Like New York in the ’60s and London in the ’90s, Berlin is shaping up to be the art world’s creative capital. Daniel Pinchbeck infiltrates the new kultur club.
One night last fall, I found myself on a boat slowly wending its way down the Spree River, looking across a ghostly spectacle of lit-up cranes, shuttered palaces, construction sites, and the empty concrete shells of future government offices. I was talking to Kirsten Pieroth, a young artist, about melons and bowling balls. Three Berlin galleriesKlosterfelde, Neu, and Neugerriemschneider-had organized the boat party, one of a series of nightlife events promoting Art Forum Berlin, an annual contemporary-art fair. The boat was packed with dealers, artists, collectors, curators, and critics, who were laughing, gossiping, and exhaling streams of unfiltered smoke. Pieroth, a petite woman with a pageboy haircut, was describing her recent show at Klosterfelde. “I put two melons on the floor of the gallery,” she said. “The melons had holes in them. They were drilled by the man who makes the bowling balls for the German Olympic team.” Pieroth’s ephemeral installation makes perfect sense in contemporary Berlin, a city that keeps transforming itself at an amazing rate. Since the wall came crashing down 11 years ago, a staggering amount of new construction has gone up, with much more on the way. Potsdamer Platz, Berlin’s historic center and Europe’s busiest crossroads during the 1920s, is now Europe’s biggest construction zone, home to the dazzling Sony Center (which has been described as a “techno volcano”) and the Renzo Piano-designed Daimler-Benz complex. As artist Monica Bonvicini, a longtime resident, recalls, “I was in LA for a year. When I came back, I went bicycling and kept getting lost. Everything had changed so much.” Perhaps most significantly, the city has become the new artistic hotbed of Europe-home to 350 galleries and an estimated 4000 artists. Along with Art Forum Berlin, which attracts 159 galleries from around the world, there’s the new National Gallery young-art prize (Berlin’s answer to Britain’s Turner Prize) and the Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art-on view now through June 2001-featuring the work of 47 international emerging artists.
A few days after the floating gallery party, I took up Pieroth’s invitation to see her apartment in the district of Mitte. Once the center of the city’s Jewish life, Mitte is now a hip neighborhood of bats, outdoor cafes, clothing boutiques, and the latest in young-Berlin art. Its anchor is Kunst-Werke, a 10-year-old alternative-arts mecca that boasts 2500 meters of exhibition space and a competitive artists-in-residence program. Matthew Barney, Jake and Dinos Chapman, and performance group Fischerspooner have all stayed there; Christian Dior menswear designer Hedi Slimane jets between his dorm-like room in Kunst-Werke and his Paris home. Slimane, who has been in discussions with Kunst-Werke director Klaus Biesenbach about a film project, says he loves the area’s “strong youth culture and chaotic, almost raw feeling.” Many artists and intellectuals make their homes in Mitte, and it’s not hard to see why. A few blocks from the gallery center, Pieroth’s spacious one-bedroom apartment rents for DM 360 (about $180) per month. Two other Klosterfelde artists, Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragnet, live upstairs from Pieroth. “No, we don’t have jobs,” says Elmgreen, laughing. “That’s the nice thing about Berlin. In New York City everybody has to work at least two jobs to survive.” Originally from Denmark and Norway, respectively, Elmgreen and Dragset are best known for their prankster performances and high-concept sculptures (they were shortlisted for last year’s Hugo Boss Prize). Recently, they spent 12 hours zealously painting and repainting a white gallery wall.
Living in a three-bedroom apartment that rents for DM 750 (about $375), the duo can focus full-time on their art and social life. On the afternoon I arrived, their flat was full of visiting Danes, piled in sleeping bags and clustered woozily around the breakfast table, trying to recover from a night at WMF, a popular nightclub.
Like New York’s during the Warhol era, Berlin’s nightclubs currently serve as a creative laboratory for the city’s art, film, fashion, and music scenes. “The most inspirational force in the city is the club culture,” says Mike Fale, an English conceptual artist and club devotee. The Berlin-based electronic band Chicks on Speed actually started out as a multimedia art project about marketing an imaginary band. Now a full-fledged musical group, the three former art students release albums, make and sell art collages, and design a line of clothing and accessories. Clubs have sprouted in abandoned supermarkets, banks, and industrial sites. WMF and Pogo, a club in the cellar of Kunst-Werke, draw the biggest art crowds. At Pogo, Berlin film director Oskar Rohler and artist Marina Abramovic can regularly be found alongside novelists and students, elbow to elbow on the small dance floor.
Despite its creative ferment, the city is certainly not for everyone. Berlin has none of the instantaneous beauty of Prague or old-world charm of Budapest, and is hardly known for friendliness. “It is essentially an ugly city with a heavy past,” says installation and video artist Bonvicini, who moved from Brescia, Italy, in 1986. “But maybe on an aesthetic level, the rawness has influenced my work.”
When I visited Bonvicini, 37, in her sparsely decorated apartment with orange walls and a bare mattress in one corner, she was chain-smoking and poring over Playboy magazines from the 1950s. (“I am interested in this ideal of the male bachelor pad,” she explained.) Though she has had some international acclaim for her installation at 1999’s Venice Biennale, Bonvicini maintains a relaxed, post-art-school attitude. As we spoke, a copy of one of her video works, Walicking played in her studio. True to its name, the piece showed a naked woman writhing wildly against a wall.
It could be argued that the atmosphere of strife has prompted certain artists to push themselves beyond the boundaries of good taste. During Art Forum Berlin, Jonathan Meese, a highly touted young artist with a kitschy heavy-metal look, performed to a large crowd in the Kunst-Werke courtyard. Meese pretended to be the poet Ezra Pound screaming pro-Fascist slogans. The performance went on, numbingly, for hours. Watching the audience watch Meese, I realized that Berliners still have an impressive tolerance level for anything that might, conceivably, be art.
The high-stakes, hyperspeed commercialism that distinguishes the New York art world is nowhere present in Berlin. Indeed, several artists I tried to reach for this piece did not even have answering machines, let alone cell phones. Rather than seeking media attention, they seemed eager to avoid it. I had wanted to interview Daniel Pflumm, a young video artist and DJ, and I was told that the best way to find him was to hit the clubs. On the phone, the elusive Pflumm kept putting me off. When I finally found him at WMF late one night, he promised to meet me later, then abruptly vanished.
Today, Berlin has that extreme combination of toughness, glamour, uncommercial creativity, experimental nightlife, and affordable cost of living that made New York in the ’60s the world’s cultural capital. Eleven years after the fall of the wall, nobody knows where the city is going. Will Berlin be a financial powerhouse or will it fall into an angry funk? That uncertainty can be felt flickering through the art world, but it is like an electric current, unleashing new ideas and sparking creative forces.