Archive for the ‘Berlin’ Tag

Berlin’s visitors (part 2)

I first visited Berlin a few years ago, and, like so many people, I was struck by how many people pass through the city, attracted by its aura of easy-going coolness. Some are tourists, some are artists,some are backpackers who appreciate the low cost of living, some are academics…Berlin is like a nodal point in the flows of people in and around Europe: most people, at some point, travel to Berlin and fall in love with something about the city.

Like so many, after i visited, I wanted to return, and did so this month. I was struck all over again by Berlin’s coolness and relaxed creativity, but I also thought that something had changed. There is now a more noticeable sense of tension in relation to the many visitors who flow in and out of Berlin. This manifests in various ways. Local residents told me that there is a lot of tension in gentrifying areas, where bars and backpacker hostels have opened up, with residents repeatedly calling the police to complain about noise. Individuals running the various walking tours around Berlin neighbourhoods report that locals often make angry or aggressive comments as they pass by (and this happened to the ‘street art walking tour’ that I went on, as we walked through Kreuzberg). Visitors, whether tourists or outside investors snapping up cheap property, are seen as key contributors to the gentrification process, which results in rents going up for locals and communities either fragmenting or being displaced. there is perhaps a little less warmth towards visitors in some areas than there might have been a few years ago, especially in those areas where gentrification is actively underway.

There’s lots more to say in relation to the complexities of what’s happening in Berlin, but it’s interesting here to look at the various visual traces of the tensions around ambivalence (or sometimes even antagonism) towards those who visit Berlin.

Here’s a tour group, being introduced to the enormous Victor Ash mural in Kreuzberg. The guide was earnestly explaining to the tourists that having this mural on the building will increase the building’s value.

tour

All around Berlin, you can find these stickers, revisions of the ‘I heart Berlin’ (or New York or London or wherever) tourist cliché. They read ‘Berlin Doesn’t Love You’. These ones are located right next to the Victor Ash mural, a site at which almost every walking tour will visit.

doesnt

Another sign of the ways tourists make problematic incursions into the city: property investors buy up all or most of the apartments in a building and rent them to tourists/ short-term visitors. The names of individuals next to entry bells disappear; instead all you can see here are the agency codes for each apartment. Previous residents will have been bought out; any community within the building has been destroyed.

flats

And here’s a beautiful building in Kreuzberg: the one with ‘DACH’ rollered onto its roof (which is funny because ‘dach’ means ‘roof’ in German. It is dilapidated and empty right now but has been bought by a foreign investor and will be turned into a boutique hotel:

hotel

As part of the investor’s control of the space, the facade is now rented to approved advertisers, whose ads are taped on to the outer hoardings, with tape proclaiming that unauthorised additions will lead to prosecution. Sigh.

reclaim

At the same time, of course, since spaces can never be entirely tied down in the way the company obviously hope, various individuals have added tags and other ‘unauthorised’ images. You can see a pasted-up poster that speaks of ‘reclaiming our city’ and you can see a lot of these political posters, protest slogans and anti-gentrification graffiti around the city. So, like all cities, Berlin is in flux, undergoing change. But the ways in which it is resisting and contesting those changes are writ large on the surfaces of the city.

Berlin’s visitors (part 1)

As mentioned in the previous post, I have been in Berlin recently. I spent ten days there researching a bit of what’s happening in the street art scene there, with a particular interest in the ways that neighbourhoods associated with street art are starting to change: this can be called gentrification, and such a term certainly covers some of what’s going on, but there are also other features to the social changes taking place (one of which is called ‘touristification’, and more on that another time).

It’s three years since I was last in Berlin, and much has changed, while other aspects were pleasurably familiar. In 2010 I was struck by how many artists from outside Berlin visited, drawn to its creative scene, and sometimes stayed on, becoming more than a visitor.

Anyway, during my visit there, ‘residence’ was a frequently occurring theme: who lived in which neighbourhood, for how long, what made someone a ‘real Berliner’, and what effects the many thousands of visitors per year have on Berlin’s identity, income, and atmosphere. I felt very conscious of my visitor-status there, and a little more uncomfortably self-conscious than in the past.

