Enter The Void: Berghain As Art Gallery

With night clubs still locked down, Studio Berlin fills the notorious venue with syphilis-bearing slave ships, bondage harness sculptures and statues deep in k-holes. But what will remain of this new normal, asks Dorian Batycka, and what will become of the German capital’s many other club spaces?

With the unadulterated hedonism of Berlin’s club scene indefinitely on hold, the legendary club Berghain is staging an art exhibition featuring many of the city’s most celebrated names in contemporary art.

Shuttered since April due to the coronavirus, Berghain recently opened its doors to 117 Berlin-based artists, including the likes of Wolfgang Tillmans, AA Bronson and Jeremy Shaw, staging a massive exhibition in the former powerplant turned club with the same angst and attitude that Berghain has always been renowned for.

The exhibition came to fruition after the club’s reclusive owners Michael Teufele and Norbert Thormann approached the art collectors Christian and Karen Boros with the proposal to turn the club into a gallery. Entitled ‘Studio Berlin’, the project is curated by Juliet Kothe of the Boros Foundation and slated to run until December (possibly longer). The exhibition is supported by a €250,000 grant provided by the city of Berlin, in an effort to get the furloughed employees of the venue back to work, some of whom will be working as exhibition tour guides.

Sprawled over 3,500 square meters, the show can only be entered via time slots with a dedicated tour guide either in German or English. A single ticket costs €20 euros, and as per the club’s longstanding policy no cameras or photos are allowed.

The show includes large and small scale works, media like photography, sculpture, painting, drawing, video, sound, performance and installation; culminating in a gesamtkunstwerk that at times can feel deranged and helter-skelter, but also transgressive and boundary dissolving.

Before entering the dark cavernous crevices of the former club turned gallery, visitors are first welcomed by a large banner hung across the facade of the building, which reads “Morgen ist die Frage” (‘Tomorrow is the Question’ in German) by Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija.

Entering the building, works are spread throughout from Panorama Bar, Berghain and Halle, but also in unexpected places like hallways and toilets. Inside the vertebrae of the club’s main organs, Berghain and Panorama Bar, the objects on display at first appear somewhat sporadic and loosely connected. A large inflatable plastic ball by Puppies Puppies sits in front of the DJ booth of the Berghain room, while upstairs a reimagined colonial ship carrying syphilis is installed on a plinth by Simon Fujiwara.

Delving deeper in, however, viewers soon encounter numerous works that take into account the club’s uniqueness as a transcultural nexus. Kosovan-Spanish artist duo Petrit Halilaj and Alvaro Urbano have installed a large flower made of canvas and paint in a corner of Panorama Bar, the exact spot the couple met ten years ago.

Elsewhere in the bar is Jeremy Shaw’s photograph of a dancer in ecstasy, a still from his three-part Quantification series, that depicts near-future transcendental rituals of a society in a deep state of hallucinogenic transformation.

Draped over Panorama bar, one of Anna Underberg’s exaggerated female sculptures lies face down, arms extended over her head, mimicking the pose anyone who has ever been in a k-hole would instantly understand. Speaking of drugs, in one of the upstairs toilets, the French artist Cyprien Gaillard has left an intricate etching on the outside of one of the steel partitions. Titled The Land of Cockaigne, the work consists of several bodies strewn beneath a tree in a state of bewildered inebriation. Sounding the title out phonetically, it’s not difficult to understand the reference to the sniffing parade taking place. In Berlin, a city famous for its laissez-faire attitude towards drugs, the tongue-in-cheek reference is one of the few artworks likely to remain when – and if – the club ever reopens.

In Halle, an area of the club normally off limits but open for special events such as this, a hanging sculpture by Monica Bonvicini made from workers’ harnesses painted in a black, dripping resin, references BDSM practices and the bondage wear of many of the club’s regular dancers. The only places in the club that remain out of bounds are the infamous dark rooms.

In one of Berghain’s labyrinth hallway arteries, a video by Jonas Brinker reveals an abandoned tourist resort overrun by stray dogs. There, in Brinker’s barren and empty hellscape, we’re left to contemplate the rot of a dancefloor without organs. On display is a sadist baroque assemblage of objects gone mad, foaming at the mouth for space on a dance floor empty of bodies.

In all, it’s a poignant reminder of what many today describe as the ‘new normal.’ Gone are long time residents like Boris and Ben Klock, replaced with plastic motionless objects that beckon us ever closer to the screen, ever deeper into the void. Though this is not the first time that Berghain has branched into visual art (artists like Norbert Bisky and Wolfgang Tillmans have longstanding relationships with the club), the works are rarely – if ever – documented.

And while Berlin’s infamous club has found new life as a temporary gallery, replacing what was once the pulsating sounds of electronic music with the fantasy and whimsy of contemporary art, many questions still linger. What will happen to the dozens of other clubs and DIY spaces in Berlin that do not retain the same culture cache as Berghain? How will they fare?

Studio Berlin is at Berghain, Berlin, until December 2020

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