In the 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall the arts scene in the east has flourished, encouraged by low rents and cheap but chic living
Art and the kiss of life
In many cities, art-world parties are select gatherings where dressed-up guests talk in hushed tones and pontificate about the works on display. Not so in Berlin. At the recent launch of an exhibition of work by the underground artist Parra at the hip Pool Gallery, the guest list was dispensed with completely. The number of people who turned up could not possibly cram into the gallery, so instead hundreds of people buzzed about outside and blocked the street. It was a wonderful, chaotic, exuberant free-for-all with an open-door policy. Welcome to Berlin's art scene 2009. Stuffy it isn't.
On November 9, 1989 - 20 years ago today - the wall dividing East from West Berlin came down, starting a slow rekindling of the flair and creativity that characterised the city between the wars. Today, the former East is bursting with creativity. "The Berlin art scene is young," says Lars Dittrich, the co-owner of the Pool. "I think that's the biggest difference between here and other cities such as New York or London. It is more 'for the art' because there isn't as much money. At the moment, Berlin is full of underground, DIY exhibitions, performances and shows."
Dittrich and the curator Sascha Ruby Anemic opened the gallery in 2006 to supporting young talent. Over the past few years it has shown work by the Brooklyn painter James Gortner, mixed-media montages by Natasza Niedziolka, a Pole, and drawings by Mercedes Helnwein, an Austrian. "The city itself is so full of this recent history that even foreigners who come, even if they can't speak German, feel that history and naturally channel its energy into their work," says Dittrich.
Frank Schröder, a dressed-down twenty-something, spends his time navigating Berlin's parties and openings in the name of his popular cultural blog and website, I Heart Berlin. He explains the appeal of Berlin to artists and art lovers alike: "In other cities, art is often something very fancy and glamorous. Here in Berlin it seems more 'crafty' and less posh. It is pretty rough around the edges, which makes it exciting. I'd describe it as colourful, versatile, raw, quirky - and poor."
There he echoes the mayor, Klaus Wowereit, who recently described Berlin as "poor but sexy" - a tag that has stuck. Many residents take pride in this, and revel in the cheap, chic life, but others would like to see the city move on. Lars Bjerre, an artist who often shows in his native Copenhagen as well as Berlin, where he lives, says: "Berlin likes to be underground. Even the establishment wants to be part of it. That gives the whole art scene in Berlin a bit of this 'poor and sexy' image, which for me starts to be boring. But Berlin has a lot to offer. It is way more laid-back than other large cities."
That laid-back quality is reflected in the fact that art in Berlin is not restricted to galleries. The city tolerates street art and graffiti. "Graff writers" such as Blu decorate entire sides of buildings, while the longest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall is called the East Side Gallery, featuring an expressive mix of murals by Berlin artists. "Berlin offers a piece of raw urban space that many artists find very inspiring. For street artists this is an interesting playground," says Norbert Kron, a writer who runs an innovative service called Art Escort. Visitors can book time with painters, street artists and Kron himself to get a guided tour of Berlin's art spots and the city's art history.
There are said to be between 400 and 600 galleries in Berlin, but in practice it would be impossible to count them. As well as the established galleries, there are transient "pop-up" exhibitions in shops, bars, flats and squats. The Cold War boundaries have blurred considerably, according to Schröder: "The infrastructure has developed so nicely that people are still fixated on the eastern districts and those ideals."
He adds, however: "One western district is developing quite quickly at the moment: Neukölln." This charmless area that some think of as deepest, darkest Berlin is attracting a smattering of galleries because it is one of the last places where rents have not yet been driven up by the influx of artistic idealists. Kron says: "The art scene of Berlin is younger and more 'off' than the scenes everywhere in the western world. That makes some of the art that you might find in off-galleries disturbing or even lousy. But on the other side you'll find a creativity that's still in a sort of innocent state. Berlin art is still finding out what its style might be. There is no other city in the world where artists from the hemispheres of the western and the former socialist world live and work so closely side by side."
As the population of artists in the city increases, the art scene continues to flourish and, as a result, is becoming more organised. New exhibitions and events are popping up every year, such as Art Forum Berlin, Gallery Weekend and Urban Affairs. This means collectors are starting to come, too. "They say that Berlin is a city for artists but not for the art market," says Dittrich. "This is changing, however slowly, as more commercial galleries open and exhibitions take place."
Kron agrees: "International collectors come to Berlin to buy art for low prices. What is still missing are collectors living in Berlin. There is no 'bourgeoisie' like in Munich, Paris, London and New York. I don't think there will be for another 30 years." While some artists might hanker after a cash injection, many would agree that this delayed gentrification is a good - and rare - thing.