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Culture

Berlin 24/7: Art today, gone tomorrow

The German capital's art scene includes installations far from state museums that evoke local history — for a limited time only. DW columnist Gero Schliess stumbles across two and is impressed by the stories they tell.

Art and creativity abound in Berlin: in the streets, in subway stations, on lampposts and walls, and even sometimes, in public toilets. All entirely apart from the state-subsidized art world in museums.

Noble sparks of creativity can even been seen at the somewhat shabby "Kotti" — the nickname Berliners use for the junction and subway station at Kottbusser Tor that lies right in the heart of the Kreuzberg neighborhood. One Sunday, I was strolling through the area when I suddenly became aware of more than 20 great big pairs of eyes staring right at me. Some looked concerned, others stern, and yet others still seemed to be looking daggers at me. None appeared joyful or smiling.

The oversized pairs of eyes stared at me from various banners hanging from balconies on a towering building. What's going on here? I ask an elderly man in a wheelchair slowly moving down the street past decrepit shops toward the "Kotti." "They want to see what happens," he told me. "They want things to be like they were in the past, when the junkies packed in their syringes." I stop short, then learn more.

big banner with photo of eyes (DW/G. Schließ)

Somebody's watching you!

Locals take artistic action

They are the eyes of residents of the Kreuzberg Center ("Kreuzberg Zentrum") a 1970s housing project in the area where more than 1,200 people live, the man said. And there is a reason why they all look so serious, he said: the "Kotti" is Berlin's biggest hotspot for drug dealers and criminals.

Beginning in the 1990s, the junkies took to hanging around in the project's stairwells. "We want to show that people live here, that the Kottbusser Tor is more than just a projection screen for everything that goes wrong in the city," the B.Z. newspaper quotes a resident. The locals want to have a say in the future of their neighborhood.

large apartment building with banners of eyesr (DW/G. Schließ)

Angry, staring eyes: A disconcerting protest

I am impressed. Where the city and the police have left the citizens in the lurch, the people who find themselves at the receiving end do not get mired in frustration but are galvanized into action, in this case artistic action. It's a unique mode of articulation, the city's typical gruff and outspoken "Berliner Schnauze" attitude as artwork.

Read more: Berlin 24/7: Why Berlinerisch is disappearing in Berlin

Art galore

The Kaufhaus Jandorf in downtown Berlin, once described as the little sister of the Berlin's famous KaDeWe department store, is quite the opposite of the Kreuzberg Center building. The 1904 building at one time housed East Germany's fashion institute (despite East Germany never having any fashion, it still had a fashion institute!), and later it was used for parties and arts events. Ahead of the national election in September, the Christian Democratic Party (CDU) installed a walkable party program for the public.

But at the time of my visit, the building featured an autumnal art exhibition co-organized by the Berlin Deschler gallery that used the structure as a wonderfully morbid backdrop for a grand art event: No, I'm not talking about the photographic portraits by Sven Marquardt, notorious bouncer of the Berghain techno club, whose artworks are showing in another part of the building.

Read more: Berlin 24/7: Breakdance as a symbol of freedom

large murals in building, people i (DW/G. Schließ)

Castelli's large murals, done in stark black and white

I am fully focused on Luciano Castelli. The artist lives in Paris and is known in Berlin. He painted at the Jandorf for five days and nights, he told me. He must have been in a painting frenzy, mainly wielding a broomstick with a wide paintbrush attached to the handle. Castelli otherwise could not have painted the huge concrete walls in so short a time.

He created large-scale, predominantly black-and-white murals showing figures, bodies and faces. Some look like his wife Alexandra and their son Leandro and are expressive, sensual, provocative.

1980s reloaded

Then I see traces of Castelli's past as a punk artist in Berlin in the 1980s, when he was part of a group of young artists that stirred up the art scene. Some of the photos he took of himself show the artist in erotic, lascivious poses, staging himself as a kind of toy boy.

Luciano Castelli, photo, man painted glittery gold (DW/G. Schließ)

A different era: Castelli lived and worked in Berlin in the 1980s

Martina Goldbeck, an artist from Berlin who I meet and speak with, tells me that tonight everything recalls the era of the Berlin Wall, from "dilapidated buildings to walls that have things smeared on them, people standing around — and there's booze." Only one difference: back then, there was no VIP admission.

08.2016 Kolumne Gero Schließ

DW columnist Gero Schliess

Something else is different this time, too. Luciano Castelli will paint over his artwork in seven days' time. The walls will be white again, as if the week-long exhibition had been nothing but a phantom.

One thing I've learned is that even in Berlin, overabundance doesn't necessarily prevail. There are places where at the end of the day, art disappears without a trace.

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