Up Against the Wall : For the Artists of Berlin, the Wall Never Really Fell. And as the Art Scene Moves East, Envy and Contempt Heat Up a Strange Cold War

Sharon Waxman is Paris-based features writer for the Washington Post

Back when life had a taste and texture, back when it had a spirit and a rhythm of its own, then Rainer Tschernay could create.

Back when he didn’t have to sell his paintings, back before money, money, money became the point to everything, then he could work on his crude sculptures in his East Berlin studio. He could draw and paint landscapes. Then he could see clearly. Back before the Wall came down.

Before the Wall came down, “Raw” Warzecha had found his niche. Back when West Berlin’s Kreuzberg was an island of Turkish immigrants and punk artists near the Wall and nobody cared if you owned a building or just lived in it; back before the Frankfurt suits came with their bulging wallets and the Wall was an immutable fact of life, then he could paint. Now, it’s not so easy.

Now the abandoned buildings, the squats, are disappearing; rents have gone through the roof, everybody’s fighting eviction and the art scene has moved to East Berlin. Who has the head, really, for art?

Yes, it was certainly better before the Wall came down.

“When the Wall fell, I had the feeling that they just opened the zoo. That there were all these wild animals on the street,” says Christopher, a 33-year-old west Berliner who hangs out with the Dead Chickens, a “Wessie” cyberpunk performance art group. He recalls how the “Ossies” jammed the center of west Berlin, gaping at the wealth of a consumer society. Christopher, who makes crude handcrafted jewelry and will not give his last name because he hates his father, has met his cousins in east Berlin only once since 1989. He can’t relate.


Neither can his friends, the Dead Chickens. They are a hot young group on the West Berlin scene, exhibiting their monster-sculptures in the prestigious Raab Gallery and performing in art festivals around Europe. They make wild, horrifying costumes that move mechanically and explode on computer-controlled cue and ooze blood, brains and green liquid while they play ear-splitting noise. Very underground. Very subculture. You know: nukes and punks and heavy black make-up. Very, very Berlin.

Like many artists from West Berlin, including Warzecha, the Dead Chickens were evicted from their squat in Kreuzberg, which is now an area of prime real estate. As Kreuzberg becomes yuppified, artists have increasingly moved down-market, to the east. You might think that the Dead Chickens would have found kindred spirits among the young, anti-art artists of the East, particularly since the Dead Chickens now work in a huge basement in East Berlin.

But the Dead Chickens find East Berlin’s subculture . . . boring. Dated. “Pathetic,” says Breeda C.C. (her only name), an artist who creates many of the Dead Chickens’ costumes. “Some of the artists I find very slow, I must say. Their films are slow, very--poetic, very heavy. Full of senses, slow, gray. I can’t explain it. Too heavy,” she says.

“Hyper-political,” says Nils Peters, 26, another Dead Chicken.

“What we do, it’s more sarcastic,” Breeda insists. “What they do is very serious . I saw this performance art in Dresden--you know, people sitting around a fire wearing bandages, eating mushrooms.” She rolls her eyes. “It was so . . .” pause . . . “depressing.”

LIKE EVERYONE ELSE IN THIS CONFUSED, CHAOTIC, work-in-progress of a city, the artists in east and west Berlin do not get along. The don’t mingle with their formerly inaccessible peers, they don’t share or hang out or communicate. There’s no connection. Four years after reunification, Germany finds itself plunged deep in economic recession, battling record postwar unemployment--16% in the east--and struggling to comprehend a frightening resurgence of violent fascism among its restive youth. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that the chasm between east and west Germans is as wide as it was before the heady, history days of November, 1989, when they were no longer divided by cement and electrified wire.

But here in Berlin--with its centuries of collected artistic wealth, with its historic role as a haven for painters, musicians, actors and the avant garde and its ever-vibrant cultural scene (no less than two orchestras, three operas and about 50 cabarets)--the division seems odd. Artists, a group you might suppose to be curious or at least non-judgmental, grumble and snipe and criticize each other. Instead of exploring what for so long was just out of reach, they have turned in on themselves, living--as much as possible--as they did before the Wall came down, in enclaves, in cocoons of friends, contacts and odd exhibition spaces. Like other Germans confronting the sudden end of decades of division, the artists of east and west Berlin regard one another--for the most part--with mistrust and distaste and contempt.

“It’s two extremes meeting,” says Pontus Carle, a Swedish painter who frequently exhibits and sells his work in both east and west Germany. In the east, he says, the artists work more intuitively--a function, perhaps, of having lived under a state that judged art for its political correctness rather than its quality, while in the west a more rational, capitalistic mind-set prevailed. “In the east, the problem was freedom, not competition,” he says. “In the west, you would never want to introduce a fellow artist to a collector--there’s always competition.”

