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Berlin: Off the Wall

In unexpected corners of Berlin, artists are shaping a modern creative capital.

Berlin. A Saturday night. My friend Christa Joo Hyun D’Angelo and I are looking for an abandoned apartment complex in Neukölln.

Neukölln is rough, by Berlin’s remarkably safe standards. A working-class West Berlin neighborhood, it’s made up of run-down turn-of-the-20th-century apartment houses, 1970s social housing experiments, and the city’s highest concentration of immigrants. Recently, droves of artists started moving in. One of them is Ali Fitzgerald, an American I’d met a couple of days earlier at a café. When she invited me to the show here tonight, I was eager to check it out. “Some friends of mine are putting it on,” she said. “It’s in the building where they live, which is totally empty, except for their apartment. It’s a little creepy, actually.”

We finally find the building, which is enormous. The carved wooden door is unlocked. In the dark, we walk cautiously through an elegant, tiled hall. It smells like cats. Broken glass lies on the floor. We emerge into a ghostly courtyard, where a bike wheel hung with plastic bags might be a sign that we’re in the right place—or might not. “I think this is it,” says Christa, who, after studying fine art in Baltimore and Krakow, has spent the last couple of years in Berlin seeking out art shows like this one. I’m glad she came with me.

On the first floor, we discover the lone lit apartment, where the show’s curators live. One is an assistant professor at the Universität der Künste Berlin, the Berlin art university.

The exhibition is upstairs, on floor after floor of abandoned dwellings filled with cobwebs. Next to a broken window and a small stove, a mannequin’s head is impaled on a pipe. Someone’s former sitting room looks pitch black, with strobe lights creating a geometric 3-D light sculpture. A disco ball glitters in the attic, illuminating a dangerous, gaping hole in the floor. Now and then exhibit-goers holding beers pass on the stairway—a welcome sign of life. On the way back down, we find Fitzgerald’s paintings on a landing: two watercolor-and-gouache depictions of a wolf-girl escaping pursuers down a Berlin street.

The exhibition ends in the basement of the ramshackle bar across the street, where a damp, stuffy, and very mildewed cellar houses the remains of a bowling alley. Here I find the artist herself. Fitzgerald, who moved from Austin, Texas, two-and-a-half years ago, when she was 25, has short dark hair and wears green eye shadow and a shirt with a giant sequin butterfly. Toward the back of the bar, there’s a shelf stacked with tools, paint buckets, and a frying pan. It isn’t art. Fitzgerald pauses to contemplate the shelf. Then she says what I had just been thinking, what you can’t help thinking once you’ve wandered around long enough in the semi-darkness, inhaled enough stale air, mold, and dust. Once you’ve gotten into the right frame of mind. A “Berlin” frame of mind. “But, you know … It’s really beautiful. This totally could be art.”

Berlin Art

In Berlin, there’s the city you see. But just beyond the surface, around certain corners and behind particular doors, there’s another, more playful, occasionally more disturbing city, a place constantly in motion, ephemeral and easy to miss. Once in a while, it bubbles to the surface—like the Sunday afternoon last year when, in a highly coordinated (and highly illegal) action, bicyclists poured gallons of brightly colored water-soluble paint on the streets of a busy intersection. For a few hours, Rosenthaler Platz became a canvas, with car, bus, and bike “brushes” spreading color across the pavement. Then it rained, and the other city went back into hiding.

This second city is the city of contemporary working artists. If you keep an eye out and know what to look for, you’ll see it. You might need to buy a beer at the right time at Späti International, a Neukölln convenience store whose owner, Dogan Karaoglan, lets his neighbors use the storage room for performance art. A hole in the sidewalk might be just a hole in the sidewalk. Or it may have been dug in order to mail “clean” Berlin dirt to atolls poisoned by atomic testing in the Bikini Islands. And even a bland luxury hotel suite on Friedrichstrasse, one of the city’s main drags, has done double duty for a night, as the stage set for a video artist critiquing the global financial system with an allegory about Atlantis.

None of this was planned. After the Nazis decimated the city’s vibrant artistic and intellectual life, Berlin languished, a sleepy backwater of the visual arts scene, for the 45 years of German division. When the wall fell, there was no particular reason to think that artists would gravitate here.

In the two decades since the wall came down, Berlin has failed in just about every ambition city planners had for it. The once and again German capital has not become a media center, an advertising center, or a technology hub. It hasn’t attracted industry, a moneyed elite, or any kind of serious business culture. Preparing for a post-wall Berlin, officials thought the population would rebound to prewar numbers, with an infrastructure to match. Yet instead of more than 4 million people, just under 3.5 million live here. Some government ministries still do the bulk of their work in Bonn, while Berlin has plunged into debt.

But it is precisely Berlin’s failure that has fostered such a defined moment of sustained creativity. Particularly in the last decade, low rents and plentiful studio spaces have drawn thousands of visual artists from all over the world. Many are famous, most are unknown. Rich or poor, they can afford to devote themselves to their work. In Berlin, the artists in New York are called “Sunday artists,” because they have to work full-time jobs during the week just to pay the rent. In Berlin, because the cost of living is so low, artists are simply artists.

Unlike other capitals—say, Paris, “the City of Light,” or New York, “the city that never sleeps”—Berlin doesn’t really have an epithet. “Poor, but sexy,” the current mayor’s oft-quoted assessment of a few years back, probably comes closest. Artists don’t come here to test their mettle, or because they’ve always dreamt of strolling down Unter den Linden. They come because it’s cheap to live here and cheap to work here. As the creative community grows, artists are also increasingly drawn by each other. For the last 10 years, the avant-garde art scene in Berlin has moved from one neighborhood to the next. Some artists who were upstarts in the ’90s have achieved commercial success. Today, there are as many as 600 local galleries in Berlin, some high end, some not, as well as nightly exhibits in countless abandoned factories, former apparatchiks’ offices, back courtyards, and empty riverside lots. The city itself is a vessel, a petri dish nourishing artists from all over the world.

Berlin Art

With painters, sculptors, videographers, illustrators, and performance artists all living and working in Berlin, an alchemy takes place: The city shapes the artists, and they transform the city. No matter how high they climb up the ladder of success, wherever they come from, whatever they are doing, the artists living in Berlin hold up a lens to the city they call home. In a sense, it represents a bold, if inadvertent, experiment. What happens when you let this many artists make art all the time?

The Friday afternoon after the Neukölln show, I meet Ali Fitzgerald at her apartment. Fitzgerald moved to Berlin in 2008 after finishing her MFA and teaching at the University of Texas at Austin. Berlin is now indelibly part of her work. Trained as a painter, lately she has been drawing a graphic novel. The black-and-white frames offer a carefully observed portrait of her life here. She shows me a couple of pages: wonderfully rendered cartoon reportage of a topless lesbian party near Ostbahnhof; illegal forays into the wilderness of the decommissioned Tempelhof airport, where U.S. airplanes dropped food for West Berliners blockaded by the Soviets after World War II.

Maybe the comic could be set anywhere. But it wouldn’t look the same. Berlin’s apartments, streetlamps, and international mix give Fitzgerald’s account its particular flavor. I can’t help laughing as the narrative follows the real-life adventures of her ex-roommate, Lucia, a half-German, half-Italian musician. In the first scenes, Lucia accidentally sets the apartment on fire while she tries to decide if she loves her bandmate, “Matthias,” despite his shortcomings. (“He is so German!” “And his words have no poetry!”) Later, Lucia expresses her anger at Fitzgerald’s eponymous character—the comic’s straight man, an observer trying to make sense of the world around her—by stuffing lasagna noodles into the mail slot.

As Fitzgerald settles down on a ragged pink sofa in her living room, she echoes a sentiment I hear from several young artists. “Berlin isn’t a very good place to make money with art,” she says. Indeed, this is a dilemma: Artists can afford to live here, but the collectors who might buy their work do not live here. One result is that there’s not much money circulating. And because Berlin is so saturated with art, it can be hard for unknowns to get anyone to notice them at all, let alone make purchases from them. Younger artists are competing for attention with artists from all over the world.

“It’s hard to find your way around,” Fitzgerald says. “It’s hard to get attention. Berlin is a good place to come as an artist once your career has gotten going, when you have a gallery that’s selling your stuff someplace else.” If she had to do it all over again, she might have stayed in Texas, where she is represented by a gallery. Or moved to New York. But the lure of Berlin—its cheapness, its creative community—brought her here and keeps her here.

The artist Clemens Krauss has been in Berlin for 10 years. A 31-year-old from Graz, Austria, Krauss swims competitively, runs half marathons on a whim, trained to be a medical doctor, and employs assistants and a cleaning lady. He works in Pankow, the neighborhood where East Germany’s governing elite lived, out of a studio space that a collector lets him use in exchange for artworks. The important Berlinische Gallerie museum showed his paintings two years ago and even bought a large work.

I take in his show at the DNA Gallery on Auguststrasse, a narrow street that was the epicenter of Berlin’s burgeoning art scene right after the wall fell. The area was also part of the city’s Jewish quarter, before the Holocaust. The brass cobblestones that dot Europe’s sidewalks with the names, birth dates, and places where a building’s former inhabitants were murdered are particularly concentrated here. The DNA Gallery is just around the block from a Jewish school the Nazis turned into holding cells for residents pending deportation to death camps. Children in the neighborhood are said to see ghosts.

