Berlin's Bohemian quarter is changing but Leisa Tyler finds that creativity and culture continue to thrive there.
Ai Weiwei's Tree crowds a concrete cubical, its sturdy blackened limbs collected from dead camphor trees bolted together using ancient Chinese joinery techniques. A statement against the breakneck speed of development in China - and how the environment pays the highest price - the gangly piece of art appears even more ominous claustrophobically squeezed between three concrete walls at the Boros Collection, an art gallery located inside a former war bunker in central Berlin.
Built in 1942 under the guidance of Adolf Hitler's chief architect, Albert Speer, the Boros Bunker, as it's nicknamed, was designed to withstand what Hitler believed would be the final blow-out of World War II. The five-storey fortress with two-metre-thick reinforced concrete walls and a three-metre-thick ceiling has since had several incarnations: as a jail for West German soldiers, a depot for Cuban fruit, and a venue for hard-core dance and sadomasochism parties.
Purchased by Polish advertising executive Christian Boros in 2003, it now houses his vast collection of contemporary art.
Unassuming and unsignposted, the 80-room, 3000-square-metre Boros Collection offers a rich and varied encounter with obscure and extreme art. There is a set of Olafur Eliasson's Icelandic driftwood logs plonked haphazardly in the twisting entrance tunnel. Argentinian artist Tomas Saraceno's Flying Garden nets illustrate what he believes cities would look like if they were detached from the ground. A popcorn machine, powered by a hair dryer, spills roasted popcorn onto the floor of one room while the humming and ticking of a train station clock resonates through the concrete walls downstairs. There are no curators; artists are encouraged to install their works in the bare concrete rooms as they feel fit.
Opened in 2008, the Boros Collection is one of several non-profit galleries that have sprung up in Berlin's Mitte district in recent years. Meaning "middle", from 1949 to 1989 Mitte was the heart of East Berlin, occupied by the Soviet Union and separated from West Berlin by a three-metre-high wall. When the Berlin Wall came down, Mitte found itself becoming the epicentre of a Bohemian renaissance.
Shabby and derelict from decades of stringent communist rule teamed with a plethora of empty apartment buildings confiscated by the East Berlin government and then unclaimed by their traditional owners when it was dissolved, an open - almost accepting - attitude to squatters who took up residency in these buildings; cheap living expenses; and a strong, edgy sense of liberalism proved the perfect ingredients to fuel an art movement.
"The city was just going off its head," says Australian Wesley Hindmarch, an environmental architect who lived in Berlin in 1995. "There was a raw, pure energy fuelled by this incredible youth culture flooding in from Europe. Berlin was all about freedom and affordability: values that allowed artists to come and thrive and be part of the recuperation of the city."
Mitte's art scene has since grown to be on a par with New York and London's in influence and purchasing power. This charismatic borough cut by the Spree River and filled with 19th-century apartment buildings, some still pock-marked with bullet holes from WW2, has transformed to suit. The past decade has seen the neighbourhood metamorphose from a bastion of tattered and eccentric cool to one of the slickest in Europe, with organic fruit shops, Spanish tapas bars and designer hotels.
C/O, the grungy Mitte photo gallery that opened in 2000 and showed the works of Nan Goldin, Rene Burri and Peter Lindbergh, among many others, closed in early 2011 to be converted into a luxury hotel and shopping centre. More recently was the closure of the 1250-square-metre Tacheles arts squat on Oranienburger Strasse. Tacheles was built as an up-market shopping mall in 1907 and used as a central office for Hitler's Nazi Party during the 1930s, when prisoners were said to have been held here for interrogation purposes. Communes of squatting artists took over after the fall of the wall, setting themselves up in the threadbare concrete rooms streamed with natural light and reinventing it as a landmark for the alternative art and party scene, consistently and successfully resisting eviction, until September 2012.
