Sunday, December 17, 2006


Avant-Garde in the Vacant Lot

Since the federal government refused counted-on financial aid to broke Berlin (see post Nov. 6), the future of the Berliner Schloss stands in question. It may end up sharing the fate of the former GDR seat-of-government-come-public-entertainment-complex Palast der Republik being steadily ripped down to make way for it: nonexistence. (See posts Nov. 19 and Nov. 26.) Although Wilhelm von Boddien, head of the Schlossverein that promotes the rebuilding the former royal residence, suggests that individual donations can close the funding gap, this is incredible optimism. As a Tagesspiegel writer correctly observed this weekend, it is dubious if the Berliners, who don’t spend money on anything, (see post Nov. 6) will support the Schloss financially, especially since not all of them support its rebuilding.

Since the Schloss cannot be rebuilt without money, the debate has turned to what to do in the euphemistically-named “between-use” [zwischennutzung] period, the perhaps decades-long time frame in which the space will be a vacant lot. A recent suggestion is to build a large hall for contemporary art. This suggestion is justified by the fact that despite Berlin’s reputation as the international capital of contemporary art, residents like star Olafur Eliasson, whose 2003 installation "The Weather Project" for the Tate Modern propelled him to fame, have no proper space to exhibit their art. Although his studio is in his adopted second-home of Berlin, Danish-born Eliasson lately had to exhibit his larger-scale works in Wolfsburg.

Mayor Klaus Wowereit, who recently trimmed the city’s roster of public posts by anointing himself Culture Senator and kicking out the
incumbent, has announced his agreement: Berlin needs a major exhibition space for contemporary art. The Schlossplatz--whose name is quickly becoming ironic--is the perfect site. Accordingly, the press has bemoaned how a broke city whose recent political bickering has revolved around the extent to which its enormous bureaucracy should be cut down wants to spend more money to build a modern art hall.

Yet, why not build the hall with different terms of engagement? Why not sell the land on temporary lease to the highest bidder and allow them to build a lavishly trendy exhibition space and charge outlandishly high entry fees? The obvious roadblock is the local shallow-pocket mentality, but in a central spot, tourists would pay for such a spectacle. High-minded artists might boycott such a popular and gimmicky exhibition space, but perhaps not if this space gained international acclaim with a couple big names at the start and became an irresistible resume-booster. It could even broker a deal with the Schlossverein to turn over some of its earnings in exchange for access to the verein’s massive publicity machine and meddling political sway.

Finally, destroying central state architecture from multiple eras in order to build a temporary shrine to the very newest and freshest art conveys the amnesiac urge for self-invention which has been a hallmark of this city for so long—it’s traditional. Then, in another thirty years or so when the money to build the Schloss has finally been collected, everyone will have another opportunity to argue about the cultural blindness of ripping down the beloved Contemporary Art Hall, the symbol of turn-of-the-millenia aesthetic savvy, the product of the nascent Berlin Republic! There will be another public debate about historical irresponsibility, one more argument for old time’s sake. That would be true Berlin.

Wowi headshot courtesy of http://www.klaus-wowereit.de/

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