A former GDR weapons factory in Weißensee exemplifies Berlin’s gritty vitality, organic ethos and mature relationship with its own history. Throughout the last fifteen years, artists have been occupying buildings once erected to serve Nazi and GDR functions and turning them into sites for all-night group shows, art collectives and increasingly polished exhibition spaces. Christian Boros, as the most celebrated example of this defining phenomenon, turned a Nazi bunker into a world-class museum for his private collection. Even the site of Soho House’s Berlin branch was originally the Hitler Youth headquarters.
On a grass-roots level, vibrant communities of ex-pat and native artists collaborate to transform pariah-spaces into the foundation for a new, progressive Berlin. Leading this movement is Jonas Burgert, who, along with Christian Achenbach, Zhivago Duncan, Andreas Golder, John Isaacs and David Nicholson, runs an informal artists’ collective that converts a once-shunned space into a site of inspiration for others.
“It’s a cool environment because it is this half-ruin and half-polished thing. People in Beverly Hills want to live in something perfectly polished but no one wants to paint somewhere like that”
The 5,000 sqm series of ravished buildings were unpolluted by toxic residue from the construction of high-voltage conductors, yet were still unclaimed when Jonas decided to purchase them ten years ago. At that time, graffiti artists dropped into the ruins but more committed squatters were taking root elsewhere in Berlin. Only Jonas saw its potential as a collective workspace, as is. Since taking ownership, Jonas’s changes to the buildings’ structure and interiors don’t appear strictly cosmetic – other than the enormous L-shaped pool he built at one end of the forecourt. The graffiti was left untouched and the studios were lightly gutted with only enough debris and damage removed to facilitate unfettered work. No one involved with the studio wants the spaces to become precious. As David says, “it is a cool environment because it is this half-ruin and half-polished thing. People in Beverly Hills want to live in something perfectly polished but no one wants to paint somewhere like that.”
Once settled, Jonas invited five artist friends to live in the studios – paying only for the bare necessities like electricity and water. Although each works privately, they’ve been drinking together in Berlin’s bars for years. All have been represented by top tier galleries and have worked in the world’s most prestigious museums and private collections. Jonas’s only goal was to work alongside his peers who he describes as “artists and good, friendly guys.”
“Their art demonstrates a fraught and tireless fight between nihilism, order, chaos and mortality.”
Besides companionship, the six artists share fundamental aesthetic and philosophical concerns. Their art demonstrates a fraught and tireless fight between nihilism, order, chaos and mortality. At the moment, in an area of the studio complex without outward facing walls and hunks of paint peeling from the ceiling, Zhivago is currently building a room-sized ‘Méta-matic’, or drawing machine, involving a wood skate ramp and lithium-polymer powered buggy that propels intense sprays of high-pressured paint.
The openness of Jonas and the other five artists was evident at the last Berlin Gallery Weekend. They co-ordinated a group show called Ngorongoro, after the volcanic crater in Tanzania with Africa’s highest density of mammal predators, inviting friends and friends-of-friends to present and sell their work. The show included work by Mat Collishaw, Polly Morgan, Tim Noble and Sue Webster and Douglas Gordon, alongside nearly a hundred emerging international and local artists. The studio took no cut from sales and covered expenses through a series of limited edition prints, featuring their own work, which sold-out immediately. When approximately 5,000 people attended the show’s opening night and almost all sellable work sold, it became the uncontested renegade hit of Berlin’s most significant art.