In the gallery’s white-walled basement, a video by Krauss plays. The camera does a 360-degree scan of the nearby loft where Krauss lives. A peaceful scene: his jacket thrown over a chair, a guitar, an Oriental rug, paintings. Suddenly, the naked bodies of seven obese women, piled one on top of the other, come into view. The camera pans their length, and they are gone. We hear birds chirping.

Berlin Art

“I was thinking about Abu Ghraib,” Krauss explains, as the video begins its loop again. I’m surprised, and say I couldn’t help but think of concentration camps. The bodies are strongly reminiscent of the documentary footage that plays regularly on German TV, except that the women are heavy, not starved, and Krauss’s video is in color, not black and white. I can’t help wondering if the neighborhood’s restless spirits didn’t whisper to him in his sleep, before he made this video.

I’m still thinking about this as we walk upstairs, and Krauss explains that he sometimes takes a psychoanalytic approach to his art. There, in the gallery, is a chair that used to belong to Krauss’s grandmother. He has recovered it in an exact silicon reproduction of his own skin, complete with moles, chest hairs, nipples, and anus. “Self-portrait as object,” he says, nodding at the chair with a grin.

If the city is a backdrop for artists like Krauss, for others, Berlin is a canvas. On a Monday night last summer at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, one of Berlin’s most famous exhibition halls, I sit in a packed audience watching a documentary about Olafur Eliasson. After 15 years in residence, the renowned artist is having his first solo show at a major institution in Berlin. In many ways, the popular exhibit is a love letter to the city where Eliasson created the water- and light-based works that would propel him into the MoMA, the Tate Modern, and the orbit of international art stars.

The show here, titled Innen Stadt Aussen, or Inner City Outer, focuses on Berlin and blurs the boundaries between the city and its artworks. A couple of months before it opened, Eliasson unofficially kicked things off by depositing, in undisclosed spots around the city, driftwood logs that had washed up in his parents’ native Iceland. People could walk around them or stop, sit, and think—perhaps about the ways in which Berlin is also an island. The project turned Berlin’s streets into a kind of open-air gallery, and collectors combed the city in trucks, hoping to find a log to take home.

But the piece that strikes me as most indicative of the special relationship between Berlin artists and their city is a video. Eliasson fitted a truck with a giant mirror, then filmed it driving through the city. At first, it’s hard to tell what’s happening. Slowly, it becomes clear. What you see onscreen is part reality, part reflection. As the giant mirror moves through the streets, it creates a through-the-looking-glass effect. What might be ugly or banal—winter skies, a housing complex, an empty bottle of champagne—is suddenly rendered poetic as a mirror image; the city’s invisible architectures somehow come to light in reflection.

Like many Berlin artists, Eliasson, 44, uses the city as one of his bases, traveling elsewhere to prepare for upcoming exhibitions and projects. In the documentary showing at the museum, we see Eliasson scouting locations along the Hudson River for his 2008 New York City Waterfalls project; climbing out over treacherous holes in Icelandic glaciers to take photos; dealing with technical issues in his studio in Berlin; then back in New York at the project’s opening ceremony with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, explaining at a press conference that the waterfalls are a symbol of inclusivity. When the movie ends, Eliasson takes the stage.

The museum’s director congratulates the artist on the “most successful exhibit since 2001.” A middle-aged woman asks where he gets ideas; a younger man asks where he gets the money. (Waterfalls alone cost $15.5 million to put up.) “I ask myself the same question,” Eliasson says, self-deprecatingly, to general laughter. “In the beginning I had to raise my own money. But now I am lucky enough to work with museums, galleries, donors, and foundations that help sort that out for me.”

A few days later, I go to a party at Eliasson’s studio. His space occupies a gorgeously renovated three-story building in an old brick brewery complex in the once alternative, now tony East Berlin neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg. Here, he employs 30 full-time assistants who work on his international projects. The third floor is home to the Institut für Raumexperimente (Institute for Spatial Experiments), where students from the Universität der Künste Berlin take classes and keep work spaces. Guest speakers from a star-studded roster of artists, architects, physicists, and professional BMX bikers drop in for lectures.

