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How did culture come to flourish in Berlin? A chronology of light and shadows

Berlin is a city where all kinds of artists and musicians, both famous and humble, cross paths. How did Berlin come to be a world-famous city of culture? Art journalist Miki Kanai looks at today’s Berlin and reveals the process by which the city became what it is.

text&photo_Miki Kanai

Time passes slowly in the wide open streets that flow into each other, calm and quiet. All kinds of trees stand tall, the blue sky extends overhead unobstructed by skyscrapers, and people walk by only sporadically. Somehow, everything looks free. In Berlin, the kind of stress usually associated with cities is almost absent. It has been almost fourteen years since I came to live here. The “ambiance” of this city is comfortable. The cityscape changes, people also flow by, politics and the economy fluctuate. Perhaps unsurprisingly, rents and commodity prices have increased sharply compared to ten or fifteen years ago, and it is not very easy to find a studio or a place to live.

However, rents and commodity prices are still cheap compared to other cities, even though Berlin is the capital of Germany. Here, an artist can get a spacious place to create art for a reasonable price. There is also a great deal of infrastructure for creating art. All kinds of equipment; large workshops where all sorts of technicians work with wood, metal, plaster, ceramics, and more; photo studios and shops for art materials… All this infrastructure keeps costs of creation under control. On top of that, other European cities are easily accessible from Berlin.

In fact, in recent years, international artists and musicians such as Ai Weiwei, Thomas Saraceno, and Fumiya Tanaka have made Berlin their home base. There are international and local events, from the Berlin International Film Festival to the Berlin Biennale and the Gallery Weekend Berlin. Even at kiosks and in small supermarkets, art magazines are lined up side by side with children’s books and gossip weeklies. Newspapers devote ample space to articles about art. Art galleries are bustling with visitors on holidays, and when several gallery events overlap, such throngs of people gather that the surrounding streets look as if they have been made car-free. One gets the feeling that experiencing art in this city–seeing society, imagining it, considering it through the lens of art–is something special.

So how did Berlin come to be a world-famous city of culture? I want to trace that history from the time of the East-West division after the Second World War, through the transformation of Berlin into a city of culture that began again in the 1990s, and to the state of the art scene today.

Art as a means of escaping from painful periods in history

FROM BERLIN:ドキュメンタリー「NiK」Part1

For long years, Berlin was oppressed by ideologies that brought on painful periods in its history, namely the two world wars and the time of Nazism. The fact that the city has faced such political oppression has strengthened its citizens’ present-day dedication to rethinking established society and building a better community.

In 1949, Berlin was divided into a Western zone occupied by the United States, France, and the United Kingdom, and an Eastern zone occupied by the Soviet Union. In November 1989, the Berlin Wall that divided the eastern and western halves of the city was torn down, and in 1990 East and West Germany were reunited into one country. While Germany was divided into East and West, artists in East Germany who were seen as opposing the system created works in secret, attempted to defect to West Germany, and so on.

In 1961, the “Berlin Wall” was constructed to surround West Berlin, which became an isolated enclave of land. To preserve cultural activities on an international level, West Berlin welcomed guests from abroad. The city also began an artist residency project that aimed to bring about cultural exchange and discover the activities of artists living in the Eastern European countries that lay beyond the “Iron Curtain” that divided Cold War Europe. The project was established in 1963 by the American Ford Foundation, but in 1966, it became officially affiliated with the DAAD (Deutsche Akademische Austauchdienst, German Academic Exchange Service).

Every year, the artist residency program helps six visual artists, six writers, three composers, and three film directors from outside Germany spend a year in Berlin to create works. Japanese artists have also been invited, such as visual artists On Kawara and Michihiro Shimabuku, musical artist Tomomi Adachi, and film director SABU. There is no rule saying that artists in residence have to create works related to Berlin, but many artists are charmed by Berlin and create art about the city.

Stan Douglas, The Fruitmarket Gallery, 7 November 2014 – 15 February 2015

For example, Canadian film director Stan Douglas took the title of a novel by German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann to create his masterpiece “Der Sandmann” (1995) about Germany after the Cold War. Douglas shot this work in Filmpark Babelsberg, near Berlin, while he was staying in the city as part of DAAD’s artist residency program.

Often, the city also learns from the points of view of the foreign artists. It is also common for artists who experienced a one-year residency to move their base of operations to the city. Also, the Künstlerhaus Bethanien (built in 1974) provides a place to create and live for artists from all over the world. Artists in residence can exhibit their works in the galleries connected to Künstlerhaus Bethanien, and there are open studio events to create bridges between the artists and the local audience. Studio visits are also organized to bring the artists in residence in contact with foreign people involved in the art world, such as curators and critics, who come to visit Berlin. DAAD has partnerships with art councils and aid societies in about fifteen countries, and most artists receive support from these organizations to fund their stay in Berlin.

Besides DAAD, other organizations have had a significant influence on the development of the art scene in Berlin, such as the Goethe-Institut (an international cultural exchange organization established by the German government) and IFA (the Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations).

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