A Glossy Art Show at Berghain Nightclub Counters Cynical Expectations and Offers a Moving Love Song to Berlin
The legendary venue has reopened with a 117-artist show.
By most accounts, Berlin has fared pretty well in ensuring continuity for its diverse art scenes since the spread of the coronavirus. However, while artists and freelance cultural workers swiftly received financial support from the Berlin Senate with few questions asked, the city’s night clubs—at least as crucial to Berlin’s identity, creative industries, and cash flow as art, if not more—were struggling to stay afloat when they received emergency funds. The legendary techno club Berghain, perhaps Berlin’s most famous institution, decided to do things differently.
With many of its employees on kurzarbeit (short-term work leave), the monumental former power plant stood nearly empty since cleaning up after its last party on March 7. With few other options on the horizon, the club’s reclusive owners approached the Boros Foundation, one of Berlin’s esteemed and outward-facing private art collections, with an idea: why not host an art exhibition until the dancing can resume?
At the exhibition’s press opening on Monday, Berlin’s culture senator Klaus Lederer described the moment when, amid sensationalized articles about collectors fleeing the German capital and headlines predicting the end of Berlin’s reign as a cultural hotspot, Lederer received a text message from collector Christian Boros: “We should talk. Don’t worry, it’s nothing bad.”
The result of that SMS is a three-way collaboration called Studio Berlin, a 117-artist show that occupies nearly every corner of the multi-level club. All works on view are by artists living in the German capital and most were produced since the onset of the pandemic. This mammoth undertaking is supported by the city with an injection of €250,000 ($294,300). Tickets for visits guided by Berghain employees and Boros employees cost between €18 and €20 ($21 to $24). The club is open again.
This a good moment for a full disclosure, followed by a confession: I used to work at Berghain until 2008 and before that, at its predecessor, Ostgut. In an unrelated chain of events, my husband became the manager of the club’s own record label, Ostgut Ton, three years ago. Like many Berliners, I have a personal history with the place, and strong views about the club thanks to the formative moments and absolute freedom I experienced there.
Accordingly, I was ready to dislike the exhibition before I even entered. I rolled my eyes at the predictable artist list, and the inevitable mentions in news articles of how visitors can finally circumvent the club’s tough and opaque door policy. With an architecture that’s so dominant and fetishized, there are too many traps, I thought, especially when attempting a show that’s aiming to be accessible to a wider public, not the art-insider audience that will first line up to see it. I was relieved to be proven wrong.
A Love Song to Berlin
There are artworks at every corner of the club, but strikingly, rather than feel over-crowded, the art enables the viewer to take note of the care and inventiveness that went into every detail of the club’s interior. On the main dance floor, this densely installed show offers reflections on the temporary absence of bodies. On several elevated platforms usually packed with sweating club-goers, French-born artist Jimmy Robert has draped, folded, and layered photographs of himself captured mid-movement. Over the course of the show, the artist will re-shape the sculptural, bunched-up prints. Next to it, elongated steel pieces by Jesse Darling resemble exhausted figures. And across from the DJ booth, between the club’s famous Function One speakers, sits an inflatable plastic bubble by artist Puppies Puppies, perhaps marking the ultimate spot on the dance floor where one becomes engulfed by warm sound and warmer bodies.
To the back of the dance floor, in one of the rubber-and-steel lounging structures, a photograph by Josephine Pryde shows a severed bovine tongue on a butcher’s hook, apt viscera for a club notorious for its dark rooms. (Finding out later the work’s title is The Tongue of Donald J. Trump gave it a different spin.)
One of the few permanent works in the entire exhibition is in the bathrooms on that floor, where Cyprien Gaillard engraved a work into the stainless-steel partition wall. Titled The Land of Cockaigne, it’s both an homage to the Breughel painting of the same title, and (when sounded out phonetically) a cheeky reference to the reason why people rarely enter the club’s bathroom stalls alone.
The other permanent installation is a floor piece called Shoegazing by Christine Sun Kim, who is deaf: The artist patterns the vibrations of the bass on the dance floor at the upstairs Panorama Bar. Both will join the club’s already permanently installed collection of art, not far from a trio of large Wolfgang Tillmans photographs that have presided over Panorama Bar for years.
In the Halle, a part of the building that’s only open on special occasions, the exhibition feels less specifically related to Berghain itself, and more evocative of the self-organized exhibitions Berlin artists have put up over the decades in unused buildings all over the city. A site-specific installation of mirrors by Olafur Eliasson, however, provides an unexpected new perspective on the club: Berghain not only bans photography, but also mirrors—you won’t find them in the restrooms or anywhere else. It gives clubbers the profound freedom of not seeing themselves. Eliasson’s piece multiplies the viewer’s image endlessly, such that one’s only glimpse of themselves inside the club, fittingly, is trapped in infinity.
Indeed, Studio Berlin offers a new experience of Berghain also for those who know its nooks and crannies well. And perhaps unsurprisingly, my favorite moment was admittedly personal. A video installation by Jonas Brinker shows a deserted, unfinished tourist resort in Egypt that is now populated by stray dogs. It’s a poignant metaphor for an entire world suddenly forced to a screeching halt by a virus. Yet on a much smaller scale, it’s also a reversal of realities: under normal circumstances, the day crew of welders and builders as well as the people in the offices bring their dogs to work during the week. Here, four-legged creatures (including my three-year old Brussels Griffon) running around the club would actually signal business as usual.
At its best moments, Studio Berlin feels like a love song to Berlin. The city has risen from the ashes many times over and has always managed to adapt and reinvent itself, attracting new creative energy each time around. It takes a certain type of artist, musician, thinker, and doer to thrive rather than get lost in the freedom this city affords. But once you get it, it’s hard to imagine being anywhere else.
Studio Berlin at Berghain is on view until the end of the year. Book your tour here.
Learn more about the events going on at Berlin Art Week here.
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