The Capital of Kunst? Berlin Show Seeks to Cement Art World Credentials

Young artists from around the world have flocked to the German capital, drawn by the cheap rents and the freedom to create. Berlin's mayor has big plans for their contribution to the city, starting with an art show opening this week and possibly culminating with a world-class art center.

Ryan McLaughlin doesn't look like someone who enjoys solitude. It's easy to imagine him standing in a bar and drinking a beer with his artist friends, or at a gallery opening. And judging by the stories he tells, this might be an accurate depiction of his lifestyle. Still, he says, he spends many hours alone in his studio every day, alone with his paints, cigarettes and a list of the paintings he still wants to paint.

He likes to listen to radio communications from the control towers of European and American airports through a live stream on the Internet because it reminds him that "somewhere, something is happening at this very moment."

As a painter, he could work anywhere in the world. He chose Berlin, he says, because "here I can afford to have a lot of time."

A Certain Unfinished Quality

McLaughlin and more than 80 other young artists, including 20 from Germany, will be able to show off their talents starting June 8, when the "Based in Berlin" show opens in five exhibition spaces throughout the city. The exhibition aims to show the best of the German capital, and it will answer the question of whether Berlin is truly a world-class art center.

Many of the artists who come to Berlin from various corners of the world also say they were drawn to the city because it is affordable, and in doing so they seem to be confirming what some might consider a cliché: Berlin is cheap, you don't have to get a job to make ends meet, and you can focus on your art, even to the extent of getting lost in it.

Others say that Berlin used to be cheaper, but that it still resembles the New York of the 1970s, possessing a certain unfinished quality decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and that no one knows in which direction the city is developing.

At 30, McLauglin exudes the smart nonchalance of America's East Coast. He studied in Providence, Rhode Island, about a four-hour drive from New York City. He says his education was geared toward the US East Coast art scene, toward things like who attended Richard Prince's last opening, what the artist was wearing and what the critics wrote. After finishing school, McLaughlin didn't want to go to New York, which he thought was too hectic, and he says he is too pale for Los Angeles, which left Berlin.

"I couldn't think of anything else," he says.

First the Scandinavians, Then the Americans

In fact, it's probably easier to be noticed in New York as an artist from Berlin, than as an artist living in New York. McLaughlin soon became acclimated to a country that at first intimidated him, because "it's Joseph Beuys territory and Anselm Kiefer country."

Now he has his studio and apartment in Berlin's Neukölln neighborhood, near Sonnenallee, with its Turkish barbecue snack bars and furniture shops. Young artists have flocked to the blue-collar districts of Neukölln, Moabit and some parts of Kreuzberg.

Trevor Lloyd, a Californian, puts it this way: "Berlin gives you street credibility," because of the city's rough flair. Lloyd went to school near Santa Barbara, in sunny California, but now he lives in Moabit, a neighborhood known for its large immigrant population and its enormous prison.

Simon Dybbroe Møller, a Dane, says that you can't even go out to buy milk in Berlin without running into someone who has something to do with art. First, there were the Scandinavians, he says, then came the Americans, and now the rest of the world has discovered the city.

"Just a few years ago, I thought everything was over, but then it really exploded," he says. "It's fantastic."

Less Paris Than New York

Paris failed as the epicenter of the avant-garde, because at some point anyone who could hold a brush desperately wanted to live there -- just not the people who felt confident enough to do great things. Today Paris is nothing but a setting for a city of artists. Berlin, on the other hand, wants to be more like New York, a city in which the art scene has been constantly reinventing itself for more than 60 years.

It's a task that is both easy and difficult at the same time. Whether something is accepted in the art world always depends on "whether the right, cool people are doing it," says one gallery owner.

One of the youngest participants in the Berlin show is 25-year-old Swedish performance artist Helga Wretman. She studied dance in Stockholm before coming to Berlin to be an artist. She's also a stuntwoman. In the past, anyone without a famous art academy on his or her resumé would have found it difficult to break into the art scene. The organizers describe Wretman's performance, as one of the artists opening the show, as "breathtaking."

When she came to Berlin six years ago, says Wretman, she fell in love with the city, and then with art. "I wouldn't have become an artist anyplace else," she says. It sounds cute, almost charming, and it doesn't really fit with Berlin.

Or does it?

Only for the 'Up and Coming'

Berlin itself is the real star of this show -- less as a motif than a myth that permeates everything. Much of the credit goes to the man who could easily view the show, and perhaps even the city itself, as his own. Mayor Klaus Wowereit initiated the exhibition, which he announced last year, and which he probably intends to whip out as his trump card in this fall's mayoral election campaign. The show is also intended as a dry run for the development of a new art center.

In the 1970s, Paris built its Centre Pompidou, named after the former president and intended to salvage the city's reputation as a center of the modern art world. Berlin's answer would be a Wowereit Center.

Three professionals were hired as advisors: Swiss national Hans-Ulrich Obrist and German Klaus Biesenbach are two of the world's most prominent curators, based in London and New York, respectively. Biesenbach is also seen as the godfather of the young art scene in Berlin, where he began his career. The third advisor is Christine Macel, from the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

The three experts have suggested five of their colleagues as curators. The team is both cosmopolitan and young, ranging in age from 24 to 32. The young curators, in turn, selected more than 80 artists, the supposed top performers in their fields.

The curators sent out scouts and assistants, asked around, toured the galleries and issued a call to Berlin artists to submit their portfolios. More than 1,200 were received. The team invited artists who are almost famous and others who are almost unknown. One of the requirements was that all of the artists in the show had to be "up-and-coming."

Clever Timing

This much effort is atypical for Berlin in its role as the German capital, and suddenly a decent sum of money, about €1.4 million ($2 million), was available. It was less than originally planned, because the exhibition site initially favored by Wowereit had to be abandoned, and yet it was generous, given the financial situation of many institutions.

Of course, a large segment of the art world, or much of Berlin, felt passed over. Some 2,500 people signed a petition against the show's concept. Many of the participating artists agree with the criticism. But that, too, is what makes Berlin what it is.

But most of these artists did not come to Berlin from abroad to boycott an exhibition whose opening was scheduled so cleverly that even the public attending the openings at the Venice Biennale, the directors, curators and collectors, could fly into Berlin without losing much time. This show is an opportunity. Aside from the city's galleries, there are few other venues in Berlin for artists to exhibit their work.


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