For many westerners, it is a question of experience. Sure, they were interested in East Berliners at first, but then they found that beyond a superficial common ground--language, nationality, age--what did they share, really? What could they learn from those who were so isolated so long from Western culture? Many say that they find their eastern artistic peers to be dated, provincial, extremely defensive and unjustifiably lofty.

For many easterners, it is a question of money. Money that no longer comes so easily. Money that westerners flaunt with such arrogance. Money they are embarrassed and resentful that they need, now that state-guaranteed employment is a thing of the past. But there is more. Oh, say the east Berliners, those smug, superior Wessies. Oh, their commercial disposable, superficial art. The art that easterners created during their isolation was, they feel, purer somehow. Undiluted. Conversations with dozens of east Berlin artists share this common undertone: Whatever they gained in freedom of movement and conscience with the fall of the Wall, they say, they lost in freedom from worry over income, competition and output.

“When the Wall was up, this was a creative island. I had nothing to do with the Stalinists and one could concentrate on art and poetry,” says Maximilian Barck, an intense 31-year-old east Berliner who publishes art books and heads an artists’ group called Herzattacke (Heart Attack). “In the last 10 years of the GDR (German Democratic Republic) there was a vacuum; there wasn’t much pressure from the state. West Berlin artists had to pay rent for an apartment, studio, sell paintings. We didn’t have that fear. We had free time; we were autonomous.”

Barck is the epitome of the east German intellectual, spewing references to French philosopher Michel Foucault, Canadian writer Marshal McLuhan and Austrian painter Edward Munch in a single phrase, raging something about “mystical post-structural thinkers” and categorically condemning the ethic of profit and consumption that dominates the art world he discovered in 1989. In a torrential discourse, he makes distinction between real artists--like himself and a few, rare others that he has met from the West--and the mass of Western artists who, in his view, rack empty brains and emptier souls for salable ideas. To him, their work isn’t art at all, it’s a corrupt product of market capitalism.

“We have gone from the dictatorship of Stalinism to the dictatorship of money,” he says, chain-smoking in a book-lined study of his sunny apartment. “It’s a question of which one you can get away from more easily.” Before 1989, Barck was officially a philosophy student, and worked a few hours a week at a pet store. Otherwise he consecrated himself to art. Then he paid 100 ostmarks (about $25) for the spacious apartment that housed his family. Now, Barck spends much of his creative time hustling his work, and he can barely afford the rent--650 deutsche marks, about $360--for the same apartment but has at least found a benefactor--from West Berlin--for Herzattacke.

Rainer Tschernay is one of those artists. He wanders in, mid-conversation, barefoot, his face barely visible beneath a halo of shoulder-length frizz, glasses and a beard, sits down and helps himself to a cigarette. He is right at home. That’s one thing about the art community in East Berlin: It is a community. There is an easy generosity and a camaraderie that seems to have long disappeared from society in the West.

“In West Germany art has a different concept; the attitude is one of producing art for money. They produce art to be sold,” says Tschernay, who used to teach art in his spare time, back when he had spare time. “Whereas in the east, by concentrating on art, by remaining true to our work, groups like Herzattacke have brought new ideas to the market.” He says categorically: “Eastern art has more integrity than Western art.”

BUT IS IT ANY GOOD? Well, that depends on whom you ask. If they often paint in the dark palette and aggressive brush strokes of German expressionism, east Berlin artists tend to follow two stylistic schools, abstract expressionism and expressive-style figurative painting. There are few other genres. A glance at catalogues and art galleries around the eastern part of the city shows that conceptual art--art as an idea or a point of view rather than a creation--never penetrated the Berlin Wall, and that the media and technology revolution that informed so much of contemporary art in Western Europe and America over the past 20 years never came to the east.

More important, perhaps, east Germany’s generous social conditions--despite the repressive political situation--allowed many mediocre artists to pursue their work in blithe ignorance of their talent, or lack thereof. Tschernay, who is now painting rainbow-colored abstract canvases and making sculptures out of objects like GDR matchboxes, wouldn’t last long in a truly competitive artistic environment. And indeed, he may not.

That may explain--but perhaps doesn’t excuse--the attitude of some west Berliners. “When I go to the underground (east Berlin) galleries, 95% of the stuff is just shit, 5% is OK and even then I don’t know if (the artists) have a chance,” says Volcker Diehl, the owner of an exclusive gallery just off West Berlin’s Kufurstendamm, the fashionable shopping district. Diehl shows top-rated international artists such as Markus Lupertz, Helmut Middendorf and John Noel Smith. He still visits galleries in east Berlin, though not as often as he did just after the fall of the Wall.

“Some of it is just badly made; there is no idea of form, color and composition. They have no idea of a line in relation to two points, up or down,” he says. “Or else it’s just a copy. Sometimes I’ll see something fresh, original--it won’t change the world, I don’t expect an artists to change the world tomorrow--but I expect something authentic and personal. Then I can respect it.”