I first visited the Tacheles late last decade. Sculptures of toy missiles fashioned from scrap metal peppered the bare-earth courtyard, and broken bottles and graffiti riddled the stairs. We would come for the windowless bars - with mismatched chairs and €2 vodkas - that heaved with the social misfits who had turned the building into a hub for experimental lifestyles. Tacheles was the epitome of Berlin: cheap, rundown and cutting-edge cool.
I used to spend a few months of each year in Mitte. My now husband had an apartment on Munzstrasse. The neighbourhood was in the midst of a rapid transformation; each time I visited, it was almost unrecognisable from the previous. When we moved to Mitte, in 2007, the street opposite us, Rosa-Luxemburg Strasse, named after the Marxist theorist and socialist darling, was riddled with graffiti and best known for its neo-Nazi shop that was consistently barraged with broken glass. By the time we left, in 2010, the street was practically bourgeois, with boutique hotels and designer shops selling Fendi jackets and €200 woollen beanies.
As the jet-setters and soaring real-estate prices move into Mitte, the artists are moving out to Berlin's grittier and poorer neighbourhoods of Neukoelln and Wedding. Galleries are relocating to the boulevard-wide streets and charming courtyard apartment buildings lining Potsdamer Strasse in West Berlin's Tiergarten district.
At a glance one may assume Berlin's art world is drying up all together. After leaving Mitte, many small galleries failed to rematerialise; the city's main art fair, Art Forum Berlin, was recently cancelled after a 15-year run. Yet, with more than 600 art galleries remaining in the city and an estimated 6000-7000 artists, a quarter coming from outside Germany, there are more than enough for any casual observer.
Most of the art still revolves around Mitte, these days with a dash of polish and a price tag to match. I particularly enjoy non-profit galleries, many of which have stayed in the neighbourhood due to the high numbers of tourists filing through.
Housed in a former margarine factory, Kunst-Werke, or the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, was founded in the early 1990s by a group of artists including Klaus Biesenbach, the current director of MoMA in New York and co-founder of the Berlin Biennale. Flanking a courtyard, the five-storey Kunst-Werke doesn't keep a permanent collection, the philosophy being that without one the space can easily respond to innovation. I visit for Egyptian artist Wael Shawky's sometimes gruesome Carabet Crusades: The Path to Cairo, a film using 200-year-old Italian marionettes to retell key stories from the Crusades from an Egyptian - and Muslim - perspective.
At Me Collectors Room, which opened in 2010 next door to Kunst-Werke, Thomas Olbricht, a professional endocrinologist, shows rotating collections of other people's art on the first floor and his very own cabinet of curiosities, the Wunderkammer Olbricht, upstairs. The small, temperature-controlled space features Renaissance and Baroque-era items Olbricht has collected over the years, including a 17th-century coconut adorned with carvings of Brazilian cannibals, a shrunken skull from a head-hunting tribe in Ecuador, and a miniature 17th-century anatomical model of a pregnant woman with removable organs and foetus.
While I am in Berlin, Me Collectors Room is hosting the excellent toy collection of Duesseldorf-based Selim Varol. Varol owns the largest collection of pop surrealist toys in Europe, from manga to works of New York street artist Brian Donnelly, also known as KAWS, who paints cheeky cartoon characters onto well-known advertisements.
Art galleries aren't the only cultural acme found in the Mitte area. Museum Island, a collection of five museums and UNESCO World Heritage site, was first built in the 19th century as a "district dedicated to art and antiquities" by royal decree. Badly damaged during WWII, followed by years of neglect under Soviet rule, the German government has since made a point of using the restoration and reopening of the museums to help unify the city.
"The museums have brought back a very important time in Germany's history," says Julien Chapuis, their Swiss-born curator. "Through the museums, the government is hoping to make Berlin the most important cultural centre in Europe; a sanctuary of the arts, where the world can communicate. Nowhere in Europe is there a public investment in art and culture like there is here in Berlin."
