A wild art scene now stays within the lines

Times Staff Writer

There's a Starbucks near where the orgies used to be, and although the aura of Bohemia is distinct, things aren't as unhinged as they were 17 years ago when punkers, pornographers, anarchists, squatters and artists of all persuasions landed amid the rust and drizzle of this liberated city.

It seems an era from a scrapbook, a time of cheap rents when everyone with a brush and a bit of brio claimed a garret. Some were talented; many were not. But they roamed the east side of a fallen wall, scavenging ideas and materials to make art and revive a naughty, creative spirit that resided here before decades of fascism and the Cold War.

The zeitgeist these days is more commercial. Galleries serve sushi amid prattle about hedge funds and economic indexes. Berlin has become a production center for works sold from Portugal to Dubai. Rents are going up. The dilettantes have departed. The foreign purveyors have nestled in. What remains is less the innocent verve of the past than an atmosphere that -- although aesthetically adventurous and more open to experimentation than in most cities -- has matured with a shrewd eye toward marketing.

"We were young, wild and free. Now we're all old and broken," said Marek Schovanek, a Czech Canadian sculptor and painter who arrived here in 1991. "But there's a mythos of freshness that still works here. In other places, they're producing Western culture as if they're mass-producing pornography. Berlin is different. But has it reached a state of assimilation? You have a system in place from above: producing, showing, exporting. So are artists wondering: Do you throw that last bucket of white paint on because your impetus says so, or do you hold back because of the market?"

Unlike Leipzig and other European cities, where art schools defined a style, Berlin is not easily categorized. Chances are, if you don't know what it is or where it came from, it was painted, welded, hammered, shaped, photographed, digitalized, videoed or chiseled in Berlin. This artistic individuality has flourished on a fault line that once divided two nuclear-armed political ideologies, but the scene today clatters with rave parties and all-night dance clubs.

"It's a no-style style," Bastiaan Maris, a Dutchman who has been here since 1990, said of Berlin's unclassifiable aura. He is an itinerant collector of junk and rickety gadgets, a magpie artist who works with blowtorches, circuitry and propane tanks, and whose masterpiece thus far is an industrial-sized organ with pipes as high as 20 meters and music of controlled flaming detonations that shake the sky.

"Basically, you play thunder," said Maris, who dates a puppeteer and shares a studio with an artist who tinkers with pneumatic robots, such as sharks. "I made my first bomb out of Legos when I was 3 years old. I've been playing with fire all my life. I've always been intrigued by the process of when energy transforms. I don't want to harness it. I want to set it free."

Maris senses more capitalist fervor than he did years ago, but he said Berlin, bankrupt and still struggling to reunify East and West, remains a relatively inexpensive and uninhibited place to work. He and others wonder how long the gritty patina will last. If this city has an economic boom, what will happen to artists when rents rise? And will Berlin's stature as an art market internationalize the scene to the extent that locals will be swept to the margins?

"I can be in my workshop 10 hours a day. I can spend half of my time experimenting and working on my own projects. That's what Berlin gives you today," he said. "I played my organ at the groundbreaking of the Dutch Embassy here. I don't think many other cities would allow you to set this big thing up for a month."

Joachim Seinfeld, a photographer and painter, said Berlin has an anarchist's character and a stingy man's pockets. The commercialization, he said, is due to the influence of gallery owners from New York, Tokyo and elsewhere who export what's created here. Local collectors don't buy with the same intensity, resisting Berlin's keen sense of self-promotion, which aided the marketing of such artists as John Bock.

"To be frank, the art market in Berlin is still quite weak," said Seinfeld, who studied in Florence in the 1980s and has recently exhibited in Poland, Austria and the Czech Republic. "In towns like Cologne, you have guys running around buying art with suitcases full of money. But here you don't. Berlin is a production site. Things don't sell here; I sell in Portugal and Italy, not Berlin. Berliners were never courageous about buying."

Seinfeld's studio is an old butcher shop with a courtyard view. Seinfeld, a trim man with black-rimmed glasses, arrived here with a Leica M3 camera in 1991. Like Maris, he was drawn to an East Berlin caught between ruin and reinvention. He ventured into turn-of-the-century houses and, with a glue-like substance, peeled off murals and family portraits that had been painted directly on the walls.

What he collected were ghost stories on canvas: stern Germans peering out in the years before World War I as if they sensed some creeping disturbance beyond the frame. Their austere faces haunt, capturing a time when people did not so easily part with their likenesses. "I wanted to get as many as I could," he said. "The old walls are disappearing as East Berlin is renovated."

Much of his energy these days is spent on photography, including Eumulgin and silver gelatin prints on glass. In a self-portrait series, he's a golem, covered in mud and grime as if sprung from the earth. He also plays voyeur and interloper, disguising himself and stealing away into another time, appearing in postcards and snapshots like a trick of history.

In a photograph from a 1958 beauty pageant, for example, Seinfeld inserted himself as a photographer looking through a lens at a row of contestants, in which he also poses as a woman in a bathing suit.

"I like to work on questions of identity, time and perception," Seinfeld said. "In Berlin, you can still do what you want."

Provided you're willing to travel. The epitome of the Berlin artist is Marek Schovanek, painter, sculptor, curator; a global vagabond exhibiting and marketing his work and that of others from Thailand to Slovenia. He's negotiating a deal for his towering triptych in the foyer of the National Gallery in Prague, he recently finished a show, "Fragmentation," in London and he's preparing for an exhibition in Canada.

Schovanek said that the scene when he arrived here in 1991 was reminiscent of "the sacking of Troy ... where artists turned the culture upside down and threw it on the street." The street has been somewhat tidied these days. The ambition of the British and French underground scenes that converged here years ago has mixed with commerce; artists such as Schovanek market and exhibit on the road to pay for working at home.

"My Swiss bank account is crying for love," he said.

In much of Schovanek's work is a cynicism, at times playful and satirical, about a world saturated with icons of globalization. In one set of pictures painted with charcoal and Coke, he conjures a desolate landscape, suggesting an industrial winter and our inability to escape the omnipresent reach of corporations. Similar themes echo through a series of rotating triptychs on war, the pervasiveness of technology, and the Bible as a brand name to market Christianity.

One triptych shows a smiling Asian woman, the kind who appears on Hong Kong billboards, whose face is imprinted with messages. The triptych turns to a galloping Marlboro Man peering ahead with hollow eyes. And in a series titled "Hero Anti-Hero," old German letters are painted over portraits of Michael Jackson, Queen Elizabeth and a Mickey Mouse look-alike, giving the impression that the images, ubiquitous and disposable, could be erased and used again.

These works slip through Schovanek's studio by the River Spree. They are crated and uncrated. They mingle with his new projects and are then crated and sent out again, insured, bearing customs stamps and driven to the airport by an artist who seems in perpetual need of a nap.

"Artists are still coming to Berlin. The city is the Pied Piper," he said. "They're coming with expectations. The city is digging around for the second crop of artists to deify. But back when we came, it was a place for frontiersmen. History was changing under your feet."

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

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