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Capital culture

September 19, 2010

Creative minds from all over the world are inexorably drawn to Berlin. A young, vibrant, international arts scene now characterizes certain quarters of the city, and the boom shows no sign of ending.

Artists spraying graffiti on a wall
Berlin attracts artists of all kinds from all overImage: Literaturwerkstatt Berlin

Pernille Koldbech Fich doesn't really have time for an interview. The Danish photographer is in the middle of moving. Her residency at Kuenstlerhaus Bethanien, an institution that hosts international artists and provides them with grants, has just come to end.

Berlin has given Koldbech Fich new inspiration for her work, and she's decided to stay on; so today her large format photographs, mysteriously illuminated portraits set against dark backgrounds, are being packed and transported to her new studio.

Koldbech Fich finds it easier to photograph people here than in Copenhagen. It's one of the main reasons why she wants to stay.

"There are so many different kinds of people here," she says. "I think it has to do with the history; there are so many people here from Eastern Europe. You can see that they don't all come from the same region. Back home everybody looks the same."

She thinks she can even tell - still, 20 years after German unification - whether someone is from East or West Berlin. She isn't quite sure; but perhaps it's not a coincidence that when she finds people she wants to photograph for her introverted portraits they always turn out to come from the East.

Secret capital of Denmark

Pernille is one of a strikingly large number of Danes who have moved to Berlin. According to estimates in Danish newspapers, one-third of her country's artists now live and work here. Some call Berlin Denmark's secret capital. Olafur Eliasson, Denmark's most famous artist, is based here, and hundreds of other world-class artists have decided to settle in the city.

Olafur Eliasson
Olafur Eliasson is one of many Scandinavians who have settled in BerlinImage: dpa

The dynamism in the art scene following the fall of the Wall created a "Berlin hype" that is still attracting people today. Berlin-Mitte, in the former East, has a burgeoning and internationally respected gallery scene, as does the western district of Kreuzberg.

Unified Berlin has long since replaced Cologne as the art capital of Germany. At the last documenta - the epitome of the international art exhibition, staged in Kassel every five years - half the works on display were by Berlin-based artists.

All this enhances the city's reputation as a center for artistic endeavor. However, everyday life in Berlin is characterized by all kinds of artists of lesser renown - in particular young, creative types from other countries, who are flocking to the city and have begun to change the face of entire quarters.

Neukoelln is a perfect example of this. Until recently the area was regarded as one of the most problematic in the capital, with high unemployment, a large proportion of migrants and gangs of violent youths. The inhabitants of Neukoelln were mostly either underprivileged or people who were not easily shocked and enjoyed exposing themselves to the rough charm of the area. A few years ago the neighborhood was characterized by fighting dogs on the streets and men in tracksuits shuffling to run-down corner pubs.

Now, some of these pubs are metamorphosing into artists' hangouts. Painters and poets new to the neighborhood sip their beer alongside long-term residents. Every week new cafes and bars, galleries, studios and little creative businesses open. The cultural scene in Neukoelln has become one of the liveliest in the city.

Good energy

"I feel so free here - there are lots of opportunities to do things," says Guillaume Airiaud, who comes from France. "Berlin just has a good energy. It's cool."

Airiaud is currently showing his sculptures in an exhibition in Neukoelln. He hasn't sold many yet, but he's optimistic. He's only 26 and not under any pressure. He came to Berlin three years ago with the Erasmus European student exchange program and liked the city so much that he decided to stay.

People sit on a sidewalk during a street party
In summer, Berlin life moves to the streetsImage: dpa

He and some other artists set themselves up as "Studio 54" in an atelier in Neukoelln, and they've managed to create a small network, organizing joint exhibitions. As a Franco-German-Italian-English-Iraqi team they are able to make more connections together than each could manage on his or her own.

Christopher Sage is another of the artists working at Studio 54. At the back of the atelier building, where he has found just the right light for his work, he paints unsettling, apparently multi-dimensional interiors. Sage grew up in London in a cosmopolitan environment. His parents always had foreign students staying in the house, so Sage's perspective on life was always a broad one. This is something he also appreciates about Berlin.

He came here seven years ago, off his own bat rather than through an institution, and made a life for himself in the city. Since then he has seen how Neukoelln has changed. "In the past three or four years especially a huge number of artists have been coming here from abroad. You're as likely to hear Spanish or English on the street these days as you are German or Turkish."

'Wow' factor

But it's not just the international flair that Sage likes about the city: "I think it's still its history that gives Berlin that 'wow' factor."

The way Berliners deal with this history impresses him, as do their passionate architectural debates about buildings such as the historic Berlin City Palace or the old East German Palace of the Republic.

The Palace of the Republic
The Palace of the Republic was demolished several years agoImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

"I'm fascinated by the discussions people have here about what should be constructed or knocked down," he says. "As an artist, architecture is obviously very important to me: what do the streets look like, what's the shape of the sky you live under? When I think about painting in the light you get here in this city… it's fantastic!"

There's still plenty of room for artists under the Berlin sky. And if the scene in Neukoelln is now established to the extent that it has lost some of its fresh, improvised charm, something new is sure to develop elsewhere in the city. Berlin is big enough; the energy here is always on the move from one quarter to another.

Stagnation is almost unthinkable, agrees Pernille Koldbech Fich, who's planning to set up her camera here for quite a while. "Berlin is constantly changing," she says. "The only other place I know that moves this fast is New York. But Berlin feels cozy too; it's quiet and relaxed at the same time. There's not much stress, and yet there's a lot of energy. It's a really special combination."

Author: Aya Bach/cc
Editor: Nancy Isenson