Berlin Art Market

As you cross the Spree along the Unter den Linden, in the narrow space between the river and the Zeughaus there is a little art market every weekend. We’d missed the weekend. Luckily for us the Monday was a holiday, and the Berlin Art Market was in full swing as we walked through.

We found painters and photographers in small stalls. Others had sculpture and ceramics. Although the atmosphere is like a flea market, the people manning the stalls are the artists selling their own work. Also, unlike a flea market, the prices are fixed. We walked slowly past the stalls of several photographers. I struck up a conversation with some of them. They have all spent some time traveling and working in several of Europe’s larger cities before coming to Berlin.

I bought a print of Lisbon from one of them at the end of a long conversation. He came to Berlin from London. The rents are lower in Berlin, he told me. From his collection of prints, it seems that he also found more visually interesting material in Berlin.

It seemed to us that we were perpetually short of time in Berlin. We would have liked to linger in the market for much longer than we actually did.

Artists who earn some money

The time-honoured way for artists to make a living is to paint advertisements or decorate restaurants. Berlin is full of hard-up artists. So its not surprising that many street food stalls are wonderfully decorated. The vegan street food stall which you see in the featured photo caught my Indian eye. The star anise and the mortar and pestle were lovely touches.

The same stall had this picture off in one corner. This brazier full of glowing coals, the colour of the flower, and the red of the chilis together warm up this corner of Warschauer Strasse and Revaeler Strasse.

Next to it was the burrito stall made famous by a future Joan Miro. What makes those snakes smile? I love the cheerful colours of the sign.

At the other end of the town, near Ku’Damm, we found a young Asian artist trying to make a living by spray painting old LPs. The second life of vinyl is a colourful incarnation. I was happy to see the artist with a mask, but I did get a whiff of the paint that she was spraying. If we had masks with us, we might have stayed for a longer look.

Back near the Indian vegan food stall, we saw this wonderfully decorated sitting area near an imbiss stall. It was too cold to sit, although the stall was open. The Family and I stood to admire the murals.

I suppose it has steadily grown colder since then, and the outdoor seating will not be in use. Will these wonderful murals last till the spring? Very likely the next set of street artist will have plied their art over these walls before then. Street art is an ephemeral medium.

This closed kiosk had been done up well. I liked the sight of three different drinks in martini glasses. The bar was open, but we did not open the door.

Where did The Family take the photo you see above? She does not remember, but it was most likely somewhere in the RAW-gelaende. I’d missed this wonderful piece of commissioned art. Being an artist is an uncertain life. Very few ever become commercial successes. Most will make a living on little commissions. Some will struggle even for that.

Urban Spree

Before we left for Berlin I exchanged emails with the fellow blogger over at Urban Liaisons, who alerted me to the street art of Berlin. A cursory look at the web after this told me that Urban Spree, located at the corner of Warschauer Strasse and Revaeler Strasse is one of the places to visit. We took the S-bahn to the Warschauer Strasse station and walked up to the area. I had not realized that this is just the edge of a vast and decayed industrial area now given over to low-rent bars, music, leisure activities and street art.

From Warschauer Strasse one can take a flight of stairs down to the neighbourhood. You have to walk around an open pebbled yard to come to the entrance to the gallery. This is inside a building whose walls are painted in tame street-art style (see the featured photo). Next to this a gate with its signs tells you that you are entering a space where someone is trying very hard to put order into an untamed art form.

The impression is strengthened when you see the entrance to the gallery space. The door which you see above is a border between two worlds. Outside is a riot of colours, with artists painting over each other’s works: an acknowledgement that everything that is done is impermanent. The post-industrial world of Bruce Sterling’s stories seem to have taken root outside. Inside is a little gallery which is run by Pascal Feucher. We had a little chat with him as we sipped some early-season gluhwein which we found in the little indoor bar.

He is very enthusiastic about his plans to showcase the energy you see outside. When you talk to him you realize the strong divide between the art market and the artist. The artists whom we watched on the streets of Berlin are doing the modern equivalent of starving in their cold garrets, because there is a rich world of art trade which has not yet connected to their work. Pascal is banking on the hope that the connection will be made, and that Urban Spree will be the gateway.

