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Culture

Berlin, Scandinavian Art Capital

The roughly 6,200 Danes, Finns, Icelanders, Norwegians and Swedes who've made Berlin their home may not stand out in the three-million-strong city. But in one field there's no overlooking them: art.

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Nordic artists: part of Berlin's vibrant art scene


When Lise Nellemann moved to Berlin from Copenhagen in 1992, just three years after the fall of the Wall, the city seemed to be infused with a sense that anything was possible.

"I needed a challenge," said Nelleman, who describes herself as an artist-curator. She says that her career was going well back home, but that she had become tired of showing her work at the same places over and over again.

Nelleman wasn't alone in opting for a change of scene in Berlin. Hundreds of Scandinavian artists have been drawn to the German capital in recent years, contributing to a lively and international arts community.

So, what makes Berlin so special to Scandinavian artists?

Annika Ström, Skandinavische Künstler in Berlin

Annika Ström (Sweden), "16 Minutes," Video still, 2003

One obvious explanation is the city's accessibility. The German capital is only 740 kilometers (460 miles) south of Copenhagen. It's geographically the nearest metropolis to most of Scandinavia and twice the size of the largest Nordic city, Stockholm. The proximity also helps artists from Scandinavia keep tabs on the art scene back home.

Atle Gerhardsen, 40, who ran a gallery in Oslo for five years, closed shop and moved his operations to the German capital several years ago.

"You can keep a good eye on your home country from here," he said. "You could easily go back and forth. That's more difficult if you go to New York."

Money makes a difference

Berlin's close proximity isn't only practical for visits home, but it's also an economic factor, allowing artists to quickly and cheaply go back north to raise funds. The Nordic countries have strong traditions of supporting the arts, which come in handy in bankrupt Berlin, where the city budget for culture takes a million-euro licking year for year.

Until this year, Nellemann had to rely entirely on funding from the North -- as Scandinavians call their region -- to power Sparwasser HQ, a project space in Berlin's central Mitte district she co-founded in 2000.

Berlin's low prices help to attract the artists, too.

"You can find a small apartment, you find a small studio in the center of the city," Gerhardsen said. "And this is not really possible in London or Paris or New York."

Indeed, Berlin does have comparatively cheap rents. It ranked 20th in the Economist Intelligence Unit's spring 2004 worldwide cost of living index, while Oslo was dubbed the 3rd most expensive city along with Paris. Copenhagen placed 5th, London 6th, Reykjavik, the Icelandic capital, 8th and Helsinki, Finland, 11th.

Nordische Künstler in Berlin Laura Horelli

Laura Horelli (Finland), "7th Floor: Strausberger Platz / Mannerheimintie," 2003, photographed in Berlin and Helsinki

Just like home?

There's more to Berlin's appeal than just proximity and low rents. Gerhardsen stressed the comfort factor.

"Berlin has been the main cultural city since way back," he said. "It's natural that after the Wall came down and things started to happen, we (Scandinavians) would start to turn away from other cities. And Germany's very close culturally for Norwegians and Swedes and Danes -- it's very easy to get comfortable."

And the city's art scene is unique in other respects, too.

"The advantage of Berlin as opposed to elsewhere is that you don't need to have a gallery to have an international career," said Aris Fioretos, councilor for culture at the Swedish embassy in Berlin.

The hip factor

"There's a new kind of art scene that has evolved that isn't based on galleries but on institutions," he said. "You have mobile curators. You don't need to have a gallery to have a career. Especially since the decision to become the capital about 10 years ago, it's become a city that's been constantly negotiating its identity. In terms of its social subcultures, it's more open and easy to get access to the city."

Schrift auf ehemaligem Palast der Republik

Lars Ramberg (Norway), "Palast der Zweifel" (Palace of Doubt), a Berlin installation, 2005

But Fioretos was careful to point out that the appeal for Nordic artists is an isolated phenomenon.

"What attracts people to Berlin is Berlin, not Germany," he said. "Germany has no hip factor at all."

When Helsinki-born Laura Horelli, 28, completed her art degree in Frankfurt in 2001, she, like more than half of her graduating class, moved to Berlin.

"I was already working with a gallery in Berlin and it made sense to go to Berlin," she said."I always felt I really loved Helsinki, but I felt that it didn't make sense (to go back there)."

Horelli said she thinks Berlin is more open than Nordic cities.

"Often in Scandinavia, it's a bit closed and a bit claustrophobic," she said. "In Berlin, you can be whatever you are and no one cares. And the art scene is a lot more diverse than in some Scandinavian countries."

The open city

She was seconded by Lars Ramberg, 41, a Norwegian artist who moved to Berlin seven years ago.

Vibeke Tandberg, Skandinavische Künstler in Berlin

Vibeke Tandberg (Norway), "Old man going up and down a staircase," 2003

"It has a very open structure so you don't have to feel very alienated in Berlin, although you're not German," he said. "People never give you the feeling that you're a stranger and you're not supposed to be here -- unlike Paris, where you hardly become a Parisian because it's so hard to penetrate the local code."

Ramberg summed up what many other Nordic artists said of Berlin.

"It's a community for art and that's more significant than the prices," he said. "Berlin, the way we know it now, is a very new city; it's 15 years old. You can easily be a kind of settler without feeling you've come to a place that's already settled or sorted."

And, as evidence of the productive influence the German capital has had on its Scandinavian art community, the "Nord Kultur" festival currently showcases Nordic artists' activities in the city. From Feb. 24 - March 21, a series of over 100 events, including films, performances, exhibitions and concerts is showing visitors what the Nordic neighbors have been doing since they made Berlin their home away from home.

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