The five museums currently attract 4.5 million people a year. Arguably the grandest and most ostentatious in magnificent Prussian style, the Bode Museum is in itself worth the visit. It sits by the side of the Spree River, its soaring cupola and marble-clad entrance hall overseen by the ginger eyes of the Great Elector and Duke of Prussia, Frederick William, astride a handsome steed. Reopening in 2006 after a reported €150 million restoration, the building houses the most extensive collection of Byzantine sculptures in the world.
A five-minute walk away is the Neues Museum, reopened in October 2009 after a €200 million facelift by British architect David Chipperfield. It is best known for an iconic bust of 12th-century BC Egyptian queen, Nefertiti. The Pergamon Museum, the most visited of all on the island, hosts large-scale architectural exhibits found during German excavations in Anatolia and Mesopotamia at the end of the 19th century and is undergoing a €350 million upgrade.
The works on display include an enormous altar with Roman friezes from the ancient city of Pergamon and the stunning glaze-bricked Ishtar Gate, the eighth gate to the fabled city of Babylon in modern-day Iraq.
More profound are the museums drawing on Mitte's - and Germany's - brutal past.
Berlin's heroic ability to openly admit and psychoanalyse its horrific recent history is no doubt one facet fuelling the city's dynamic and bold creative scene and the precursor for Mitte's art movement.
This bold confrontation can be seen everywhere; perhaps best at the Holocaust Memorial, otherwise known as the Memorial to Murdered Jews of Europe. Designed by New York-based Peter Eisenman, the shrine displaying 2711 abstract concrete blocks at varying heights was built on the site of a former Prussian palace, which in turn was part of the "death strip" of the Berlin Wall. Underneath an exhibition has painstakingly documented the lives of Jewish Berliners who died in the war.
The latest museum to open, in May 2010, is the Topography of Terror. Situated at what was once the most feared address in Berlin, the two-storey steel and glass rectangle was built on the former headquarters of the SS and Gestapo, which was largely destroyed by Allied bombing at the end of the war. It was from here that the Nazi concentration camps were administered. The sombre display attempts to understand the crimes against humanity that were committed by Nazi Germany, the propaganda that was used, and how dictators wield their power.
It's a gallant attempt to reinvent a harrowing space while coming to terms with history. And just like Berlin's gritty past, it's not for the faint-hearted.
Getting there Finnair has a fare to Berlin for about $1850 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne, including taxes. Fly to Hong Kong (about 9hr with a partner airline), then to Helsinki (11hr) and then to Berlin (2hr); see finnair.com. This fare allows you to fly via another Asian city and back from another European city. Australians do not require a visa for tourism for an accummulative stay of up to 90 days in a six-month period in Schengen states.
Hotel Mani, part of the Amano group of hotels, has 63 small but functional rooms, a fantastic downstairs tapas bar and restaurant, and is in a prime location for both the museums and art galleries of Mitte. Double rooms are from €70 ($90); see amanogroup.de.
Located at Potsdamer Platz, a few minutes' walk from the galleries of Potsdamer Strasse, the smart 303-room Ritz-Carlton is ideal for travellers happy to explore Berlin's grittier neighbourhoods, but with the comforts of a top-notch chain hotel. Double rooms are from €195; see ritzcarlton.com.
Boros Collection can be visited by appointment only from Thursday to Sunday; entry is €10; 20 Reinhardtstrasse; see sammlung-boros.de.
KW Institute for Contemporary Art is open Tuesday to Sunday, noon to 7pm. Thursday noon to 9pm; entry is €6; Auguststrasse 69; see www.kw-berlin.de.
Me Collectors Room Berlin is open Tuesday to Sunday, noon to 6pm; entry is €6; Auguststrasse 68; see me-berlin.com.
Museum Island offers ticket for all museums for €14 per day; see smb.museum for opening hours.
The Holocaust Memorial is open daily from 10am to 8pm; entry is free.
The Topography of Terror is open daily from 10am to 8pm; entry free. See topographie.de.
The author flew to Berlin courtesy of Finnair.