Berlin’s tale of two art scenes

The Berlin Wall might be a thing of the past, but Daniel Miller believes there might as well be a death strip dividing the German capital's art scene.

Berlin's tale of two art scenes
Photo: Susanna Majuri via Art Forum Berlin

Berlin these days is being touted in some quarters as the current hotspot of the contemporary art world. But the historically divided city hasn’t managed to forge a common art scene.

This was made abundantly clear last week as the German capital hosted two separate art world events, radically different in scale and ambition.

From October 31 to November 3, the 13th annual Art Forum Berlin returned to the gigantic fair grounds in the city’s well-heeled Charlottenburg district. Featuring 127 galleries from 26 countries, showcasing a total of around 2,000 artists, the high-profile event was even opened by Mayor Klaus Wowereit.

The mayor’s presence was called for, since Art Forum Berlin exists at the commercial heart of the city’s art scene and it plugs it into the international cash nexus. Berlin may yet “be creative,” as Wowereit’s current city-branding campaign “Be Berlin” suggests. Yet, like most of Berlin’s money, most of the finance that fuels this creativity comes from outside the city.

The forum is primarily a magnet for moneyed investors, even though the event attempts to be coy about this by hosting a series of lectures and a curated special programme alongside its spread of commercial galleries. But in the end, Art Forum Berlin is a trade fair, with priorities to match. This year, a performance by the art collective Fame – which would have involved handing out free bowls of soup – was cancelled after the official caterers, fearing for their profit margins, applied pressure.

A number of gallerists believe that this commercial focus is about to intensify further. Art Forum Berlin 2008 will be the last one directed by Sabine van der Ley, who has managed the fair for the last eight years. From next year, the helm will be taken by two former Art Basel employers. Eva-Maria Haeusler and Peter Vetsch.

“Art Basel is a more strictly commercial affair,” noted Hajnal Németh of the artist-run Lada Project. “In the future, it’s possible that there won’t be space here for galleries like ours.”

Along with this commercial question, the size of the fair also caused problems for visitors. “I see many people walking through here hands behind their backs, strolling through like a walk in a park,” observed Hans Gieles of the Amsterdam gallery VOUS ETES ICI. “As a result, they never really have an encounter with any particular work. Other people go up to every piece and stare at it intently and then at the end of the day are exhausted.”

Gieles suggested that there is an art to attending an art fair: “What my wife and I say, is that if you go home with three or four really memorable works stuck in your mind, you’ve done pretty well.”

Of course, the other alternative is to avoid the trade fair entirely by going underground.

Bang in the middle of Art Forum Berlin a very different kind of art event took place in the city’s gritty Neukölln district. Essentially a sort of urban safari involving a good deal of walking – despite the free taxis – the neighbourhood arts festival Nachtundnebel presented art in the context of a living, breathing city, as opposed to the context of a shop floor.

Nachtundnebel, which means “Night and Fog” and is the German phrase for “cloak and dagger,” was organized by Markus Pachowiak of the Schillerpalais gallery. Pachowiak set up the festival in 2002 and for the past seven years it has served as a way of linking Neukölln’s burgeoning art scene together.

“Neukölln is the place were something new can develop,” he said. “There is a still a lot of empty space here, with new artists moving in every day.”

There is a widespread idea in the art world that fairs offer the widest variety of contemporary art works and trends. In fact, this is only partially true. Because fairs only exhibit works which can easily be sold as a commodities, they tend to be more restrictive than they seem at first glance.

The range offered by Nachtundnebel was more genuinely diverse. The attractions included an amateur fashion show, a talking dragon in a shipping container, live performances and a playful installation consisting of old arcade games. Perhaps none of the work on display was as accomplished or smart as the best at Art Forum Berlin, but unlike the trade fair, the safari in Neukölln was greater than the sum of its parts.

And one project – a richly atmospheric “art apothecary” devoted to deploying art towards therapeutic ends – seemed to mirror how one half of Berlin’s burgeoning art scene is contributing to the rapid transformation of a troubled neighbourhood like Neukölln.

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‘Sandals mean freedom’: Eight tips on how to dress like a German

Germans have an international reputation for enjoying functional clothing. A top German fashion expert told The Local whether the stereotypes of German fashion are really true - and what Angela Merkel has to do with modern style.

‘Sandals mean freedom’: Eight tips on how to dress like a German

‘Comfortable and practical’

“It’s pretty easy to define German style,” says Bernhard Roetzel, the author of books on men’s fashion such as ‘Gentleman: A Timeless Guide to Fashion’. “Nowadays the basic dress of a grown-up man is mainly blue jeans, some kind of sweatshirt and an anorak. The shoes are usually comfortable sneakers. This is the basic German fashion that everyone from workers to doctors wears, and it is suitable for 90 percent of occasions.”

The basic theme, he says, is comfort and practicality. “That is very important.”

According to Roetzel, this love for the practical stretches all the way back into the 19th century when most other Europeans still had strict public dress codes.

“It began with a movement called Lebensreform, which valued things like vegetarianism and woollen clothes, which were supposed to be healthy,” he says.

