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Digging up artistic Berlin

Is Berlin really the artistic utopia everyone says? In a new series, The Local's Ben Knight talks to artists who have moved to Germany’s capital to channel the city’s muse. American artist Erik Smith found inspiration in the city's soil.

Digging up artistic Berlin
Photo: Jeremiah Day

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

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CULTURE

German town resurrects 400-year-old biblical play tradition

Walk around the German Alpine village of Oberammergau, and the chances are you'll run into Jesus or one of his 12 disciples.

German town resurrects 400-year-old biblical play tradition

Of the 5,500 people living there, 1,400 — aged from three months to 85 — are participating this year in the once-a-decade staging of an elaborate “Passion Play” depicting the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Dating back to 1634, the tradition has persisted through four centuries of wars, religious turmoil and pandemics — including the most recent Covid-19 crisis which caused the show to be postponed by two years.

“I think we’re a bit stubborn,” says Frederic Mayet, 42, when asked how the village has managed to hold on to the tradition.

Mayet, who is playing Jesus for the second time this year, says the Passion Play has become a big part of the town’s identity.

Oberammergau Passion Plays

Posters for the 42nd Oberammergau Passion Play – which was originally scheduled to take place in 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmth

The only prerequisite for taking part in the five-hour show, whether as an actor, chorister or backstage assistant, is that you were born in Oberammergau or have lived here for at least 20 years.

“I remember that we talked about it in kindergarten. I didn’t really know what it was about, but of course I wanted to take part,” says Cengiz Gorur, 22, who is playing Judas.

READ ALSO: REVEALED: The best events and festivals in Germany this July

‘Hidden talent’ 

The tradition, which dates back to the Thirty Years’ War, was born from a belief that staging the play would help keep the town safe from disease.

Legend has it that, after the first performance, the plague disappeared from the town.

In the picturesque Alpine village, Jesus and his disciples are everywhere — from paintings on the the facades of old houses to carved wooden figures in shop windows.

You also can’t help feeling that there is a higher-than-average quota of men with long hair and beards wandering the streets.

Religious figurines Oberammergau

Religious figurines adorn a shop window in Oberammergau. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmuth

An intricate image of Jesus graces the stage of the open-air Passion Play theatre, where the latest edition of the show is being held from mid-May to October 2nd.

“What has always fascinated me is the quality of the relationship between all the participants, young and old. It’s a beautiful community, a sort of ‘Passion’ family,” says Walter Lang, 83.

He’s just sad that his wife, who died in February, will not be among the participants this year.

“My parents met at a Passion Play, and I also met my future wife at one,” says Andreas Rödl, village mayor and choir member.

Gorur, who has Turkish roots, was spotted in 2016 by Christian Stückl, the head of the Munich People’s Theatre who will direct the play for the fourth time this year.

“I didn’t really know what to do with my life. I probably would have ended up selling cars, the typical story,” he laughs.

Now, he’s due to start studying drama in Munich this autumn.

“I’ve discovered my hidden talent,” he says.

READ ALSO: Nine of the best day trips from Munich with the €9 ticket

Violence, poverty and sickness

Stückl “has done a lot for the reputation of the show, which he has revolutionised” over the past 40 years, according to Barbara Schuster, 35, a human resources manager who is playing Mary Magdalene.

“Going to the Passion Play used to be like going to mass. Now it’s a real theatrical show,” she says.

In the 1980s, Stückl cut all the parts of the text that accused the Jews of being responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, freeing the play from anti-Semitic connotations.

“Hitler had used the Passion Play for his propaganda,” Schuster points out.

Stückl

Christian Stückl, the director of the Oberammergau Passion Play, holds a press conference announcing the cancellation of the play in 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmuth

The play’s themes of violence, poverty and sickness are reflected in today’s world through the war in Ukraine and the Covid-19 pandemic, say Mayet, the actor playing Jesus.

“Apparently we have the same problems as 2,000 years ago,” he says.

For 83-year-old Lang, who is playing a peasant this year, the “Hallelujah” after Christ has risen for the final time in October will be a particularly moving moment.

“Because we don’t know if we’ll be there again next time,” he says, his eyes filling with tears.

By Isabelle Le Page

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