PRINT December 2005

Matt Saunders

MY YEAR CAME INTO FOCUS in someone else’s flashback. At a summer party in a socialist-era tower on Karl-Marx-Allee, the British artist Mark Wallinger reminisced about one of his performances at Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie the previous October: It’s sometime after midnight, and he’s shuffling about inside Mies van der Rohe’s iconic structure in a mangy bear suit, his sight framed by a snarling mouth (which is the only family resemblance between this creature and its intended cousin, Berlin’s mascot, ursus rampant). The suit is sweltering, and Wallinger pauses his performance for clandestine time-outs in his boxers to escape his private sweathouse. Tonight he can see no audience as he stands looking over an empty plaza at the stagy skyscrapers (lit up but largely unleased) of the new Potsdamer Platz, where, presumably, people crowd the few tourist restaurants and twin megaplexes. Suddenly, Wallinger later recalled, none of it made sense. All the steps leading to the moment were clear, but he couldn’t imagine what he was doing there at the very center of the city, somehow so strange and unmoored.

From the balcony at the party where Wallinger told his story, the city looked unspeakably appealing, glittery and distant. I mulled over his experience: just another Brit in a bear suit. Funny because during the performance he had seemed a sad and mysterious figure, no longer a national alien but an otherworldly one on whom we could project our fantasies and expectations. Yet Wallinger’s private experience of his piece strangely evoked my own—and, I’m sure, many artists’—experience of Berlin, a city of disappointments and random surprises. A site for public discourse with room for eccentricities and solitary epiphanies. A place of boredom and disjunction. And, by the way, Wallinger’s poignant Sleeper rightly marked—albeit a few months early—the start of a sleeper year.

Berlin has apparently clung to its status among the world’s art capitals. At least people keep arriving. Many are drawn—as I was a few years ago—by hopes of a messed-up city, a supposed site of possibility. (And, of course, you’ve all heard about the rents, the Zeno’s Paradox of Berlin being that no matter how high they rise, they never quite reach expensive.) Moving here we expected to join a party in progress, a city with a local scene rocketing forward. What we found was a slump, a pleasant place where afternoons of coffee or beer could stretch and devour studio time, if not our bearings. Instead of a city in the process of becoming, Berlin just is, forever spinning in a sloppy cycle of retooling and renewal. Countless articles will tell you that the city is in flux, so the artists love it, and I can’t dispute the boilerplate (it’s true that any egoist can make rent here), but that’s not enough. The hard part has been making a way.

Even back in the golden ’90s, Berlin was foremost a magnetic ruin—always more import/export than homebrew—and by now, internationalism is part of the city’s self-image as a crossroads for the art world. What would it mean to be a Berlin artist? It’s hard not to be struck by the fact that this year three of the four nominees for the Nationalgalerie Prize for Young Art (Berlin’s attempt to copy the Turner) were non- German, one in residence for barely over a year. “Local” is whoever happens to be in town: artists who have come on grants like the DAAD and settled, out-of-towners doing shows or just plain showing up. Even the many German artists who call Berlin home are often identified by other pedigrees: Leipzig, Dresden, or Hamburg. Berlin is a base, rarely an origin, which can make the city feel ungrounded, at times painfully intractable. As the years turn over, whole circles of friends come and go. (Sure, everyone passes through eventually, but only for a day, a week, a little residency or two.) It’s glamorous occasionally—if you romanticize coal heat, gray skies, and smoky parties you could have skipped—but often it’s just boring. Leave Berlin, however, and you’ll hear of the scene and a dozen artists who live here (and you had no idea!), and that, of course, is the slip that keeps Berlin in play. A friend who recently moved back to Los Angeles now reports a renewed buzz of hype in his ear. Berlin glows again with unfulfilled expectation, and it depresses him to think he has already used up his allotted time there. In ways, Berlin exists best as an option, a potential energy. It’s the Schrödinger’s cat of hype, always both dead and alive, as long as no one looks inside the box.

In this regard, 2005 has been exemplary. For a while, Schröder himself was the political living dead, and it’s been a year of transition and uncertainty all over Germany. Here in the “Culture Capital,” we saw the Beuysian equation of Kultur=Kapital tested as the city wearily pondered its lack of real capital. Weekly protests against Hartz-IV (the government’s program for cutbacks in social welfare) passed close to the Palast der Republik, the former East German parliament, which is slated for demolition to make way for a reconstruction of the old royal palace. The building has become a rallying symbol for the idea that Berlin needs to resist total renovation, to preserve its layers of historical ruin. A regular procession of last-ditch exhibitions and events there seemed to delay, but never banish, the fleet of cranes. In August, artists and architects built a synthetic mountain of scaffolding and tarps, which filled the gutted assembly hall and burst out the roof. Far from a radical squat, the effort, tellingly, was a bureaucratic maze of logos, collectives, and design firms; and while the kids have their clubhouse, the Prussian heritage people have the money. Yet, throughout the year, a few projects there did manage to eloquently formulate this nineteenth- vs. twentieth-century preservationist dilemma. Lars Ramberg’s huge sign of the German word for “doubt” made a fitting graphic crown for the shabby former statehouse, while a film by Tacita Dean, shown at the Venice Biennale, transformed the reflections in the building’s copper-tinted windows into a sober reverie on time’s passing. By this time next year, the Palast may finally be gone.

This kind of limbo seemed to seep into life, and the year lurched along in a parade of fanfare quickly forgotten. January saw the high, late decadence of bars posing as private clubs: hangouts like White Trash (in an ex-Chinese restaurant) and the art-world-run Münzsalon (in a former urologist’s office). A wave of police raids in the early summer busted the latter and pushed the former to close down. By September, they had simply reformed and reopened. No big deal. If we’re not careful, the fashion for recreation and renovation may become a house style. Late in 2004, Martin Klosterfelde returned to his former address in Mitte to establish a project space. Within eight months, the artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset had already ripped the new gallery out and carefully installed a gated passageway to the courtyard. It looked just like any other recently renovated building in the neighborhood and weirdly echoed Pawel Althamer’s much-admired 2003 demolition job on Neugerreimschneider, which returned the gallery to its derelict, pre–New Mitte state. Suddenly, renovated is the new trashed.

So what actually happened in 2005? Every evening ended in a night. Shows opened loud, then fizzled. The Flick collection, which generated such rage last year for its unholy mix of state museum, contemporary art, and Nazi gold, quietly shut the doors on its first hang and moved on to other shows—surveys of Urs Fischer and of Minimalism—drawn from the collection. At Kunst-Werke, “Regarding Terror,” long stalled by controversy over its treatment of the RAF terrorists, opened with a big scene and little follow-up. The show managed to be neither focused nor comprehensive, neither jagged nor stately, and the ark of overly illustrational works simply sailed on. At the Neue Nationalgalerie in April, there were lines out the door for Vanessa Beecroft’s performance starring “real” women, yet no sooner was the documentation in the can than VB55 was quickly filed away. Douglas Gordon eulogized his own tastes—from Warhol Polaroids to self-lubricating Matthew Barney frames—in his curated project “The VANITY of Allegory” at the Deutsche Guggenheim, but for most denizens of this sleepy metropolis there was merely the rumor that the attendant film program was worthwhile.

By my tally, the year saw good things ship out and good things ship in. Thomas Scheibitz went to Venice, and Thomas Demand to MoMA. The overheated international market for German paintings seemed, thankfully, beside the point at home (perhaps because there aren’t enough collectors here to sustain the heavy breathing). At Galerie Neu, Manfred Pernice assembled documents, observations, and leftovers from a razed apartment complex and showed how an artist can be specific to a place by keeping the fragments of vanishing structures in precise but open-ended circulation. Among the foreign imports, much felt rehashed or B-list, but in some cases the lower pressure made for riskier moves. Tal R overloaded Contemporary Fine Arts, revealing amid the clutter some of his best cards (clusters of colored lights and dumb abstractions). Arturo Herrera (a newly minted Berliner) eschewed tamer presentations in favor of the all-or-nothing gambit of simultaneously showing major wall drawings at the daadgalerie, Max Hetzler, and on the side of a building overlooking remains of the Wall. Foreign dealers came, too. LA mogul Javier Peres papered the town with ads for his giant new gallery in Treptow. He punched a showy hole through the roof for the first opening—Terence Koh—then let the crowds eat cake. On the other extreme, in a tiny space nestled among old Eastern Bloc apartment towers, Italian Isabella Bortolozzi has developed a subtle and thoughtful, if sometimes oblique, program. With room for such range, how do we find traction?