“Even if Germans at the time didn’t like political freedom, they loved the freedom to wear sandals. Freedom for Germans is to wear sandals in places where it is not appropriate!”

A woman lies on the shore of the Schwarzachtalsee in Baden-Württemberg still wearing her sandals. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Thomas Warnack

Dressing down became even more acceptable after the First World War, when Germany became a republic and the aristocracy, with its formal sense of dress, lost its importance. “The Nazis also propagated being active outdoors,” Roetzel notes. “Fashion was seen as something awful created by the French and the Jews to bring about the downfall of German culture.”

When the craze for casual wear crossed the pond from the US in the 1960s, Germans were slow to adopt it. But now jeans are even standard clothing for septuagenarians, he says. “Twenty years after jeans arrived people started to realise that they are great for all occasions – and now everyone wears them. This was the last blow to formal German clothing.”

Dress down for work

The German love for all-purpose clothes means that it is perfectly appropriate to wear jeans to work, according to Roetzel. 

“If you don’t work in a bank or law firm you can probably wear jeans in most offices. A non-iron, short sleeve shirt is also very important. German men love these shirts, despite the fact that you get hot in them.”

You can even wear sneakers in the office. Or, if you have to look a bit smarter “some very cheap, comfortable leather shoes” will make you fit right in.

“In business, it is very important that you don’t stand out,” Roetzel advises. “If you are smartly dressed people will ask if you have an important meeting or will think you are looking for a pay rise. For everyday business, you dress as casually as possible.”

A woman cycles to work in jeans and a simple jacket in Hamburg. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Christin Klose

Nothing too sexy

Meanwhile, women’s workplace style, perhaps even more than men’s, is based on the principle of ‘the more forgettable the better.’

“Women in German business must not look too sexy,” says the fashion writer. “If you wear a skirt, for example, it should not be too short and heels should not be too high.” A “boxy, mouse grey suit” including a jacket that doesn’t complement one’s figure completes the look.

“Whereas in Italy, businesswomen carry Chanel bags, in Germany they usually carry a laptop bag or something very practical. Makeup is also rather reduced, not too much lipstick, nothing that is too obvious,” he says.

No door policy

Ties are basically a redundant piece of apparel in modern Germany, meaning wearing one really is a matter of choice in most settings.

“There are very few places where you are not allowed in if you don’t wear a tie,” says Roetzel. “I don’t know a single restaurant that wouldn’t admit you if you don’t wear a tie. You might not be allowed into Cologne Cathedral if your shorts are too short, but basically, you can wear everything everywhere and Germans love this!”

Funerals and weddings

Even the most formal occasions, such as weddings, funerals and important birthdays are much more informal events than they once were.

“At funerals, people will wear black but they rarely wear a black suit, most people will wear a black sweatshirt and jeans,” says Roetzel.

Copy Merkel

Angela Merkel’s unpretentious style appealed to Germans. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Fabian Sommer

Anyone looking for inspiration need look no further than recently retired German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who famously wore variations on the same trouser suit for most of her career.

“She had different colours and fabrics but that was her uniform and she also found her hairstyle and that was it. I don’t think she had a stylist,” Roetzel says. “That’s what Germans love. It’s recognizable and it doesn’t look expensive.”


“In Germany, one thing you should never admit to is wearing expensive, tailor-made clothes,” he explains. “As a politician, you can admit that you like drinking but you should never admit to having an expensive wardrobe.”

In fact, the cheaper the better. “Olaf Scholz has always earned a lot of money but his clothes are awful, his suits are awful – this is just perfect for Germany,” says Roetzel.

Splash the cash subtly (or on outdoor clothes)

This is not to say that all Germans wear cheap clothes, but they don’t make a big fuss about the brands that they do wear.

“People want to express status by wearing certain brands,” Roetzel points out. “But in Germany, this is done in a very subtle way. You will see small details in the clothes and glasses of a professor or doctor that will tell you a lot. Class exists but people hide their status because it is negative to show it off. This can be hard for foreigners to detect.”

There is one major exemption thought to the rule of not flaunting your wealth – outdoor apparel.

“Outdoor clothes are really a big thing here,” Roetzel says. “It gives people a sense of freedom and healthiness. Spending €800 on an outdoor jacket is perfectly okay. But it is a sin to spend the same amount on a tailor-made suit – you will destroy your image if you admit to doing this.”

Moreover, anyone who wants to impress Germans through their possessions would be better advised to buy a good car or modern kitchen, the fashion expert says. “It is perfectly normal to have a very expensive kitchen, but your clothes should still be cheap.”

Focus on inner beauty

The German (dis)interest in fashion can actually tell us a lot about deeper German values.

“There is an old Prussian saying of mehr sein als schein (content is better than appearance). Germans feel that if something is too beautiful there must be something fishy about it. Anyone who is too smartly dressed could be a conman,” says Roetzel.

“Germans are very honest, they like to be very direct. They say “what’s the point in not wearing sandals if it’s hot?’”