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Neukölln-based artist Joseph Marr on sugar in Berghain and the search for identity

Every week, thousands of techno fans come to Berghain and see his art. Based in Neukölln, Joseph Marr works with a material that is as common as it is special: sugar. We talked to him about his sweet works, his new project about identity and why he keeps changing art forms.

The installation “Together”, placed in Berghain, is made from liquid sugar. Photo: Ulf Saupe

Berghain asked Marr create a piece for “Klo-Bar”

It was back in 2013 when the Berghain bosses commissioned Joseph Marr to make a sculpture for the “Klo-Bar” – as the area between the dance floor and the toilets is often called. Marr, who had come to Berlin from Australia, agreed right away. He knew the club long before it became a national legend. “I was taken to Berghain for the first time in 2006 and have been a fan ever since; liberty is alive and well in this special place.”

The artwork was to be correspondingly special. Marr had already used sugar to realise his ideas before. For Berghain, he used his knowledge and created the installation “Together,” for which the 43-year-old positioned nine men who all worked in the club or were frequented there, on the dancefloor of Berghain and had them interlock and slide into each other. They had to remain in this position until a 3D scanner captured them in order to produce positives for the casting of the liquid sugar which then hardened within the silicon negative. The finished installation measures nine metres and is a journey from lust into love.

Why sugar makes sense for Berghain….

Nine men were photographed with a 3D scanner. Photo: Yusuf Etiman

Marr had mainly painted in his native Australia until he moved to Spain in 2005, where he met a German woman who led him to Berlin. “I was also a DJ for ten years full time in Sydney but when I moved to Berlin in 2007 I had to choose between art and djing as the competition in both arenas here is champions league”. He has devoted his time to Art in the city – and expanded his range of materials. Marr sees his working materials as metaphors. Sugar, for example, is very common, he says, “everyone knows how sticky and desirable sugar is, that alone gives you access to the art, you automatically feel an understanding for the work.”

Bare bodies, staccato movements, dancing for hours on the often extremely dark dance floor to the beat of hard basslines – in this tough atmosphere, sugar seems almost out of place, but perhaps it’s just right. Decadent, unhealthy, even in its hardened form it remains delicious; there’s a lot to unpack from the sweet substance.

Marr at his exhibition “sticky business”. Photo: Screenshot/Marr

In 2020, for the first time, Berliners who wouldn’t usually attend Berghain had the chance to see “Together”. During the pandemic, the club was converted into “Studio.Berlin” in cooperation with the Boros Collection, with over 100 of Europe’s top artists the installation could simply be viewed with a ticket instead of being withheld from anyone outside the carefully selected circle of the Berghain community.

Marr’s recent exhibitions: “Suddenly people started licking

In the Netherlands, people started licking the sculptures. Photo: Screenshot/Marr

Later exhibitions and works were much more accessible for example, in 2017, in Marr’s exhibition in the Netherlands at the Stedelijk Museum Schiedam and in 2020 in Madrid at the Galerie Kreisler. Here for the visitors unprotected by resin, pure sugar sculptures were presented for people to smell and taste, an unusual behaviour. “In Madrid that was at the beginning of the pandemic, possibly people should have been a little more careful, but it was an exciting experience.”

Now, Marr is toying with a plan that was scrapped in 2020 when the club Griessmühle in Neukölln was destroyed in favor of new buildings: in the party series “Cocktail D’amore,” Marr made a 25 x 15 meter projection of melting sugar to make it seam that as if the building were overflowing the sugar melting down the walls, that would have fit well with the famously sex-positive series.

What distinguishes the adult from the child?

Marr’s work is generally dealing with traps of consciousness, and now focus has shifted from desire to identity. Marr is painting more, while pushing ahead with his new projects, a series of works in which he portrays people in video form. “Art is mysterious, it’s like a moth to the flame. When you have a good idea, you must follow it.”

Photo: Pascal Hoffmann

The identity series developed from a vision he had while walking along the Neukölln part of Landwehrkanal. Suddenly he saw a disturbing completely fleshed-out self portrait in his inner eye, one that made him think for years, he saw himself as a red resin transparent sculpture, as part child part adult.

For him that vision was a variant of the question of what, apart from adult needs and desires, actually distinguishes him from the child he used to be, what worries and fears, but also motivations he had. “I suddenly saw different elements of myself as one. It was valuable for me because it was a new context of how to see into a person. It was a real eye opener to the identity series entitled “I am therefore I think” that has become my major body of work”.

Still, he continued to grapple with identity. “We wake up in the morning and we are on automatic, we don’t reflect on our role at all, we are taken from one thought to the next without coming up for air. The moment we become self aware there is freedom.” At the same time, many shy away. Identity is something very fragile, he said. “If we accept ourselves as we are, not permit but accept, we can reach beautiful places.” 

Talking about identity: The realities of a human being

For his series, he collaborates with actors, artists, collectors, DJ’s about the experiences, about special experiences where they felt they saw themselves or understood themselves differently or in a new way. “When you share enough of yourself, the other person opens up, too.” In the past, he had resisted the idea of working with someone, but recently collaborations had shown him that it can be not a renunciation, but an enrichment, to expand the artistic process sometimes with a second opinion.

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A post shared by Joseph Marr (@joseph_marr_)

These identity works are an ongoing series that aims to portray as many different kinds of people from all backgrounds, ages, genders, sexes, economies with the ultimate goal in showing our similarities on a deeper level.

Marr recently worked with actress Rose Byrne and Tom Wlashiha, and soon he plans to work with Berghain resident DJ Boris, which brings him full circle to his work at the club.

Even more recently, Marr launched “Core,” a mix of digital and physical art – NFT, sculptures and images belong together, telling the story of meteorites that fell on Tempelhofer Feld, based on a news report the 43-year-old had read: an international Nasa team had found sugars in a meteorite that are essential for the creation of life and thus could be a puzzle piece of the origin of all life.

Which lines up well with “Together”: Some Berghain fans claim to have felt the full breadth of life for the first time in that very club – or to have understood the entire universe all at once – though they might have sampled something even more unusual than Marr’s sugar.