PRINT April 1997


the Shift to Mitte

SINCE LAST NOVEMBER, an American tour operator has been offering special “Berlin Trips” for tourists from the States. For GIs formerly stationed in Berlin there are “Nostalgia Journeys” along the old barracks in Grunewald, past the Brandenburg Gate, across the elegant Unter den Linden Boulevard, and on to Alexanderplatz. Presenting themselves as journeys of reconciliation for vets at the close of the cold war, these tours at once evoke the time before the building of the Wall and document the era of transformation. Some seventy former soldiers signed up for the first tour. Clearly, the “Nostalgia Journeys” offer the ideal addition to the sightseeing menu, which puts Berlin on the map as a postwar theme park.

Seven years after reunification, Mitte—the former city district of East Berlin, with its socialist-style GDR ministries and the wrecked, five-flat buildings next to the late-19th-century train station on Friedrichstrasse—still profits the most from this strange notion of historical reconciliation, embodying the essence of the future within the vicissitudes of history. Nowhere else does city planning take on such symbolic weight: Philip Johnson is building at the site formerly occupied by Checkpoint Charlie; Jean Nouvel’s glass Galeries Lafayette rises only two blocks away, and next to the Brandenburg Gate on Pariser Platz, the “Adlon”—former grand hotel of Kaiser Wilhelm II—is being reconstructed. The symbolic burden takes on a more macabre undertone when one realizes that, with the gigantic reorganization of Mitte, Berlin will finally accord with Albert Speer’s plan under the Third Reich, which projected the center of the new Germania along the same axis and the same streets.

The gallery scene has taken to positioning itself historically as well: Auguststrasse, with its forking roads and dead-end side streets, is located just above Friedrichstrasse at the heart of what were once Berlin’s ghettos. Until 1933, the neighborhood was populated primarily by Jewish families, mom-and-pop retailers, and emigrants from the East. Since 1991, with the Community Housing Organization Mitte clearing former rights of ownership, the district has developed into something resembling a small-scale SoHo. Its growth is evidenced by the Mitte gallery guide, whose size, including the insert, rivals that put out by the long-established galleries of the Charlottenburg area in the former western sector.

The drive to develop Mitte has been led largely by Kunst-Werke, an organization founded in late 1990 in an old margarine factory on Auguststrasse and represented by the young and extremely adroit curator Klaus Biesenbach. Biesenbach has called Kunst-Werke an “Institute for Art and Theory” and takes his institutional model from London’s ICA and New York’s Dia Center for the Arts (even down to the Dan Graham pavilion commissioned for the courtyard). After a year and a half of putting on shows featuring various East German artists like Rainer Goerss, Biesenbach, together with a team of curators, initiated the site-specific “37 Rooms” exhibition in empty apartments all over Auguststrasse. They invited a number of international artists, from John Cage to John Miller and Aura Rosenberg, to participate in the exhibition, which paralleled documenta 9. Later, he invited Joseph Kosuth for a project dealing with Walter Benjamin’s ideas on media, and in 1993, in an installation cosponsored by Tramway, Douglas Gordon debuted his twenty-four-hour projection of Psycho. In the same year, guest curator Kim Levin exhibited the work of artists ranging from Mike Kelley to Felix Gonzalez-Torres in a show entitled “Prints & Issues.” The house also founded an artist-in-residence program, awarded this year to photographer Thomas Demand (whose work was recently included in the “New Photographers” show at MoMA).

The building on Auguststrasse is now closed for renovation (when Kunst—Werke officially reopens this autumn, it will be with a retrospective of Gonzalez-Torres’ work), but Biesenbach has another project in the works for this summer. Again roughly coinciding with documenta, the Berlin Bienniale—curated by Biesenbach along with peripatetic Swiss curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist and the Guggenheim’s Nancy Spector—will take place in sites throughout the area (at press time, the curators have not released the names of any artists involved). Biesenbach’s activities, however, have also met with suspicion and outright hostility in some quarters: radical and activist critics in particular have accused him of joining common cause with developers and investors (even though his financial support comes from the city) and accelerating the gentrification of the original residential district. When Kunst-Werke showed Gerhard Merz’s maquettes for the Luftgarten project (as well as the artist’s wall sculptures) and hosted a lecture by architect Hans Kollhoff concerning plans for urban development last year, tensions came to a head. Art students demonstrated at the opening. Many had no patience for the use of a space—once home to activist groups such as Minimal Club and sponsor of radical symposia on topics like ACT-UP and the war in Bosnia—as a display case for Merz’s work, which seemed to a number of commentators to offer little more than a celebration of corporate culture.