Standing out on the deck, I talk to the American artist Jae Rhim Lee, a research fellow at MIT who was at the spatial experiments institute on a grant. She tells me about her work: developing a special mushroom that will digest nonliving human tissue and therefore help us reimagine our relationship to death. She introduces me to Asako Iwama, a Japanese painter who moved here from Tokyo and now runs the studio’s kitchen. Iwama is planting the roof’s garden terrace using an ancient farming system based on the lunar cycle. Guests mingle on the deck in the evening sun, eating sausages made from a superfatty species of pig that has existed for ages but is now on the brink of dying out. Eliasson presides quietly, a low-key paterfamilias. He chats with Monica Bonvicini, a Berlin-based Italian-German artist who works with themes of architecture, power, and gender, and then he ducks out to talk to his young son on his cell phone.

Eliasson seems at ease here, in the rarefied heights of an art scene whose existence is a fait accompli. But it wasn’t always this way. When Eliasson relocated to Berlin in 1995, there was no way of knowing that the city would become a regular stop on the art circuit. Artists moving here today know they are coming to a capital. Back then, it was like moving to an outpost. Eliasson has said in interviews that the city is losing its radical edge, becoming steadily more like a regular European city. “Art in Berlin?” he says, when I introduce myself. His next words mark him as one of the pioneers, those who arrived at the destination before it was one. “You’re 12 years too late.”

I can see what he’s saying: Compared with the illegal clubs set up in the crumbling squats of East Berlin 15 years ago, the scene on the deck might seem a tick too civilized. Still, it’s not that simple. The fertility and affordability of the old Berlin is what drew Eliasson then, and it helped make his work possible. His success, in turn, burnishes the city’s reputation as an art center today. And creating a school within the studio had long been one of Eliasson’s dreams. Even as Berlin becomes more commercial, the institute is one way of ensuring that the city maintains its momentum and continues to be a place that feeds the creativity of the next generation of artists.

Every artist I speak to agrees that Berlin is changing. Thanks to massive influxes of state money for building and restoration, East Berlin’s bullet-pocked facades, coal heaters, and shared toilets on the landing are, for the most part, becoming a thing of the past. In neighborhoods like Prenzlauer Berg, squatters have moved out and well-heeled “bobos” (and a plague of Bugaboo strollers) have moved in. Every year there are fewer strange, neglected spots, and rents have been going up. “You can’t find a place for under 175 euros anymore,” says the Dutch artist Iepe Rubingh, the mastermind of the bicyclists’ Rosenthaler Platz “painting action” in April, who moved to Berlin 13 years ago.

Berlin Art

MTV Germany relocated its headquarters from Munich to Berlin seven years ago, and last year, Suhrkamp Verlag, one of Germany’s most respected publishing houses, moved to Berlin from Frankfurt. There’s a chance that the city is just a late bloomer, that some of the city planners’ hopes will come true, after all.

Until then, Berlin’s dark corners and accidental spaces belong to the artists. After my encounter with Eliasson, I visit one of these transitional places, an old school in Friedrichshain. The building is fenced off, and the wind shakes loose a broken window on the fourth floor. Shards of glass rain down just ahead of me.

Inside, the place has a dreamlike feel, like the setting of a children’s novel where the runaways go back to live in their old classroom. Photographs that have been altered—burned, scratched, jabbed with wet Q-tips—line the walls and are stacked on the floor. They have an eerie quality and are ethereally beautiful.

The studio belongs to Elmar Vestner, a German artist who has just struck out on his own after working as an assistant to the well-established Berlin duo Elmgreen and Dragset for three years. “Last year, I turned 34,” the former apprentice explains. “And I thought, if I don’t concentrate on my work, it will never happen.” After he won money in a photography competition, he committed himself to his own work. Vestner was soon taken on by Berlin’s September gallery, and he had his first solo show there last fall.

Sitting on the sofa he bought for 1 euro, he gazes off into the distance at the lovely wreckage of his cavernous, dirt-cheap studio. His landlord calls every couple of months to tell him that the building’s about to be sold, that he’ll have to move out in a month or two. In three years, it hasn’t happened yet.

“It’s really luxurious to work as an artist,” Vestner says slowly. “I spend so much time sitting here thinking about new ideas—how could I use that color and that color, how can I destroy that surface? It’s a privilege to spend a lot of time reflecting on your work.”

He says he’ll be sorry when he finally has to move to a more conventional studio, even though there’s no heating here and the temperature inside is freezing all winter. He says he likes not having to worry about ruining the floors, whose accidental colors sometimes look so striking that he takes photographs of the paint-splattered concrete. Vestner looks around at his temporary haven and voices a thought that, in one form or another, every artist I’ve talked to has expressed. “As long as I can afford to live like this,” he says, “it’s the best situation I can imagine.” A

Photographs by Oliver Mark. This story appeared in the March/April 2011 issue.