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Stage frights.

If it's possible to enjoy what's taking place in Berlin at the moment, it's only by watching the failure of all the strategies the state has cooked up for the most insane representational commissions in art, architecture, and other symbolic forms. Two extremely disparate parts of the city that spent half a century under the most dissimilar conditions are expected not only to coalesce, but to assume the role of capital of a new nationstate called Germany. Of course, every undertaking here is, to say the least, overdetermined, but this fact can't serve as an excuse for a cultural offensive that seems committed above all to making over the city into a delusionary image of its aspirations. The number of unemployed and the visibility of those tallying them are rising in proportion to ever more lavish investment in gastronomy, gentrification, and gargantuanism. At a time when school and university budgets have been slashed in half, exhibitions and congresses devote their energy to finding ways to represent Germany and its new capital. The big question of what exactly is supposed to be represented remains, and the only sure answer is, build stage sets.

When it comes to spectacles, after all, Berlin has experience. At the end of the cold war, both sides of the wall put their faith in the performing arts, with their connection to the Weimar Republic and its perpetually invoked myth of golden-age Berlin. Even the recent, monumentalizing celebrations of the Brecht centenary could be seen as an attempt to produce nostalgia for (the now fangless) former conditions. Every so often, of course - when certain movies are screened, say, Brecht's only film, Kuhle Wampe, a frequent feature these days on German TV - one can see that Weimar Berlin, allegedly spilling over with jazz and avant-gardism, was clearly more provincial in its aspirations and its politics than the architects of a new Germany would care to admit.

The overwhelming impression of the city - the construction in Potsdamer Platz, the gentrification of Mitte in the former East, the new museums, malls, and megalomanias - is one of confusion. The problem is less the lack of orientation than the excess. In the quest for an "identity" for the capital, the preferred approach is to import the trademark of some other charming (or at least reputedly important) world capital into the otherwise unattractive, bad-tempered, Prussian metropolis. The Hoffmann Collection, for example, is presented in the style of an '80s SoHo loft. Every bar in Mitte is painted in the same translucent, colorful style one knows from the living rooms of early '80s art collectors, as if somebody had forced them to conform at gunpoint or by recourse to a Blinky Palermo catalogue. The thousand and one yuppie restaurants, when not based on South American motifs, love to take as a model the elegant traditionalism of '80s Vienna, and recently I landed in Borchardt's, Berlin's answer to La Coupole. At least this overcrowded and overpriced restaurant, with its cheap and charmingly outdated notions of glamour, was modeled on the West Berliner old-school chic of the cold-war days and was reminiscent of documentaries of Berlinale openings. That evening I saw a touching rendezvous of the typical West Berlin demi-celebrities, with starlets, shady industrialists, and '70s pop stars rubbing shoulders. The high point of the evening was the appearance of Berlin's only living Hollywood actor, the sixty-something Horst Buchholz, best known as Chico in The Magnificent Seven and still unmistakably a teenage rebel in his tailored Nehru jacket. The typical Berlin ladies in their over-the-top, Winnie Mandela-style shades raised their eyes excitedly as their youthful hero made his entrance.

The Berlin art world is not immune to the excess of orientation, and the pressure to perform gradually turns to hysteria under the burden of capital investment and state power. In the '80s, the division of labor between the two German art centers, Cologne and West Berlin, was still relatively clear: on the Rhine the market reigned, together with the old-boy network, the gossip, and the amusing atmosphere of chaos and mercantilist enthusiasm; the underground and counterculture movements as well as the official art boom operated at the international rather than national level. In West Berlin, on the other hand, the alternative side of the scene was firmly anchored in the local milieu. The artistic productions of the underground were, until the end of the '80s, paltry, and what little mainstream notoriety Berlin artists achieved could be chalked up to the ossified macho posturing of the local heroes of painting the greater and lesser Lupertzes - who held court late in the evening at the Paris Bar.

The old dialectic between a relatively tough, slightly bureaucratic (but therefore to a certain extent incorruptible) culture of critique (Berlin) and an easygoing and fashionable (but aesthetically vital and productive) bohemian milieu (Cologne) had offered no way around the limitations of each side but had always allowed one to flee, to find refuge in the other side, when one had had enough. In the early '90s, with the conquest of Mitte by the new critical artists and collectives like Minimal Club, Buro Bert, and Botschaft e.V. ("Embassy" or "Message") - a generation of artists that had digested but left behind the experiments with pop culture and yuppie art of the '80s - there arose for the first time an artistic life in Berlin sufficient unto itself.

