The sculpture was huge, shaggy and up on a tree. We were delighted to immediately identify it as something from home – an orang-utan – and whipped out our camera to photograph it.
Passing it again an hour later though, I looked at it carefully and realised it was actually an elephant, a mammoth to be precise.
I had to laugh wryly. Even after three years in Berlin, our instinct was still to associate anything new, with Malaysia.
But why did the artist put a mammoth on a tree?
The intention of its creator, Tobias Sternberg, was conservation. In fact, Sternberg had originally installed two other critters in the vicinity – a bear and a bison. When I first spotted the mammoth, only the bison remained as the bear had disintegrated.
Playing on Schadenfreude (to feel pleasure in some else’s misfortune), he called the whole work Schadensorge, Sorge being German for ‘worry’.
In the real world, the mammoth is extinct, the bison was almost driven to extinction and bears are largely vulnerable or endangered. As I discovered later, the remaining sculptures became a comment on the very environment in which they were placed.
This location was the front courtyard of a run-down 19th century building in Linienstrasse in Mitte, Berlin’s city centre. From late 2009 to early 2013, this building, No. 142, became an art venue whilst it awaited redevelopment.
When I dug deeper, I found it was also a flashpoint for controversy regarding artists’ involvement in the city’s rapid gentrification.
During the Cold War, Linienstrasse became part of the eastern sector right by the Berlin Wall, which meant it was not the most popular place in which to live. The buildings became dilapidated and/or empty. When the Wall came down, no one rushed to move in either.
This made the area ripe for squatters and especially street and urban artists. It became the epicentre of Berlin’s famous 1990s alternative art scene.
However, by the time the Noughties came around, developers and real estate people had started arriving to ‘upgrade’ the neighbourhood. As the artists’ spacial canvases started shrinking and free quarters disappearing, they started leaving.
But at least one street artist stayed on to document what was happening.
When French-born SP38 first visited Berlin in 1994, he stayed in Linienstrasse 142 for several weeks. The building was then a squat and connected to the Kunsthalle Tacheles, the landmark alternative art centre down the road.
SP38 relocated to Berlin a year later and from his studio in the Tacheles, pioneered and thrived in the vibrancy of the area’s art scene through what he calls his “urban poetry” poster art and belief that “art must be outside”. When gentrification started taking over Mitte, he stayed on.
As such he was able to observe the usurping of the “spontaneity and openness by planned art projects and shared apartments or pubs”. The people were now “earnest and uptight .. a different breed” (‘SP38 und Sein Kiez’, Franka Nagel, Kunst Magazin Berlin).
Two of his 2005 posters which appeared all over Mitte were particulary resonant – ‘Who Killed Mitte?’ and ‘Vive le Bourgeoisie’.
By 2009, in terms of art, commercial art galleries dominated, including along Linienstrasse.
No. 142 saw the arrival of the first developers wanting to turn that address into high-end apartments. But while awaiting approvals, they turned over the ground floor of the dilapidated space to artists.
Thus, Jonathan Gröger and Rebecca Loyche, together with Philip Eggersglüß and Daniel Wilson, spearheaded a year-long self-funded project called the MMX Open Art Venue. ‘MMX’ was drawn from the Roman numerals for 2010, the year they would run activities.
“We decided to do the project because it was in Mitte and most of the alternative art spaces had already been forced out of that neighbourhood,” said Loyche. “The goal was to see how much we could do in one year’s time and to be an open place for art.”
The temporary nature of the space – and a space that would be destroyed at that – meant that work could be displayed everywhere, from walls to courtyards. But artists and work were carefully selected and shows, professionally curated.
As part of MMX, Sternberg’s Schadensorge installation on the front garden became a draw for the project and in fact, came to be closely associated with it. When the project ended in February 2011, about 200 artists had participated in eight exhibitions.
MMX team leaders Gröger and Loyche moved on to another project under the banner of Co-Verlag but continued managing Linienstrasse 142 for private projects. One use of it was as The Cave, a private playground for street artists initiated by graffiti art duo JBAK.
Through all this, Sternberg’s Schadensorge installation remained a constant.
In 2012, the redevelopment still had not happened and the building was resold. The new owners approached Co-Verlag to “integrate the building’s recent past with its imminent development”, explained Loyche.
“So, we thought we would try working with them .. If you already have the inevitable eye-sore of a construction site and new development, why not make public art in this space?”
Thus, re: MMX was born. The project’s launch included artwork by some of The Cave’s artists. Its six-month run featured works as a Video Box of new weekly video pieces on the theme of developing cities, and a light installation that became included in Berlin’s city-wide Festival of Lights.
Co-Verlag knew combining art and real estate would be tricky to navigate. But they still wanted “to try to open up the dialogue because it is such a taboo in Berlin”.
Artists play a big role in gentrification, said Gröger, because they are lured by cheap rents to dodgy or underdeveloped neighbourhoods. “By their presence, they add value to the whole area making it more attractive. Eventually, they are the ones that are first to be pushed out when rents skyrocket.”
There was one visible response to the project. SP38 revived his ‘Who Kills Mitte?’ posters at 142, with the addition of the word ‘again’ to one of them.
It was, he said, “a reaction to the re:MMX project and the new building project for yuppies”. Even The Cave, he added, “was a recuperation [reclamation] of street art: (from the street to expensive lofts)”.
The branding for the 2012 development did use the tagline ‘Der Wandel vom Atelier zum Wohnzimmer’ (‘The Transformation from Atelier to Living Room’) as well as offer the services of the artists involved to prospective buyers.
But Co-Verlag said they made it clear to artists and the public that re:MMX was funded by the developers.
Moreover, they said, they worked hard to educate the latter that artists be properly compensated for their work. At the end, the project did provide exposure and opportunities to some of the artists involved.
Still, not everyone was convinced. After his poster response to re:MMX, SP38 was spurred to paste ‘Who Kills Mitte?’ and ‘Who Kills Berlin?’ posters throughout Mitte and Wedding (a suburb north of Mitte through which gentrification is also creeping).
Meanwhile, Open Walls Gallery, which represents SP38 and other Berlin urban artists, carried an online post that was highly critical of “compromised artists that sold their soul to real estate companies”.
Both SP38’s action and the Open Walls article were circulated on several websites.
In response, Co-Verlag stated that “we are supportive of the conversation that SP38’s wheat paste works invoke and were pleased when we saw ‘Who Kills Mitte?’ at 142. It’s a good question and re:MMX adds to the discourse.
“Unfortunately, the dialogue about art and gentrification is so loaded that no one can have a proper discussion about it without it becoming antagonistic and incendiary.”
When asked to comment on the general shutting down of such dialogue, SP38 said, “I did not know about this discussion project, and I totally boycott the MMX and ideas like that.”
These final owners had no interest in working with artists. And that is actually the case most of the time, Loyche pointed out.
“But when someone tries to amend that mould, they are met with resistance and choke hold backlash. For this self-defeating reason, Berlin is held in a perpetual stalemate.” ω
The MMX homepage has links to ‘MMX Open Art Venue – One Year One Book’ which details the project in text and images, as well as re:MMX.
Schadensorge was created by Tobias Sternberg; a writeup of the installation is in ‘MMX Open Art Venue – One Year One Book’.
Information about, and the art of SP38 are on his homepage and the Open Walls Gallery website. Urban art blog Freundeskreis Street-Art Berlin has text, links and images of the ‘Who Kills Mitte?’ action at Linienstrasse 142 (in German).
Information about the gentrification of Linienstrasse 142 and its surrounds can be found on a website by its former tenants.