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Scene in Berlin

Jan Kage, BerlinJune 5, 2014

We all know that art has a lot to do with taste. Personal opinions aside, Insider Jan Kage knows that artistic freedom is invaluable. He takes a stand for it in one of the world's most artistic cities: Berlin.

Still from the art film "I Am Not" (2011) by Italian artist Francesca Romana Pinzari, Copyright: Francesca Romana Pinzari
Image: Francesca Romana Pinzari

"Hello Mr. Kage," the email began. "Of course one can not argue about art…." I knew that a big "but" would come next in Ms. L.'s email. I'd finally negotiated the rental agreement for my art space with her and her colleague the day before the email.

I'd already been showing art in SCHAU FENSTER for a year and a half. It's a storefront set within a bigger complex known as the Aqua Carée, which has yet to be developed. Berlin has been developed quite a lot over the last few years. Sociologists call it "gentrification" and almost everyone I know is part of it, whether they admit it or not.

There used to be so much vacant space in Berlin - empty, dilapidated buildings nobody would touch, let alone buy. Except for the artists and bohemians who used these spaces for their clubs and galleries, bars and restaurants. They spiffed up the rundown locations and turned Berlin into the vibrant attraction it's become.

Then their places were bought by people with more money on their hands who dig the flair. It's an ongoing process, but those empty spaces have since become rare and increasingly further away from the city center.

Graffiti on the side of a run-down building in Berlin, Copyright: picture alliance/Wolfram Steinberg
'Gentrification' is a popular scapegoat in Berlin these daysImage: picture alliance/Wolfram Steinberg

"My friend bought a flat around the corner from here. He said it was only half a million, so I told him to get one for me, too," a guy around 40 told me a few months ago. He'd been introduced to me as one of the richest men in Hong Kong and had come to Berlin with his wife for the first time to check out their new apartment. "We love the atmosphere here!" they exclaimed, decked out in sneakers and jeans.

The couple from Hong Kong is exemplary of the second-residence phenomenon that was sweeping across the city. Unwittingly, the artistic bohemians became both the pioneers of gentrification and its biggest victims, pushed out by the new middle class that's moved into their personal paradise. That is, the new inhabitants move in every other month for a long weekend and otherwise leave the apartment vacant for the rest of the time.

Unexpected changing of hands

My art space SCHAU FENSTER is located between the districts of Kreuzberg and Mitte. The complex it's in had been bought by a Hamburg-based company a couple of years before I came along. These investors had commissioned a bohemian guy named Conrad to sublet the rooms to artists as studios for low rent. He was a really nice guy - good-hearted and very well connected, but a little chaotic. He was one of us.

Not everything was perfect. The ceiling had a leak, for instance. Rain dripped into the art space and gave me a bad feeling because water and artworks don't go together so well. So I was after Conrad a lot and, like I said, he was a little chaotic. But despite the imperfections - or perhaps because of them - things were fun and there was a lot of good energy in the house.

Jan Kage, Copyright: Stefan Ruhmke
Jan Kage's "Insider" columns appear on the first Thursday of each monthImage: Stefan Ruhmke

It was a shock to all of us renting space in the Aqua Carrée complex when Conrad passed away tragically. The place lost its soul. His absence also meant that the Hamburger investors came in and took things into their own professional hands. I had to renegotiate a contract with the owners and they were suspicious of me to say the least. They wanted the prestige associated with art shown in their storefront, but as it turned out, they had quite a different take on art.

Making a case for artistic freedom

"Of course one cannot argue about art," Ms. L. from the Hamburg investors wrote me, "But a film in which a naked woman smears blood on her breasts is absolutely impossible in our Schaufenster!"

I had to take a deep breath. Never mind that she was turning my SCHAU FENSTER into their Schaufenster (store window). But what older artistic motifs are there than naked women and blood? Perhaps Greek phalli!

To avoid an escalation, I didn't respond to the email, which is out of character for me. As I found out later, Ms. L. had already taken care of the escalation all by herself. She furiously rushed into SCHAU FENSTER, screaming at Francesca Romana Pinzari, the Italian artist who'd produced the film that enraged her in the first place.

In the piece, you can see the artist's head and bare shoulders as she looks straight into the camera. With one hand she takes a sponge and writes a symbol, like a heart, peace sign, dollar or euro symbol, in red on her upper chest. Then with her other hand she raises another sponge and wipes the symbol off with water.

Francesca Romana Pinzari flew in from Rome for the exhibition. She speaks a bit of English, but no German. I don't know whether Ms. L speaks any English, but probably not because she started gesticulating and shouting at poor Francesca, who quickly became intimidated and turned off the video.

Exterior view of the SCHAU FENSTER art space in Berlin, Copyright: Matthias Beckmann
Image: Matthias Beckmann 2013

This all happened the day before I received Ms. L.'s email. The most miserable part of her argumentation was that she referred to the Muslim neighbors that live in the street and, in her opinion, must feel offended by Francesca's work.

They, however, have never had any problems with any of my art shows. Ms. L. was simply hiding behind the Muslim minority to avoid taking responsibility for her own censorship. There is a constitutional right that protects the freedom of art. If a landlord rents a space to a bookstore, he has no right to decide which books it sells. My Hamburg investor landlord had a different take on this, even though "one cannot argue about art."

Why am I sharing the story now, two years after it happened? Because I just heard that the Hamburgers successfully sold the complex for a profit, so we are no longer in business. Maybe I'm a coward for only speaking out now; maybe I'm smart. But I'm still here showing art - that's for sure.

We're showing works by our Italian friends again this month, because they like Berlin so much. And Berlin likes art.