Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
“The street is not a museum. It does not belong to a special group of art-experts. It belongs to all people.” This statement ended a 2011 Berliner Zeitung article about the changing fate of the art objects displayed in 1987 along West Berlin´s main boulevard, Kurfürstendamm.
When opened on April 25, 1987 – exactly 30 years ago – the famous open-air art exhibition organized to celebrate the city´s 750th birthday proved to be too much for the bigger part of the local community. Today Ku´damm tends to be associated with more refined tastes, open to experimentation and artistic challenge (as well as with money) so the loathing and the mocking might come as a surprise but in 1987 it was still a pretty much normal neighbourhood visited or populated by pretty much regular people not all of whom were interested in expanding their aesthetic horizons. In fact, the opposite might be true: this part of West Berlin was quite conservative and hanging onto the dear past as anyone in need of a continuum in the sea of destruction would do.
So, in practice, the new exhibition organized by the Neue Berliner Kunstverein, or New Berlin Art Association with (at least initially) the blessing the West Berlin authorities and curated by Barbara Straka was an equivalent of waving a red blanket in front of a bull. An aging one, perhaps, but still ready to strike.
The organizers invited ten contemporary artists (eventually, only the works of eight of them would be put on display) asking them to provide works which would be big-scale artistic comments on current issues. The occasion for it was, as already mentioned, the city´s 750th anniversary. The artists went into themselves and came out again with pieces which were then installed along Tauentzienstraße and Ku´damm down to Rathenauplatz in the locality of Grunewald.
Frank Dornseif created a massive iron Y standing on a block of concrete and named it Großer Schatten mit Sockel (Great Shadow with a Base). The organizers chose the spot on the corner of Ku´damm and Wielandstraße. Joseph Erben´s Pyramide, another interesting sculpture, was effectively an idea of a pyramid created by inserting a long, curved, steel blade in the ground and supporting it on both sides with stretched steel cables also hooked onto the pavement. Olaf Metzel build a sort of a pyramid, too: made of shopping carts and red-and-white barrier fences used during big events and demonstrations to keep the crowds away. His work was called “13.04.1981”, the day of the Ku´damm Riots where hundreds of West Berlin´s left-radicals and anarchists violently showed their solidarity with an imprisoned RAF member on hunger strike (Red Fraction Army was an infamous West German terror group) and wreaked havoc along the boulevard.
George Rickey´s kinetic sculpture, called Two Lines Excentric Jointed with Six Angles, greeted the crowds walking along Tauentzienstraße and Ku´damm at Breitscheidplatz, while Brigitte and Martin Matschinsky-Denninghoff´s “Dancing Noodles” (the official name is Berlin) – four large steel tubes, looping but not touching, symbolise twisted and broken link of a chain – were installed on the corner of Tauentzienstraße between Marburger and Nürnberger Straße.
Then there were Ralf Szymanski´s GroßeFrauenFigurBerlin (LargeWomenStatueBerlin) where Ku´damm meets Albrecht-Achilles-Straße and, last but not least, Zwei Beton-Cadillacs in Form der Nackten Maja at Rathenauplatz at the end of the line.
Wolf Vostell´s “Two Concrete Cadillacs in the Form a Naked Maja” (La Maja Desnuda was Franciso Goya´s 1800 scandalous painting of a resting naked woman and the first ever picture showing female pubic hair without a prostitute connotation) was the last straw that broke the Art-untrained camel´s back. The straw was also a pretty heavy one as both cars were literally frozen in huge blocks of concrete.
What followed was an embarrassing spectacle involving violent displays of distaste (“So ein mist!”, or “Total shite”, was one of the less offensive reviews from the infuriated public) and pretty much direct fireworks of the good old nationalist brown brew. “Entartete Kunst!” screamed one of the street-critics for whom using the Nazi term “Degenerate Art” must still have been the right way of dealing with works of art she neither could nor wished to understand (Vostell famously replied “Ja und?” – “So what?” – which should go down in history as a perfect repartee). Somebody else gave vent to his Vaterlandische feelings by hollering: “Solche Karren! Nicht mal ´ne Deutsche!!”, which means “Such jalopies! Not even German!” There were marches, placards, petitions and screaming octogenarians in the streets of Charlottenburg. The fact that the exhibition organizers worked with a staggering budget of 1.8 million Deutsch-Mark did not make the people love it any better.
Things began to take a slightly more serious course when one day the sculpture was buried under a heap of flower market rubbish. Soon afterwards, in a perhaps only amusing undertaking of the work´s opponents, somebody installed an East German Trabi (Trabant was a famous and earlier often mocked DDR car make) stuck in a concrete pyramid next to Vostell´s Cadillacs.
The Spaß (fun) was over when the Skulpturenboulevard´s curator, Barbara Straka, received letters and phone calls with serious threats and for her own safety, had to move in with friends for a while.
Not even the West Berlin´s Mayor, Eberhard Diepgen (Christian-Democratic Party) stood in the exhibition´s and the artists´ defence: he famously distanced himself from the project on public TV and half-promised to get rid of it asap. Preferably through what most of the exhibition´s critics put into words so simply and so succinctly, referring to a method that many of them still remembered to have worked charms during the Second World War: In die Luft sprengen! (Blow it up!)
Of course, nothing of the kind happened and the exhibition went on as planned. Slowly but surely, the public got used to the sight of the über-dimensional artworks and, as if in a bout of a collective artistic Stockholm-Syndrome, grew to love them so much that eventually most of the sculptures were bought by private sponsors (often local business-people) and left where they were.
Today four of them can still be found between Tauentzienstraße and Ku´damm: the “Dancing Noodles” aka Berlin, Szymanski´s GroßerFrauenFigurBerlin (albeit only one woman is left in Budapester Straße now), Erben´s invisible Pyramide and again, last but not least, the “Two Concrete-Cadillacs”. Metzel´s work “18.04.1981” stands in the former East Berlin today: between the buildings on the site of the old Osthafen in Stralauer Allee (Friedrichshain) and Dornseif´s Großer Schatten casts its long shade on an estate somewhere in the vicinity of Neuruppin (in Brandenburg). George Rickey´s kinetic was bought in 1989 by Daimler Art Collection and today can be seen on the company grounds in Stuttgart–Möhringen.
It is interesting to know today, 30 years after the Skulpturenboulevard exhibition opened, that the fate of public works of art can go such a long way from being a source of fear and loathing to becoming an indispensable part of the city´s and its people´s mental landscape. Perhaps had Palast der Republik, the subject of our several last posts, been left where it was and renovated just like those originally despised artworks were, it would be an indispensable part of our mental landscape of Berlin today as well?