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Culture

Berlin's mythical magnetism

People from around the world flock to Berlin because they know it's sexy, edgy and artsy. But how did the German capital earn this reputation - and how much longer can it maintain it?

The striking purple painting, splattered with streaks of gold, silver and black, screams out for attention in the serene and elegant surroundings of the German Ambassador's residence in London's Belgrave Square.

On closer inspection, a crack crosses the canvas's belly, apparently inflicted during an Easyjet flight from Berlin to London. The painting was stored in an overhead locker by its young creator, who didn't have the funds to use a professional art shipping company to get it across the Channel.

British artist Nick Jeffrey lives in Berlin but is in London to show this and several others of his paintings. His long, tousled hair, blue anorak and faded jeans combined with the chaos of his painting are a little unsettling in such rarefied surroundings. But Nick Jeffrey and his artwork are a neat reflection of this exhibition's aim - to explain the cultural relationship between Berlin and London and why, despite all its imperfections and inconsistencies, Berlin remains so fascinating for so many young artists.

"Mythos Berlin - a London Perspective" is part of the Frieze VIP program (Frieze London is an art exhibition focusing only on contemporary art and living artists). The exhibition's opening coincided with the launch of the book "Mythos Berlin;" both explore the German city's "legendary reputation that has proven so irresistible to a generation of artists, musicians and writers," as set out in the book's introduction.

Falcon flying in front of Berlin's TV tower

Berlin exudes a sense of freedom

'Freedom is erotic'

German gallery owner and art collector Christian Boros is quoted in the book as saying that Berlin's attraction is "based on the fact that you have to fight with very few limitations. A lot is possible. To feel free is very attractive and erotic."

The now legendary label of "poor but sexy" was given to Berlin by the city's mayor, Klaus Wowereit, but the book suggests that there's so much more to Berlin than can be summed up in a single phrase. The city boasts a secret recipe that has much to do with its multi-layered history, argues "Mythos Berlin."

Radical political lurches to the right and left in the 20th century were followed by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Hannah Arnold, a contributor to the book and expert on German literature, writes that "the city's reputation in the world had changed immensely in this time: from the scarred, divided and unsettled victim of Third Reich and Cold War politics, to an iconic, vibrant, artistic metropolis. In Berlin, the infamous Berlinerluft [Berlin air] seems over-saturated with creativity, the nightlife peaks only at 5 am, and life seems incredibly cheap."

Arnold describes the last 20 years as a difficult "process of complex readjustments" during which newly united "Berlin, delivered from her difficult double-role, was facing a personality crisis, an uncertain future, but at the same time, endless possibilities."

The possibilities arising from this readjustment equaled freedom. And it was this freedom that exerted "an exotic attraction upon so many young immigrants from London and elsewhere."

Imperfect and uncertain

London, New York and Paris may have more money and more beauty, but they lack the imperfection and uncertainty of Berlin, which "is central to the fascination it inspires." These more established cities are completed, their society is organized, and their inhabitants know who belongs and who doesn't.

Berlin's social structures are in the process of being shaped and, because it is still finding itself, the rules governing who belongs, who the opinion leaders are, and who is part of the relevant echelon are not yet set in stone. This also means that - unlike more established cities - its doors are still very much open for creating art.

The results of a survey detailed in "Mythos Berlin" reveals that the two main reasons artists live in Berlin are the cheap rent prices and the atmosphere. Living costs in Berlin are "up to three times lower than those of the British capital." Add to this a more subtle bureaucracy and list of restrictions in the German capital compared to London's red tape, and its obvious why artists continue to be moths to Berlin's flame.

Berlin skyline

Berlin is risky - and that's a draw

Branding Berlin

Susanna Davies-Crook is an artist and writer who works in both Berlin and London. She writes, "In London, you belong to her (...) and private space is fiercely guarded even when it lies empty. (…) In Berlin, the city feels like she belongs to you and the people respond by setting up impromptu events, tables, building odd DIY vessels and setting them afloat on the canals with speakers teetering drunkenly atop."

With rising rent costs creeping into many areas of Berlin, there are no guarantees that the city's artistic utopia can survive as it is. The fear that rapidly increasing tourism and commercialization of Berlin's unique atmosphere will lead to the creation of a "theme-park Berlin" is a cause of constant tension in the city.

Speaking at the book's launch in London, British artist Nick Jeffrey said he doesn't like the way so much of his adopted city is gentrifying: "Berlin is becoming a brand."

But the book doesn't try to predict the city's future. Rather, it is written "in the hope that many more generations will continue to knit the yarn" of the myth of Berlin - and it seems confident that the capital will continue to create its own unique reality.

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