It didn't take long for things to change: Berlin tried to assume the role of art market and Cologne that of critique; at the same time, the new task of representing the nation and its history with all the dignity of a capital city fell to Berlin. What's more, the division of labor between senseless capitalist productivity and the bureaucratic establishment of administrative purpose collapsed into a single, national culture for which the capital city was called on to give a new image and meaning. And the formerly separate categories of state representation and capitalist representation were reunified: capital revealed itself throughout in the form of the state in Berlin. Domestic and multinational corporations commissioned famous architects to construct intimidating monuments to the stockpiling of power. Whether it is the Deutsche Bank inviting a Guggenheim affiliate in house or the former avant-garde gallerist Max Hetzler exhibiting the pertinent architects (Hans Kollhoff, for example), through the ostentatious harnessing of aesthetic discussions to problems of state and national representation, Berlin has attempted to come into its own as a world-class capital city. Meanwhile, the city wears as a badge its temporary reputation as Europe's biggest construction site. Even an amateur psychoanalyst, though, can see that Berliners live in mortal fear of the moment all the representative, slapped-up show buildings will be complete.

How exactly should up-to-date (i.e., both national and global) capital-city capitalism be established under German conditions? The question has been posed of the artists in Berlin for some time now. First there were the pioneering curatorial attempts to connect the genuine potential of early '90s critical art to the culture of the capital city, but this effort failed largely due to the overwhelming resistance of those groups to participation in Berlin's new politics of cultural representation. Then a good half of the important Cologne gallerists (from Hetzler and Paul Maenz to Schipper and Krome) relocated to Mitte to offer the usual platter of international positions - which had made sense in Cologne, but didn't in the unprepared Berlin art world. Finally came the overkill of the new, bombastic depositories of the usual, doesn't matter-which mixture of classics of the avantgarde and classics of the recent market - for example, the pompously restored Hamburger Bahnhof and its show pieces of sufficiently well-known and happily big-scale art, mostly from the Marx collection: from the charming smaller space filled with sweet early Warhol drawings to the Kiefers and Mario Merzs strewn in a schoolyard-size entry hall.

The increasingly nationalistic climate accommodates itself more and more to the marriage of state representation and accessibility in its commodified form provided by capital-city architecture. After the neo-nationalistic cultural offensive of the early '90s promoted a couple of careers, co-opted the Left's old tactic of strategically breaking cultural taboos, and managed to move the hegemonic cultural center a good ways to the right, the campaign seemed at some point to fade. But last year the familiar themes and players returned with a vengeance in the visual arts. Now filmmaker Hans-Jurgen Syberberg is allowed to bustle around Documenta and the Hamburger Bahnhof as if there had never been a problem with his anti-Semitic remarks, and playwright Botho Strauss has again become the dispenser of slogans for Eckhart Gillen, the curator who put together the exhibition "Deutschlandbilder" (German images) at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, the Berlin art-world event of the fall season. The press exuberantly agreed on the importance of the show and praised it for its allegedly critical stance toward the nation, saying that at last Germany could be reconsidered as a theme without the "usual" tensions. Berlin's gallerists obediently joined ranks, putting together little shows with German titles and themes.

After a brief intermission in a Documenta year - during which an overwhelming majority of the German art critics had joined ranks against Catherine David's "neo-Marxist" program - the visual arts witnessed the violation of a few cultural taboos from the right. Alluding to the key text of the earlier debate, Botho Strauss' notorious profession of his allegiance to the political right (printed by Spiegel in 1993), Gillen procured material for that urgently necessary ware, "German identity." The catalogue texts and publications accompanying "Deutschlandbilder" neither affirm nor deny the mantra of the German cultural right - that the reunited nation, like all others, is entitled to a cultural identity of its own (a wonderful refrain given the growing restrictions on immigration and the use of deportation measures against those who have already managed to penetrate the fortress of Europe). Instead of essentialisms, the show offered a synthetic idea of Germany in some ways even more insidious: the idea of Germany as the divided country unified by its artistic productions. In fact, what's "German" about all these divided, isolated, and otherwise unconnected positions is their very state of being divided. The formulation runs as follows: ours is a country whose identity is built from a lot of local identities fighting one other, but in their fighting spirit they are all German. The rhetoric of the show may even remind one of pre-Bismarckian nationalism leading up to the founding of the Second Reich in 1870.

The exhibition itself, however, gathered a surprisingly ideology-free collection of German art of the postwar era. "Deutschlandbilder" presented itself not through a given canon or art-historical angle but through an almost neutral massing of spectacular works - freely pointing out conflict and crisis - by unimpeachable German men from Beuys to Beckmann, Polke to Kippenberger, and Heartfield to Haacke. Of course, this approach gave rise to very direct thematic interpretations of the works, readings as content-fixated as the most vulgar Marxism they pretend to counter. Gerhard Richter's RAF cycle shows up in the catalogue as somehow indicating that prison conditions of the Baader-Meinhof group couldn't have been that bad - after all, there's a record player in the picture. Albert Oehlen's ironic paraphrase of Rodchenko is taken as a mnemonic of the Germanic and the Ritualistic.

