An immersive new artwork has transformed Berghain into a vast luminescent swamp, filled with animated landscapes flowing with water and churning with vegetation. Taking up two floors of the cavernous Halle am Berghain, the multi-screen installation Berl-Berl blends the lost landscapes of Brandenburg with freshly recorded footage from the region, creating a disorientating hybrid of science and fiction, the real and the virtual.
Created by the artist Jakob Kudsk Steensen, Berl-Berl was years in the making. Steensen toured the Spreewald biosphere reserve, using his own method of macro-photogrammetry to stitch together a 3D tapestry of Brandenberg’s prehistoric wetlands. Berlin’s name is originally derived from the Slavic word for swamp, “berl”, and back in the 1700s these areas were drained. Only the region’s famous sequence of lakes reveals its past as a former glacial valley.
The disappearance of these wetlands is made even more pertinent by the unfolding climate emergency. But does using advanced visual and sound technology to (re)create Berlin’s former ecosystem, inspire anything other than a futile sense of loss? The intention is for Berl-Berl to be a kind of interface between the digital and the natural environment, a bridge between the viewer and a forgotten wetland ecosystem.
“Much of the imagery you see was recorded by Jakob himself,” says Bettina Kames, director of the Light Art Space funding body behind the exhibition. “He experienced this virtual world himself. If you were to take that away, it becomes completely technical and viewers would recognise that immediately.”
Using the video game platform Unreal Engine, Steensen has created a convincing and ever-changing live landscape. But it can still feel techy and gamey, seen in the flickering distorted leaves and glitchy renderings. That doesn’t stop it from being an astonishing collision of the organic and technical, a dense, liminal world that weaves actual specimens from the archive of the Museum für Naturkunde with a spatial audio design featuring the Venezuelan singer-producer Arca. Interweaved throughout is ancient Sorbian mythology and the pre-Christian tree deity Triglav.
Unlike the fairly haphazard curation of the previous group exhibition at the Halle, Studio Berlin, Berl-Berl has been designed with the space in mind, with sections of Berghain’s floor covered with an oily-black surface that reflects the enormous central screens and enhances the environment, with roots and soil below and sky and trees on the level above.
Throughout its ever-shifting LED screens, the sun rises and sets, casting shimmering light across a world that at times breaks down into what looks like raw data fields, moving, morphing and reanimating.
“There is just so much in Berl-Berl,” Kames says. “From the tech, research and from what Jacob developed within his practice. This was a chance to give him a platform to show his potential, to show something that’s never been seen before.”
This is certainly the case. The detail is captivating, from the reflections of insects on the water to the growing fungi in the world below, Berl-Berl is a profound and meditative experience inside Berlin’s own techno concrete habitat.
Berl-Berl by Jakob Kudsk Steense | Through September 26, 2021 | Halle am Berghain