Monday, October 17, 2011

Putting art before avarice in Berlin

Marx has made a strong impact on Berlin. Erich Marx, that is.

He was an entrepreneur, whose collection of art by Andy Warhol, Anselm Kiefer and Robert Rauschenberg is on display in the Hamburger Bahnhof, a train station transformed into a gallery. My favourite is a vast triptych by the recently deceased Cy Twombly. The words “I am Thyrsis of Etna, blessed with a tuneful voice” are scrawled onto its main panel above some bottle green paint that looks as if it has been rubbed crudely onto the canvas. Apart from some touches of pale red and blue, the remainder of the panel is blank.

I am captivated by modern art, for reasons I do not understand. Show me a Caravaggio or a Da Vinci and I can admire the mastery of technique, yet be otherwise unmoved. Show me a video of Jackson Pollock splashing paint around or even one of Damien Hirst’s medicine cabinets and I feel a funny sensation akin to love.

The sensation hits me again in Friedrichshain, a district of Berlin that used to be in East Germany. For a moment, I am saddened by how an elegant red-brick kindergarten has been defaced by gaudy spray-paint. Then, I look up and see a giant cartoon character stare at me from a multi-colour mural covering a block of flats. Used wrongly, graffiti and street art can amount to vandalism. Used correctly, they can bring cheer to drab neighbourhoods.

Joep van Liefland is a Dutchman living in Berlin since 1996. He runs Autocenter, a small gallery (he prefers the term “art space”) above a Friedrichshain supermarket. The exhibitions he organises do not receive any public funding; instead, they rely on donations and events such as a recent auction to mark the 10th anniversary of the centre’s opening. “There has always been a counterculture in Berlin,” he tells me. “In the 1970s and ‘80s, it was maybe much bigger than now.”

Constantly evolving

Berlin’s art scene appears to be constantly evolving. In 2008, Der Spiegel described the city as “something of an art mecca”, celebrating its abundance of unused property that can be turned into studios. Earlier this month, a piece in The New York Times noted that the scene has “downshifted”, with many small galleries closing and the Art Forum Berlin cancelled after 15 years of this fair.

Van Liefland says that because he wasn’t in New York in the 1980s, he wouldn’t draw a comparison between its appeal for artists and that of Berlin today. But he adds: “Lots of Americans come here, that’s for sure. And already prices are going up. It has been changing rapidly, especially in the last five years. If you compare Berlin to what it was 10 or 15 years ago, you’ll see that it is moving in the direction of a normal city.”

The friction between the creative and the commercially-minded is visible across Berlin. Near the aforementioned kindergarten, the property firm CDS Wohnbau is developing a series of townhouses. Elsewhere in Friedrichshain, police forced squatters from a building in February; nine were arrested during the eviction. The building had been occupied by squatters since the Berlin Wall was dismantled in 1990.

Tacheles, a former department store in Mitte (a central district), has been a refuge for squatters and artists for a similar length of time. It, too, is the subject of a battle between the city authorities and the artistic community. (Tacheles, incidentally, was used by the Nazis to detain French prisoners).

Heroic battle

I don’t wish to romanticise Berlin’s squatters and artists too much. Many would probably share my left-leaning political views. Others appear more willing to compromise. I was taken aback at how several of those whose works were on sale in Tacheles had notices requesting that no photographs be taken. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I would have thought this attachment to intellectual property – a corporate concept – is at odds with the free-thinking ethos that they seem to embrace.

Still, there is something marvellous about seeing artists demand that a site in what businesspeople would regard as a prime location be preserved as a cultural commune. It is all the more heroic that this struggle is being waged in the former East Berlin. This city has been blighted by totalitarianism in the not-too-distant past. It should not be crushed by another hugely destructive ideology, that of market fundamentalism.

Sadly, there are a number of fundamentalists holding powerful positions in Berlin. Germany’s federal coalition includes both the Free Democrats, which has an ultra-liberal approach to economics (they are opposed to tax increases on the rich) and Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, which takes a distinctly illiberal stance on social issues (they have denied full marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples). In 2010, the German parliament introduced cutbacks of 29 billion euros on social spending. Parents on welfare lost a monthly payment of 300 euros, which they had received for a year after the birth of a child, as a result. Merkel is demanding even more drastic austerity measures in embattled euro-zone countries like Greece and Ireland.

Berlin’s art scene might seem irrelevant to the supposedly hard-headed accounting exercises being undertaken in federal government departments. But the studios and small galleries serve as a reminder that a city with a history like Berlin’s should move to a rhythm dictated by something other than the lust for profit. That is why non-conformists should be cherished.

●First published by New Europe, 17 October 2011.

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