Diehl picks up a recent catalogue of work by Herzattacke artists. “For instance,” he says, pointing to a geometric design, “this looks like Vasarely.” He flips to a page of brown-and-black abstract images. “This looks like Kandinsky. It’s pretty horrible,” He turns the page to an unsigned drawing of a crucifix, and eye, a moon. “This is really bad,” he groans. “This composition is really horrible. It’s so obvious--a moon, death, with an eye on top. It’s like--oh God--this is for someone who’s 15.”

Artists who long ago defected to the West from the former East Germany tend to be even harsher in their judgments. The most successful among them--Anselm Kiefer, Georg Baselitz or R.L. Penck--have become giants in the contemporary art world. Baselitz, whose exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art opened in December and who recently had a show at the Pompidou Center in Paris, left East Berlin in 1956 when he was in his 20s and the Communist regime was at its most doctrinaire. The Wall was not erected until 1961, but Berlin was divided by armed guards and barbed wire. In his youth, Baselitz says, he could paint only what the state ordered, could exhibit and sell only through official, state-run organizations. So he left.

“Artistically, it was a completely unreal situation,” Baselitz says in a phone interview from his studio in Holle, near Hanover in western Germany. “Everyone lived off subsidies; for an artist it is not good, this getting money without making an effort. Everything you earn should come from your work,” he says. Baselitz is equally condemning of the young generation’s work. “It is impossible to compare them with what happened in France, the rest of Germany, or in America. They had nothing. No information, no material. How do you expect a young artist to create without having an idea of what is happening elsewhere?”

Not everyone is so critical. Indeed, many artists, gallery owners and collectors in Germany say they expect the most interesting art in the coming years to come from places like east Berlin. The turmoil--the shock of suddenly confronting everything in the Western world--will certainly produce something exciting, particularly at a time when western cynicism over art seemingly reached its height. Like painter Klaus Killice, a 34-year-old east Berliner who since 1989 has devoured everything he can about the world he missed; his work has evolved dramatically, and Germany’s prestigious “Art” magazine recently named him among a handful of the country’s most promising artists.

But even among lesser east Berlin talents there is something of this new energy--like there is in east Berlin society--something that hints at raw emotion and internal chaos. Something immediate and personal and . . . wild.

AN ENORMOUS, BLACKENED BUILDING with the odd sculptures on top dominates the skyline of Mitte--literally “middle"--a neighborhood of east Berlin that was once and soon will be again its business and commercial center. This hulking edifice--Tacheles--pulsates with sound from the street-level Keller Bar, where heavy metal music and heavier metal sculptures dominate the space. The sensations intensify as you walk up its four stories. Nearly every square inch is covered in graffiti and sound emanates from everywhere and nowhere.

The second floor has a large performance area, with bleacher-like seating and two-story walls covered, on this day, with blue, geometrical paintings; someone is doing sound checks. On the third floor there are artists’ studios--cubicles divided by crude wooden planks--and their equally-spare apartments; metallic dust and the sick whirring of an electric saw issues from one area, while the smell of spaghetti sauce wafts, a few feet away, from another. Next floor up is a loft-like exhibition space, on this day featuring the work of a Chilean artist, Juan Enrique Gabler: textured canvases in earth tones and collage-like works combining photos and debris.

Tacheles is random and crude; it embodies the chaos and the creativity of post-Wall east Berlin. Like everything else here, this building has a history. A luxury department store in the 1920s, Tacheles was bombed during World War II and, like many buildings in east Berlin, never repaired. After 1989, a few artists came to squat: painters, along with Berlin’s classic assortment of musicians, punks and anarchists and who have similarly commandeered dozens of run-down buildings and apartments in the east. But Tacheles quickly became a real cultural center. It now gets city, state and European Union funding, though its future is far from guaranteed: The building occupies prime real estate in east Berlin’s burgeoning commercial center. An even more certain destruction awaits the area’s other squats, city officials say, as Berlin prepares for its new role as Germany’s seat of government by the year 2000.

But for the moment, here is where it is happening, in Mitte, with its galleries and avant garde restaurants, and farther east in Prenzlauerberg, with its lofts, squats and neighborhood cafes. But isn’t it odd? These new east Berlin neighborhoods, pulsating the rhythm of change, have imposed their own kind of apartheid. Eigen und Art, a gallery owned by east Germans on the trendy Auguststrasse, exhibits exclusively east German artists. Kunstwerke, a west-owned gallery practically next door, exhibits and donates space exclusively to westerners, showcasing conceptual art. A few door down, Wohnmaschine exhibits Ossies; across the street Kunstwerke’s second building give space to Wessies.