I’m more excited by the art than by the market. That is probably the reason that I’m not a collector. So we spent more time outside. It was too late in the year to sit in the outdoor area and drink a beer. But we could admire the art work in the biergarten.

Off in one corner an artist was at work. Was she one of the residents at Urban Spree? This is one of the interesting activities that Pascal has put together. She looked too busy for us to involve her in a chat. I wouldn’t want to be her person from Porlock.

The special thing about this space is the pebbled yard beyond the biergarten. Where Warschauser strasse starts to climb, a wall appears. This serves as a canvas for the artists in residence. Nicole Feucher told us about an informal arrangement with the owners: the Goettinger Kurth Group. They do not currently object to the use of this space by artists. As a result, Urban Spree can use this Artist’s Wall as a kind out outdoor advertisement for their monthly show. When we visited, Tavar Zawacki’s month was just over.

The Family and I were enchanted by the artwork on this wall. You can take a closer look at them by clicking on the gallery above. The Artist’s Wall is not visible from the street. You have to come into the yard to see it.

What is visible from the street are the works here. My favourite was the Toucan which you can see in the photo above. The use of discarded machinery to texture the feathers is wonderful.

The Family drew my attention away to the undersea world painted by Urku which you can see in the photo above. We admired it together for a while before moving on.

A young boy was kicking at the gravel while admiring this painting on the walls of a shed. When he left, we went and stood where he was, bang center of the painting, and took the photo which you can see above.

We moved back through the unpainted gate next to this colourfully glowing kiosk. The Family posed for a photo in front of it. When I’d done that, I moved back and took a photo of the area with the kiosk in the center. All these paintings are ephemeral. By now a completely different set of paintings would have replaced the ones that you see here.

Two unknowns

While exploring the RAW Gelaende, I passed these two commemorative tablets. I did not recognize either name, but the dates of their deaths and the word “murdered” instead of “died” told me that they were not friends of the Nazis. One does not have to search hard to find more about them. Both are well-known.

Franz Stenzer was elected to the German parliament in 1932, was arrested by the Gestapo in 1933, and sent to Dachau where he was shot. He had served in the German navy during the First World War, after which he joined the railway workshop in Munich and became a member of the German communist party in 1919. The RAW (railway workshops) in Warschauer Strasse was named after him.

Ernst Thalmann was even more famous. He served in the German army’s artillery division during the First World War, received multiple decorations, and became a member of the Social Democratic party in 1917. He was elected to the Hamburg Parliament, became a member of the German communist party in 1919, and strongly influenced the policy of the party. In 1925 and 1932 he stood for election as the President of Germany and lost both times to von Hindenberg. He was arrested in 1933, spent 11 years in solitary confinement, was transferred to Buchenwald, where he was shot.

After reading all this, I was not surprised that they were commemorated in a workshop in the erstwhile East Germany. What surprised me was that even now someone takes the trouble to lay flowers at the tablets, and cleans them from time to time. But as I read more about the political changes in Germany, propelled largely by its eastern parts, this surprises me less and less. After the euphoria of reunification in 1989 I had wondered what would happen if the economic disparity between the two halves of Germany did not disappear quickly. It is now clear that the result is no different from what is happening across the western world: a turn towards populist fascism, and a nostalgia for times which were never good, but seem better the further they recede in memory.

The squeaky clean cars parked next to the graffiti in the grounds of the old workshop somehow seem to make the same point about two Germanys which have still not managed to completely come together.

Emergency Exit

When I first came to Germany I was puzzled by a door with a sign saying “Notausgang”. Why would a door say “Not exit”? It took me a little while to figure out that “not” is German for emergency, and the sign meant “Emergency Exit”. The photo above shows one of the most decorated emergency exits I have ever seen. The door in all its painted glory can be seen in the photo below.

We’d taken the S-bahn to the Warschauer Strasse station late in the afternoon to see the Urban Spree gallery. We spent quite a while there, and then moved on further into the complex of old and abandoned railway works now known mainly by its initials RAW (Reichsbahn Ausbesserungs Werk). We had no idea that we were now in the heart of edgy Berlin’s party area. It didn’t take us long to figure that out.