That the art in this exhibition could be of any kind, as long as it was German art, was the most important maxim. Even Eva Hesse - who bumped the percentage of women represented to a daunting 7.6 - becomes a German artist. (Hitler, so the old joke goes, was Austrian.) The second maxim, and one that could have a less laughable and more permanent effect, is a theory of nationalism based on territorial claims: there's no special "substance" or "essence" about German history, but a great deal has happened on German ground. Not all of it was good, but all of it was German. This demarcation of a territory as German and as the stage on which a long, complicated history has taken place is in fact crucial for the current ideological situation of the arts in Germany, especially in Berlin. From the building of a Holocaust memorial in the new capital to the question about which artworks should be displayed in the renovated Reichstag, art and architecture assume a primary role in many debates. This territorial demarcation finds itself in perfect harmony with all the nostalgic stage sets of the old Berlin, like the kitschy reconstruction of the Hotel Adlon at the Brandenburg Gate. Berlin, the ancient city of theaters, must now itself become a stage, with works of art in the wings as tributes to a long, obscure past.

Perhaps a lack of precision in the demarcation of territory, though in a different sense, has been the problem with activist art circles in Berlin and the rest of Germany. The counter-initiatives to the usual fall offensive of large-scale exhibitions, art fairs, and joint openings - in 1995 ("Messe 2") in Cologne and in 1996 ("minus 96") in Berlin - have increasingly suffered from the fact that those participating didn't want to reach any decision that would mean excluding any other possibility. Nonetheless, "minus 96" helped generate last summer's nationwide inner-city protests, with the participation of activist artists, against the privatization of public space, especially train stations and malls, as well as against the often racist repression and deportation of the homeless, drug users, and purported dealers. Still, in 1997, nobody seemed to want to organize the generally heated events that were becoming all too predictable.

If anything, the art of the activist Berlin underground was more convincing over the last year than the activism. The fondness for an ironically refined aesthetic of handicraft and improvisation and the preference for drawing - as evidenced in the work of Andreas Sieckmann, Gunter Reski, and Judith Hopf - may be the distinguishing stylistic mark of countercultural artists in Berlin. The improvisational emphasis also gives form to a political rejection of the rebuilding of Berlin through New York-style "zero tolerance" toward crime, national monuments, and capital's unfettered right to self-determination. Meanwhile, even this ten-year-old aesthetic of the unfinished and the provisional has become thoroughly reflexive, and the artists who draw on it have realized that it can no longer be deployed in coy or naive fashion. Such gestures now unambiguously stand for an instinctive recoiling from commodification as well as from fixed signifiers of all sorts, even the familiar one of "process." To make this prohibition absolutely clear, many combine the aesthetic of the temporary and handmade with a combative or humorous emphasis on content.

In this context, Alice Creischer, Andreas Sieckmann, Josef Strau, and Amelie Wulffen's recent film, Die Krumme Pranke (The crooked paw), based on Claymation figures that portray the crimino-capitalistic entanglements of Berlin construction policy, offered a convincing counterpart to the 120 Days of Bottrop, the muscularly slapstick commentary from Shock Theater director and talk-show host Christoph Schlingensief. The latter, a highly coded comic revenge on the new Berlin, refers not only to Pasolini's treatment of Sade but above all to Fassbinder's In a Year of Thirteen Moons (the lead from Thirteen Moons, Volker Spengler, and Fassbinder actresses Irm Hermann and Margit Cartensen are all members of Bottrop's cast). In Bottrop, a movie is to be filmed at Potsdamer Platz and the zombies of the historically repressed reemerge as stock characters - a pointed comment on the new nation's repression of the Nazi past as well as its attempt to banish the German '68ers and their central aesthetic achievement, the so-called New German Cinema, from the hegemonic center. Schlingensief's hysterical film is fittingly subtitled "The Last New German Film."

Two exhibition spaces at once close to and far from both the gentrified spaces in Mitte and those that have completely given up on artistic activities in favor of the political are Galerie Neu and Laden in der Schillerstrasse. At Neu, Katharina Wulff recently exhibited her paintings, which simultaneously return to and question the aesthetic of lightness and the provisional, and Lukas Duwenhogger displayed his highly coded installations featuring paintings based on the concept of innuendo (their frame of reference: Cecil Beaton's design for My Fair Lady and the French sports and society photographer Jacques-Henri Lartigue). Gunnar Reski, who routinely makes appearances as a critic and also had a show at Neu, runs the "store" on Schillerstrasse, where, most recently, for example, Judith Hopf's installation - which created a "rainy afternoon," with improvised water pumps, inside the gallery - pulled off the feat of making an aesthetically calculated work look trashy.