But the conflicts and tensions around Berlin’s many tourists and visitors is a topic for a later post. For now, here are some of the works left by Berlin’s recent visitors to its streets.

Here’s a piece by Alice Pasquini (with addition!) on the Oberbaumbrucke:

alice

Dscreet and Reka, in the Haus Schwartzenberg courtyard:

dscreet

Same location, lovely piece by Cake:

cake

And Roa, on Schonhauser Allee in Prenzlauer Berg:

roa

I’ll write more about the tensions around ‘visiting Berlin’ later….

Berlin: name-writing

Berlin surfaces are written on to a degree I haven’t seen in many places… Tags, whether words or icons, are everywhere. The city’s lack of cash (Berlin is hugely in debt) means that graffiti, postering, stencils and so on are rarely removed, but simply layered over each other or gradually fading away. And so the walls (and many other surfaces too) are filled with images and words, many of them the names of the author or artist.

Lots of these are tags: tagging in Berlin has both an idiosyncratic history and quite distinctive contemporary forms. When reunification occurred after the taking down of the Berlin Wall in 1989, many in the former East wanted to participate in graffiti writing, and began to develop styles and tags. For many, however, it wasn’t an invented tag name that they initially practised: one artist showed me scans of pages from his black book from the early 90s, as an artist growing up in the newly unified, former East Germany, he wrote brand names, instead of tag names, before he developed his own tag (the notebook was filled with ‘Diesel’, ‘Reebok’, ‘Nike’ and so on). But then Berlin style developed very quickly (many artists looked to cities such as Prague for inspiration, after initially being influenced by Brooklyn, New York and so on) and huge block letter throw-ups developed in 90s, many of these still being done or fading but visible still, on train lines especially.

Right now, I’m told there’s a fashion for the so-called ‘ugly’ style of tagging, writing as if in a ‘toy’ style. Interestingly, many tags are very simple, but their significance lies in the prolific range of places that they have been written (this would apply to many, many artists, including Brad Downey, Charlie Isoe, PiTR, 6 and others); other tags are amazing because they have been placed on rooftops or high on walls. Some have developed beautiful forms and shapes (such as the stencilled tag of xoooox); others have used icons s a means to get up all over the city (especially someone like Kripoe).

There’s tons more that could be said about Berlin’s culture of obsessive name-writing, but for now, here is a selection of my favourites…

The insanely prolific tags of Brad Downey:

The equally prolific French artist, PiTR, whose tag features here in the toilet of a cafe on Kastanienallee:

Some nice placement here, low down to the ground (as were all the tags by Isoe that I saw):

Kripoe’s iconic fists, followed by his equally iconic rollerskate:

And the little face drawn by Prost (which means ‘cheers!’) all over Berlin (usually laughing, although sometimes angry. This shot shows the archetypical smiling Prost icon:

Here’s an elegant stencil showing xoooox’s tag:

The utter simplicity of a tag that’s reduced to one digit: 6’s tag, here done on paper and pasted high up on a wall:

And along with the memories of Paris provided by seeing PiTR’s tag all over Berlin, here’s the tag of one of my favourite French artists, L’Atlas:

Berlin: city of memories, city of history, city of names.

Berlin’s visitors….

As I mentioned before, I’ve recently been visiting Berlin. Like many cities with a reputation for interesting street art, Berlin attracts a wide range of artists who pass through the city for a short time and leave their work on the walls. So I thought I’d put up a selection of images by people who, like me, have been visitors to Berlin.

In the first few days that I was there, I went to see the Kunsthaus Tacheles, a massive building famed for its history as a squat and now as a centre for creative activity (although to me its atmosphere of hippie-chic cool seemed a little contrived and also somewhat dated…). On its external wall there’s a huge work by one of my favourite French artists, Yz (also known as Open Your Eyes) – and above it is the tag of one of Melbourne’s most prolific graffers, Bones (whose tag, along with those of other members of the 70K crew, I saw all over Berlin):

Here’s a small cat by C215, almost hidden in a corner to the rear of the building currently occupied by Kunstlerhaus Bethanien.