Newly founded galleries in the East quickly took up residence alongside Kunst-Werke. When Leipziger Judy Lybke opened a Berlin branch of his legendary Eigen + Art in 1992, the young Friedrich Loock had already been on the scene for four years with his Wohnmaschine. Both galleries present a mixture of work from the East and West: Lybke has recently put on shows with the American Christine Hill and Carsten Nicolai of Chemnitz (both of whom will be represented in this summer’s documenta); Loock’s program extends from the work of Lorna Simpson to that of the fifty-eight-year-old Boris Michajlov, whose sharp observations of daily life and kitsch culture in Russia have made him into a celebrated artist in photography circles in the former Soviet Union.

The shift toward what’s been dubbed the new mile of art has not been without consequences for the rest of the city’s art scene: since reunification numerous West Berlin galleries and even a few institutions have headed east. Max Hetzler’s gallery, already transplanted from Cologne to Berlin, is now located a stone’s throw from Checkpoint Charlie; the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein has moved from an old apartment on Kurfürstenstrasse into light, spacious rooms on Chausseestrasse, near the Friedrichstrasse U-bahn station. NBK is scheduling retrospectives (most recently of the work of Jörg Immendorf), media works, and shows dealing with the theme of urbanism, such as the newly opened survey of recent work by Düsseldorf-based artist Ludger Gerdes. The Bodo Niemann gallery will take up residence in the Hackesche Höfe—a well-preserved Jugendstil market complex near Alexanderplatz—with a series of photography exhibitions ranging from a retrospective of work by Herbert List to a contemporary show including artists like Jock Sturges. And even an up-and-coming gallery like Bruno Brunnet and Nicole Hackert’s Contemporary Fine Arts lasted only three years in the west before taking its Damien Hirst sculptures and Sean Landers pictures east. Astonishingly, the work exhibited so far is a pretty comfortable fit with the new location: the water pipes in Sarah Lucas’ November installation of a working toilet were hardly distinguishable from the shells of the unfinished houses all around.

On the round of openings held monthly through Mitte, it seems the hordes of tourists in search of art can’t help stepping on each others’ feet in an expanse of galleries. Art is also having a lively effect on the neighborhood: one highlight of November’s openings was Mehdi Chouakri’s exhibition of Sylvie Fleury’s rocket ships covered in brown plush carpet. In the future, Chouakri, who recently relocated from Paris to open his Mitte space, will continue to show artists whose work takes its cue from fashion, sociology, and everyday life: in March he exhibited Danish artist Jens Haaning, who disrupted last year’s cultural festival in Copenhagen by putting up billboards combining soft-porn pinup photos with jokes written in Arabic.

Just around the corner from Chouakri is Arndt & Partner, one of the most promising new galleries (a recent group exhibition, “The Aggression of Beauty,” for example, imaginatively brought together Paul-Armand Gette, Fabrice Hybert, Tracey Emin, and Paul McCarthy). Matthias Arndt is one of the most outspoken champions of a professional standard that is sometimes lacking in Mitte. Arndt’s skepticism of the quality throughout the area is warranted. For instance, Gallery Neu has shown the critical architectural work of Andreas Slominski and taps into the lively work of recent Kunsthochschule grads by showing the work of Monica Bonvincini, but the gallery’s mishmash of political discourse, technoinfused animation videos, and low-fi painting seems at times to lack definition. Meanwhile, at Gebauer und Thumm, the gap between hot artists like Gary Hume and Luc Tuymans and the quiet works of, for example, Australian installation artist Simone Mangos and the duo e.(Twin) Gabriel is conspicuous. Nevertheless, Gebauer und Thumm achieved a sort of balance with its November show of Michel Francois’ provocative installations, featuring a bed of clay surrounded by a field of small bowls that had been broken off and formed from the edges of the material: in its at once spontaneous quality and futuristic orientation, Francois’ work could be seen as a metaphor for the current art scene in Berlin.

Despite the diving-for-dollars atmosphere that seems to prevail in the east, some younger gallerists carry on in the west. Suspicious of the hype surrounding Mitte, Tim Neuger and Burkhard Riemschneider have found success on a shady street in Charlottenburg with shows of Tobias Rehberger’s furniture objects, Rirkrit Tiravanija’s various communications-oriented installations, and LA artists from Sharon Lockhart to Jorge Pardo. Also content with the older gallery district are Rafael Vostell, who promotes young artists like Constantin Ciervo alongside his father of Fluxist fame, Wolf Vostell; and the Nikolaus Sonne gallery, where the work of the East Berlin photographer Thomas Florschütz hangs beside Warhol and Koons. Florschütz’s photos, like the work of the artists shown by Vostell and neugerriemschneider, somehow don’t jibe with the emphatic images associated with the Wild East. Florschütz’s recent work—analytic, serial shots of his toes and ankles, whose cool expression is all the more impressive for its physical fragmentation—is a welcome escape from all the images of empty pedestals and vacant government buildings, exuberant metaphors of life in the open city that come across as a bit tired seven years after the fall of the Wall.

