on the other hand, presents photographs that expose the glittering world of VIP parties. Not dissimilarly to the style of Juergen Teller, she reveals the trash behind the glamor. Benedikte Bjerre also tackles status symbols: In a room on the ground floor of the lodge she has arranged so-called “Dancing Queens” from car hub caps she has collected, whilst in another room she presents the sculpture “Happy Cherries”. The rich red cherry is reminiscent of the logo of techno club “Pacha” in Ibiza, but it is also a symbol of fruitfulness.

Nanna Abell, exhibition view "Soft Costs. Money Over World. Wiesen" 2016

It is tremendous fun to make your way through the rooms of this special building and to delve into the works of the young artists; Kunstverein Wiesen is anything but a run-of-the-mill exhibition space. Anyone wanting to visit, however, must book onto one of the guided tours in advance; dates and times can be found on the website or on Facebook.

Rosa Aiello, exhibition view "Soft Costs. Money Over World. Wiesen" 2016
Freja Sofie Kirk, exhibition view "Soft Costs. Money Over World. Wiesen" 2016