There are those who try to breach the persistent divide. Like Romen Banerjee, a talented, energetic young painter from west Berlin who organizes group shows and tries to include eastern artists. He says: “There is a west lobby and an east lobby and they don’t trust each other. There are circles of people who help each other and they don’t want to let others in, in east and west both.”

There’s Laura Bruce, an American painter who was welcomed into an artist’s compound in eastern Prenzlauerberg; all her friends are east Berliners though her husband Edmond, an easy-going mathematician, is west German. “I think that right now the interesting stuff is going on in east Berlin. There is this incredible change, this incredible opening up. But this transition period is really tough,” she says, admitting that her neighbors are often circumspect around her husband. “West and east--they were taught they were each other’s worst enemy for 40 years.”

So. It turns out that 40 years does make a difference. It turns out that decades of socialist and capitalist acculturation does establish different values, different expectations, different ways of thinking. It’s not a question of habit and familiarity. Though it’s that too.

The fact is, they grew apart. Children were born and raised and knew nothing but the Wall; people died and were buried with their memories of another Berlin, Germany became two countries. Berlin became two cities; West Berlin, of despair and fear of nuclear holocaust. Punk, black city of cabaret and heavy metal. Graffiti, Pershings and John F. Kennedy. Art and avant garde and anarchy. And then east Berlin, of neat streets, empty plazas, cool restraint and communism. Child care and free abortion. Spies and swaps informers and defectors and Checkpoint Charlie.

After 1989, everyone was curious. Westerners ventured east, easterners explored the west, and all rejoiced at what they had in common. For a while. But slowly they also saw that their lives would have to change. Berlin would become a capital, and there would not be room for the draft-dodger or the jewelry-maker; there would be bills--big bills--to pay and no more easy money for the pet store poet.

IT’S ONLY 8:00 AND HALF OF THE ARTISTS FROM HERZATTACKE ARE already swaying unsteadily amid clouds of blue-gray smoke. This isn’t that unusual--they drink often and smoke always--but in fact tonight is a special occasion, the first exhibit of the group’s work in a brand new space donated by their west German benefactor, Peter Jander.

A builder still in his 30s, Jander has made a fortune since 1989 redoing the ruined facades of east Berlin buildings, enough to take over a block-long office and donate the first floor to Barck and his buddies. Barck is ebullient, slapping backs and spouting verse; Tschernay has donned shoes for the occasion.

The show varies widely, both in style and quality; two rooms are devoted to Pontus Carle, the successful Swedish abstract expressionist, who befriended Barck, and another room to the promising work of an east Berlin abstract painter, Mikos Meininger. But another section displays surrealist paintings of birds and brain stems by the easterner Thomas Weber that are technically solid, but unoriginal.

They are surviving, the artists of Herzattacke, though not all have come through this period unscathed. Klaus Bendler, a painter/photographer wrapped in an overcoat and an alcoholic fog, has twice attempted suicide since 1989, the Barcks say. Once he tried to hang himself and Barck rushed to his apartment and cut him down. Everyone in east Berlin has heard of other successful suicides of artists and of others who--in fearful panic--destroyed all of their work when the Wall came down. Since the night of this opening, Bendler has checked into the psychiatric wing of east Berlin’s Charity Hospital. It has not been easy.

“Easterners have an inferiority complex,” says Swedish painter Carle. “They have had a very hard time dealing with the new situation: All the criteria, the frame of reference they had before has changed. They don’t want to open up to the west. On the other hand, it strikes me that in east Berlin there is a kind of closeness between artists that you don’t see anymore in the west,” he says.

“This western style of living--we’re not used to it,” says Sybilla Barck, Maximilian’s wife. “We really think that in east Berlin there is more real art, with a base of expression. In the west, a painting may technically be very good, very chic, very modern. But it has no spirit.”

Western gallery owner Diehl scoffs at this attitude, but he doesn’t write off eastern artists indefinitely. “It’s difficult. I’d say the chance that interesting, young, new art will start over there is much better than anywhere else in Germany. But if it will happen, we’ll have to wait of a couple of years,” Diehl says.

It will take time, this reunificiation business. It will come in increments; it is already beginning. One of the Dead Chickens, Henryk Weiffenbach, has a girlfriend from east Berlin. A step. West Berlin’s Peter Jander has committed himself to investing in the artistic future of Herzattacke, whatever it may be. Another step. Andreas Rost, a sincere 27-year-old with some photos at the Herzattacke show, wants to study from photography experts in New York.

It will take time.

“Everyone is afraid, in a certain sense. But we have to go through it, we have to be stronger, I accept that,” says Rost. “I’m living that right now. We always had a roof over our heads, something to eat. But we were in an ideological straitjacket. Our writers, our painters--where are they?” he asks. “Now we will see who is strong enough to make it.”