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by Anna Altman
I visited places from which symbols of GDR history have been effaced. I asked passers-by and residents to describe the objects that once filled these empty spaces. I photographed their absence and replaced the missing monuments with their memories.
-- Sophie Calle, The Detachment, 1996

Sixteen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Berlin remains a city under construction. Change has been constant in the five months that I have lived in the German capital. The new Berlin central train station, the Hauptbahnhof, with its network of levels and its curved glass roof, debuted with a spectacular nighttime light show. The Jewish School for Girls, closed since 1996, has reopened as a space for art exhibitions, beginning with the 4th Berlin Biennale this spring. And the former East Berlin parliament building, the Palast der Republik, has been earmarked for demolition, to be succeeded on the same site with a reconstruction of the Stadtschloss, or City Palace, that had preceded it there.

Cities update their infrastructure all the time. But Berlin, it can be argued, is a special case, a "work in progress" -- a bit unusual for a capital city in Central Europe -- the many changes of which don’t so much alter the city as add to its patchwork history. And this unfinished quality is what makes Berlin such a fertile space for artists and gallerists.

Empty lots and decaying facades have become canvases for the graffiti artists ranging throughout the city. A five-story mural of "Mr. Orange," a geeky creature clad in a skin-tight orange shirt with two puffy button-down pockets that look like bosoms, looms over Schlesisches Tor, courtesy of the Brazilian twins Os Gemeos, while the quieter wheat-paste cut-outs by New York graffiti artist Swoon are posted outside Görlitzer Park and on Fehrbelliner Straße. Street Art made its official entry into the museum here last summer, when Kunsthaus Bethanien sponsored "Backjumps, the Live Issue #2," an exhibition of graffiti artists that spread from the museum to the surrounding city.

Untamed Galleries
An abundance of galleries, too, have sprung up in the last 16 years, filling the empty buildings in neighborhoods situated in the shadow of the Wall. For example, Zimmerstraße, located just around the corner from the now tourist-ridden but historically significant Checkpoint Charlie, is the site of several of Berlin’s most successful art spaces, including Max Hetzler Gallery, Galerie Barbara Weiss, Arndt & Partner and Klosterfelde. Even the arches beneath the S-Bahn near Jannowitzbrücke have been transformed into rather rough-hewn gallery spaces, housing Max Hetzler’s second space, Büro Friedrich and Carlier / Gebauer.

The rawness of the spaces, which are often left with flaws intact or even purposely exaggerated, is often paralleled by the rough quality of many of the artworks on display -- a quality that corresponds specifically to unfinished, untamed Berlin.

Barbara Weiss, for example, consists of four gallery spaces, only two of which are currently in use, displaying abstract paintings by Frederike Feldmann and Rebecca Morris. Both artists use un-gessoed canvases and encaustic paint, and cultivate a texture that is as rich as that of the city outside, with its rough edges and unfinished or decaying buildings. Feldmann’s encaustic paintings offer a blurry, yellow-tinted version of what appear to be grand, 19th-century spaces, as if the artist were trying with all his might, eyes squinted, to see and depict a way of life that feels entirely estranged from Berlin in 2006.

The city adds its own overtones to the art shown here in other ways as well. The recent exhibition of work by Haluk Akakçe, a Turkish artist, at Max Hetzler has a special significance in Berlin, which contains the largest population of Turks outside Turkey itself.

The palpable presence of social history within Berlin’s city spaces, combined with the tendency of Berlin artists to make use of every available space for exhibitions, has become a trademark of the city’s art scene. No longer just a side effect of "underground" bohemian activity, this social dialectic is now an ingrained, repeated and even marketable asset.

The 4th Berlin Beinnale and the Jewish School for Girls
A perfect example is the recent 4th Berlin Biennale für Zeitgenossische Kunst, Mar. 28-June 6, 2006, which was organized by Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni and Ali Subotnick for the KW Institute of Contemporary Art. Entitled "Of Mice and Men," the show sought to document the trauma of human existence and, in an inspired move, was extended to spaces all along the Auguststraße, the street in Berlin’s Mitte district where the KW Insitute is located. The biennale stretched literally from a church to a cemetery, and its location in private apartments and offices as well as in established institutions mixed public and private to offer a microcosm of an entire society.

But even more fascinating -- and harrowing -- was the use of defunct spaces for art installations, notably the former Jewish School for Girls. Shut down by the Nazis in 1942, the school resumed its identity as a place of learning only after the Second World War, reopening under the regime of the GDR only to be closed again in 1996. The peeling wallpaper of the school building, its faded posters, murals and graffiti, suggest the ravages of a complex and painful past, as well as the simple passage of time. The specters of history that continue to haunt Berlin, its residents and its rebirth as a cultural center were made explicit in this deliberate choice of venue.

The layers of time and space evident in this and each of the biennale’s locations evoked a sense of impenetrability -- how incomplete the city remains. But perhaps this was a perfectly apt reflection of Berlin in 2006, a city that has not yet fully fleshed out its identity, its direction or its solutions.

In fact, the Jewish Girl’s School’s reopening as a space for contemporary art may hint at the city’s future. Berlin’s increasingly established reputation as a crossroads for artistic exchange and creation may be the force that renews a bankrupt and historically scarred city.

