City Focus Berlin, Mitte and Kreuzberg

Read all three parts of our City Focus Berlin feature, from the Jan-Feb, March and April 2013 issues

By Raimar Stange

City Focus Berlin: Part 3, Hackbarth's, photography Andrea Stappert Olaf Nicolai, photography Andrea Stappert

It’s late February, and I’m walking through the last of the melting snow on the way to Hackbarth’s, a bar/café in Berlin’s Mitte borough, to meet the artist Olaf Nicolai. I reminisce: until the beginning of the 1990s, Cologne was the indisputable centre of the (West) German art scene; then Berlin replaced Cologne. The metropolis along the Spree River quickly developed into an influential art mecca, and not just for Germany. The art hype began in Mitte shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989: here, properties from GDR times waited unoccupied in a state of uncertain ownership, and clever artists and gallerists knew how to take advantage of this. We all know what happened next. Since rents and the cost of living were both low, young creatives from every sector – fashion designers as well as advertising graphic-designers, new-media nerds as well as techno musicians and artists from every branch – arrived in droves from around the world.

artists from every branch arrived in droves from around the world

I turn onto Auguststrasse. Back then, galleries, offspaces like Dust and Sparwasser, and many artists’ ateliers were set up with lightning speed to the left and right of this street, and within just a few years this area became the new centre of the Western artworld. At last I arrive at Hackbarth’s, where Nicolai – a Documenta X participant raised in the GDR before the fall of the Berlin Wall – is already waiting. “Until the beginning of the 90s,” he recollects, “there was only one place to go in the area around Auguststrasse – Friedrich Loock’s Galerie Wohnmaschine. With Margarinefabrik around the corner, Eigen + Art within sight and Cookies basically in the basement next door, life slowly came to an otherwise dead area. Today there’s no longer any trace left of Wohnmaschine and the ventures are now just businesses.”

Nicolai himself had an atelier on Auguststrasse from 1993 onwards; he moved east to Prenzlauer Berg in 2000. Hackbarth’s was a popular meeting place for artists during the 90s; there you would meet international artists like Rineke Dijkstra and Angela Bulloch, who moved to Berlin later on, as well as the then still unknown Peter Friedl or Thomas Demand, to name just a few. Douglas Gordon often dropped by during his DAAD Fellowship and I frequently had coffee there with the (then still very young) Viennese artist Markus Schinwald, who was living in Berlin at that time. And no wonder Hackbarth’s was so popular with the artists; nearly all of the then-important galleries of the city were just a stone’s throw away: Klosterfelde from Hamburg, Contemporary Fine Arts, the newly founded Galerie Mehdi Chouakri, Eigen + Art from Leipzig and Galerie NEU. In the middle of the decade the galleries Schipper & Krome from Cologne and Neugerriemschneider were added to the list.

The gallery scene was relatively manageable during the 1990s, with about a dozen galleries in Mitte and about 40 in the whole city. Today there are almost 600. Venues like Neugerriemschneider and Eigen + Art had a significant influence on the art of the 90s. Extremely successful artists like Olafur Eliasson, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Elizabeth Peyton, Franz Ackermann and Michel Majerus started their international careers at Neugerriemschneider. Eigen + Art, meanwhile, was represented by five of its artists at Documenta X in 1997: Olaf and Carsten Nicolai, Jörg Herold, Christine Hill and Jana Milev. Later the gallery could claim the questionable credit of successfully promoting the ‘Leipzig School’.

where you once found galleries, you now find boutiques and restaurants

Today there are comparatively few galleries left around Auguststrasse; the noble neighbourhood has simply become too expensive, especially since the Berlin galleries spoiled by success always want to have bigger spaces. So where you once found galleries, you now find boutiques and restaurants – gentrification eats its children. But Kamm, Christian Nagel, Neugerriemschneider and Eigen + Art didn’t move to Berlin’s more recently fashionable gallery districts – Potsdamer Strasse or Wedding. Neugerriemschneider codirector Tim Neuger explains to me why they stayed in Mitte: “We feel comfortable here in the middle of the city centre and in what are for us optimal spaces. In addition, important institutions like the Hamburger Bahnhof, the KunstWerke and the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein are not far from here. And we also appreciate the proximity to colleagues like Eigen + Art and Sprüth Magers as well as to the private exhibitions spaces of Karen and Christian Boros and Erika Hoffmann. So why move?”

Eigen + Art just thoroughly renovated its gallery and now also has a second space in the former Jewish Girls’ school, the gallery and restaurant complex, established in 2012; unfortunately most of the other galleries there are hardly worth mentioning. And it’s worth saying that the explosive growth of galleries in Berlin hasn’t exactly led to an improvement in the scene’s artistic quality. However, the scene in Mitte has certainly become more chic. You no longer meet up in the homey Hackbarth’s but in the stately Soho House, an equally impressive and elegant ‘club for creatives’ on Torstrasse. The building has a turbulent history behind it: it was once a Jewish department store, which was seized by the National Socialists during the Third Reich, and in GDR times it served as, among other things, the headquarters of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany.

Most galleries reside somewhere between offspace, producer’s gallery and sales gallery

Besides the galleries, there were and are a number of important exhibition venues in Mitte such as KunstWerke (founded in 1991), the (former train station) Hamburger Bahnhof and the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (in operation since 1969). And they are still doing good work. Last year Artur Żmijewski and Joanna Warsza, the curators of the seventh Berlin Biennale (at KunstWerke), succeeded in productively provoking the established art scene. In the face of the financial crisis and social inequality, climate change and neonationalism, the Biennale, through project-based work, explored the meaning of art and its potential to influence politics. On the other hand, the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein – which now resides on Chausseestrasse – has long been known for incorporating explicitly political art into its programme. I’m meeting with the current director, Marius Babias, in his office, which is one floor above the exhibition spaces, where the next show, with works by the Swiss artist Ursula Biemann, is being put together. “Art has boomed tremendously in the last 20 years,” says Babias, “albeit as part of the lifestyle industry. Institutions are stuck in a precarious situation in which art has turned into an entertainment, an event and a way of producing an image, yet we still have to be mindful of social relevance and aesthetic worth. And we have to organise our programme in accordance with this balancing act.” With regard to the situation of the gallery scene surrounding him, where the galleries don’t necessarily make a lot of money, he explains: “It’s a fallacy to believe that the majority of galleries located in Berlin are in a position to do big business and decisively to promote the commercialisation of the art scene. The majority of galleries reside somewhere in the zone between offspace, producer’s gallery and sales gallery. A variety has evolved here that I find quite exciting.”

Martin Kippenberger was responsible for the artistic programme at SO 36 at the end of the 1970s

When attention drifted away from Mitte, it focused on Kreuzberg. The latter was, besides Charlottenburg, the cultural centre of Berlin during the 1970s and 80s. Today the neighbourhood is one area among many for art in Berlin; there is no longer a centre. For example, from 1973 onwards the Künstlerhaus Bethanien was located in Kreuzberg, on the legendary Mariannenplatz (the subject of a 1982 song by cult left-wing rock band Ton Steine Scherben). There, 20 artists with fellowships worked in a former hospital every year. Since 2010, Bethanien has been located in a spacious building on Kohlfurter Strasse: certainly beneficial for the Künstlerhaus in that the larger and more modern exhibition spaces benefit the fellows’ presentations. Meanwhile, the New Society for Visual Arts, Berlin’s second largest art association (after the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein), hosts its exhibitions right around the corner, across from which is the legendary punk club SO 36. Martin Kippenberger himself was responsible for the artistic programme here at the end of the 1970s, when avant-garde performers such as the Red Crayola and Lydia Lunch visited, as well as trendy though rather conventional punks.

Yet the ambitious balancing of high and low art failed. The local punk scene denounced Kippenberger’s concept as ‘glitterati art’ and ‘consumption shit’, and the artist had to throw in the towel. By the 1990s, SO 36 no longer played a role in the crossover of art and music. Techno was popular; punk had seen better days.

Concerts are still held in SO 36, but there are fewer galleries in Kreuzberg. However, two years ago Galerie Barbara Weiss moved from Potsdamer Strasse to Kreuzberg (more precisely to Kohlfurter Strasse), practically next door to the Bethanien. There she has caused a stir with exhibitions by, among others, Harun Farocki, Andreas Siekmann and Mary Heilmann. But why did she move here? “Because I wanted to be in a location that had not really been established as a place for art since the postwar era,” the gallerist replies. “During the 80s the autonomous [left-wing, anarchist] scene had settled nearby, whereas up until today the local environment is still being built and transformed, and therefore a strong dynamic is always felt. This blend of the existing intellectual and international climate, the idyll of the nearby riversides (eg, Maybach) and, at the same time, the area as a social hotspot really spoke and appealed to me right away.”

Discussing and buying art no longer contradict each other 

Recently, Skalitzer Strasse has drawn attention to itself since two promising galleries were opened there: Chert and Silberkuppe. The latter is located in a former gatehouse and is managed by the artist and writer Dominic Eichler together with Michel Ziegler. Chert is a stone’s throw away in a back courtyard; in the same courtyard is the art bookshop Motto. Not only can you buy books, catalogues and editions here, but Motto also hosts monthly events such as concerts, discussions and readings. For example, British artist Dave Allen presented his last record here, various art magazines, like Frieze d/e, Spike and Camera Austria, have launched issues, and artists such as Tobias Zielony and Olaf Nicolai have been invited for discussions. Exhibitions are also designed together with Chert. Discussing and buying art no longer contradict each other at Motto and Chert. And it’s precisely such intelligent and unconventional initiatives that keep Berlin’s art system alive – as opposed to the big annual events such as Gallery Weekend or the abc art fair. So I leave Hackbarth’s, get on the number 8 subway line and ride from Alexanderplatz to Kreuzberg to a catalogue presentation at Motto.

Translated from the German by Emily Luski

This article was first published in the April 2013 issue