Bethanien is inextricably associated with Backjumps, the creative venture of Adrian Nabi, who over several years produced magazines and curated exhibitions and cultural events in Berlin, involving artists who work in public space. Over the years, artists such as Swoon, the London Police, Nomad, Brad Downey, Dave the Chimp and many other exhibited in Berlin under the Backjumps aegis. Part of the Backjumps events involved the curation of walls around the Kreuzberg area of Berlin for the display of works which would remain after the events were over. Here are a couple of examples, one from os gemeos and one from the London Police:

The area of Friedrichshain is also well known for its art on the streets, and the warren of bars, warehouses and skate park on Revaler Strasse contains hundreds of pieces, some commissioned, some added spontaneously. Amid a riot of tags, stencil, paste-ups and pieces near the Cassiopeia skate park I found a piece by Orticanoodles, with – once again – a tag by Bones accompanying it:

The River Spree constitutes a boundary between Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg, and as you travel over the Oberbaumbrucke (a wonderfully gothic looking bridge), the landscape is dominated by a massive piece by Blu, one of a number he has done in the city. Here’s a close up of the work:

Roa, the Belgian artist who has been achieving a lot of well-deserved attention recently, was in Berlin while I was there, and produced some fantastic work, such as this:

I also saw some old pieces in Kreuzberg by the French artist Nelio, whose work I admire greatly for its beautiful placement within any particular space (and which I’ve written about previously on this blog, see here). Here’s one:

And on my last night in Berlin, as I walked down Danen Strasse in Prenzlauer Berg to go back to my apartment, I discovered that Nelio must have been visiting Berlin once again, since a new piece had appeared:

It was nice to think that the phenomenon of artists making visits to this amazing city and contributing to the flux of images in public space was continuing, even as I was about to leave….

Scratching the surface

Recently, I spent a little over three weeks in Berlin. It’s the first time I have visited this city. I therefore had no firsthand sense of its backstory, or context, or history, my knowledge of it and its street art was based only what I had read or heard from others or seen online. Throughout my time there it felt as though there was always something new to learn – one gigantic learning curve….

For Berlin is a city whose surfaces are almost entirely covered in images, many of them illicit. The sheer number of these uncommissioned images is remarkable: walls are tagged, postered, and painted; street signs are stickered, and rooftops spray painted to a degree that simply doesn’t occur in cities such as Paris or London or New York. And although there are other European cities, such as Athens or Budapest, where a vast amount of wall writing can be found, in Berlin what is striking is the diversity of images and the variety of locations for their placement. Old school graffiti is common, but so are paste-ups, stickers and stencils. Bill posting is an ingrained feature of the cityscape, covering hoardings and walls, sometimes many layers deep:

The placement of images isn’t limited to those walls readily accessible to artists; any surface can be altered, with rooftops, hard-to-reach signal boxes, train carriages, and the undersides of river bridges being covered by illicit art.

There’s so much to say about Berlin, it’s impossible to say much in one post. I’ll be writing several when I get the chance (I am currently travelling in the Highlands of Scotland, without much access to the internet). So here I’ll simply say this. I spent three weeks and three days in Berlin and saw more illicit art (and more types of illicit art) than in pretty much any other city I’ve been. I took hundreds of photographs, but I could easily have taken hundreds more: after a while, I had to stop, because the vast number of tags, throw-ups, stickers, paste-ups and so on started to seem commonplace. I met many artists and ran out of time to meet more of these generous and friendly people, willing to give up their time to talk with me. Three and a half weeks, and this was only scratching the surface, in a city where the surfaces are quite literally indistinguishable from images.

Inside City Outside (walking in colour)

Today I went to see the first solo exhibition in Berlin, Innen Stadt Aussen (Inside City Outside), by the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson (who has been a resident of Berlin for many years).

I can’t recommend this exhibition highly enough – if you are anywhere near Berlin, you should definitely go to see it.

It’s at the Martin Gropius Bau, which is a powerhouse of a museum, showing major blockbuster exhibitions: at the moment, the crowd-puller is a huge Frida Kahlo exhibition. When we arrived, people were queuing to buy tickets, then queuing again to enter one level of the musuem, then queuing again to get into the exhibition. We were always intending to go to the Eliasson exhibition, but the sight of so many people simply existing in a kind of suspended animation, made me doubly glad that we had decided just to go to the one show.