If the Biennale was the moment in which this tendency, unique to Berlin, became solidified and celebrated in an international event, there are other examples of the cycle -- Berlin’s underground art scene feeding into established institutions and sparking the development of new ones -- that are not yet complete. Nothing symbolizes this use of empty space, its destruction and recreation, and its subsequent appearance in the established art world of museums and galleries more than what is happening to the Palast der Republik.

The Palast der Republik as Kunsthalle
As the former seat of the East German government as well as a site for East Berlin’s cultural events, the bronze-glass façade of the Palast symbolizes a regime and a way of life that has been dismantled and replaced. And, like the government it formerly housed, the Palast der Republik is slated to suffer the same fate. Currently in the process of being torn down, the building will be replaced, first by a large hole at the very center of the city, and then by a copy of its predecessor, the Stadtschloss, or City Palace.

The recent history of the building can be seen as a case in point for Berlin’s never-quite-completed landscape and identity, and the artistic opportunism that follows Berlin’s developments wherever they crop up. The decision to begin destruction of the former "Volkspalast" was confirmed only this past January, but not before it could be transformed into an exhibition space just three weeks before the building’s condemnation.

In December 2005, a group of artists, spearheaded by Coco Kuhn, Constance Kleiner and White Cube Berlin, seized the opportunity to use the Palast der Republik as a Kunsthalle. The symbolic meaning of such a gesture was clear. By usurping the location of the former government, the 36 participating artists, all working and living in Berlin, asserted the power of Berlin’s artistic community. In addition, the location of the Palast der Republik right beside the symbols of high-culture found in the multiple collections of the museums on the Berlin Museumsinsel, or "museum island," emphasizes the cultural importance of contemporary art as a movement that should be recognized and appreciated alongside more established works.

The exhibition, entitled "36 x 27 x 10" after the metrical dimensions of the Palast, also sought to point out what is missing in Berlin despite its 300 galleries and 20,000 artists: a cutting-edge, large-scale exhibition space. The invitation to the event read:

In Berlin, an art space is forming which to this point had not been imaginable. . . . The participating artists [of White Cube Berlin] want to draw attention to a historical moment at which such a site, shortly before its destruction, can reflect the artistic and esthetic situation that Berlin creates in a specific way. Furthermore, with their participation in the exhibition, the artists call for preserving and using this exceptional building as an exhibition space for contemporary art.

White Cube may not have succeeded in its most concrete aim -- the Palast der Republik is being demolished as this article goes to press, and the city still has no large exhibition hall for contemporary art -- but the message has been heard.

Reflection and Memory at the Hamburger Bahnhof
The growing fascination with these unique qualities of Berlin exists not just among viewers, but among artists as well. The city itself is often the subject of the art produced here, such as in Christine Hill’s current installation at Galerie Eigen + Art. Hill created her own company, known as the "Volksboutique," using her experiences as an entrepreneur to feed her artistic output, and then began an archive of different shops in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin. Her work emphasizes the personal histories -- often long-lived, painful and complex -- behind even the smallest neighborhood establishments, and peers behind Berlin’s façade to make its personal side more clear.

The Palast der Republik, too, has become a topic for many artists working in Berlin, enough so that the Hamburger Bahnhof mounted an exhibition this summer about the building and the art it has inspired. Tacita Dean, whose work was also shown at White Cube, made videos of the renowned bronze windows of the building, recording the light reflecting off its surface. Thomas Florschuetz’s large-scale photographs freeze the phases of the Palast’s destruction, a project that is so current and fresh that it could almost be construed as journalism.

The exhibition also featured Sophie Calle’s The Detachment, which was originally shown here by Galerie Arndt & Partner in 1996. After photographing the spaces in which symbols of the GDR once stood, Calle asked passers by to describe what had been removed. She then produced a collective text of the contradictory responses from Berliners in an effort both to record the memory of what had been there and also to replace the emptiness with these recollections. One such symbol -- a bronze wreath of barley with a hammer and sickle in the center -- once hung on the outside of the Palast der Republik.

Calle’s work appropriately draws attention to the process of filling holes left by the steady march of history, the processes of confronting absence and the importance of remembrance. And as her work makes clear, these holes are not always filled with new buildings or monuments, but with reflection and memory.

Many of the Berliners that participated in Calle’s project commented on how strange it felt to have central symbols and monuments removed after 27 years. In particular, many expressed the feeling that these items had been stolen from them by a foreign regime, without their consent.

Though Calle’s work was done at a time when the Palast remained intact at Berlin’s center, her methods and concept lead us to the questions: Why destroy this building, despite the outcry of Berlin’s citizens? And what will Berliners say about the Palast der Republik once it is only a memory?

The show at the Hamburger Bahnhof that includes the work of Calle, Dean and Florschuetz is partially an elegy to those parts of Berlin’s history that are currently being erased. Another hole will be created in the city’s landscape. Hope for a transformed Kunsthalle has been lost, at least temporarily. And the possibility of integrating an ambiguous symbol of the city’s past into its historical landscape will be gone forever.

That these works are on display at the Hamburger Bahnhof, an established museum for post-war art, allows a glimmer of optimism in the face of these losses. As with Berlin’s Biennale, the transformation of Berlin’s empty spaces by art and creativity has penetrated the walls of internationally acclaimed art spaces. The Palast der Republik may be a lost cause, but an artistic community that sought to make itself heard -- that has transformed Berlin’s gray corners into lively and fertile spaces -- is being recognized and celebrated for its role in Berlin’s renewal. And rightly so. 

ANNA ALTMAN is a freelance writer who lives in Berlin.