Very little street sense is needed to figure that a white rabbit sign invites you to tumble down a hole into a wonderland. Deep thumping music was already playing, and a trickle of Berliners walked past us deeper into the complex. The Family was now sold on Berlin’s edge, but we had tickets to a concert by the Staatsoper. The balance, as you can figure out, was fine.

We decided the bar with Yoda’s picture a miss to give. Instead, we chose to explore the area in front of it. This is the part called the RAW-Gelaende. It is an interesting experiment by the Goettinger Kurth Group, which bought up a large chunk of this property and has declared that it will support the street art milieu that has taken root in the previously abandoned complex.

Our self-imposed limit was to walk past the bowling alley which you can see in the photo above, and explore the area behind it before leaving. This section of the workshops is a fantastic array of bars, biergartens, music and game areas, all of them decorated by street artists. The light was fading fast, as you can gather from the photos here.

Inside a broken tower was this climbing wall. The first sight of it reminded me of the stories that middle class Germany likes to tell about the crazy people in Berlin. In most of Germany a broken tower like this would be cordoned off, declared unsafe, and soon be razed. In Berlin this patently unsafe place was in regular use by young people. When I stepped in to take the photo, I realized that the floor had collapsed, and a jury-rigged planking covered in sheets had taken its place.

Behind the tower an open space had become a biergarten. A couple of boys were playing table tennis in the broken building behind it. It was clearly still too early to be open, but the space looked like it would be a nice friendly place when it was full. We didn’t have time to come back here, unfortunately. The Family said “It would be nice to stay for a while in Berlin.”

The artwork here was wild and wonderful. We spent a while in front of this work signed Red Rum. Is that a person or a collective?

The Family asked a similar question about Born 2 Roll. Is that a signature or the title of the work you can see in the photo above?

Filthcake was clearly a signature, but again is it a collective? Aha, this told us that a work will have both a title and a signature. We had to go back to the other works to puzzle out which was which.

On the way out we passed this wonderful piece of stencil art. The light had begun to fail and I reluctantly bagged my camera. We marked this down as a place to visit on our next trip to Berlin. However, corporations are predictable. Right now the Goettinger Kurth Group is earning money on its investment in this property through fairly low (but rising) rents. Once someone in the Group has an idea on how to monetize this property better, there will be inevitable pressure in the board to change its policies. We need to come back to Berlin before the resulting cascade of changes begin.

The art of lunch

Since we were at Pariser Platz we decided to drop into the new building for the Academy of Arts. The last time we were in Berlin, we just didn’t have the time to visit the building that houses this more than 300 years old Academy. Like its counterparts in other countries, the Academy, with its famous members, plays a role in the arbitration of artistic taste.

Be extremely subtle even to the point of formlessness. — Sun Tzu in The Art of War

The building was remarkable. The Academy was evicted from this location by Albert Speer, the Nazi Chief Inspector of Buildings, in 1937. Subsequently it was badly damaged in the war, and later became a prison for those attempting to escape over the Berlin wall. Guenther Behnisch designed the glass frontage to connect the work of the Academy with the city at large. The entire front was rebuilt as a glass and steel cage from which stairs and corridors lead into the old stone building at the back. It works beautifully. The frontage does not look out of place. Moreover, when we walked into the lobby (photo above), it was filled with light even on a overcast and wet day. In the mirror in the photo you can see the stairs which lead up and into the old building.

There are not more than five cardinal tastes, yet combinations of them yield more flavours than can ever be tasted. — Sun Tzu in The Art of War

The bookstore was open. We had not checked the calendar of events, and it turned out that the sequence of holidays meant that there was nothing planned for the day. We admired the stairs and the bridge to the winter garden. After this we could have turned away and left if we had not remembered that every gallery and art space in Berlin has a nice restaurant. This was no exception, with its nice white wine and lobster ravioli. This cafe joins those in the Hamburger Bahnhof and in C/O Berlin in our memories. In Germany it is always worthwhile extending a visit to a museum or gallery to include lunch.

