Lose yourself

What I remember about painting as a child was a joy in spreading colour. I felt some of that when I stood in front of the enormous wall, part of which you see in the featured photo. You can lose yourself in the colour, the textures of the wall, and the little details the painter has put on it. When you step back, the camera is a small thing which is almost lost in the larger picture.

In the days when the RAW-gelaende was in actual use as a railway workshop, this must have been a loading door for equipment. I can imagine the delight in being able to paint over such a large area in three colours. I can imagine stepping back to decide how to use the white and black to make the colours pop.

1-UP crew is an artist’s collective that seems to do a lot of business with Urban Spree. They appear together in every web reference I could reach for the crew. Here is one of the doors they painted in the backyard of Urban Spree.

For good measure, here is a second door painted by the 1-UP crew, also in the back yard of Urban Spree.

The Family and I stood in front of this wall and admired the colours. “What is it?” I asked. “I haven’t the faintest”, she replied. Is it incomplete? Is it a question you can ask about any piece of street art?

Could a travel blog post end with a more appropriate picture?

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.