And the show… it’s really quite hard to describe, because it had such an impact on me. It’s the sort of experience that I think I will remember for many, many years to come.

I say this partly because I can still vividly recall my first encounter with Eliasson’s work – back in 2003, in London. Eliasson was one of the artists who was invited to produce a work for the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in London, the massive entry hall of the former power station. Eliasson’s work – The Weather Project – created a giant sun at one end of the hall, with the effect that the entire space was bathed in an orange glow: the chimerical orb, no matter what time of day it was viewed, seemed to be in the middle of setting or rising, pouring warmth into the cold grey of a London winter:

You can see in these pictures how rugged up against the cold we all are…

And yet, people, while viewing this artwork, acted as though they were at the beach, lying on the ground, in sunbathing mode, prone before the image of a golden sun:

The Weather Project was an unforgettable experience, one that I always felt lucky to have seen. And now, this solo show lines up beside The Weather Project in offering one of the most outrageously immersive artworks I have ever encountered…

The show is designed to explore notions of internal and external space as it relates to the urban setting. It starts in sedate but pleasurable fashion, laying paving stones from one room to another in the museum, and offering the visitor the unexpected delights of walking on an artwork:

Eliasson has a fetish for light and mirrors (The Weather Project, like most magic tricks, was all done with mirrors and really big lights), and some of the subsequent rooms show him playing with these devices, in a way that allows the spectator to have a lot of fun as well. In one room there are some undulating mirrors that distort sections of bodies across an entire wall in patterns that resemble the tiles and paving stones that are routinely used in urban space:

In others, bodies are projected against white screens in shades of pink and blue, or violet and green. Here’s me, taking a photograph of myself in the artwork…

…and he builds sculptures of silver metal which contain cleverly placed lights and mirrors so that when one peeps into the internal cavities it appears that there is no floor, with the sculpture falling away to nothing before one’s feet.

There’s also a fascinating piece of moving-image art, a short film made around various locations (such as Moritzplatz and Kortbusser Tor) in Berlin, using a mirror to generate a sense of liquidity and shiver in the density of urban locations.

But in addition to these, there are two absolutely show-stopping artworks. In one, you enter a space that is constructed entirely of angled glass. It is a narrow space, an inverted triangle, but the mirrors make it appear to open to infinity on all sides, so that one fears to approach its edges, which initially seem to fall away, but then tilt to reveal another floor on which one is reflected, standing firmly and looking back into the main space. Sadly, this room was populated with museum staff whose main aim seemed to be to stop people taking pictures, and so I can’t show you what this amazing room looked like in any way.

It seemed like this might have been the highlight of the exhibition, until we entered another room, which was taped off, and which had a warning notice on the door stating that only children over six years old could enter….

This space inside this room was as hot as a sauna, and initially appeared to be filled with steam. (Although i know I should be fearless in my experience of art, I’m ashamed to report that my first thought was ‘oh no, my hair will go frizzy…’.) But the steam was actually smoke (and so, my hair survived, un-frizzed). The room was filled with smoke, which was coloured by long narrow lights in the ceiling, segmented by barriers, which shone down into the space. The lights in the ceiling were ordered according to the spectrum, so that the smoke in the room was in effect dyed according to the colour of the lights above. The dense smoke in the room meant that you could see only as far ahead as an arm’s length, meaning that all depth of field was lost, and you moved through the spectrum of colour, from one to the next, with no horizon, and no sense of boundary, horizon or limit.

It was utterly disorienting and completely transporting. You were literally walking in colour. At one point, in the red-to-violet section of the spectrum, the colour was so intense that my eyes could hardly make sense of what they were seeing.

And so we stumbled around, joyfully, for quite some time, until we admitted it was time to leave (well, it was as hot as a sauna – maybe it is designed to be hot so that people don’t stay in there for hours). And we emerged from the room and into the body of the museum (where people were still queuing hopelessly for the Kahlo exhibition), blissed out on colour.

I’ll always be grateful to Eliasson for this experience. A thoughtful, thought-provoking exhibition, capped with a mind-blowing artwork which takes on some of the limits of the relationship between artwork and spectator and dissolves them into coloured smoke.

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