Other established Charlottenburg galleries have begun to concentrate on art consulting, such as Silvia Menzel, who represents Michelangelo Pistoletto. Clemens Fahnemann, with a base of artists including Imi Knoebel, also opted until recently for consulting (he has now opened a space in another part of the city). And a gallery owner like Georg Nothelfer hasn’t had to worry much about sales ever since Christo, whom he represents, wrapped the Reichstag two years ago, generating endless editions of prints and sketches.

The most important signal concerning Berlin’s future, meanwhile, has come from even further west than Charlottenburg. The newly founded “European Art Forum” fair, held at the Funkturm in late October and early November, was supposed to demonstrate that Cologne is no longer the center of the German art market. “Art Cologne,” with its nearly 280 stalls, lacks a clear focus on quality compared to the more selective Berlin fair, according to Thomas Schulte of the Frank + Schulte gallery. The results, with a survey of 132 galleries, were surprisingly positive. Seventeen Cologne galleries, as well as international galleries like Anthony d’Offay, Jay Jopling, and Anthony Reynolds, were represented. Interestingly, most Mitte galleries kept their distance, staging instead an alternative fair that had the radical flair of the quarter but was unable to conceal its character as a hastily organized counteraction.

Ultimately, all galleries, regardless of which side of the former Wall they find themselves, can put their hopes in the international response unleashed by November’s opening of the Erich Marx collection at the Hamburger Bahnhof. Renovated at a cost of roughly 100 million marks, the former train station houses one of the largest collections of contemporary art in Europe. On three floors are grouped works by Cy Twombly, “signature” pieces by Warhol—ranging from the portrait of Mao to the “Electric Chair”—and Anselm Kiefer’s lead library, Volkszählung (Census). A dozen of Beuys’ large-format works, including the meter-high tallow blocks of the Unschlitt/Tallow installation, are gathered in a side wing. A blue and green Dan Flavin lights up the building from the outside like a spaceship during the night. Together with the Berggruen collection of Klee, Picasso, and the Cubists, Berlin has closed a gap. The Marx collection brings the art of this century available for public viewing up to the ’80s. (Also, in May, Christos Joachimedes, following up on his successful, well-attended exhibitions “American Art in the 20th Century” from 1993 and “Africa—The Art of a Continent” from 1996, will present another retrospective at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, “Die Epoche der Moderne–Kunst im 20. Jahrhundert” [The age of modernism: art in the 20th century]—featuring the work of over a hundred artists ranging from Picasso to Cindy Sherman. The Berlin Lottery has donated over 14 million marks to the endeavor.)

Still, the Hamburger Bahnhof also reveals the city’s structural deficits. The obsession with rectifying the art-historical failings of the last twenty years has come at the expense of showing present-day contemporary art in an institutional setting. While the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg was staging a well-researched, small-scale Ilya Kabakov retrospective, the subterranean spaces of the National Gallery were stuffed full of Baselitz paintings, as if the Neue Wilde elder statesman represented the cutting edge of international art. The contextual works of the last decade, prominent, for example, in the Onnasch collection, are as much lacking in the museums as is any engagement with modern media. And although Sony, as the main investor in the Potsdamer Platz development, has poured money into Berlin, the company pulled out of a plan that would have brought a permanent site for video displays to Schlossplatz.

Debates surrounding the plan for a Holocaust memorial for the murdered Jews—to be erected not far from the Brandenburg Gate—have run in a similar vein: encouraging, but ultimately halfhearted. Uncertainty now looms over the future of the memorial. Following the March 1995 decision to award the design to Christine Jackob Marks for her proposed 10,000-square-meter tombstone-shaped slab bearing the names of all the Jewish victims, Federal Chancellor Helmut Kohl nixed the monument as too bombastic. That the giant plate was yet another symbol lacking any relation to the debate on remembering the presence of everyday Jewish culture before the Third Reich did not enter the discussion; a proposal presented by Renate Stih and Frieder Schnock, aimed at information and communication instead of the memorialization of genocide, was rejected on different grounds. Rather than a traditional monument, Stih and Schnock’s proposed “bus stop” from which one could travel to existing memorials (such as the KZ Sachsenhausen camp northeast of Berlin or the house where the Wannsee conference sealed the fate of the Jews) was dismissed outright. What would be the effect on the new growth industry of cultural tourism, the image managers of Berlin must have figured, if the Holocaust itself were to become a destination for sightseers?

Harald Fricke writes for the Berlin newspaper tageszeitung and is a frequent contributor to Artforum.

Translated from the German by David Jacobson.