Making the Tropics topical in Berlin

Faced with a grey autumn in Berlin, Daniel Miller decides to get tropical by checking out a new exhibition at the city’s Martin-Gropius-Bau museum.

Making the Tropics topical in Berlin
Photo: DPA

“The Tropics” arrives in the German capital at just the right moment. As Berlin heads again into its long and often brutal Prussian winter, this large exhibition offers a cheaper form of escapism then a plane ticket to Rio de Janeiro.

Fittingly, the first thing viewers see when they walk into the show is a tall plastic palm tree, a pile of breezy magazines and an inviting-looking wooden bench, all components of Franz Ackermann’s “Terminal Tropical” installation.

The stated aim of the new exhibition is to bring works of contemporary art “into dialogue” with assorted pre-modern artefacts stolen over the centuries from various tribes, by grouping them together into seven themed sections.

This is sometimes pretty dumb. For instance, in the section “After the Flood” a Hans-Christian Schink photograph of an Amazonian waterfall is set alongside a Fiona Tan video work showing rain filling a bucket, and a fourteenth century stone statue of the Aztec Rain God Tlaloc.

In general, the inclusion of the primitive artefacts seems to me a mistake, as the main role they serve here is only to demonstrate once again that contemporary art can cheerfully consume anything. But this key criticism aside, at other points “The Tropics” succeeds spectacularly. For example, the exhibition shows the ways in which modern civilization is itself weirdly primitive.

This point is particularly well made by Gerda Steiner and Jörg Lenzlinger’s sculptural installation “Bürokult.” Depicting an office-cum-rainforest in which wires are creepers, computers sprout corals and ceremonial masks are studded with mobile phone, the piece takes its name from the infamous cargo cults of Polynesia, who built wooden airstrips and towers after the Second World War in a copy-cat bid to induce American cargo planes to return with more goods.

The Polynesians were disappointed. But they are not alone. What Steiner and Lenzlinger’s installation suggests is that the various rituals of the information age are not really a great deal more rational than the fetish objects and rites of the pre-scientific societies that preceded it. And in this, they are surely onto something. Consider: How many times have you checked your e-mail today?

Where “The Tropics” show as a whole is especially effective is in summoning a series of richly contrasting moods and in supplying through that a feeling of travel.

While “Bürokult” evokes the lushness of jungles, the neatly stockpiled goods of Mark Dion’s “Jungle Shop” with its pencils, cleavers, shovels, condensed milk, instant noodles instils a sense of frontier utility. Equally, at another point in the show, Mauricio Dias and Walter Riedweg’s panoramic four-screen video installation “Camera Felicia” creates the feeling of being in a bustling South American square.

In this world shrunk by technology, far-flung places are becoming ever-more strangely familiar. One of the major ironies of this show is the recurrence of various western symbols. In Pieter Hugo’s photos of the Techimen district of Ghana one of the wild honey collectors wears a Mickey Mouse t-shirt. On the other side of the entertainment divide, the dancer in David Zink Yi’s video of a Cuban alleyway party is shown dressed in a Star Wars t-shirt.

A few hundred years ago, at the height of European modernity, the Tropics were fantasized as terrestrial paradises. But today, in the form of the megaslums of Lagos and Sao Paulo, they are fast becoming something else, the full implications of which are not yet entirely clear. The last section of this show – entitled “The Urban Drama” – drives that point home.

“We now come to a point where old arts fall silent,” the curator’s inscription states ominously, apparently recognizing that there are no maps for these “urban jungles” in the truest sense of that phrase.

More information

“The Tropics: Views from the Middle of the Globe” runs at the Martin-Gropius Bau until January 5, with additional events scheduled throughout Berlin.

Opening Hours

Wednesday to Monday | 10–20 hrs

Tuesday closed

Closed Wed 24 and 31 Dec

Open Tue 30 Dec


€ 6.00 | € 4.50 reduced

Combined ticket with audio guide

€ 9.00 | € 7.50 reduced

For members


EXPLAINED: Berlin’s latest Covid rules

In response to rapidly rising Covid-19 infection rates, the Berlin Senate has introduced stricter rules, which came into force on Saturday, November 27th. Here's what you need to know.