Let me say it here: I love Berlin. Our very inability to muster a center, the sense that we can have action without means—these things that originally lured us here actually do thrive. Let Berlin be a book, so I can recommend it to you; but I’ll be embarrassed to watch you read it. It’s hard going at times, and the reasons to love it must be particular and your own. As you shuttle from one side of town to another, it often seems as if each venue has its own little circle and that Berlin is just a vast pool of overlapping ripples. Accidents add up only on the sly. More established artists can use the city as a base from which to travel to projects elsewhere. But what of the emerging artists, Berlin’s much-vaunted, much-imported youth? The pressures and competitions that come with urbanity are undoubtedly powerful levers for young artists, and a clear discourse provides a context in which a gesture or manifesto can carry meaning. So what’s there for us in this far-flung amalgam without hierarchical ladders? Does Berlin resist orthodox global capitalism? No. Is it a backwater? Not really. As it would anywhere, being a foreigner engenders a self-sufficiency, an ability to be alone and unknown, but here we have a world of foreigners, a decentralized cacophonous society. This is reason enough to be in Berlin, for here we rub elbows with questioning and self-awareness.

We have to value what’s casual and confounding. Commercial spaces like Giti Nourbakhsch’s feel necessary precisely because the shows sometimes seem like home experiments. Dutch Berliner Joep van Liefland’s show at Guido Baudach opened with the enormous gallery full of signs for the artist’s “Video Palace,” but van Liefland was nowhere to be seen. He was parked out back in a van, regaling the crowd with a fridge of beer and a video of a wild boar being slaughtered. (Another night to remember was the annual Oktoberfest at Autocenter, an exhibition space van Liefland and fellow artist Maik Schierloh run in the eastern district of Friedrichshain. Truly independent, they don’t clamber to seize the center but simply run amok with programming how and when they want it.) Meanwhile, artist Josef Strau’s Galerie Meerrettich, in a tiny glass house beside the Volksbühne, looks better than ever. Julian Göthe built a jagged screen for a video (made with Antje Stöffler-Hamad) that conflates nostalgia, theater, and design with mesmerizing slow pans over production stills and superimposed Spirographs, all assembled with economy and poise. In the early summer, a huge crowd gathered to watch Paulina Olowska and friends on the roof performing an alphabet of full-body poses (with roots in Czech modernism) before spinning out into a yoga of words.

Here in Berlin we can have our hype and leave it too. This year new avatars arrived in the form of Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni, and Ali Subotnick, the curators of the 2006 Berlin Biennale. They came and went and visited the studio of almost everyone I know, building expectations as if 2005 were meant only to be the year before the-year-of-the-biennial. Indeed, they kicked things off early—and in drag—at a new venue they’re calling Gagosian Gallery. Is it only coincidence that the trio’s inaugural show was titled “Berlin Beauties” and concerned what else but “the friendship that has tied together three extraordinary artists and fascinating characters”? Whatever the case, “Beauties” turned out a worthy document of correspondence between Dieter Roth, Dorothy Iannone, and Emmett Williams—the latter two both old-time Berlin transplants—and promises a radically self-reflexive biennial, or else a mixed and rich one.

The truth is, we’re not always sure what we’re doing here. But we like it, and, more importantly, it works. I’ve finally begun to feel how the city’s broke-down ethos and maddening multiplicity have enriched my practice. My American, East Coast background and education have found slippery footing in a slop of Swedes, Poles, Italians, pre- and post-Saatchi Brits, and pre- and post-Wende Germans. Above all, Berlin has decentered my criteria, shaken up a clear sense of what could be valued and how. It’s a place to fall a bit off track, a place to live without a consensus of ways but not without convictions. Ultimately, the city’s underlying strength is not at all its bohemianism, but rather a simple kind of malleability, an overlay of practices and social ideas that deflects didacticism and forces things to pile up. This is Berlin’s promise: an aimlessness that doesn’t close in. Few places can maintain this through so many cycles of buzz. It takes a certain unknowing. So, it may be that the city is actually best in the off years, those sleepy years like this one in which there are no hot new things, just grand nothings and the fortuitous coincidence of overlapping byways and continuous asides.

Matt Saunders is a Berlin-based artist.