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.
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