Organized by Phoenix Art Museum, Constructing New Berlin is the first major survey of contemporary art made in post-Wall Berlin, which is increasingly being recognized as a global nexus for contemporary art. Artists have flocked to the new capital of re-unified Germany, lured by generous grant programs, abundant and inexpensive studio spaces, and an expansive gallery scene. The city itself - its history, resurgence and rebuilding - also has provided inspiration and subject matter for these artists. This survey includes 16 Berlin-based artists of various nationalities working in painting, sculpture, photography, film, installation, video-installation, sound, and performance art. The majority of works are from the 21st century, including a number of new pieces made specifically for this project. After its premiere at Phoenix Art Museum, it will travel to Bass Museum of Art to be on view during the 2006 Art Basel Miami Beach. The exhibition is included with Phoenix Art Museum's general admission.
Berlin occupies a unique place in history as the last European city to lose the shackles of World War II. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the economic failure of the German Democratic Republic was evident in the vast urban tracts in states of despair and abandonment since World War II. Against this backdrop, however, was a new world of possibilities for the city. Berlin had always been a Mecca for artists, eccentrics, and creative types. With the Wall gone, a vast urban landscape with thousands of buildings opened up for squatters, artists, and bohemians of all stripes at the beginning of the 1990s. The city's history, and the rebuilding and restoration of the new Berlin, also provided a surge of energy and inspiration for the congregating artist community. What has emerged in the 21st century is a cultural scene thriving on many levels.
Berlin saw explosive growth in the 1990s, with the return of the nation's Capital, and with private investment in architecture. Vast areas of the former East Berlin, and its ruined iconic structures such as the Reichstag, have served as blank canvas for some of the world's leading architects - including Renzo Piano, Sir Norman Foster, Frank Gehry, Peter Eisenman, and Daniel Liebeskind. Through brilliant architecture, Berlin has incorporated its past as a central component of its new architectural landscape.
The character of the city itself also is a source of inspiration. In many ways, Berlin is the epicenter of 20th century history: a thriving commercial, cultural and industrial center in the early century, then the capital of Nazi Germany, destroyed in the final battle of Europe. Divided as an island in East Germany, it became the symbol of the Cold War and its demise. Walking through the city, this history presents itself in a constant array of surprising architectural juxtapositions. Layered on to this urban landscape are the inevitable sign posts of Globalism.
For Frank Thiel, the construction zone of eastern Berlin in the 1990s provided ready-made geometric abstractions for his monumental color photographs. In counterpoint, Erwin Kneihsl's silver gelatin prints of the disappearing churches in Berlin look like documents from another era. The film noir nature of the city inspired elements of the illusory and stunning video installation The Berlin Files by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. A non-linear film montage with surround sound, the piece has been acclaimed for its emotional range and abstract beauty. Similarly, Reynold Reynolds took advantage of the set-like nature of the city in his video Istanbul. The inter-connection between these two cities is topical and compelling. Monica Bonvicini's hybrid practice incorporates elements of minimalist sculpture, Modernist architecture, and performance art. Her architectural sculptural installation work in this exhibition, Fetishism of Commodity, refers to Marx's discussion of commodities as objects of desire beyond their intrinsic economic value. The work is a continuation of her subversion of the hierarchy of male dominated Modernist architecture.
Tacita Dean is a connoisseur of Berlin's Soviet-era Berlin buildings. This appreciation and awareness of the increasingly topical issues centered on the now razed Palast der Republik, the central government building of the German Democratic Republic, led in part to Dean's filming of Palast in 2004. Sabine Hornig's photographs have a similar quality of documenting a disappearing Berlin. Some of her works, like Café Moskow, record hip, trendy spots in the city. The Schule (School) series takes on stronger presence, in both form and content. The photographic transparencies are sandwiched between panes of glass and installed like windows to be viewed from either side, which give them an apparitional quality. The subjects of Ali Kepenek's photographs are the periphery of society, the margins and edges abundant in Berlin.
A certain apolitical nostalgia for the East has emerged, one that appreciates the curious design sensibility and acid palette of architecture, furniture, and design objects from the GDR. This nostalgia takes on an acute importance when considering works made by artists trained in the East, now living in re-unified Germany, such as the Dresden-trained painters Eberhard Havekost and Thomas Scheibitz. Scheibitz's paintings, highly imaginative and intelligently crafted, address a range of formal issues on structure, color interaction, and spatial illusion and abstraction versus representation. In Havekost's work, the subjects - often prosaic, if not mundane - become the props for sensuous paintings with a hidden depth of meaning.
Another somewhat surprising aspect of the Berlin art scene is the pervasive use of Industrial-era technologies. Carsten Nicolai straddles both low and high tech; he writes his own software for integrated light, video and electronic sound works like fades, created for this exhibition, but uses utilizes now archaic magnetic recording tape to visualize sound in his 2004 work static_3. Thomas Demand's high degree of facture begins with painstakingly constructed paper sculptures - sometimes two stories high - which form the subjects of his large format photographs that convincingly appear as actual rooms, objects, or buildings. The illusion leaves one to question the validity of truth through images, a staple of global communication.
For Olafur Eliasson, perception itself becomes the object of inquiry in his installation work. In 360 degree expectations, he employs a simple light projected through a lighthouse lens to create the illusion of a rolling horizon line in a circular room. While the illusion of natural phenomena is at once complete, the mechanism itself is central to the work. Swetlana Heger also blurs the distinction between truth and media representation in her performance art pieces of faux fashion shoots, where she is creator, orchestrator, and model. Johannes Kahrs takes something of the opposite approach, abstracting from media sources and reversing meaning. Taking stills from B movies, especially bloody horror movies, Kahrs turns the figurative imagery into lyrical, almost impressionistic works.
Phoenix Art Museum has published, in conjunction with Prestel, a 160-page, fully-illustrated catalogue for the exhibition with a forward by the director of Phoenix Art Museum, Jim Ballinger, and essays by: Brady Roberts, the exhibition's curator and the Museum's curator of modern and contemporary art; Christoph Tannert, director of Künstlerhaus Bethanien; Jörg Heiser, editor of Frieze Magazine; and Angeli Sachs, editor and author on architecture. The catalogue is available for purchase in The Museum Store.
Constructing New Berlin is organized by Phoenix Art Museum and presented by the global financial services firm UBS. Additional support is provided by Phoenix Art Museum's Contemporary Forum. Promotional support is provided by The Arizona Republic, News Radio 620 KTAR, KJZZ/KBAQ Public Radio Phoenix, Jewish News of Greater Phoenix, and Latino Perspectives Magazine.
Left: Stadt 2/36/A (Berlin Reichstag), Frank Thiel, 1998. C-print mounted to Plexiglas. Courtesy of the artist and Sean Kelly Gallery, New York. © Frank Thiel. Center: Istanbul, Reynold Reynolds, 2005. Video installation. Courtesy of the artist. Right: The Berlin Files (woman on phone), Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, 2003. Video still from video installation with surround-sound environment. Courtesy of the artists and Luhring Augustine Gallery, New York.