A bombed out church

The Family suggested that we should go for a walk along Ku’damm. It was past time for a coffee and cake, but maybe the right time for an aperitif. So we took the U-bahn. When you get out on the road the first thing that you notice is the bombed out remains of the old Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial church, next to the glowing blue box of the new church (photo below). We decided to walk in there.

It was time for a service in the new church, so we went into the memorial to the war. The church was built in 1895 by the Kaiser Wilhelm II in honour of his grandfather, Wilhelm I. It was bombed in 1943, and further damaged by occupation forces after the war. It has been restored since I saw it at the end of the last century, in the year 2000. I learnt that Charles Gray, a pilot in the bombing raid which destroyed the church, was one of the first contributors to a call for funds to repair the crumbling ruin, while retaining it bombed out shape as a reminder of the war.

I had a very clear memory of Plexiglas and metal housing around the church, made to preserve its damaged shape. This seems to have disappeared. I didn’t remember the mosaics inside. It is possible that when I came here earlier they were covered up. But, as you can see from the photos here, they are well worth a visit. Large portions of the mosaics have been restored.

We admired the mosaics, and then walked around one end of the nave which contained a little exhibit about the history of the church, the war, and the restoration. You can see many such stories throughout Germany, and they serve as appropriate reminders against wars. Anti-war sentiments run very deep in Germany, as a result.

The large mosaic of St. George on the floor was hard to photograph because of the number of visitors. I waited patiently until there was a moment when all feet had left the space, and I could take a photo. You can see the blue light of the new church reflecting off the floor. It is a small space, but we were happy with our visit as we walked off into the night to look for a place where one could have a quiet drink before dinner.

Fahrenheit 451

In Ray Bradbury’s book “Fahrenheit 451”, books are illegal and the job of firemen is to burn them. Bradbury wrote this during a time when civil liberties were being eroded in the US. Much after I read the book I came across the history of the events which very directly influenced it. One memorial to those is in the open square on Unter Den Linden called Bebelplatz.

In plaques embedded into the flagstones, and in an artwork below the square, are memorials to the burning of books in this place on 10 May, 1933 by the Nazi Student’s Union. The square is bounded on two sides by university buildings, and by the state Opera on the third. It opens out to the Unter den Linden to the north, and across the street is the Humboldt university (the photo below was taken facing it). The building on the west (featured photo) was the university library.

We visited it again on a bright and cold day as the clock struck thirteen. Crowds of tourists cycled about, the middle of Berlin is cyclist’s area. Years ago we’d seen the moving installation by Micha Ullman which can be viewed through a glass panel set into the ground (the cluster of people in the photo above are standing around it). It shows empty shelves, symbolizing the books that were pulled out of the library by students, under the direction of the librarian and professors, to be burnt.

Erich Kaestner was one of the authors whose books were burnt. He stood in Bebelplatz, unrecognized, and later described the heavy rain as the fires kept going out and the firemen had to keep lighting the fire again and again. Bebelplatz is a place one can visit over and over again, because it reminds you that liberties we now take for granted can be eroded by elected leaders who create mobs behind whom they can hide their designs. One of the plaques embedded into the flagstones reminds us to watch out for early signs of such erosion by quoting from an 1820 work by Heinrich Heine: “That was but a prelude: when they burn books they will ultimately burn people too.”

Photography exhibitions in Berlin

I’d had a quick look at the list of photography exhibitions in Berlin before we left. It would be impossible to catch up with everything going on in photography if we stayed in Berlin for a month and visited only photo galleries. We didn’t even try.

Walking away from Kudamm one night we came across a wonderful large art and photography bookstore. Browsing through it I remembered that in the excitement of chasing street art I’d completely forgotten about photography. The Museum of Photography and C/O Berlin are close to each other and very close to the Zoologischer Garten S-bahn station. We targeted these two for our last morning in Berlin.

The Museum of Photography is housed in an old military building, and has a large exhibition space which coexists with a foundation devoted to the well-known erotic and fashion photographer Helmut Newton. I am not particularly fascinated by fashion photography, but the public at large disagrees with me on this. The uppermost floor of the museum had two fascinating exhibitions on. One was a look at transformations in cities. This is an idea which is still completely open, schools of thought have not yet formed, and the variety of ideas was visible in the variety of styles different photographers brought to the subject. The second showed the Cultural Revolution as seen by photographers. This period of China’s history is sufficiently close that it is still held in living memories, but far enough that a coherent story is emerging. The works of Hai Bo, Maleonn, Mu Chen and Shao Yinong, and Cao Kai together give a certain shape to this history.

We’d heard and read much about C/O Berlin. It moved from its old haunt in Oranienburger Strasse to the old USIS building (featured photo) in 2014. The building is lovely, and now that it is no longer the scene of street protests, one can see the shape that Bruno Grimmek had planned in 1956. It is perfectly suited to house a gallery. This had two wonderful exhibitions running. We spent a long time in the retrospective of Danny Lyon’s works. We decided to have lunch after this at the cafe in the glassed area in front of the gallery. This was full, and several groups seem to have come in only for the lunch. After we were served, we understood why the cafe is so popular.

After lunch we went on to look at the work of a photographer we had not encountered before: Willi Ruge. He was apparently very well known in the 1920s and 30s in Germany, since his work appeared in many German magazines of that time. This is first retrospective of his works, and it left The Family and me quite flabbergasted. At a time when cameras and planes were both new technology, Ruge not only took aerial photos, but also did sky diving and photographed himself doing it. His work fits right into the modernist art movements of his time. It was interesting to see also photos like the one whose caption you see in the image above: the more things change the more they seem to remain the same.

Ten Big Ones

Berlin is full of beautiful large murals. Some are commissioned, others are illegal. Some are by well-known artists, others by the not-yet-famous. The mural in the featured photo is visible from the Tiergarten S-bahn station. I don’t know who it is by.

Case McClaim’s mural at Heinrich Heine Allee (U8)

This famous mural by Case McClaim is right by one of the exits from the Heinrich Heine Allee U-bahn station on the U8 line. This area has a constantly changing variety of other wonderful work.

Mural by Agostino Iacurci at Moritplatz (U8)

Get off the U8 at the Moritzplatz station and walk to Prinzessinen Gaerten to get to this huge mural painted by Agostino Iacurci.

Mural by BLU near the southern end of Oberbaumbruecke

Take the U1 to the Schlesisches Tor station, and then walk towards Oberbaumbruecke. When you reach it, turn around and look for this mural by BLU before you cross the river. Look around and you will find an undergrowth of street art.

Tavar Zawacki’s mural at Urban Spree

Take M10 or M13 to the Warschauer Strasse stop and right at the corner of Revaeler Strasse and Warschauer Strasse is Urban Spree. This is a curated work by Tavar Zawacki, which has passed the date until which it was protected. By now it will have been painted over by Victor Ash.

Mural at Urban Spree (M10)

Behind Urban Spree are abandoned warehouses with ever-changing art work on the walls. I don’t know who made the one which you see above.

Selfie-monkey with a camera at the Anne Frank Zentrum

This large mural is in the incredible gallery near Anne Frank Zentrum on Rosenthaler Strasse. You can get there from the S-bahn station at Hackescher Markt or by taking U8 to the Weinmeisterstrasse station. I can’t find who painted it.

Mural at Bernauer Strasse in Berlin
Mural by Marcus Haas and Xi Design at Bernauer Strasse in Berlin (M10)

If you get off at the Bernauer Strasse stop of M10 and walk towards the Berlin Wall memorial you’ll see this work facing the road. It was designed Marcus Haas and executed by Xi Design (this is an advertising agency which has hacked the wild meme). I like the map of Berlin hidden in the marbling of fat in the slice of steak.

Two more works are easily visible from public transport, but I didn’t manage to photograph them. You see a stencil by JR when you take the M2 coming down from Prenzlauer Allee towards Alexanderplatz. Look to the right of the tram just as it gets towards the end of Prenzlauer Allee. The famous mural of the Cosmonaut by Victor Ash is visible from the U1 line. As you take the U-bahn from Kottbusser Tor towards Schlesischer Tor, look to your left just after starting.

There must be many others. These just the large ones The Family and I managed to see.