The low rumble emitting from across the Atlantic first made itself audible as the now-canonical YBA rave. Following quickly on the heels of London's success, perennially furrowed German brows unloosed and set free a depression-defying, nearly celebratory atmosphere. New York, to date a conceited wallflower at the youthful, alternative dance (mainly because Manhattan as yet refuses to embrace its own artists' bohemia in Brooklyn), has watched the fun from afar, wistfully remembering the heights of the swinging 60s, wishing it were that unremittingly hip again; hoping against hope to appear that historically inevitable once more.
To rub yet more salt in the wound, 1999 has brought hard evidence of art scenes far more dynamic than Manhattan's in the form of large-scale exhibitions of wildly inconsistent, raucous work that, for all their vacuities and real achievements, demand and get lots of public attention. Charles Saatchi's ongoing warehouse show at the Brooklyn Museum is a prime example. Thanks to the works' often infantile flash and what I like to call "force-manure," the show repeated its original 1997 British success to the surprise of most wags. Another is the latest, super-energetic exhibition at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, titled "Children of Berlin: Cultural Developments 1989-1999."
"Children of Berlin" is an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink type of show that banks heavily on speeding-train energy to blur the emptier, intellectually ramshackle portions of an admittedly vibrant, colorful landscape. Featuring what museum literature terms "cultural practitioners" (when, Lord, will such absurdly inexact, relativizing terminology be given the ultimate heave ho?), the exhibition presents artists, art associations, youth publications, new media folks, architects, fashion designers, dramaturges, musicians and party promoters in a grab bag intended to wrap up and suitcase for export a scene caught fresh amidst mid-unfolding.
Berlin, particularly its inner-city "Mitte" district in former East Berlin, is the real star of the show, and well it should be. Perennially paranoid and unsure of its fate, Cold War Berlin remained a fascinating but persistent cultural backwater. A Prussian, skeptical city terminally obsessed by its split personality, Berlin, like London, appeared as unlikely an outpost for hordes of optimistic visual artists as Kamchatka. But hordes of overexcited youth living for art is exactly what the city got starting in the winter of 1989.
The fall of the Berlin Wall forced the collapse of one political system, put into serious straits another, and catalyzed Germany's dowdy political, social and cultural structures with all the politesse of an electric jolt. In Berlin, entire building blocks at the city's heart were squatted or legally occupied by adventurous artist-entrepreneurs desperate to make their mark away from Germany's suffocating establishment. By the mid-90s, galleries and alternative spaces dotted the Mitte; clubs and bars followed. In 1998, the city put on an inaugural Biennale, drawn mostly from local talent. It was a resounding success. The ever-changing, bootstrapping, culturally daring city that is today's Berlin came into being, ensuring, along with an abundance of officially sanctioned city construction?Berlin's large-scale building will be completed next decade, making it the first 21st-century metropolis?that gray, dingy Berlin would never return in its boring old guise.
Organized by P.S. 1 director Alanna Heiss and Klaus Biesenbach, senior curator at P.S.1 and founder of Kunst-Werke, the daddy of maverick arts spaces in Berlin?"Children of Berlin" arrays work by some 50 artists in their 20s and 30s around two floors of the ex-schoolhouse in Long Island City. In keeping with the exhibition's freewheeling, interdisciplinary atmosphere, the museum's lobby houses a store-cum-lounge designed by an outfit named 3 de luxe. Berlin-based mags are available there, as are limited-edition clothing (like art prints, get it?) by Berlin designers. Rounding out the club-kid atmosphere, an itinerant Berlin juke joint, "Cookie's Bar," was recreated at P.S. 1 for a single party night so overfull with Germans it looked like a rally for Greenpeace.
Leaving aside the self-evident if diverting juvenilia, "Children of Berlin" presents scads of video, sculpture, installation and photography with nary a painting in sight (German neoexpressionism, which is miles better than its flaccid American counterpart, may turn out to be much more an oppressive influence on today's young German artists). But what about the exhibition's results? Well, they're mixed. Cheeky and sometimes slapdash, the work in "Children of Berlin" is often spotty, yet rarely plain or boring.
Among the show's diamonds is work by Thomas Demand. His C-print of a ransacked Stasi office made entirely of cardboard turns reality into a paperweight counterfeit, the better to settle densely into the suspicious mind. Rineke Dijkstra, a photographer well-known Stateside, presents an Annunciation-like image of a fetching prepubescent girl in shorts, tanktop and braces; her vacant gaze tunes into the surrounding greenery of the Tiergarten, Berlin's sprawling city-park, with a knowing, aliens-have-landed calm. A third, lesser-known camera jockey, Christoph Keller, invented a hybrid of the photographic and the moving camera to get down what should, by all rights, be the exhibition's favored image: printed on a 30-foot strip of contact paper, the picture captures a Berlin subway train and a dozen very active people, including a couple of acrobats, each of them distorted by intoxicating speed.
Among the installations, the best by far is by Bert Neumann, a set and graphic designer by trade (this sort of multiple hat-wearing is typical of the ambitiousness of young Berlin artists). His Balkan Room covers an exhibition space with card tables, chairs, tactical maps and color copies of vacation snaps taken by a particularly curious, socially minded tourist. The photos record globalizing commercial trash and local street culture coexisting uneasily side by side?one shows a McDonald's lawn decorated with a reclining stone nude; another, graffiti reading "Hitler = Klinton"?getting down an intimate view of the area's current schizophrenia. In Neumann's often touching theatrical setup, Yugoslavia's seemingly immobile quirks and hatreds meet the go-getting, gluttonous ethos of American capitalism.
Prize among the shock and violence brigade of "Children of Berlin" is Johannes Kahrs' extremely unsettling video of an actress gunked up and lying facedown in a pool of fake blood. Yelling a 45-minute reenactment of a five-minute scene from Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs?the bare-bones script is Tim Roth's line, "Fuck you! I'm dying here!"?the actress empties her lungs to exhaustion, becoming progressively more convincing even as the camera pans toward the makeup man. Other works in this irritable, annoying, Nauman-esque vein include Olafur Eliasson's suspended, wildly looping electric fan, which swings close enough to the viewer to force him to duck; and Monica Bonvicini's Hirstian-titled A violent, tropical, cyclonic piece of art having wind speeds of, or in excess of 75 miles per hour, a pair of industrial fans set up to nearly blow the unsuspecting passerby off his feet.
But, it should go without saying, not all that glitters youthfully is gold. For fool's metal, there's the daftly named collective the Honey-Suckle Company, a group of Cal-Arts wannabes whose room-sized installation of winkingly ironical, strewn junk would look far better in an unmediated heap (then it might at least query certain oft-abused postmodern orthodoxies); John Bock's equally tossed-off, mock-sculpture of field tents, potatoes and a Fiat hatchback (ho-hum unimaginativeness passing itself off as sculptural spontaneity); plus half a dozen other undisciplined overreachers who, in the interest of brevity, shall go nameless.
"Children of Berlin" is a giddy, hyperactive show and a gripping historical yarn in the making. Go see it to witness a lively generation of German artists broker their dreams against a cultural torpor they damn well refuse to call reality.
"Children of Berlin: Cultural Developments 1989-1999," through Jan. 2 at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, 22-25 Jackson Ave. (46th Ave.), Long Island City, 718-784-2084.