• Germany's news in English
 
Art Mecca Berlin
Digging up artistic Berlin
Photo: Jeremiah Day

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
German-Turkish group against far-right talks
Protesters in Munich rally against the PEGIDA organization. Photo: DPA

German-Turkish group against far-right talks

A Turkish community leader in Germany warned on Sunday against proposals by mainstream politicians for "dialogue" with a far-right populist movement that has drawn thousands to anti-Islamic street protests. READ  

Merkel calls for truce talks over Ukraine crisis
Angela Merkel and Ukranian President Petro Poroshenko. Photo: DPA

Merkel calls for truce talks over Ukraine crisis

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday welcomed a prisoner swap between Ukraine's government and pro-Russian rebels but expressed regret about the stalling of truce talks. READ  

Germany warns Greece over reforms as left rises
Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has said he expects Greece to honour its debts. Photo: DPA

Germany warns Greece over reforms as left rises

Germany's finance minister has warned Greece that any new government must respect commitments made by its predecessor, as the country moved closer to early elections that EU officials fear would be won by a radical leftist party. READ  

LG offices raided over suspected vandalism
A Sumsung washing machine. Photo: DPA

LG offices raided over suspected vandalism

South Korean prosecutors raided the Seoul headquarters of LG Electronics on Friday following allegations that the firm's executives vandalised their rival Samsung's washing machines at a trade fair in Germany, company officials said. READ  

Neuer cautious over Ballon d'Or prospects
Photo: DPA

Neuer cautious over Ballon d'Or prospects

Germany's World Cup winning goalkeeper Manuel Neuer on Friday played down his prospects of securing the World Player of the Year award over holder Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. READ  

News Feature
No Boxing Day football tradition for Germans
Germans football fans will have nothing to watch this Boxing Day Photo: DPA

No Boxing Day football tradition for Germans

Defying national stereotypes, it is British footballers who will be braving the freezing cold to take to the pitch on Boxing Day, whilst Germany's players are already sunning themselves on their winter break until the end of January. READ  

Germans hit back at anti-immigrant movement
Demonstrators protest against PEGIDA. Photo: DPA

Germans hit back at anti-immigrant movement

Business leaders, the political class and average Germans are pushing back against a growing anti-immigrant movement, saying it threatens the values and image the country fought hard to establish since the war. READ  

German president urges refugee compassion
Photo: DPA

German president urges refugee compassion

Germany's president appealed in a Christmas message for compassion and openness towards refugees coming to the country, which is grappling with a growing anti-Islam movement. READ  

Reward offered for €150k homing pigeon
A female homing pigeon. Photo: DPA

Reward offered for €150k homing pigeon

A breeder in Düsseldorf has offered a €10,000 reward after thieves stole a homing pigeon worth €150,000 from his aviary. READ  

Royal palace restored to glory after €4.5m refit
The vestibule of the Schloss Charlottenburg, which reopens on Boxing Day Photo: DPA

Royal palace restored to glory after €4.5m refit

The royal palace of Fredrick the Great in Berlin is to fully reopen to visitors on Boxing Day after a 4.5 million euro refit. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Gallery
Top 12 German idioms
Willy Brandt at his inauguration in 1972. Photo: DPA
National
Willy Brandt: the man, the chancellor... the airport?
Dresden skyline and river by night. Photo: DPA
Politics
What does Dresden have against Muslims?
Sponsored Article
Why are these International Baccalaureate students cheering?
Germany's national football team lifts the World Cup trophy
Gallery
Germany's most-Googled words of 2014
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
Sponsored Article
Top ten gifts for an expat Christmas
Photo: DPA
Technology
What does the Chancellor see as the future of the internet?
Photo: DPA
Culture
Stuff your face with these festive German cookies
Photo: DPA
Culture
What do beer, breakfast cereal and dildos have in common?
Culture
The Local's guide to German Christmas markets
Sponsored Article
Top five quirky Christmas jumpers
Photo: DPA
Culture
Get ready for Christmas like a German. We tell you how.
Photo: DPA
Munich
She did what with her dead mother?
Photo: DPA
National
Germany still paying for crisis fall out
Photo: DPA
Culture
Saxon wurst is the worst, Christmas market declares.
Photo: DPA
Politics
Can 'sorry' ever be enough for the Linke?
Photo: DPA
Berlin
The Local's series on 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall
Photo: DPA
Gallery
See how Berlin has changed in 22 photos
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

3,043
jobs available
The Local Spain is hiring!
The Local is seeking a new editor for our site in Spain to join our growing team of internationally-minded, driven, ambitious and clued-up journalists.
Details and how to apply
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd