• Germany's news in English
 

Digging up artistic Berlin

Published: 02 Dec 2011 11:53 GMT+01:00

It might not seem that way, but in among the cafes, nightclubs and vintage clothes shops of Berlin’s booming Kreuzberg district, there are still a few patches of wasteland. They are gloomy places, not much more than awkward, deserted squares of broken cement and grassy outcroppings where people walk their dogs or indulge in a few lonely, contemplative drinks.

What you don’t necessarily expect to come across on a steely grey November afternoon is a solitary American digging a hole in the ground, looking for where his new sculpture might be buried.

Erik Smith, who grew up in Colorado and lived in California before moving to Berlin nine years ago, is creating his latest work in what is known as Skulpturenpark Berlin Zentrum. This five-hectare “Sculpture Park” was founded by five artists in 2006 as a temporary project to fill one of the many still-unused plots of land vacated by the Berlin Wall over two decades ago. The owners are planning to develop the property, the main part of which was recently bulldozed to make way for new condos, but for now, it is still an artist's stomping ground.

But while other artists transported their magnum opuses to Skulpturenpark, or constructed them on site, Smith decided to see what secrets the park itself had, and dug his creation out of the ground. What he found was a spiral staircase made of cast-iron encased in a cylindrical brick wall with narrow openings on both sides. The work, entitled Test Dig No. 1, is being opened to the public on December 4.

Click here to follow the evolution of Erik Smith's Test Dig No. 1

After scouring city archives, Smith realized that he had found the remains of what seemed to be a residential building built just after Berlin’s Gründerzeit in the mid-19th century.

“This is typical of a lot of vacant sites around Berlin,” says Smith. “You have all these structures of these former buildings still embedded in the earth.”

But Smith’s interest is not just archaeological. He calls it an exploratory search, an open-ended project on the theme of memory and the city, rather than a historical investigation. It’s the essential unknowability of his find - the fact that he will never know exactly what those stairs were used for, or what it felt like to be in that space - that most intrigues him.

“It’s a kind of charged anonymity – not anonymity in a negative sense, but somehow compelling because it’s this thing you can never quite make out,” he says.

“For me it was a very methodical, almost meditative, but also an adventure. I had no idea what I was coming into contact with.”

One man and his dog

For an artist interested in such themes, Berlin is obviously fertile ground, but the city offers other advantages too. It is perhaps characteristic of Berlin that Smith’s mysterious behaviour attracted little attention from passers-by.

“I only had one person come up to me and ask me what I was doing,” he says. “I think he’d probably been walking his dog here for a number of years. He asked me whether it had something to do with archaeology, and my response was, ‘Yeah, I guess it probably does.’”

Smith is in the middle of a Berlin phase. Like Test Dig, many of his recent projects have evolved out of seeing the city’s many empty spaces slowly being filled in “in a way that sweeps aside the history.”

His previous work, Naked Cities, involved taking a series of pictures of what he called “transitional zones” – areas temporarily exposed by new construction – and pasting them billboard-sized to adjacent buildings around the city, while another work, Buried Sculpture, is an as-of-yet unrealized proposal for casting concrete sculptures from concealed underground spaces.

“The idea is to evoke a life-cycle of architecture by conflating existing buildings with scenes of structural decay,” Smith’s website declares.

This focus on literally excavating a city is new for Smith, whose previous work in California was more about reconfiguring pop cultural history – for instance by making hand-cast records of existing pop albums that then play back a modified version of the original. But when he first saw the city in the late 1990s, Berlin provided different inspiration.

He found Berlin’s sheer physical presence impressive. “I liked the scale of the city, the size of the streets,” he says. “There was an immensity to it that was very appealing. It wasn’t cramped, there were lots of vacant spaces. It was a bit of a city of ghosts in a way. It still seems permanently unfinished.”

The downside of hype

But in terms of an artistic community, Smith was a little disappointed in Berlin at first. “It was still more interesting than San Francisco, but in terms of what the scene offered, the reality didn’t quite live up to the hype,” he says. Recently, though, the city has caught up with its own hype.

“Over the last five, six years, but especially in the last two or three, it’s found another gear. It’s become far more international. Because it’s still a relatively inexpensive place to live it’s drawn a lot of creative types, and that’s snowballed.”

The influx of artists from all over the world has brought many changes. The English language has become more dominant, for one thing.

“It’s easy to organize exhibitions, because there’s a certain kind of attitude, a certain interest here, and spaces are still relatively available to a variety of different projects,” he says. “Not all of them are that interesting, and maybe the downside is that it’s become too much of a party scene. And become more market-driven.”

At the moment, Smith is thinking of turning Test Dig into a book presenting the progress of the dig, or even a gallery installation that references the staircase using materials from the site.

Either way, he has no particular intention of leaving his Berlin base, though he will be taking his urban explorations to Florida and Utrecht in the Netherlands next year. The world, after all, is full of fascinating wasteland.

