Studio Berlin: artworks replace dancing bodies in the legendary Berghain club
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No image captures the gloom of Covid-19’s impact on Berlin’s cultural life like an empty dance floor. An unfamiliar quiet has descended on the German capital since its clubs closed down in March. While it’s still unclear when revellers will hear the call of thumping bass again, a new alliance between the city’s art and music worlds will allow the public to visit its most revered techno institution once more — but not to dance.
For an exhibition at the legendary Berghain club, art replaces the writhing bodies of its past. Studio Berlin features work by 115 Berlin-based artists spread across the cavernous spaces of the 3,500-square-metre structure, filling up its enormous Halle and spilling across its bars, staircases, even its bathrooms.
Berghain owners Michael Teufele and Norbert Thormann approached German collectors Karen and Christian Boros with the idea for an exhibition back in June. The project throws a much-needed lifeline to creative workers, helping some of the club’s employees return from furlough (many have been retrained as gallery staff) as well as providing a platform for the city’s artists. The show’s extensive roster is the result of three months of studio visits that have allowed organisers to bring new talent alongside major names such as Olafur Eliasson, Wolfgang Tillmans and Tacita Dean.
“Creative collaborations are more important now than ever,” says Karen Boros, who hopes that such interdisciplinary approaches will provide a model for the future and demonstrate ways of overcoming the new barriers put in place by the pandemic. “Studio Berlin is a perfect example of making the impossible possible.”
Many of the featured artists have likewise taken up the theme of hybridity in their treatment of the club’s infrastructure as canvas. Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh plays recordings of a Lagos street through the Berghain sound system. A piece by Katherina Grosse, known for her large-scale architectural paintings, offers a rare burst of colour against the building’s industrial walls. On the back of a bathroom stall, those with keen eyes will spot Cyprien Gaillard’s engraving of The Land of Cockaigne, Bruegel’s warning against gluttony set in a mythical land of plenty.
Unsurprisingly, there are many such references to the club’s pre-Covid excess. Turkish artist Nevin Aladag created the indentations in her sculpture Stiletto by donning a pair of high heels and dancing on a metal plate. Anna Uddenberg’s pleather-clad raver clambers across a bar, revealing much. A suspended sex harness by Monica Bonvicini hangs down from a ceiling in a cascade of rubber and chains. More innocently, Chinese artist He Xiangyu equates his eye-opening Berghain experience with his first taste of Coca-Cola, positioning a plaster sculpture of himself as a child opening a can in his favourite spot next to a bar. The club is both star and setting, an Arcadia of sexual awakenings and decadent pleasures.
Most of the artworks were made during lockdown, which also imports an unlikely sense of introspection into this temple of hedonism. An intimate series of Polaroids by Georgian artist Ketuta Alexi-Meskhishvili captures the flowers she bought daily during isolation. Verena Issel conjures the domestic space by using household items such as cleaning cloths, wine bottles, brooms, plastic glasses — ciphers for our quarantined existence — to transform a corridor into a jungle-like enclosure. Images of deserted cities also capture the eerie stillness that fell over the world’s capitals during the pandemic. Raphaela Vogel’s sculpture and video installation fills the Halle’s lower level with large models of monuments; the Statue of Liberty, Arc de Triomphe and Tower Bridge all huddle together in a dim-lit basement, seemingly abandoned.
This sprawling exhibition serves as a synecdoche for the Berlin art scene in its irreverence, multiculturalism and density (the exhibition’s organisers claim that Berlin has a higher density of artists’ studios than any other European city). It also highlights that repurposed spaces are at the heart of the city’s cultural scene. Studio Berlin is just one of many events launched during the trifecta of Gallery Weekend, Berlin Art Week (both ran to September 13) and the Berlin Biennale (September 5-November 1) which takes place in a recycled building. The disused Tempelhof airport provided a temporary home for Positions art fair, while KINDL, a brewery-turned-art-space, reopened with a string of group exhibitions. The Boros collection itself is housed in an old second world war bunker which was also the erstwhile location of Teufele and Thormann’s fetish club night, Snax.
But if Studio Berlin is the Berlin cultural scene’s view of itself, it is also a nostalgic one. This collaboration harks back to the creative ferment of the 1990s, when experimental art and music went hand-in-hand. The show’s impromptu atmosphere also recalls the art scene’s early scrappiness and recalls a time when there was less red tape involved in staging exhibitions. Recent real estate spats between collectors and developers threaten an exodus of prestigious collections such as that of Friedrich Christian Flick, leaving many questioning Berlin’s future as an art city.
But Boros dismisses such concerns as “naive”. “Even though some private collections have closed their houses to the public, or left the city, it doesn’t mean Berlin will lose any of its potential,” she says. She believes that the city still offers prime art making conditions: “there is no better place for an artist to thrive than in Berlin . . . they themselves are the source for all art infrastructure”. If nothing else, Studio Berlin reasserts that Berlin’s days as a laboratory of creativity are far from over.
The Berghain has retained some of its old rules such as its strict no-photo policy, which Boros hopes will allow for a more “personal experience” with the works. Crucially, however, visitors will now be able to circumvent the club’s notoriously selective bouncers with a pre-booked ticket and time slot guaranteeing entry, as well as the opportunity to take guided tours. This circumscribed experience might be a poor substitute for those craving the return of sweaty, feverish gatherings, but the image of having bodies on the dance floor once more is, at least symbolically, a hopeful one.