Inside a disused power station in east Berlin, a red-and-white buoy is bobbing mid-air, swooping six metres up and six metres down in rhythm to imaginary waves. The artist who had the idea to hang it there, Julius von Bismarck, has connected an automated pulley system via sensors to a real buoy in the Atlantic Ocean, mirroring its movements.
Usually, the waves crashing over the heads of visitors to these halls are made of sound, pumped out of a custom-built PA that many dance music connoisseurs consider the finest in the world: this is Berghain, Berlin’s mythical temple of bassy industrial techno.
But since Covid-19 has put the German capital’s nightlife into an open-ended shutdown, the club will, as of Wednesday , be repurposed into an art gallery, lending von Bismarck’s rusty buoy an overt symbolism: can the art world and the music scene help each other navigate the choppy waters of the pandemic? Can an art exhibition become a life raft for struggling cultural enterprises?
The idea of the Studio Berlin group show, containing works by 115 international Berlin-based artists that were produced in the city during lockdown, was “to send a message that Berlin’s cultural life is still very much alive”, says collector Christian Boros, who devised the collaboration with his wife, Karen, and curator Juliet Kothe after being approached by the club’s owners.
If a new report by nightlife consultancy VibeLab is anything to go by, collaborations like these will have to be part of the new normal. Their “Global Nighttime Recovery Plan”, co-written by an international panel of night mayors, academics and music promoters, suggests more clubs need to perform “creative business model pivots” like Berghain in order to maintain revenue while the clubbing experience is impossible.
Knowing the challenge of trying to do anything productive during the lockdown is what lends many works on display in Berlin an intriguing edge. British artist Tacita Dean recalls the “feeling that I wasn’t marking the time in a way an artist was expected to”. She ended up bundling her frustrations into a limited-edition postcard she sent to friends across the globe: a woodcut of a 16th-century alchemical drawing that looks like a turd falling from the sky, scrawled with the words “Shite Zeit” and “anus horribilis”.
Others made creative use of the limited access to materials. Georgian artist Thea Djordjadze submitted a living-room carpet she had painted on; Polaroids by Ketuta Alexi-Meskhishvili depict the flowers she bought daily during lockdown.
As visitors approach the club on the borderland between the Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain district, they are greeted by a large banner by Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija hung across the facade of the building, which reads “Morgen ist die Frage” (“Tomorrow is the question”). But Studio Berlin is less of a manifesto for a post-Covid future than a lovingly nostalgic affair, that harks back to the years immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when artists and DJs filled the vacant lots of a city that had yet to be targeted by property investors.
Back in the early 90s, Berghain’s owners Michael Teufele and Norbert Thormann used to run a fetish rave night called Snax at a former second world war air-raid shelter that now houses the Boros art collection. As post-wall Berlin grew into an international tourist destination over the decades that followed, the city’s art and club scenes have hardened into their own bubbles and drifted apart – with the latter proving a more potent commercial motor for the cultural capital than the former.
Coronavirus has changed that dynamic again, with Berlin clubland’s entire business model under question while sweaty mass gatherings in enclosed spaces risk becoming super-spreader events. On paper, at least, Studio Berlin is a lifeline thrown by artists to the people behind Berghain: ticket sales from the show will go towards securing the club’s future, and staff have been retrained as exhibition guides to guarantee them work while their old jobs remain on pause.
In substance, however, many of the most heartfelt works here are love letters to the super-club that preserved Berlin’s devotion to techno after the German capital stopped hosting the Love Parade in 2006, with all its myth-woven rules and rituals.
In the corner of the Panorama bar, where DJs usually serve up slightly lighter house, Kosovan-Spanish artist duo Petrit Halilaj and Alvaro Urbano have installed a large flower made of canvas and paint in the precise spot where the two men met one early morning in January 2010. The duo, who were supposed to get married this year but had to cancel their wedding due to the pandemic, say Berghain for them is a “space for dreaming”: “Berghain is a place where you share parts of yourself you don’t normally share with others,” says Alvaro.
Much of the club’s special status had to do with the fact that Berghain doesn’t allow pictures to be taken inside – bouncers at the door place a sticker over visitors’ camera phones and eject those who are seen trying to scrub it off. “That’s where the myths come from,” says Halilaj. “You can only tell, but not document what goes on inside.”
“The paradox with Berghain is that it is incredibly professionally organised and efficiently run, yet it is this laissez-faire space where you can waste away 12 or 20 hours without feeling watched,” says photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, whose video collage of candid photographs sends visitors back into broad daylight at the end of the show.
The no-pictures policy remains in place while the club is an art gallery. “You’ll be leaving this gallery with a head full of memories and ideas, not with pictures to adorn your social media feeds,” says Boros.
The art show does, however, break with one of Berghain’s iron rules. In pre-pandemic times, there was not a single mirror installed inside its premises, in keeping with the ethos of a place that wants people to listen and feel, rather than be seen. Yet Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson has installed three oval-shaped mirrors that multiply the dark corners of vast industrial space. Viewed from the right spot, they lock into place, repeating the patterns and shadows on the wall into infinity.
It feels like a confession of sorts: in the end, the biggest art work in this show is the building itself.