PRINT December 2008

Dominikus Müller

AT THE BEGINNING OF 2008, the Palast der Republik—the formerly gold-mirrored (and asbestos-contaminated) showcase building of the German Democratic Republic—was still a recognizable feature of the center of Berlin, albeit only as a raw skeleton. Its dismantling had already been under way for nearly two years, and the pace of the structure’s removal made it seem less a demolition than a kind of “unbuilding”—a continual, barely discernible process of subtraction: piece by piece, element by element. Watching this former symbol of the socialist dream of a better future slowly melting into the ground—and knowing that it is eventually to be replaced with a partial reconstruction of the Neoclassical palace previously on its site—one was tempted to recall Robert Smithson, in “Entropy and the New Monuments,” quoting Vladimir Nabokov: “The future is but the obsolete in reverse.” The removal was so slow that most Berliners became entirely accustomed to seeing this ruin at the heart of their city; nobody would really have minded—much less been surprised—if it had been left standing forever. But one morning in late summer or early fall, the building was suddenly no longer there. All that remained were eight massive concrete staircase towers sticking up into the gray Berlin sky.

This gradual and then sudden disappearance of the Palast der Republik from the cityscape is as good an emblem as any for the past twelve months in the Berlin art world. It was a year in which, by all appearances, not much happened, a year lacking major upheavals of any sort, without breathtaking highlights or clear historical landmarks. But wait—wasn’t there something? Looking back, one realizes that the city and its art scene feel different. New realities have tacitly asserted themselves without making much noise—almost imperceptibly, and more by a process of gradual development than in a dramatic shift. One was left with a sense that at some point the city crossed an invisible line. Berlin—a city suffused with material evidence of its complex past, and haunted by the ghosts of a continuously deferred booming future—has never quite been in sync with time, but this year it seemed to have edged closer to its correct historical moment. Strangely, it seemed finally to be becoming itself.

On top of the older layers of history in Berlin, a city-specific and almost paradoxical nostalgia for its own recent past—specifically, for its identity during the 1990s as an unrestricted zone for all kinds of self-realization—has been evident at least since the turn of the millennium, when it became de rigueur to stress to newcomers that Berlin’s “golden age” had just passed. Now, it seems, that is taking its toll. The legendary elements of its bohemian scene remain, it is true: the run-down back courtyards, the cheap rents, the generously sized buildings that appear to have been made to hold countless artists’ studios, the makeshift project spaces, and the raucous nightlife that attracted hordes of so-called young creatives from all over the world to this drafty metropolis on the sands of the Central European plain. But all these conditions have been transfigured in their significance by themselves becoming subjects of nostalgia, even as the context around them has changed.

For many years, Berlin was like a hip, slightly down-at-the-heels neighborhood in a gentrification-happy international scene in which the art market became a driving force in urban planning on a global scale. There is still enough unused potential here for the time being—both in terms of the apartment and studio space available and the gaping emptiness of the city’s coffers—for Berlin to continue to attract artists with low rents and large spaces. Yet at the same time, the city’s art scene seems to have slowly been incorporated into the global gallery network, where it is now staking out its place. With more than four hundred galleries, it has a singularly central status in the contemporary German artistic landscape. In fact, even though Berlin does not itself have a strong collector base, more and more galleries are setting up shop. Along with many (mostly smaller) galleries that have recently started up, such as Sommer & Kohl or Lüttgenmeijer, a large number of galleries have established branches here, or in some cases even moved their headquarters. To name just a few: Monika Sprüth Philomene Magers, Daniel Buchholz, and Gisela Capitain, all from Cologne, the old West German center of the art trade; and New York’s Friedrich Petzel, whose new gallery is a joint operation with Capitain. The increased importance of Eastern European or Russian art collectors might have contributed to this influx, but the sense that Berlin is developing into a privileged hub between East and West (as has been repeatedly claimed, with an eye to its location in the center of Europe) can ultimately be felt very little. Indeed, Buchholz and Capitain have kept their spaces in Cologne, which allow them to maintain their valuable proximity to Brussels and Paris.

A more convincing reason for this shift is that galleries are following their artists to Berlin. International artists especially, one hears again and again, want to present their work in Berlin more than anywhere else in Germany. Berlin is thus in some ways less a real “home” than a much-frequented transit station: a loose global meeting point that continually reconfigures itself in the global network, a place artists pass through to meet one another and exchange ideas or where collectors and curators fly in for a weekend to visit studios and galleries. It was inevitable that the buzz of activity in the city would at some point be reflected both in an increase in the number of galleries and in their asserting themselves with larger spaces and a bigger role in the life of the city. Indeed, the ever-more-powerful and self-confident galleries dominate the scene today more than the still-countless off-projects and artist-run spaces. This process has been going on for some time, of course, but only in the course of this past year has it come to seem normal—both a new reality and a legitimate modus operandi for the city.

