10 OCTOBER 1998, Page 49


Berlin: a city under wraps

Martin Gayford finds signs that the new German capital may see an artistic renaissance Awhile ago, despite the disapproval of ex-Chancellor Kohl, the artist Christo wrapped the Reichstag. By all accounts, it was a beautiful sight, with light constantly shifting across the temporary silver skin of the parliament to be. But when one arrives in Berlin these days, it looks as if Christo has wrapped the whole town. Virtually every building is swathed in plastic, or green netting. And most of those that are not in the process of being restored are being built from scratch.

Cranes are such a ubiquitous feature of the skyline that last year, apparently, they staged a crane-ballet, with music provided by a symphony orchestra. Right in the cen- tre of town — that is, just where there used to be an area of wasteland surrounding the Wall — is now rapidly rising the Potsdamer Platz, a vast and, as it appears in its current state, rather dreary new development con- taining quantities of contemporary art (Alan Bennett once characterised this kind of scheme as 'acres of concrete mitigated by geraniums'; these days the mitigation is provided by art).

The Daimler-Benz portion of this project officially opened last week. A short dis- tance away the Kulturforum, an almost equally vast agglomeration of museums — including the Gemaldegalerie, or picture gallery, the Museum for Decorative Art, and the Cabinet of Prints and Drawings — opened earlier in the year. Across the Tier- garten, within the Reichstag, Norman Fos- ter's new steel and glass dome can be seen coming into being, ready for the moment, quite soon now, when Berlin becomes again the capital of Germany.

The whole city, like its physical structure, is in a remarkable — and, one cannot help feeling, highly Teutonic — state of being. It could be said, indeed, that transformation, fracture, erasure and metamorphosis con- stitute the real essence of this place which has been, in turn, a provincial backwater, capital of Prussia, twice the capital of Ger- many with a caesura during the Weimar years, metropolis of the evil Nazi empire, over 90 per cent destroyed, hermetically divided in a weird way that no other city has known, reunited, and shortly to become a capital once more.

All of this turmoil plainly has conse- quences for the arts. In the Twenties, briefly, Berlin was one of the great cities of modernism, along with Barcelona, Vienna, Paris and New York. Since then it has largely been off the artistic map, while the artistic centre of decentralised federal West Germany was in the Cologne-Diissel- dorf area. But are the artistic glory-days about to return to Berlin? There are hopes, and some signs, that they are.

In federal, decentralised Germany the great museums are widely spread around. But Berlin has the finest of all the collec- tions. The fate of the paintings of the Gemaldegalerie has mirrored that of the city. Its single greatest work, Van Eyck's Ghent altarpiece, was allocated to Belgium as part of the reparations after the first world war. A number of masterpieces, stored in an anti-aircraft tower in the Tier- garten, were burnt in 1945. The rest were divided between East and West, and are now reunited in the Gemaldegalerie sec- tion of the new Kulturforum, a sprawling building of striking anonymity. The gal- leries within are spacious, if nondescript, but the whole is rather a come-down in a city whose finest buildings are museums, Schinkel's neo-classical Altes Museum above all.

Contemporary artistic life is returning to Berlin, in the form of a rash of new gal- leries in the atmospheric area of old East Berlin north of Unter den Linden. The first of these, the first contemporary art gallery ever in East Berlin, was founded in 1988, shortly before the Wall came down, in the owner's apartment. Now there are a couple of dozen, taking advantage of vacant accommodation and low rents (one, for example, is in a disused ex-East German supermarket, which proves to be an excel- lent, airy space).

This is the sector, too, where most of the new Berlin Biennale is based (until 3 Jan- uary). The two main venues are a sort of history in little of the strange, fragmented past of the city. One, the Kunst-Werke, is housed in an 18th-century mansion, origi- nally sited in the fields outside the city, which survived bombardment and battle as a margarine factory, and has now become an avant-garde art centre including a beau- tiful, minimalist cafe designed by the American Dan Graham. The other, the Postfuhramt, is a palatial old post office, built in a Florentine Renaissance revivalist style and still decorated inside with peeling communist wallpaper.

It must be said that the contents of the Biennale are not vastly different from those of the many other, constantly proliferating biennales (once every town that wished to raise its profile had a garden festival, then it was a jazz festival, now it is a biennale). An effort has been made to select artists who have been involved with Berlin, and to focus on the city (the title of the event is Berlin/Berlin). But the cast of participants is fairly international.

One, for example, is our own Douglas Gordon, winner of the Turner Prize a cou- ple of years ago, who contributes a video of a couple hugging and kissing, and occasion- ally refreshing themselves with sandwiches, for 23 hours continuously, in real time. It sounded striking, but unfortunately, as often happens with videos, the machine had broken down when I went round.

In this historic context — surrounded by battered Prussian grandeur, Marxist dinge, and shrapnel marks on many a façade — the metaphors of avant-garde art sometimes seem highly resonant. One that remained in my mind was by Mathieu Mercier and con- sisted of a large house-plant surrounded by a rickety structure of chipboard, so that every leaf rested on a platform. It looked as if this arrangement had been devised in a kindly spirit to help the plant. It was actual- ly slowly killing it, the scaffolding that seemed to hold it up preventing it from breathing properly. Just like, one reflected, so much well-meant assistance — the eco- nomic planning of the old East German government, for example, which created such a shabby, run-down mess. '

Is this part of Berlin, known as Scheunen- viertel, it is hopefully asked, the new SoHo? (A reference, of course, not to the booze- zone of central London, but to the section of New York where galleries and artists' stu- dios have flourished in disused industrial buildings.) The answer is, certainly not yet, but an interesting energy and tension are in the air.

To an extent, Berlin is almost bound to become the art centre of Germany. Anoth- er sign is the success of Art Forum Berlin, an international art fair, staged last week, with an impressive array of contemporary art. An art dealer from Dusseldorf, almost wearily, explained to me that he had opened a branch of his gallery in Berlin. It was, he felt, part of a coming centralisation, which he, as a Rhinelander, resented (and hoped that the EU would off-set). Berliners themselves are not necessarily so sanguine. As Klaus Biesenbach, artistic director of the Biennale, remarked, the defining character- istic of Berlin at present is a kind of tension. Things may succeed or fail; it isn't quite clear what shape the future will take. On the other hand, it is once again, as in the Twenties, an exhilarating place to be.