Very little of the counterculture works its way into the mainstream Berlin art world. Gallery culture is well insulated against influences from the underground or from relay stations like Bruno Brunnet and Nicole Hackert's strongly British-influenced gallery, Contemporary Fine Arts (which recently exhibited the interesting work of Hamburg painter and caricaturist Daniel Richter, an extremely dedicated activist who wants to separate his artistic and extra-artistic activities, criticizing in harsh terms those who mix different levels of enunciation), or the US- and especially California-oriented Neugerriemschneider, which, for example, introduced Sharon Lockhart's new film Goshogaoka (1997) at last year's Berlin Art Fair. (Also noteworthy was the show of Berlin's most brilliant exile, Merlin Carpenter, in January at Hetzler's.) Nor does Berlin's flourishing and international club culture exert much influence on the art scene (unlike that of Cologne, where every other DJ produces gallery art, and vice versa).

The mainstream discussion of aesthetics this year has been centered on the planned Holocaust memorial with which - so it is beginning to appear - the new republic of Berlin would once and for all symbolically buy its freedom from the past. The slightly disgusting question as to whether it is desirable for the children of the perpetrators to commemorate all victims of the Holocaust or only the Jewish ones runs its often obscene course, as does the fundamental aesthetic question that goes along with it: Can a monument "represent," "reflect," etc., the horror? No, but a discussion can become horrific. Very few contributors to the debate have succeeded in facing the instrumentalization of the Holocaust and of the memorial brought on by the neo-national delirium around the laying of the foundation stone.

A central problem is the fact that all contributions to the discussion - and for almost a year now, hardly a day goes by without some new op-ed piece - proceed from some classic aesthetic consideration of representation and representability or the relation between the object and representation in artistic and nonartistic depictions, and then reach dead ends when the subject turns to the Holocaust. In principle, of course, the Holocaust is neither representable nor unrepresentable. In contrast to the discussions occasioned by Spielberg's Schindler's List and Claude Lanzmann's Shoah, however, the debate not only has to consider the artistic approach of Richard Serra and Peter Eisenman, whose blueprint for the project most feel will be executed, but also the new German state as a sort of co-creator. After all, Helmut Kohl himself put a halt to a design chosen in an earlier competition. The pressures on artists and architects to act as surrogates for the state in fact define cultural life as it exists in Berlin, somewhere between "Deutschlandbilder" and the Holocaust memorial.

Surely one of the reasons so many hopes have been pinned on artists and architects in Berlin was Daniel Libeskind's stunning success in building the newly opened Jewish Museum (ironically, he won the commission for the museum even before Reunification), which has been virtually unanimously hailed for its narrow, voidlike passageway. With the museum, Libeskind managed to come up with a symbol for a feeling many have of an emptiness, a nothingness, within Berlin, the region, and its culture. Even the opponents of the Holocaust memorial (or at least its smarter opponents) have seized on the mnemonic power of the museum, its gaps and gashes, to plead for a stop to the blind building fervor, arguing that this nonproduction, this gap itself, should be allowed to serve as the Holocaust memorial.

A comprehensible idea, aesthetically and otherwise justified, to be sure: I too want to avoid sacrificing the half-decayed Berlin, its ruins and its dirt, to the muscle-flexing of Daimler-Benz and banditlike construction companies. Yes, stop all the building and leave Potsdamer Platz as it is. But why does one need the Holocaust to plead such a case? Why do amusing but hapless pranklike schemes need the murder of the European Jews to sanction their arguments? At a time when sentimentalizing and reactionary criticism is voiced against the memorial (e.g., that it would prevent us from understanding personal fates; that it would be out of place in the new government quarters), building Serra and Eisenman's monument seems the most satisfactory solution. Naturally, the thought of some German head of state leading a guest to the Holocaust memorial, so that the victims of the Germans can become a sight-seeing landmark in their symbolic capital, is sick-making. But all the counterproposals to building a memorial - and enough have been suggested - would apparently be even worse. The problem lies elsewhere.

The anachronistic idea of erecting and symbolically elevating a new nation-state in the middle of Europe is grotesque enough in itself. It becomes thoroughly impossible when the state in question happens to be a German one - one that, when it is forced to reckon with its historical guilt, attempts to resolve once and for all its enduring, cumbersome memories by trying to relegate them to remote symbols of the state. The fact that art seems to be of almost no help at all in this operation is actually a positive outcome of the debate; that a modernist solution remains the most bearable one shows that the era of modernism was perhaps the last in which art and the state could coexist in a way that could remain critical. Today, on the contrary, the alternative is between blind affirmation and undialectical underground stances.
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Title Annotation:art trends in Berlin, Germany
Author:Diederichsen, Diedrich
Publication:Artforum International
Date:Apr 1, 1998
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