If you see something strange on the street in Berlin, you think not “What happened here?” but “Oh, more art…” to the point that a stack of concrete beams in the road appears to be an installation, rather than the building materials for yet another urban facelift. And don’t the bright pink and blue over-ground pipelines in Mitte look like they have escaped from an art gallery? In Berlin, art doesn’t just interfere with reality. It threatens to dethrone it.
As in an art show, urban reality is installed by planners, academics and designers, as well as individual actors. The city is a designed object, more like art than nature. What isn’t designed on purpose gets designed by urban circumstances. Utopian architecture of the 1960s and 1970s (Superstudio, Archigram, Cedric Price and others) held that the city, properly understood, was not just an art object, but the art object in which life took place. As such, it should be designed for enjoyment: the ideal city is a playground for creative existence.
If Berlin’s reality has seemed stranger than usual in the last six months, it might have something to do with Olafur Eliasson. The Danish-Icelandic artist installed a giant sun in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2003, and a 100-foot waterfall under the Brooklyn Bridge in New York in 2008. Now, his studio and its staff of 35 are based in Berlin. Laying a sort of ‘paper trail’ for his first show for a German institution (Martin-Gropius-Bau), Eliasson added various oddities to Berlin’s landscape without permission: bicycles with mirrored wheels were positioned in the forests that skirt the city; road markings were painted through the forests; and a grove of trees was marked up with parking bays.
Downtown, a number of huge logs were scattered across main roads and walkways. The logs, collected from the Icelandic coast in the wake of a state deforestation project in Greenland, were shipped around the world by Eliasson before being deposited in Berlin. Camera crews recorded the public’s reaction to these ‘installations’: that video and photographic evidence will form part of the exhibition at Martin-Gropius-Bau.
The exhibition’s title, Innen Stadt Außen (“City: Inside Outside”, with a pun on “inside instead of outside”), asks what is integral to a city. It is supplemented by a satellite installation on the Pfaueninsel (“Peacock Island”), a nature reserve in the middle of the Wannsee, near Potsdam. The result is a sort of web, that connects the inside of the city to its fringes, documents incidental encounters on these outskirts with the cultural centre, and redirects cultural traffic to a (relatively) isolated island.
On the Pfaueninsel, Eliasson has erected a “Blind Pavilion”: a polygonal pagoda that made its first appearance as the Danish Pavilion at the 2003 Venice Biennale. This steel and glass construction reflects its surroundings from some angles, and obscures them at others: at its precise centre, visitors can see nothing but a black panorama. One step to the left or right and the illusion is revealed… or perhaps it just gets deeper. Here, outside Berlin – a city in constant redevelopment – the “Blind Pavilion” offers space for reflection. With its illusory nature exposed, urban ‘reality’ is revealed not as natural, but as the product of human invention.
INNEN STADT AUßEN | Through August 9. For more information, visit www.innenstadtaussen.de