If there was one word to describe Berlin, it would be ‘angst’. The tumultuous history of the city still feels very present in a physical way, with bullet holes in some buildings and bits of the wall still visible. This also translates into the general societal current, and is expressed in the art of the city. The creativity that is borne of this angst is quite remarkable.
It is for this reason that I decided, somewhat last minute, to focus my gallery trips on the contemporary art of residents of Berlin instead of on the classical, more general ‘European’ galleries that most tourists focus on. I was so impressed with the insight into the city this approach lended me.
One of the highlights of my gallery visits was the Berlinischer Galerie in Kreuzberg. It is a medium-sized museum with temporary exhibitions on the main floor and the permanent collection on the second floor. Immediately upon entering the collection, you are in the middle of a temporary exhibit called ‘The Art Show’. I thought the room was full of people, but upon closer inspection these people were actually life-sized puppets, fully clothed, with car heating vents for mouths, each one representing a friend of the artists. You could press a button on a box mounted on the puppet’s chest and they spoke ‘complex texts about art’ in various languages. The artwork on the walls of the gallery was supposedly by an ‘invented’ artist. It’s like ‘meta-art’ – art about art, which I found super interesting.
There were two large-format paintings by the same artist, displayed side by side. This was art about the artist. One of the paintings was color on black, and the artist is portrayed as a strong, miserable slave with hands shackled to the ground. The second painting is dark on white, and it is a different perspective on the artist; he is still shackled, but this time illuminated by the white background. His hands are stuck in the ground, but this time the viewer can see that his fingers are actually a complex series of roots that extend far into the ground.
In the Hamburger Bahnhof: two words. Valeska Gert. Indescribable.
When I entered the Hamburger Bahnhof, it smelled strangely like animal – but I assumed it was simply the grungy nature of Berlin, albeit strange for this particular smell to be in a properly clean gallery. I saw a few of the exhibits, re-entered the lobby, and decided I absolutely had investigate the smell. What I found was the massive main section of the old train station filled with wood chips and 20 live reindeer. There was a raised platform with a bed in the middle, bedding and all, and surrounding all of this were fridges with mushrooms, snowballs, and (what else?) reindeer urine. There were also large aviaries filled with canaries, flies in cages, and white and black mice. The point of the exhibit is actually to experiment with a recreation of an ancient sacred beverage, soma. You can actually spend the night and participate in the experiment, at exhorbitant prices I am sure.
On my last day in Berlin, I walked along the East Side Gallery, a 1.3km-long section of the wall near the center of Berlin. Approximately 106 paintings by artists from all over the world cover this memorial for freedom and make it the largest open air gallery in the world. I found it moving to walk along the wall and allow the spirit of the art and the real presence of the wall transport me back to a little bit of what it must have felt like to be at the pulse of the history that gives this city its depth of culture.