A sign in front of a waxing studio in Berlin indicates the rule of the 2G system
A sign in front of a waxing studio indicates the rule of the 2G system with access only for fully vaccinated people and those who can show proof of recovery from Covid-19 as restrictions tighten in Berlin. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

The Senate agreed on the tougher restrictions on Tuesday, November 23rd with the goal of reducing contacts and mobility, according to State Secretary of Health Martin Matz (SPD).

He explained after the meeting that these measures should slow the increase in Covid-19 infection rates, which was important as “the situation had, unfortunately, deteriorated over the past weeks”, according to media reports.

READ ALSO: Tougher Covid measures needed to stop 100,000 more deaths, warns top German virologist

Essentially, the new rules exclude from much of public life anyone who cannot show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. You’ll find more details of how different sectors are affected below.

If you haven’t been vaccinated or recovered (2G – geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered)) from Covid-19, then you can only go into shops for essential supplies, i.e. food shopping in supermarkets or to drugstores and pharmacies.

Many – but not all – of the rules for shopping are the same as those passed in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg in order to avoid promoting ‘shopping tourism’ with different restrictions in different states.

2G applies here, too, as well as the requirement to wear a mask with most places now no longer accepting a negative test for entry. Only minors are exempt from this requirement.

Sport, culture, clubs
Indoor sports halls will off-limits to anyone who hasn’t  been vaccinated or can’t show proof of recovery from Covid-19. 2G is also in force for cultural events, such as plays and concerts, where there’s also a requirement to wear a mask. 

In places where mask-wearing isn’t possible, such as dance clubs, then a negative test and social distancing are required (capacity is capped at 50 percent of the maximum).

Restaurants, bars, pubs (indoors)
You have to wear a mask in all of these places when you come in, leave or move around. You can only take your mask off while you’re sat down. 2G rules also apply here.

Hotels and other types of accommodation 
Restrictions are tougher here, too, with 2G now in force. This means that unvaccinated people can no longer get a room, even if they have a negative test.

For close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, it’s up to the service providers themselves to decide whether they require customers to wear masks or a negative test.

Football matches and other large-scale events
Rules have changed here, too. From December 1st, capacity will be limited to 5,000 people plus 50 percent of the total potential stadium or arena capacity. And only those who’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 will be allowed in. Masks are also compulsory.

For the Olympic Stadium, this means capacity will be capped at 42,000 spectators and 16,000 for the Alte Försterei stadium. 

3G rules – ie vaccinated, recovered or a negative test – still apply on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams and buses in Berlin. It was not possible to tighten restrictions, Matz said, as the regulations were issued at national level.

According to the German Act on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, people have to wear a surgical mask or an FFP2 mask  on public transport.

Christmas markets
The Senate currently has no plans to cancel the capital’s Christmas markets, some of which have been open since Monday. 

According to Matz, 2G rules apply and wearing a mask is compulsory.

Schools and day-care
Pupils will still have to take Covid tests three times a week and, in classes where there are at least two children who test positive in the rapid antigen tests, then tests should be carried out daily for a week.  

Unlike in Brandenburg, there are currently no plans to move away from face-to-face teaching. The child-friendly ‘lollipop’ Covid tests will be made compulsory in day-care centres and parents will be required to confirm that the tests have been carried out. Day-care staff have to document the results.

What about vaccination centres?
Berlin wants to expand these and set up new ones, according to Matz. A new vaccination centre should open in the Ring centre at the end of the week and 50 soldiers from the German army have been helping at the vaccination centre at the Exhibition Centre each day since last week.

The capacity in the new vaccination centre in the Lindencenter in Lichtenberg is expected to be doubled. There are also additional vaccination appointments so that people can get their jabs more quickly. Currently, all appointments are fully booked well into the new year.