'Based in Berlin' a provocation too far for established artists


BERLIN LETTER: The frustrated toddler stomps through the white, shabby-chic exhibition space squealing: “Nothing, nothing, there’s nothing here!”

A devastatingly direct verdict on Based in Berlin, a new exhibition staged by the German capital as an overview of the contemporary art scene in what is, apparently, Europe’s white-hot capital of cool.

Spread over three locations, the show displays more than 80 paintings, sculptures, video installations and other conceptual art – all by recent arrivals in the city.

The show has proved a huge hit and you can sense the anticipation from the people streaming around the main exhibition space, a scraggy atelier opposite the city’s Museum Island.

The exhibits inside are a mixed, eclectic bag. A buzzard on a rock with two red wires attached. A bicycle wheel bolted between the horns of an antelope skull. A work entitled Oil Paintinghas plastic sheeting hanging from a wall, covered in motor oil which is blown around by an electric fan.

Some of the most spectacular pieces are outdoor installations: a copper replica of an arm of the Statue of Liberty and three huge Chinese-built SUVs on top of a massive temporary platform. Sadly there is no information on display to tell visitors about the inspiration behind the works.

“It’s as if they don’t want us to understand,” says Anne-Marie, an Irish visitor. Departing visitors, passing a skip, tarry to see if it’s an installation. A straw poll of visitors generates mixed reviews.

“It’s great that the show’s so open and everyone can come in,” said visitor Tanja Nellekoven.

Her companion Tim Woitek agreed, adding: “I’m a bit tired, though, of seeing everyday objects abstracted into art, where it’s beneath the artist’s dignity to explain it. A bit more explanation would be nice.”

Trevor Lloyd from California is one of the artists represented in the show. One work, a pencil sketch, entitled Portrait of my mother drawn from memory, with my eyes closed, using my left hand, standing on my head.Another work is Domesticated Dog: an Alsatian photograph where the corners of the image have been folded down or dog-eared.

“I’m creating a small and comical conflict between the interpretations of the object as an image and the object itself,” says Lloyd, describing his work as “anti-art that takes a jab at underlying art scene trends”.

After nearly three years here, he says Berlin’s energy rather than the city itself has inspired him to produce art. He isn’t alone: more than 6,000 artists are now registered in the city, with many more under the radar.

“The floodgates are open and the city is oversaturated with artists right now because producing art in Berlin is the cool thing to do,” he admits.

Just back from a scouting trip to Glasgow, he says: “Time will tell if a Berlin art will emerge, but I could be doing my work anywhere.”

Critical reviews of Based in Berlinhave picked up on this, noting that much of the art on display has as tenuous a connection to the city as its new nomadic artist class.

For Berlin’s established artists, the show is an affront. They accuse mayor Klaus Wowereit of exploiting the Berlin art scene hype in an election year. More urgent than a €1.6 million, six-week exhibition, they say, is a coherent cultural policy to secure the city’s future as a place of artistic production and presentation.

“Working conditions and standard of living of Berlin’s cultural producers are declining due to increasing rent levels and the loss of self-organised free spaces,” wrote more than 200 artists in an open letter. “ exploits artistic work for the purposes of city marketing and the economisation of culture.”

Many in Berlin’s artistic establishment worry that, while politicians distract themselves with Based in Berlin, a window of opportunity is closing for the city to retain some of what makes the place uniquely creative.

“The precarious, raw side of the Berlin art scene and low-cost art production is being celebrated, but if that is all that is perpetuated as what sets Berlin apart there is no future,” says artist Florian Wüst, co-initiator of the open letter. “This exhibition will close but the lack of dialogue between cultural producers and the government will remain.”

So is the Berlin art hype justified? Is Berlin brimming with undiscovered art names of tomorrow or is its future as an artistic haven in jeopardy? On a wall of Based in Berlin, which runs until July 24th, a verse by Ezra Pound offers some perspective.

“I shall have, doubtless, a boom after my funeral/Seeing that long standing increases all things regardless of quality.” But in the uneasy Berlin art world, not even that much is certain.