The presence of so many galleries has certainly caused a clustering effect in certain districts, but its most obvious consequence is an increasing desire for distinction and difference. This is most evident in how territory has also been staked out in West Berlin, a part of town formerly disdained in the Berlin art world. Some of the new galleries here—which are mostly around Kurfürstenstra.e, on or near which Giti Nourbakhsch, Tanya Leighton, Isabella Bortolozzi, and Cinzia Friedlaender, for example, are located—have not so much oriented themselves along the model of the factorysize white cube with postindustrial charm (as can readily be found on the outskirts of the Mitte district) but rather posited themselves as part of an almost bourgeois salon culture with a semiprivate atmosphere. The gallery owner who went furthest in adopting such a vision is clearly Daniel Buchholz, who, ignoring the art world’s usual calendar, opened his Berlin branch last summer in Charlottenburg’s Fasanenstraße, one of West Berlin’s nearly forgotten pre-1989 centers of the art trade. Buchholz’s first exhibition was an almost museum-scale show featuring the work of book illustrator Marcus Behmer, who died in Berlin in 1958. This was not, then, on first glance what you could call a “hip” show, but it amazingly became exactly that, thanks to the very sense of old-fashioned refinement and historicity Buchholz’s Beletage space evokes. His gallery functions as an emblem of classy connoisseurship that smartly reaches back to a (West Berlin) tradition as if to update it, in a way not possible in the former East. On that side of the city too, however, the repertoire of history plays a role, as one can see by the example of Capitain and Petzel, who deployed a similar strategy by occupying an “ostmodern” glass pavilion built by the GDR in 1964 for the display of art and craft.

It would be an exaggeration to claim that the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie (as illustrated by Buchholz’s space) has entirely replaced the “underground” principle, which in Berlin was fed in part by the relative absence of bourgeois culture—but it’s definitely now an option. Nor can one claim that Berlin is frantically embracing new realities that require a higher degree of establishment or even direct participation in a large-scale, globally operating art market—but people seem to have at least made their peace with the market and accepted it without too much fuss. The DIY underground was for a long time the only authentic way to develop an identity in a city without much existing infrastructure and with limited financial resources. But by now this too is just one stylistic choice among many. Even galleries that do a steady business sometimes tend to wear anticommercialism and an underground ethos on their sleeve as unique selling points, in accordance with established Berlin traditions.

The Berlin Biennial, which took place for the fifth time this year, illustrated this new sense of a variety of possible approaches. Unlike the 2006 version—which focused on Auguststraße, that epicenter of the ’90s art scene—it took place in four distinct venues scattered throughout the entire city center, with the main exhibition space at the Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art supplemented by a stretch of wasteland between the districts of Mitte and Kreuzberg, where the Berlin Wall used to run; the GDR-era Schinkel Pavilion, not far from the Palast der Republik; and West Berlin’s icon of classical modernism, Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie. It thus manifested a wish to include both halves of the city, and to shift the seemingly never-ending years of transition into a larger historical context. At the same time, in a parallel movement, it focused more on younger, less familiar artists, who themselves selected a few older figures for inclusion—Jeanette Laverrière, Ettore Sottsass, and the Norwegian graphic artist Pushwagner among them—whose works served as reference points in the historicizing architecture of the Schinkel Pavilion.

A significant amount of attention (above all in the media) was also attracted over the summer by Galerie im Regierungsviertel’s “Forgotten Bar Project,” a minuscule bar and exhibition space on Schönleinstrasse in Kreuzberg, which offered a new show on almost every evening during July and August and functioned as a sort of unofficial extension of the biennial’s own ambitious evening program. But the “do-it-yourself” ethos of the “Forgotten Bar Project” could perhaps more accurately be described as “do-it-again.” The project re-created the improvisational spirit of the mythic ’90s, though with the one important difference that the real-life context has changed so much since then. For one thing, as everyone knows, artists such as Christian Jankowski, Thomas Scheibitz, Andreas Slominski, and Katja Strunz—all of whom were among those showing work here—are now in another league. Above all, however, and more than any other of this year’s events, this festival of navel-gazing (both conceptual and personal) on the part of the city’s art scene made clear the changes Berlin has recently undergone. Although the “Forgotten” in its title might be interpreted as a call to return to roots that have been buried beneath all the global wheeling and dealing, it is more plausible to consider the endeavor as an exercise in sentimental reminiscence, recalling an age now freighted with nostalgia that has skillfully—while managing to hold onto a good measure of street credibility—been inserted into the media-driven expanses of the global art market.

Back to the Palast der Republik. Directly in front of the ruins that rise like monoliths into the sky (and are scheduled to disappear altogether by early next year) stands Berlin’s new Temporary Kunsthalle. Here we come full circle. This makeshift building, which was speedily erected as the dismantling of the Palast der Republik was nearing its end, will itself vanish two years from now—when work on a new, permanent kunsthalle next to Berlin’s main train station is scheduled to begin. The Temporary Kunsthalle brings into focus two possible dimensions of Berlin’s situation. On the one hand, the simple functional architecture of this container—short-lived as it will be—can be seen as summing up the spirit of the transitional ’90s one more time. On the other, as a classic white cube that doesn’t really fit the city, it might herald a coming age of establishment and satiety. The latter scenario, of course, brings with it the implication that it was only the city’s incomplete future—its “ruins in reverse,” in Smithson’s paradoxical formulation—that allowed for potential, for the unknown, for the wide range of movements and practices that Berlin has given rise to and accommodated over the past fifteen years. Yet when the Temporary Kunsthalle itself is dismantled, 2008 may be seen as the year in which Berlin finally realized that it had no choice but to explore cultural models beyond the shrinking realm of the incomplete, the improvised, and the provisional, where it has for more than a decade made itself so comfortably at home.

Dominikus Müller is a Berlin-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.