Test Dig No. 1 will be opened at 1 pm, Sunday, December 4, 2011. Neue Grünstrasse between Kommandantenstrasse and Seydelstrasse, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Related links:

Ben Knight (ben.knight@thelocal.de)

Your comments about this article

15:59 December 2, 2011 by PhoenixW2
I wonder how the guy makes a living.
17:02 December 2, 2011 by Rosie Skan
how depressing that when i clicked on the link on the word "artists", an advert for american express came up.
02:19 December 19, 2011 by MichaSeifert-Weiss
PhoenixW2, I wondered the same thing as soon as I read what he 'does.'

It also crossed my mind that the opening line is an ironic question. It's hard to answer that Visual Arts 101 question, "What is Art?" with what it is, but I feel certain that this is what it is not.
Today's headlines
Wolf spotted in North Rhine-Westphalia
File photo: DPA

Wolf spotted in North Rhine-Westphalia

Camera traps have spotted a wolf for the second time in a month in North Rhine-Westphalia, the state environment ministry reported on Friday. READ  

German ranchers murdered in Paraguay
Paraguayan police on patrol in an area known to contain EPP rebels. File photo: DPA

German ranchers murdered in Paraguay

The Foreign Ministry in Berlin confirmed that two Germans living in Paraguay were kidnapped and killed earlier this week. READ  

AfD braces for busy conference weekend
"Vote AfD!" reads the flyover message. Photo: DPA

AfD braces for busy conference weekend

As leaders of the Germany's anti-Euro upstart party Alternative for Germany (AfD) prepare for its party conference this weekend, the potential for chaos is rising. READ  

Sudden dose of winter causes traffic chaos
Snow in Oberharz. Photo: DPA

Sudden dose of winter causes traffic chaos

UPDATE: Two people were rescued from avalanches as a blast of winter has taken Germany by surprise, while snow and ice accounted for several traffic accidents across the country on Friday. READ  

BND collects 220 million phone records a day
Photo: DPA

BND collects 220 million phone records a day

Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) collects 220 million pieces of information about foreign phone calls and SMS every day, Zeit Online reported on Friday. READ  

U-turn on minimum wage for foreign drivers
Photo: DPA

U-turn on minimum wage for foreign drivers

Germany temporarily hit the brakes Friday on applying its new minimum wage to foreign truck drivers transiting the country in a move welcomed by Poland, which vigorously opposed the system. READ  

Crises make Germany EU foreign policy leader
Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Photo: DPA

Crises make Germany EU foreign policy leader

Foreign policy think-tank the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) gave Germany top marks in its annual check-up of EU member states released on Thursday. READ  

Prost! Beer sales hop up for first gain in 8 years
Photo: DPA

Prost! Beer sales hop up for first gain in 8 years

New figures released Friday by federal statistics office Destatis are numbers breweries can drink to, as German beer consumption saw its first year-on-year rise since 2006. READ  

Germany has thousands of uni spots open
Photo: DPA

Germany has thousands of uni spots open

New research published by Spiegel on Friday shows that there are thousands of university placesa unoccupied across the country, while certain hot spots cope with too much demand. READ  

Borussia coach admits to 'downward spiral'
Borussia Dortmund coach Jürgen Klopp at a press conference. Photo: DPA

Borussia coach admits to 'downward spiral'

Borussia Dortmund coach Jürgen Klopp admits feeling the pressure as his side resume their fight to stay in Germany's top flight on Saturday at fellow Champions League side Bayer Leverkusen. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Business & Money
FATCA: 'The age of financial privacy is over'
Gallery
The best regional foods TTIP opponents want to protect
Photo: DPA
Features
The rise and spread of Pegida
Photo: Shutterstock
Culture
This cosplayer did not think his plan through
National
Europe in statistics - from Spain to Sweden
Photo: DPA
Politics
The Local's report from Pegida's largest ever demonstration.
Sponsored Article
Top-notch tech boosts bilingual schools
National
Six stories that will rock Germany this year
Photo: DPA
National
Terror alert at a new high. Should you be worried?
Dresden skyline and river by night. Photo: DPA
Politics
What does Dresden have against Muslims?
Photo: DPA
National
What were your favourite news stories of 2014?
Gallery
Top 12 German idioms
National
Why has The Local got a new logo?
Photo: DPA
National
This German was abducted and tortured by the CIA
Culture
10 top tips for partying in Germany
Photo: DPA
Technology
What does the Chancellor see as the future of the internet?
Photo: DPA
Berlin
The Local's series on 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall
Photo: DPA
Business & Money
JobTalk: All you need to know about working in Germany
National
Share news tips with The Local Germany
Latest news from The Local in Austria

More news from Austria at thelocal.at

Latest news from The Local in Switzerland

More news from Switzerland at thelocal.ch

Latest news from The Local in Denmark

More news from Denmark at thelocal.dk

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in France

More news from France at thelocal.fr

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

Latest news from The Local in Sweden

More news from Sweden at thelocal.se

3,971
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd